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Tía Isabel’s response to a hispanophobic “Asian”

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Arnaldo’s blogpost about my dad’s hometown received all sorts of commentaries. There was one comment that I just could not ignore: one coming from someone with a Japanese-sounding name. Actually, it’s not really his anti-Filipino/hispanophobic comment that made me stop and read: it’s the response that he got from Chile-based Filipina scholar, Elizabeth “Tía Isabel de Ilocos” Medina (also a distant relative of Arnaldo and a very good friend of our mentor, Señor Guillermo Gómez Rivera).

The bone of contention? That Filipino culture is Asian. Is it? Read below to find out.

Dear Rijuku,

“Asian” is a misnomer, first of all. It’s a label invented by the West, based on geographical location and racial groupings. But the Japanese don’t consider themselves Asian. They are Japanese, period. And they consider themselves superior to the rest of the “Asians”. They consider that only the Germans follow them in superiority.

Human beings are social and historical beings. We are not racial beings. Race is just color of skin. It says nothing about the spirit and worldview. You see lots of Eastern Europeans with slanted eyes but they don’t consider themselves Chinese, Korean, Japanese or Eskimos or Mongols or Tibetans. The Indians of India are Aryans by race but they don’t consider themselves Germans or Europeans.

Filipinos are not the same as Indonesians, Koreans, Thais, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indians, Malayans, Japanese, Singaporeans, even if we are all classified as “Asians”. We are all very different. Now, in terms of religion, a lot of these so-called Asians share religious practices like Buddhism and varieties of ancestor worship like Shintoism and others practice Islam which arrived in the “Asian” countries through the Arabian Peninsula and so forth.

The archipielago of St. Lazarus, as Magellan called our archipelago, was slowly being converted to Islam but the Spanish defeated the Muslim rulers of Maynilad and spread Catholicism to the Visayans and Luzonianos from the 16th to the 19th centuries, as well as in Mindanáo in the cities where they established colonial rule or in the outposts where they maintained forts.

Because of our Christianization, which was much more widespread than in China or Japan or in the neighboring countries colonized by the Dutch and the British, we developed a culture that was a mix of indigenous monotheism/ancestor worship/animism and Christianity — much like the mix that developed in all of the Spanish colonies of Mexico, Central and South America. So because of this, we Filipinos are much more similar in culture and belief system to the Hispanic American nations, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, than to our “Asian” neighbors. But even the Thais are very different from the Malayans and the Indonesians and the Vietnamese and the Cambodians and the Indians. You can’t put them in the same bag and just call them Asians.

It’s the Filipinos who have accepted this label because we became a North American colony, and our Hispanic Filipino culture and memory were destroyed.

We accepted that label “Southeast Asian” because we became totally subjugated by the U.S. Turned into psychological vassals. And we accepted the new self-image the U.S. imposed on us as The Little Brown Brother.

Are the Indonesians, the Indians, the Thais, the Malaysians the “Little Brown Brothers” of the U.S.? If as you say there is no difference between us “Asians” — realize how racist you are being, how dismissive of our uniqueness — then they should also consider themselves as such. But they don’t. They don’t consider themselves copies of each other. And they don’t read their history books in English like we do.

I won’t convince you of anything, but consider this: 100 years ago, your great-grandparents hated the idea of the Americans making the Philippines their colony. They did not want to stop reading, speaking and studying or teaching Spanish, to study, read, speak and write in ONLY in English.

But since you were born when — in the 1980s? — and there are no writings in your family of the rejection that your forefathers felt for all things American, and you were born in a Philippines that was already TOTALLY re-engineered to be a bad copy of the U.S., then you believe that you are merely “Asian”. That Filipinos are “Asians”. It means, basically, that Filipinos are nothing. Because what is “Asian”? It’s just a sociological term coined in U.S. universities, probably after 1900.

Tia Isabel

P.S. A quote from my unpublished ms., Thru the Lens of Latin America: A Wide-Angle View of Philippine Colonial History:

Once implanted, a first colonizer culture, already fused or syncretized with the original local one (i.e., Spanish culture), will resist the advent of a subsequent colonizer culture (U.S. culture). However, with the passage of time, the new generations — who did not experience the moment of cultural transition and its accompanying resistance to a new transculturation (in other words, the [Hispanic Filipino] people’s resistance to adopting a new transplanted dominant [U.S.] culture, due to the inertia of the preceding cultural process) — will have no awareness that such a phenomenon ever occurred. They’ll simply assume that what is now there has always been there (North Americanized Filipino culture), and has always been universally embraced. The younger generations will accept the (North Americanized Filipino) culture they were born into, notwithstanding their parents’ or grandparents’ having once perceived it as invasive and alien, and perhaps even having sworn to resist assimilating it at all costs.


