A Jeepney Ride to the Heart of the Philippines

My Symphony: 73 by Yolanda Moon

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June 12th, 2013 – The 115th Philippine Independence Day

Before anything else, I just want to say that I am in a state of a great bliss right now, and that I am writing this with a genuine smile on my face. I feel nothing but freedom, hope, love and happiness right at this hour. Moments like this feel surreal, but here I am. This is actually happening…

As a kid, a teenager, I had always been so attached to the idea of living a non-Filipino life in a non-Filipino world. I was maybe four when I started to develop a strong desire for all things foreign – movies, television, clothes, food, books, celebrities, music, language, even history itself. I found it so easy to be drawn into what was “not mine.” Well, I guess I couldn’t really blame myself that I preferred The OC to Hiram, Blink182 to Kamikazee, Orlando Bloom to Jericho Rosales, John Green to Angelo Lacuesta or Tommy Hilfiger to Penshoppe. I was psychologically Americanized in the little world I lived in. It was my destiny to live the early years of my life with a colonial mentality. I fought against it, and I fought hard. And today definitely marks the end of this battle. I now have seen, I now have grown and I now have learned.

I was born in a nation that suffered from a sort of an identity crisis. And this is exactly the problem. Filipinos wish to be someone other than a Filipino because of an inferiority complex. This is due to the fact that a Filipino nowadays has no sense of the great history of Filipinos and only looks at the beauty that others can offer. Also, Filipinos often criticize themselves as a result of accepting that they are inferior to other beings. And as they criticize other Filipinos, calling them names, or even getting mad at them, they don’t see that they are criticizing their own selves.

Everytime I skim through my Facebook news feed, I am deeply saddened to see hundreds, if not thousands, of posts that contain discrimination within my own people – insults from Filipinos aimed against fellow Filipinos. I’ve heard and seen it all. Homophobic slurs, ageist notions, harsh judgment and mockery based on one’s looks, skin color, financial status and social standing. What’s worse than this is the amount of people who think and believe that this is funny. It repulses me to learn that a lot of Filipinos today find “racism against one’s own race” a somewhat enjoyable pastime or an amusing source of humor. This is one of the greatest pains and fears I have in my life. The knowledge that somehow, we as a people never completely incubated, coalesced; that maybe we never really united, and it is anybody’s guess whether we ever will.

It is true that many Filipinos wish to be a part of another race. American, Japanese, European, name it and there’s sure to be a Filipino wanting to be part of it, as long as it’s not Filipino. I am actually shocked by foreigners who want to be Filipinos when Filipinos want to be foreigners. A foreigner to their own land. And as these words ring through my ears, I just wish that the words of former president Manuel Quezon reach us once again today:

Message to My People
by Manuel L. Quezon (former president of the Philippines, 1935 to 1944 and Father of the National Language)

My fellow citizens: there is one thought I want you always to bear in mind. And that is: that you are Filipinos. That the Philippines is your country, and the only country God has given you. That you must keep it for yourselves, for your children, and for your children’s children, until the world is no more. You must live for it, and die for it, if necessary.

Your country is a great country. It has a great past, and a great future. The Philippines of yesterday is consecrated by the sacrifices of lives and treasure of your patriots, martyrs, and soldiers. The Philippines of today is honored by the wholehearted devotion to its cause of unselfish and courageous statesmen. The Philippines of tomorrow will be the country of plenty, of happiness, and of freedom. A Philippines with her head raised in the midst of the West Pacific, mistress of her own destiny, holding in her hand the torch of freedom and democracy. A republic of virtuous and righteous men and women all working together for a better world than the one we have at present.

So today, let us ask ourselves these: What’s a Filipino? What defines us? And more important, what binds us? What dreams unite us? Now that we are scattered all over the world, born to a mix of races, into different cultures, speaking different languages, who are we and what do our roots remind us? What does it mean to be truly Filipino? Is it through being internationally competitive, world class? Is it living in the Philippines or coming back to the Philippines every once in a while? Is it giving back to the country whatever reward you get? Or is it simply enough that one calls himself a Filipino?

Growing old in a country one had not known as a child can be fraught with a lot of ambivalence. If one is still active upon migration to a strange land, there is the excitement of adventure, but there are also the challenges of surviving and adjusting in an environment that may be totally different from the milieu one had been accustomed to. One may get a good job, grow on it, accumulate assets, and succeed beyond what he or she had dreamed of. Or, one might get lost in the maze of kaleidoscopic hustles and bustles of life and end up in the gutter. For those who succeed in blending into the mainstream, there is the likelihood of becoming so complaisant that they risk losing the soul — that principle of being that defines the very essence of our humanness. Loneliness may set in. And this can turn into depression that can gnaw at one like a rodent slowly and painfully eating up the very core of one’s being. Unless one believes firmly in something he or she can fall back on– something that can wake one up into a realization of his or her true identity that he or she can take pride in, gain confidence from, and be energized by, in order to rise and be whole again.

