By Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, LL.M
Filipinos always ask this question in November because on the 30th of this month we commemorate the birthday of the quintessential nationalist, Andres Bonifacio. However, this annual introspection has come particularly early this year in light of the case against the top Presidentiable, Senator Grace Poe.
There are actually two issues involved in this case. The legal one is about her status as a natural-born Filipino which is a Constitutional requirement for presidential candidates. The judicial deliberations on this point is still on-going. Hence, it is only proper to hold off on any commentaries regarding this matter.
The other issue is political in nature and pertains to her decision in the past to give up her Filipino citizenship in order to become an American. Understandably, many have questioned her loyalty to Inang Bayan.
For Filipinos residing outside of the Philippines, this particular theme is especially relevant because many of us constantly struggle with our sense of identity and feelings of unresolved patriotism.
Around this time last year, I was enjoying a cup of coffee with a couple of Filipino Muslim academics in the Ateneo de Davao campus. They told me an interesting account about how the Tausugs, the indigenous peoples of Sulu, view themselves in contrast to other Muslim ethnic tribes in the country.
Apparently, they only half-heartedly consider themselves as “Moro” and being Filipino is simply a matter of citizenship. They deeply pride themselves foremost as Tausugs above any other ascription of identity. Of course, this is an unverified and merely anecdotal testimony. But I believe such a story significantly bears upon our query on who the Filipino is.
Is being Filipino simply about citizenship? Or should our conception of national identity be rooted on qualities much deeper than, as many Filipino-Australians would tell me, a mere piece of paper?
A few years ago, the Fiji national rugby union team criticized the composition of the Philippine Volcanoes playing in a highly prestigious competition, Twitting—“The only thing Philippines about the Philippine team playing in the Hong Kong 7s is the name of the team.” Then team captain, Jake Letts, responded graciously by saying, “We have no control of it. In most cases we are half-Filipino, half-Australian; the only control we have is who we choose to play for. And we choose the Philippines.”
This sentiment is exactly those aired by basketball heroes such the famous Fil-Australian—Mick Pennisi, Fil-Tongan—Asi Taulava, Fil-Americans—Eric Menk and the Siegle brothers, and a slew of other Fil-Foreigners now playing in the PBA.
Some of our countrymen however will not consider these sports heroes Filipinos at all. Take Florante for instance. The popular pro-Marcos entertainer wrote in his pop hit, Ako’y Isang Pinoy—“Pinoy sa puso’t diwa, Pinoy na isinilang sa ating bansa. Hindi sanay sa wikang mga banyaga.” Now, I doubt if any of these sports figures know how to speak any Philippine dialect at all.
Another controversial Pinoy in sports is Andray Blatche, a true blue American naturalized to be a Filipino and most recently touted as the saviour of Philippine basketball in international competition. For sports fans, particularly basketball aficionados, it is enough to treat this man, who has absolutely no connection to the Philippines, as a Filipino simply because he has been officially qualified to wear the Gilas team jersey.
But for revered folk singer, Heber Bartolome, such a paradigm is utterly unacceptable in light of his nationalist anthem, Tayo’y Mga Pinoy, wherein he sings, “Tayo’y mga Pinoy, tayo’y hindi Kano, ‘Wag kang mahihiya kung ang ilong mo ay pango.”
Nonetheless, we know in our hearts that being Filipino is not just about citizenship. As Mr. Letts so poignantly explained, Filipino identity fundamentally involves a choice. Necessarily therefore, it also entails reflection and discernment.
We thus conceive of our civic character with due consideration of the past as well as the future. We adhere to traditional values but we also aim to thrive in the modern world. Bamboo was absolutely spot on in their song, Noypi, about what is at the core of the Filipino’s heart— “Ang dami mong problema. Nakuha mo pang ngumiti. Noypi ka nga, astig!”
Indeed, our people’s heritage has always been about unparalleled courage, battle-tested resiliency, and unbridled optimism on what life has to offer. More importantly, Filipino culture is never about putting down others. We do not claim any superiority for our beliefs and traditions. We only demand respect because we give respect.
I am Filipino because I believe in the bayanihan spirit, that indigenous belief system that puts a premium on family and community. I am a Filipino because I live by the principle espoused by both Christianity and Islam, that I shall love God above all else and my neighbour as myself. I am a Filipino because I want to work hard and support my family. I am a Filipino because I find fulfilment in helping people in need. I am Filipino because I see humour in all aspects of life, including death. I am Filipino because I like to eat rice with my spaghetti. The list can go on and on. Quite literally a hundred million testaments of who the Filipino is. All of which will be true and unimpeachable.
Filipino citizenship is given to us by the state. Many of us even give it away later on. And then re-acquire it again such that we are officially recognized as citizens of two countries. But Filipino identity is a part of us that we cannot lose. We cannot just give it away that easily.
It is important to note however that centuries of colonization, globalization and the internet all have failed to homogenize Filipino identity. Amidst the diversity though, we do have one thing in common. We all choose to be Filipinos. What exactly that means, well, Andres Bonifacio is just one voice. Others have to be heard as well.
Michael Yusingco is a Filipino lawyer based in Melbourne with a Masters degree in Law and Development from the University of Melbourne Law School.