Filipino Community Portrait

by MC Canlas

Ang hindi lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.
(One who doesn’t look back where he came from will not arrive at his destination.)

—a Filipino proverb

To understand the invisible gravity that brings Filipinos together in a community in the United States is to learn the saga of the Filipino family, its life courses, and the formation of cultural and interface zones and patterns in new environment. This paper seeks to reintroduce the Filipino from our perspective on history as well as to spark a process of rediscovery of our people and our community in America.

“For the Sake of the Family”

Some 2 million U.S. residents are expected to have identified themselves as Filipinos in the 2000 census. Family ties are the underlying reason for most Filipino migration to the United States, and family-based immigration is the main channel. Others receive employment or business visas to come to the United States for financial reasons to support their families, whether back in the Philippines or in the United States; still others are the children or descendants of Filipinos who served in the U.S. military or who came to the United States in the first half of the twentieth century to work on farms, in canneries, or at other menial jobs in the cities. Elderly Filipino World War II veterans who were granted citizenship in 1990 are too old to join the workforce. Nevertheless, their entry to the United States and the minimal benefits that accompany it offer economic improvement for their families in the Philippines as well as the prospect of their children and grandchildren joining them here.

This migration "for the sake of the family" is a double-edged sword; to better the life of family members, often it is necessary to leave the family (the core) behind and live in the interface overseas. Thus, migration tremendously impacts the family, both in the core and the interface. The twentieth-century version of migration is "piece by piece," meaning families must be separated before they can be reunified in the United States. Reunification rarely fully re-creates the core family system that Philippine families had in the homeland. Still, Filipino immigrants living in transition and in the interface, in different generations and waves of migration, tend to build communities that strengthen their ties to one another. Like the force of gravity in the universe, these communities serve to renew their cultural core and reconstruct families and communities.


Mislabeled and Misunderstood

Filipinos, although long viewed as the most Westernized and Americanized among Asian Pacific Islander Americans in the country, are arguably the most mislabeled, misinterpreted, and culturally marginalized of API communities. They have been called everything from "sleeping giant" and "invisible minority" to "forgotten Americans." Filipinos are Asians, but in Asia, they’re still discriminated against, and in the United States they’re not considered Asian because they’re not Japanese or Chinese. U.S. government publications still classify the "Philippines" in the "Pacific Islands" category. At other times, Filipinos are considered Southeast Asian, but confusion arises because they’re not from Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos. They have Spanish-sounding names, so sometimes they are classified as Hispanic.

The misinterpretation can be exacerbated by the fact that Filipinos tend to communicate indirectly, as psychologist Melba Padilla Maggay writes:

One aspect that foreigners (non-Filipinos) find especially difficult is the very high level of ambiguity in the way she (Filipino) communicates. It is hard to know exactly when a Filipino is saying "yes" or "no," when she is offended and when she wants something. It would seem that the interplay of verbal and non-verbal messages is so complex that the outsider (non-Filipino) is left bewildered, wondering when he will ever have the competence to crack the wall of silence that divides him from the inside of the culture.

But the difficulty lies not only in the inscrutability of the Filipinos’ interactive patterns, a mere communication problem, but also in the tendency to view Filipinos and Filipino history from a fossilized Eurocentric and colonial perspective. Accordingly, "the academic neglect of Filipinos stems from the erroneous assumption that the Philippines lacks an ‘authentic’ indigenous culture; that most anthropologists have ignored the Philippines because they perceived it as ‘too Westernized,’ with ‘no culture’ of its own," writes Yen Le Espiritu, an ethnic studies professor in California. Filipino American scholar Oscar Campomanes posits an "institutional invisibility of the Filipinos Americans, which is connected to the historical amnesia and self-erasure regarding the U.S. colonization of the Philippines."

Filipinos interpret their history from two perspectives: the pantayo, or insider, perspective, which covers those aspects of history and culture important to Filipinos themselves, and the pangkami perspective, which focuses on explaining their history to foreigners who may hold negative preconceptions. This split corresponds to the two Tagalog terms for "we"—tayo, which includes the person being addressed, and kami, which does not. Just as a family conversation changes when guests leave the house, so too the pantayo perspective carries more intimacy, truth, and openness. It implies the need to use their own (Filipino) language as their medium of communication.


Cultural Foundations: Kapwa and Bayan

A fundamental Filipino cultural concept is kapwa, the unity of "self " and "others," a sense of "fellow being," a recognition of shared identity or inner self shared with others. "Anyone looking for a core concept that would help explain Filipino interpersonal behavior cannot help but be struck by the super ordinate concept of kapwa," wrote Filipino psychologist Virgilio Enriquez.