12 responses »

  1. Tell Elizabeth Medina that we are Austronesian. That is our core culture. This includes the lowland Christian ethnic groups, Muslim ethnic groups and the remaining once-powerful ethnic groups in Luzon and Mindanao. Archaeological and genetic tests and some pre-Hispanic texts gave the Philippines a feel slightly closer to Austronesian (not Han Chinese) Taiwan and Indonesia.

    These Yanks defined Asia as a continent in their country and racial classification, and Philippines fit that definition. But for Yanks, Canadians, Aussies and Kiwis, Asia implies East Asia while the Europeans (Brits and Irish included), Asia implies the Indian Subcontinent and Middle East.

    Pacific Islanders look considerably close to some Filipinos. Look at Guam and Hawaii. Their core vocabulary in their languages is Austronesian, like the Philippine, Taiwan Aborigine, Indonesian and Malaysian languages. Even some Filipinos can classify themselves as Pacific Islander, considering that they are an archipelago near the Pacific Ocean to the East. But American definition limits the scope from Easter Islands to Samoa to Guam. Pacific Islanders are mostly Polynesian. Though they are a related people, they have different deities and different literature.

    The Hispanic element united only areas from Central Luzon to Northern Mindanao. However, it wielded a lot of influence to the Christian peoples.

    The Americans globalized and made us more efficient. However, they also failed to make our own classification.

    Our native Austronesian stock mixed with a lot of peoples. From the Chinese trader to the Arab evangelizer to the Indian trader and more recently, to the Yank, Mexican, Castillian and Basque settlers made our gene strains hardy from many diseases. That is the strength of our nation. But it also made our nation hard to classify and made our natives hard to identify. Still our core culture is Austronesian if you consider all ethnic groups. If you refer only to Christians, then Spanish influence is a marker.


    • “our core culture is Austronesian”

      I think you meant racial stock, sir. Core culture does not fit the picture. There should be no doubt that Filipinos today, including the pre-Magellanic tribes, are of Austronesian stock, physiognomy wise. We are just like our neighbors around us: Indonesians, Malaysians, etc. However, they have their own set of “cultures” to which we cannot identify ourselves with. That is to say, there is no more “Austronesian core culture”. We never had one, in the first place. In a strictest sense, we have to be faithful to the accepted definition of the word “culture”.



      • Our educational system has tried to include the dances of the Igorot and the Tausug, the ones you call pre-Magellanic tribes. We have the Christian folk dances, which bear some similarity to the Spanish dances. The movements are gentler, more graceful and more subtle compared to the Spanish and Italian moves which are more aggressive, lively, snappy, spirited and staccato.

        This may be an attempt to unify the country. My bases for defining the core Austronesian culture are by language, material culture (artifacts) and a few traits familiar to all Austronesian peoples. Austronesians may have been farmers and seafarers. Well, it’s mostly disappeared.

        Even ethnic groups within the Philippines (even ethnic groups with practically the same religion) have different cultures, until now. Some superstitions and some beliefs may be different compared to each other considering that they may have worshipped different deities during the pre-Hispanic period. Life is short, but the ways of the old culture are hard to kill off. This makes the Ilokano and the Bisaya different.


      • One question for you:

        Spain had 4 identities: Celtiberian, Basque, Latin and Arabic.

        How does Spain treat the Arab identity? Approximately like the way Philippines treats the Spanish identity.

        Where the Spaniards are more comfortable identifying themselves closer to Portuguese and Italians, Philippines views the Southeast Asian neighbors as their own, though they worship America. Due to geographical proximity, it will be more practical to do business with the neighbors rather than those who shared the same colonizer.


      • Hello again, Albert.

        Re: “One question for you:

        Spain had 4 identities: Celtiberian, Basque, Latin and Arabic.

        How does Spain treat the Arab identity? Approximately like the way Philippines treats the Spanish identity.”

        Let me just deviate a little. You know, it doesn’t even matter if Spain has, say, 4,875,986,453,987 identities. What matters most is the singlular, most familiar identity that they have brought here to our islands: the Hispanic identity that we all know of, the Christian identity that King Philip II’s parents endeared themselves too.