To me, this thing I need to fall back on every time I falter in my decision-making, every time I stumble into error, and every time I slip into stupor is also the very thing that pricks me into an awakening, that forces me to rise again, urges me to face my indecision head-on, and to follow the path set forth by my forefathers: a path, thorny it may have been, but embedded in bravery, generosity, pride, beauty and continued growth. This is my Filipino heritage that encompasses my Christian upbringing and spiritual growth: what I constantly remind myself of as defining my true self no matter where I am; no matter what kind of environment I am submerged in; no matter what other kind of culture and language I may be immersed in; and, no matter who I must face in the great battles encountered daily in this foreign land. I am, after all, the product of my cultural heritage: its history, its values, its traditions, its customs, its music and dances, its literature, its myths, its rituals, and its ideals.

Family bonding, to me, is adhering to our traditional family gatherings in observance of our noche buena. This helps me re-live the faith of my childhood as strengthened by the traditions. In fact, the number one reason why I decided to come home on December is that I miss Christmas in the Philippines so much. Families snuggle even closer, friends step on another milestone, and the overall relationships find a common, deeper ground. Even the weeks or the few months leading to the midnight of December 24th are filled with an almost indescribable atmosphere of togetherness. The air feels different; it smells fresher. The streets are serenaded mostly by young kids singing Christmas songs. The city glows much, much brighter with all the Christmas lights gleaming red, blue, green, purple, white and yellow. People forgive each other, and sometimes even themselves. It is a season not just of oneness but of second chances, of forgetting about the pain and the hardship and soldiering on with open arms and open hearts. The entire nation is in a state of unselfishness, hospitality and kindness. Love.

 The rites and festivals–sources of every town’s history–each has a story to tell. The rites of the Canao, of the Tadtarin, the Moriones, the Ati-atihan, the Turumba, and the Fandango before Santa Clara—these are, to me, dances of life. The Santacruzan (ah, such vision of vestal beauties!), the Misa de gallo for Christmas and the salubong for Easter—these are my people’s most profound traditions of faith. There seems to be no end, in fact, to the breadth of the Filipino culture that speaks of the colorful lives of my people.

From their first encounter with the colonizers on March 16, 1521, my forefathers had already established their character as peace-loving people who, in their inherent sense of hospitality, welcomed visitors in their land with warmth and generosity.  Giving out the best– as demonstrated by their gifting their guests with gold and huge porcelain jars filled with rice grain–speaks of unselfishness and magnanimity practiced only by the civilized. This, to me, is a defining character, a legacy practiced to this day by a true Filipino: that of being human and humane. But the generosity of our ancestors, if and when taken advantage of, could turn into the ferocity of a lion. Witness the anger of Lapu-lapu who, with his band of warriors, slew the conquistadores headed by Magellan. This is a reminder to me that to fight the exploitative and the greedy is a consequence of being victimized. We are not aggressors, but we know how to assert ourselves as our Filipino heroes Lapulapu, Rizal, Mabini, Bonifacio, and so many others, had shown. Though we cherish peace and are inherently patient, we know how to fight back, because the love for justice runs in our blood.

No matter what other culture I may have been exposed to, it is my Filipino heritage that commands my daily behavior: the po and opo will always be music to my ears; the elderly will always be regarded with reverence, and parents taken care of in their old age. In the tradition of constancy and modesty, a spouse is part of oneself to love and be loyal to, the body a temple of God to be respected and not abused, and life as a whole to be cherished, enriched and refined to one’s best potential.

In sharing what my Filipino heritage means to me, is it too much to hope that others of the same roots as mine, including the next generations, cherish it as well?  In the tradition of our ancestors who emerged into a Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Claro Recto, Nick Joaquin, Wilfrido Nolledo,  and many others, may they all evolve into the human beings they are destined to become–the best of what they can be: unique, beautiful, integrated into an ever growing whole as they embraced their dynamic Filipino heritage. So, to them, I say: unfold like the butterfly and soar to heights of splendor, but be distinctly Filipino!

Distinctly Filipino, yet first and foremost a human being. For when you come down to it, the qualities of being a Filipino are the very qualities that define us all as human beings: After all, my Filipino heritage is my birthright to my integrated self, cultured to the best of what I can possibly be as a human being, polished by the complexity of shared beliefs and patterns of learned behavior governed by honor and dignity. To be Filipino is first to be human, to be endowed with the qualities of being human.

So today, I am so happy. Because I am a Filipino. And believe it or not, mga Kababayan, that should be a reason for you to smile today.

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