The Filipino immigrant is fond of asking a newly introduced Filipino, "Taga saan ka sa atin?" The question, literally "Where are you from in the Philippines?" is an essential part of Filipino identity formation. The usual response consists of one’s family name and the community he or she belongs to or identifies with. In my case, for example: "I am Canlas of San Fernando, Pampanga, but we moved to Quezon City when I was in my teens."

The question, posed without malice or sense of intrusion, elicits a response that facilitates discovery of a common bond, or ka. Kababayan, for example, are town mates (ka + bayan, or town) and kamag-anak (ka + mag-anak, or family) are relatives. Filipinos naturally seek out levels and degrees of connectivity to build kapwa and sociocultural affinity that contextualizes their interaction and establish rapport.

Again, in my case, for example, likely follow-up questions would be, "Are you related to the Canlas of Santo Tomas?" " Do you know the Calalangs in San Fernando?" "Was your family ever in Tondo, Manila? My mother’s mother is from there and she’s a Canlas," and so on. Chances are the person asking me will discover that our grandparents were cousins or our parents attended the same school, for example, and say: "Ah, it’s a small world, we’re related!"

This emphasis on place of origin dates back to long before Filipinos were even known as Filipinos, a time when our ways of life, culture, and identity were tied to settlement patterns and environment. Settlements tended to be located along rivers, lakeshores, and seacoasts, and even those in the hinterlands tended to parallel mountain streams. In fact, names for various Filipino ethnolinguistic groups and geographical locations are derived from bodies of water. For example, Tagalog means "native of the river"; Kapampangan are "people of the riverbank," Cebu comes from Sugbu, meaning "riverbank," and Lanao, Maranao, Maguindanao, and Mindanao all come from danao, "lake of flooded areas." This water-based culture, coupled with a sacred view of the mountains, constituted the material basis of the beliefs, customs, and traditions of the ancestors of Filipinos. The houses (bahay) were usually located near people’s source of livelihood, along the shore in coastal communities, and closer to the fields in the interior. People lived together in barangays of thirty to a hundred families, and social organizations developed around kinship and neighborhood connections.

Their sense of community, or bayan, is deeply rooted in extended family relationships and neighborhood bonds. The core traditions of family-based communities as expressed in their language and culture, leadership, and governance structures, and spiritual and social life have persisted for centuries despite colonialism, social upheaval, and natural disasters.

The connection between family and community is transparent in the lexicon. The term bayan is relative. Today, it may mean "motherland," Inang Bayan; "nation-state," Bayang Pilipinas; "town" or "municipality," Bayan ng San Roque; "town center," kabayanan; people or fellow citizen or belonging to the same ethno-linguistic group or region, kabayan or kababayan. The protector of the community is Bayani, while bayanihan, usually symbolized by a group of people carrying a house to another place, is a valued practice of cooperation, self-help, and mutual support among neighbors and extended families. Balikbayan is community and family renewing, either physically or spiritually to one’s homeland. Filipino returnees and tourists in the Philippines are called balikbayans.


Identity Formation and Interaction

The archipelagic nature of the Philippines, estimated at around 7,107 islands, with a land area slightly larger than Nevada’s, is thought to be a key determinant in the proliferation of family-based communities belonging to more than seventy-five ethnolinguistic groups and speaking more than a hundred languages and dialects. As members of clans, barangays or federations of barangays, Filipinos’ ancestors developed secret codes to communicate with one another and oral traditions that symbolized their idealized unity, the foundation of their core values and culture. Each member of the community was both maker and consumer of art and culture, storyteller and listener, performer and audience. Oral traditions such as legends, epics, and riddles emphasized familiar subjects so that metaphor could be easily decoded.

Integral to the cultural core and identity formation of the barangay was an indirect method of expressing one’s inner thoughts. Inner feelings, damdamin and pakiramdam, were guides to day-to-day interaction. Indirect communication was assumed to generate internal unity, intended to cultivate a clan or ethnic identity that would make one different from those belonging to other groups. It also precluded conflicts and disagreements from surfacing in the open. Feelings typically expressed in the community or among family members were those that furthered cooperation and unity.


Leadership Formation and Governance

Our ancestors’ societies were principally family-based barangay. However, with their exposure to peoples with complex socioeconomic structures from mainland Asia–Chinese, Arabs, Muslims, Indians–and for sociopolitical factors like defense against piracy and war, in certain strategically located areas bigger barangays attained the level of confederations or ethnic states. Authority figures bore titles like raja, an Indo-Arabic term for the head of a confederation; sultan, a Muslim ruler; and datu, lakan, and bayani, Tagalog names for barangay leaders. The babaylans were the healers and spiritual leaders, while the pandays were the skilled masters of technology and the community’s material well-being. There was incipient class stratification and structure in barangay confederations that originated from a system of dependency, not outright slavery.