        So Spain has an Arabic identity. So what? Is that the identity that they used to shape the Filipino identity? No. So Spain has a Basque identity. Although there are some Filipinos today who are of Basque import (such as Willing Willie’s Shalani Soledad), Spain did not generally bequeath to us a prevailing Basque identity. What prevailed was the identity that figured mostly in Spain’s capital, which was (and still is) Madrid. And this goes on and on.

        “Where the Spaniards are more comfortable identifying themselves closer to Portuguese and Italians, Philippines views the Southeast Asian neighbors as their own, though they worship America. Due to geographical proximity, it will be more practical to do business with the neighbors rather than those who shared the same colonizer.”

        It is impossible to assume that we identify ourselves closer to our nearest neighbors. I find it odd to use chopsticks because I am more familiar with the spoon and the fork. The same goes with more than 99% of Filipinos. So what you observed in another place (Spain’s cultural proximity to Italy, Portugal, etc.) does not necessarily hold water in all places, particularly in the Philippines.

        This world of ours is such a complex thing. And it is even made more complex by neocolonialist governments.



  2. What a fascinating exchange!

    Well, here’s my two cents (centavos) worth.

    In terms of our basic ethnic (or racial if you prefer) stock, the vast majority of us Filipinos are most closely related to our closest neighbors in Island Southeast Asia (ISEA). Unless we Filipinos were parachuted into our archipelago from somewhere else, this is exactly as one should expect the situation to be.

    This relationship shows up most clearly in our languages. Taiwanese aboriginal languages, Tagalog, Ilokano, Malay, Javanese, Batak, Hawaiian, Tahitian, Maori, Merina (a Malagasy language)are all parts of the vast Austronesian language family (just as Spanish, English and Russian belong to the Indo-European language family and Hebrew, Arabic and Amharic are members of the Afro-Asiatic language family). Language, of course, IS culture.

    Now this is where it gets complicated. For shorthand, speakers of Austronesian languages have now been called, you guessed it, “Austronesians.” Scholars have long ago determined certain “Austronesian” cultural elements held broadly in common, especially in ISEA. These elements form a shared substratum among all the countries concerned. Obviously, the substratum was laid down long before the arrival of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Christianity or any other cultural imports from outside ISEA.

    Two of the strongest of these elements is the bilinear nature of family organization (i.e. father’s lineage does not overwhelm mother’s lineage) and the strong social position of women. Muslims and Christians in ISEA do not have the strong traditional subordination of women that exists in the original homelands of their respective faiths.

    So our cultures are related but also unique. They are unique in how our ancestors absorbed and reinterpreted foreign cultural imports, which explains today’s differences between Filipinos and their neighbors.

    And so, Filipinos ARE Asians, just as Finns and Basques are European, or the Fulani and the Zulu are Africans, or the Punjabis and Bengalis are South Asians. Filipinos are NOT Latin Americans somehow oddly displaced on the other side of the Pacific.



    • Definitely. We are not Latin Americans. We’re Latin Asians (or simply Latinos) by virtue of culture bequeathed to us for over three centuries of Spanish rule.


  3. That we Pinoys share a Hispanic heritage is not in dispute. It is, however, a bit of a stretch to call ourselves Latino, for the simple reason that the vast majority of the population, whether at home or abroad, do not speak Spanish either as a mother tongue or even, as they say in this age of globalization, a good second language. This may be a lamentable fact, but fact it is.

    Now, as I said before, language is culture (our mother tongues are related to those of our neighbors), and so is food. Which brings me to the matter of chopsticks earlier raised. Other than the Vietnamese and the Chinese immigrants, no one else in our home region of Southeast Asia uses them (except in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese restaurants). Everyone else — Malays, Javanese, Thais, Burmese, etc. — uses forks and spoons AND/OR (and this is an important AND/OR) their hands (usually the right hand) to eat rice with some savory dish. No Latinos I know ever eat rice with their hands (kamayan). And, if I might add, the Latino families I visit use knives and forks rather than forks and spoons.

    Now as to the food itself. How do we know we belong to the same region? Well, the majority of the peoples of our region usually eat on a dialy basis plain steamed white rice, dried fish (tuyo), pickles (achara), familiar vegetables (sitaw, talong, gabi, labanos, etc.) The holy trinity of basic cooking involves garlic, onions and (this is important) ginger. There’s some chicken or meat when affordable. And of course, for special occasions, there are festive dishes whose preparation used to be multi-day community affairs. We all use, without exception, sauces similar to toyu, patis, suka and bagoong. We also often place these basic sauces on the table as condiments. We all have some kind of noodle and spring roll in our “native” cuisines. We all eat meat cut into small pieces (except lechon-type presentations) very often in some kind of gravy. We have similar barbecue styles. Aling Nena’s famous bbq is closer to Thai grilled meat or Malay satay than to the gigantic churrasco and palarlilla cuts that are such favorites in South America. We all have rice and rice flour-based desserts (kakanin).

