Thursday, October 27, 2016
opinion / Columns
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Who we are

The question seems simple enough: What is your ethnicity? Yet every year when I throw that question to my students—undergraduate or graduate—they pause, they grapple with it, and sometimes, they’re unable to answer.

Some will answer “Filipino.” Others who have had some background in the social sciences will, tentatively, propose “Tagalog,” “Kapampangan,” “Bisaya,” or “Bikolano,” which shows the overlap of language and ethnicity. But many are perplexed, having grown up in Metro Manila even if they have parents from all over the country. They wonder if “Manileño” is an ethnicity, and I say, Sure, why not?

We tend to “essentialize” ethnicity, a verb that means making something absolute, almost biological. Almost automatically, we invoke our parents in creating our own identity: If they are Tagalog, then I must be Tagalog. But what if one is Tagalog and the other is Ilokano?  And with the Filipino diaspora today, the permutations become even more complicated: Japanese-Filipino, Filipino-American, Filipino-Mexican, and many more hyphenated permutations.


I had visitors this weekend, cousins who once identified themselves as Chinese-Filipino or Chinoy but migrated to the United States and married Caucasian Americans.  So what are their children? Chinoy-American? It’s a term I have not heard yet and will probably never take off, because the children of Chinoys who migrate to north America usually become very assimilated.

It was different with the Chinese who came to the Philippines, as we see in a new book just launched by Anvil: Richard Chu’s “The Chinese and Chinese Mestizos of Manila: Family, Identity, and Culture 1860s-1930s.” Originally published by E. J. Brill in 2010, Anvil’s reprint is a welcome one not just for local ethnic Chinese but also for anyone interested in the way we form our ethnic identities.

Chu has actually produced two books. The other one, “Chinese Merchants of Binondo in the Nineteenth Century,” was published by UST Press last year. Both books involve “microhistories,” focusing on how a few prominent Chinese families tackled ethnicity. Terms like “diasporic strategies” and “liminal virtuosity” are used in the book to show the complicated, and cunning, ways that people employ to deal with ethnicity.


This Anvil publication covers a wider historical period, from the Spanish era into the American, and the differences in the way the Chinese strategized their ethnicity.

There are the Chinese who came during the Spanish period and who married local women and produced the mestizo de sangleyes. Mestizos would marry mestizas, and in the 19th century, many became prosperous merchants, forming the principalia. Jose Rizal was from such a family, but his family is an example of the strategizing that goes on in relation to ethnicity: Rizal’s father, Francisco Mercado, had his family’s classification changed from mestizo Chinese to indio.  That should not have been surprising because Francisco Mercado, like many other Chinese mestizos, spoke no Chinese and had lost all sense of being Chinese.

When we get to Rizal’s generation, there is nothing Chinese left. In one of his letters to Ferdinand Blumentritt, an Austrian scholar interested in the Philippines, Rizal wrote about how people in Biñan spoke terrible Tagalog because many of the residents were Chinese. The Chinese, for Rizal, were a distant “other.”

Chu’s book deals with Chinese merchant families who kept their Chinese identity, but also recognized the importance of playing with multiple ethnic identities, as naturalized Spanish subjects (españoles naturalizados).  These families established mutual help organizations for other Chinese, including what is now the Chinese General Hospital and the Chinese Cemetery. Even these Chinese were not marginalized, though; they figure prominently in Rizal’s novels even if not always in a positive light.

We find a different situation during the American occupation, with clearer lines drawn between the Chinese and Filipinos. Chu points out that Binondo in the 19th century was quite ethnically mixed, and indeed, we know that Andres Bonifacio married Gregoria de Jesus in Binondo church. In the 20th century, Binondo took on a more distinct Chinatown flavor, which has been preserved to this day.

The sense of being Chinese was intense, with strong racial and racist undertones, as in the unspoken ban on intermarriages, especially between ethnic Chinese women and Filipino men. Younger Chinese-Filipinos still lament vestiges of this discrimination in many ethnic Chinese families, which they call the “Great Wall.” Chu’s book points out, though, that even amid this strong Chinese identity, there was much flexibility similar to what went on during the Spanish occupation. More Hispanic-sounding family names were adopted, for example, although even today, many of the Chinese will still know their original Chinese surname.

The American colonial government put up many barriers to Chinese migration, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the Chinese found ways to subvert these barriers—around bought legal documents, for example. Again, I still run into young ethnic Chinese who have an idea of these legal mazes, of original surnames versus “tua di” (legal alien certificates).


Chu’s book is valuable for showing how malleable culture is, all the way up to identity. Much of what Chu describes actually resonates today with Filipinos, in our contemporary diaspora. Many Filipinos have found ways to get around immigration rules in the United States and other countries, sometimes with faked documents. We have an entire generation of Filipino-Americans who are unable to become American citizens because they entered the United States with false papers. They grew up there and are as “American” as American can be in the way they think and speak, but are a “dream generation” that is fighting hard to “become” American.

But more than strategizing, I sense that with the ethnic Chinese in the Philippines, and the many undocumented or “illegal” Filipinos overseas, there is a certain tension—wanting to be citizens of a new country, yet yearning to find one’s roots. I’m amazed at the number of Internet sites set up by Filipinos—for example, those devoted to delving into one’s racial origins. There are even sites for “tornatras,” an archaic Spanish term used to refer to persons of mixed Chinese, Spanish and indio ancestry.  We know, too, that there are Filipinos who will claim to be “part-American, part-Chinese, part-Spanish,” sometimes to offset their “indio-ness.”

When we look at how people play with ethnicity, and racial classifications, we see how these categories are in fact quite artificial. The politics of identity is not just how we define ourselves, but how we present ourselves. Claims of who we are inevitably bring in a bit of fiction, not necessarily out of deceit, but most certainly often involving conceit.

TAGS: ethnicity, featured column
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