The central roles and attributes of the datu-bayani-babaylan-panday leadership and governance of the ancient communities continued through generations. The datu (chieftain) and his bayani (ward leaders) were responsible for the "wholeness" and overall well-being and protection of the community. They were expected to be the most courageous, ablest, and strong willed in the community in providing leadership and protection, not very different from the fatherly and eldest son qualities in a family. But they were also bearers of good human relationship, attributes typical of mothers and daughters.

Feasts, rituals, and community celebrations were directly related to the socioeconomic activities of ancient communities such as planting and harvest, fishing and hunting. Cultural activities forged community solidarity as well as promoted the redistributive principle and thanksgiving: the families who had more shared with those who had less. The bayanihan, or cooperative spirit, had its moral basis in the religious idea of anitu, the totality of ancestors, or guiding spirit of the community. The datu-babaylan leaders had sanction from anitu as they transmitted the wishes of the ancestors to the living and those of the living to the ancestors. Datu and babaylan roles were passed according to bloodlines and ancestral traditions, while bayani and panday attained their leadership roles in recognition of their skills, training and expertise, and community values.


The Interface and Resettlement in the Colonial Setting

Filipino prehistory dates back to around 250,000 B.C, the pre-Austronesian era, when the first humans were found. The Austronesian era, from 9,000 B.C. to 200 A.D., saw the development of extended families. From 200 to 1565, the so-called proto-Filipino period, there emerged a regional particularization characterized by the formation of ethnic groups and confederations of barangays.

Filipino history is a story of struggle against colonizers and the formation of one nation, Inang Bayan. As one of the foremost Filipino historians, Renato Constantino, put it:

The Filipino people have had the misfortune of being "liberated" four times during their entire history. First came the Spaniards who "liberated" them for "enslavement of the devil," next came the Americans who "liberated" them from Spanish oppression, then the Japanese who "liberated" them from American imperialism, then the Americans again who "liberated" them from the Japanese fascists. After every "liberation" they found their country occupied by foreign "benefactors."

The period from 1565 to 1572 marked a major turning point in Philippine history, the beginning of 333 years of Spanish colonialism. The seven-year conquest defeated the leadership of the barangay and ethnic states. With the takeover of Manila in 1572 by Spanish colonizers, the entire islands they called Filipinas (after King Philip II of Spain) fell under the king of Spain as a colony and royal possession, making Filipinos royal subjects.

The living landmark of the Spanish colonial policy of reducción (the process of resettlement) is the plaza complex. The policy was implemented to "divide and conquer" the Filipinos and further the destruction of the ancient kinship-based communities (kamag-anakan). In the new colonial society, people were uprooted from their homes to form new and larger barangays, reducing the number of villages for easier administration and separating the people from their traditional leaders. The plaza’s physical position as community center with imposing structures of the church, the friar’s convento, the municipal hall, and the bahay-bato (mansions) of the ruling elite expressed its role as the purveyor of colonial culture. Transforming itself as the center of power, commerce, and religious culture, the plaza complex attracted local elite, the principalia and cacique, and the urbanized Filipinos and ilustrado (educated elite). The Filipino leaders in the plaza became instrumentalities, appendages, and collaborators of the foreign ruler (the Spanish, followed by the Americans and the Japanese) and wealthy families.

The Spanish colonization of the Philippines created three distinct people: the colonized barangays, whose people became Christian (i.e., Tagalog, Kapampangan, Ilocanos, Visayas, etc.), the unconquered Muslims (Maranao, Maguindanao, Tausug, etc.), who began to spread around the islands during the fourteenth century, and the unconquered barangays (i.e., Igorots, Lumads, Mangyans, Aetas, etc.) who continued to practice pre-Hispanic traditions. Spanish colonialists recruited tribes to fight one another.

The new barangays, then called pueblos, were organized into provinces that unified people for administrative purposes, but not in consciousness or spirit. Mobility was restricted. Residents of one pueblo were isolated from other pueblos. After permission was obtained, the men could go out with passports for three months. An 1849 colonial decree required the standardization of all Filipino family names based on a catalog of Spanish surnames. Beginning in 1883, all residents were required to have a cedula personal (identification certificate) and pay a graduated poll tax. These colonial policies had a lasting effect on the grassroots or local level: surnames and localities were attached to an individual’s identity. At the same time, the ancient family system continued to thrive in the new communities.