    Of course, there are numerous regional variations. We think our neighbors have spicy food and they think we have salty food. The Thais, Malays and Indonesians use gata more in cooking than we do. But my point is, our regional cultures as expressed in food are pretty similar. So, all things being equal, and adjusting for the chili hotness, the average Pinoy will be more at home with a Vietnamese Pho, a Malaysian Mee Goreng or an Indonesian Popia (lumpia) than with the staple frijoles, platanos, yuka frita, tamales, burritos, tortillas, arepas and cachapas our our Latino friends! Even the rice we eat tastes different.

    Mind you, with globalization, we can get all kinds of food in Manila these days, including shawarma, tandoori and home made Italian pasta thanks to our OFWs. There are even “Filipinized” delicacies, like sisig pizza (imagine!!!)

    But as for me, I like all good food!

    PS. For good measure, my Mexican friends think we got our “Hispanic” culture from them. Which is why we say “palengke” and not “mercado.” Something to think about.



  4. Hello again Evan,

    Thanks for the commentary. But if I may add, not just because majority of the Filipinos do not speak Spanish does it necessarily mean that we are no longer Hispanic — nor Asian.

    There are two basic ways to identify ourselves: one is through our names; the other one is through what we eat.

    Let us pretend that I do not speak Spanish. But I have a Hispanic name: José Mario Alas. My name can say so much about me. It can become a reflection of ourselves. My religions is something that Latinos can identify themselves (Christian, i.e., Catholicism). My family is paternalistic, and we maintain very close family relations, something that Latinos are known for. But I also eat rice, something very Asian.

    These pecularities —and more!— make my identity unique. It is not solely Hispanic, but not purely Asian. This identity is an incredible blending of East and West. This queer identity is what I call the “Filipino Identity”.

    Also, Latino nations, although they are collectively known by that term (Latino) due to language and culture similiarities, also vary from each other. Peruvian culture, with its mixture of Hispanic and Incan cultures, will still be considered foreign to their Puerto Rican brothers. And this will go on and on.

    Lastly, much of the food stuff you mentioned (garlic, turnip, etc.) were brought here by the Spaniards.



    • Then the best option for all Filipinos is to identify themselves, first of all, with their group.

      In my opinion, they can identify with Ethnic group/nation first, Filipino second. Or it can be inverse. Damn, the identity has been pretty weak!

      Asian/Hispanic/Pacific Islander can be tertiary. It’s up to the Filipino to choose. This is a very gray area. I’m pretty sure that your blog sides with Hispanic, along with a few Mestizo Espagnoles/Mejicanos. Filipinos from Philippines will side with Asian while the Filipino-Americans will generally side with Pacific Islander.

      Going back to the foodstuff source, I think that there is a possibility that garlic has been here before the Spanish came to these islands. The Tagalogs and Cebuanos use different words for garlic. Tagalogs call it “bawang” while the Cebuanos call it “ahos”.

      Spanish for garlic is “ajo” (related to Italian “aglio” and Latin “allium”) while the Malay term for any culinary plant with a pungent bulb is “bawang.”

      I haven’t heard of turnips in the Philippines but I heard of “jicama,” which is the appropriate English word for out Tagalog word of “singkamas.”


      • Good morning,

        An identity can never be chosem, Albert. I can denounce my citizenship anytime I want. I can pledge alliance to, say, Italy or India or South Africa. But the “Filipino soul” in me will never disappear.

        “I’m pretty sure that your blog sides with Hispanic…”

        Of course. I will admit that to the highest heavens. But even if I do not side with the Hispanic, Albert, that will never change who and what I am. Whether I side with that scientific fact or not, we are still a Hispanic people. Up to our very last breath.

        Have a great weekend.


  5. Hello Mr. Pepe Alas. I have been following your blog these past few months. I have to admit that I used to think that the Spaniards did us harm, that they were evil, senseless colonizers, etc. In various Facebook forums, I have encountered some of your commentaries regarding Philippine History and our identity as Filipinos. Back then, I thought that you were just glorifying Spain. But upon careful scrutiny, I realized that you were right all along. So I have to chow on crow, eat my humble pie. Yes, thank goodness for your blog, I am now enlightened. I now know where I stand. I am a Filipina because my roots are Hispanic. Keep it going, sir! More power!



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