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Learning to be Pinoy

by By Gilda Cordero-Fernando

GCF is one of my role-models and mothers. Ateneo gave her the prestigious Gawad Tanglaw ng Lahi for her immense contributions to Philippine culture as a writer, publisher, art gallery owner, playwright, cultural icon. The following is her response.

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One of the realizations I had when advised that this Gawad Tanglaw ng Lahi award had to do with preserving Filipino identity was that being Filipino wasn’t natural with me, I had to learn how to be Pinoy.

Like other middle class Filipinos, I had a Western upbringing, I studied in a convent school run by Belgian nuns. My doctor father was a two-time Cambridge pensionado all fired up about American democracy. Mommy adored Shirley Temple and tried her damnest to make me look like her. We ate meat loaf and mashed potatoes and apple pie. My first book had a lot of snow and fir trees, squirrels and children with blonde hair. I had no idea I was Filipino.

One day when I was eight, I had a glimpse of the primer of my playmate who studied in a public school. It had an illustration of a boy on a pair of high stilts and a girl walking with two coconut shells under her feet connected to strings in her hands. The drawing was by Amorsolo. I did not recognize the provincial games but immediately related to the obviously Filipino scene. I remember being terribly envious of my playmate’s beautiful book.

Talaga kayong “mental colony,” as my apo would say. Realizing that one is Filipino can be a “Eureka” moment. Most continue valuing their identity, others just maintain their foreignness.


The author (center) flanked by fellow awardees, Dr. Fernando HofileƱa (left) and Eugenia Duran-Apostol.

Lately, however, I have come to the conclusion that being a foreigner in your own land is not such a bad beginning-hopefully one gets over it. When Filipinos migrate, they somehow get more attached to their roots and research even more about them. All of the early 20th century reportage on Filipino life was done by foreigners who must have found us exotic or cute-like Lambrecht, Fansier, Vanoverberg, Cooper Cole and also the Thomasites.

Another realization is that after you have learned to be Pinoy, you have to protect it and fight for it, against other Filipinos who think everything’s wrong with our culture and find the need to apologize for it constantly.

When we were raising our kids in the early ‘50s, there was not a single Filipino song being aired on radio, no OPM (Original Pilipino Music) yet and hardly any Filipiniana books. (“Noli Me Tangere” was on a list of volumes condemned by the Catholic Church). I remember being so protective of the Filipino I wanted my family to be that I prohibited them from listening to Bing Crosby’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” for a long , long time.

I would acquaint the children with things Philippine, once, with some reluctant help from my husband, even taking them on a freight boat to Mindanao (where we knew no one) so that they could observe what was loaded and unloaded at every port. Such was my reaction to my colonized upbringing that I dragged them yearly to the haunting but bloody Holy Week rituals in Bulacan and Pampanga until they felt like nailing me, too, on a cross. We attended many town fiestas to experience regional food and local color.

It is so easy, after all, for children to imbibe notions of “native” being “inferior” and “Pinoy” being “baduy.” But isn’t it incredulous and outrageous for adults to perpetuate the notion that “world class” can only be Western (shouldn’t we be Pinoy first before going global?), that we have no culture because culture is only opera, and ballet, and big museums, and auditoriums of glass and steel, that the best cultures are in the west when India and China are far older and richer civilizations?

Thus do we overlook the quality leaps that art, theater, music and indie movies are making right in our midst because we never bother to look for them. It’s like someone saying “There’s no such thing as a UFO because I never saw one.” But you ask, “Did you ever look up at the sky?” And they never have.

As recently as two weeks ago, at a cocktail party, I ran into a wealthy and very influential culture vulture whom I admired. “I now go to Hong Kong for my culture fix,” he said. “There are three cultural festivals a year with the works-classical and contemporary, even Cirq de Soleil-everything you can dream of.”

Then he followed it up with “Dapat naman tayong mahiya! How backward we are! Our shows are so ramshackle, the CCP is getting so shabby, the government does not support the arts” etc, etc. I almost lost my cool. I wanted to lash out, “And what have you, with all your money and power and taste, done about it?”

It is the same privileged class who, when you are promoting something Filipino-whether book, performance, painting, bamboo house-will say, “Don’t impose it on me, please!” Implying, I’m perfectly fine with a Broadway play, a Korean telenovela, a Mediterranean house and “Sex and the City.” Why would I want to contribute ( or buy a ticket) to whatever weird project you’re up to? People who complain never put their money where their mouth is.

Being Filipino is considered by many average educated Pinoys as such a lowly calling-the bahay kubo, the aswang, the sinamay, the sinigang, the kundiman, the moro-moro. Note that even some of the powers-that-be of culture itself rarely show our lumad in costumes other than as curiosities and with as little respect as they were once displayed in the St. Louis Exposition of the 1920s.

And how many times have we been asked, “Aren’t you migrating? Think of your children, what future do they have here?” What future indeed, as the eminent Prof. Jun de Leon would say in his landmark UP centennial speech “when the cultural sources of our education are Western and it is inevitable that the expertise graduates acquire is better applicable to a Western industrialized society than to a rural, agricultural setting which most of the Philippines is.” And Florentino Hornedo adds, “It looks like the Philippines is spending money for the training of our country’s citizens to become another country’s assets.”

Filipinos have always been a special race beloved by God-creative and beautiful, graceful and multi-talented, a connecting, resilient, hard-working and big-hearted people, loyal to the max. After finding one’s particular calling as a Filipino, one must never let go of it. Everything is interconnected and into one’s life will spontaneously drop all those helpful occurrences, chance encounters, coincidences and synchronicities to cheer one on. Don’t be impatient. Because five or so years down the line, or maybe when you’re old like me, there will be a convergence. Suddenly you are no longer the underdog. The time for your initiative-whether arnis, saya, aswang or bamboo house, has ripened. And its fruits are very sweet. The convergence is what brings me here today.

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