Night had fallen and I was exhausted, so I sat on the steps and closed my eyes to unwind.
But I perked up as my ears picked up different languages being spoken around me. There was of course Tagalog-based Filipino, albeit with varying accents, then several versions of Ilocano. I could pick up what linguists call nuclear Ilocano, meaning the Ilocano spoken in the Ilocos provinces, as well as several non-nuclear ones, with common words but different tones. Cordillera Ilocano seemed to dominate, with its strong consonants—for example, “tak-der,” to sit, with a strong “k” and a stretched out “der.”
In the distance I could hear Cebuano or what people call Bisaya, but again there were different versions, mostly from Mindanao. And I could identify Ibanag, but the others were from various Cordillera groups.
I was sitting on the steps of Quezon Hall in UP Diliman, Wednesday night, as I waited for the arrival of several hundred “Lakbayani” (from “Lakbayan,” to mean a traveling caravan)—representatives of more than 20 national minority groups. UP Diliman is their host for the next 10 days.
Some of you will remember that around this time last year, UP Diliman hosted some 700 lumad, or indigenous people from Mindanao, who had come to Manila to air their plight: displacement from their ancestral lands, the entry of mining companies destroying their lands, and the assassination of their leaders.
This time, the request was for UP Diliman to host “a few hundred more” people from throughout the country, notably from the Cordillera and, from Mindanao, Moro delegations. This time, they were using the term “national minorities” and the organizers explained to me that the Moros as well as some groups from the Cordillera do not consider themselves indigenous peoples.
The distinctions are important, and sometimes have more to do with political correctness and “fashions” in terminologies. In the 1970s, when I first became aware of the minority groups, the term used was actually “national minorities” or “cultural minorities.” There was even a presidential assistant on national minorities, or Panamin, which made international headlines with the “discovery” of an alleged long-lost Stone Age tribe called the Tasaday.
Panamin was controversial, sometimes referred to derisively as “Panamina” because it was suspected of being more interested in mining (“mina”) and logging than in the plight of the cultural minorities.
Then the Catholic Church promoted the term “tribal Filipinos,” and to this day there is a reference to October as “Tribal Filipinos month.”
But “tribal” has connotations of the exotic and “primitive.” Later, civil society groups adopted “indigenous peoples” (or IPs), which is the official term the United Nations used to refer to populations that preceded colonial invasions. IPs are found throughout the world, from the Australian aborigines to the First Nations of Canada. In the Philippines, IPs refer to the groups that resisted not just Spain and Catholicism but also Islam.
Now we find ourselves returning to the term “national minorities,” which makes some sense. The term is used worldwide, including in the European Union. It is more inclusive, so in the Philippines it includes Muslims as well, and others who may not identify with the “IP” label.
When you think about it, with so many ethnolinguistic groups we don’t really have one majority group—Tagalogs, say, or Cebuanos. But collectively, we could refer to a large Christian majority (“Christian” used loosely).
“National minorities” refers more to a process, to the way certain groups were pushed to the margins (or, in real geographical terms, to the mountains). The “minority” status is not just one of numbers but of a social situation, of people deprived of many basic rights, including the right to ancestral lands.
National minorities also find their culture, including their mother tongue, under threat. It wasn’t surprising that Wednesday night to hear more of the Cordillera groups using Ilocano rather than, say, Kalinga.
The national minorities find themselves under assault on all fronts, and their losses are all intertwined. When I asked one of the Cordillera leaders to tell me which national minority groups were coming to Diliman, he named them one by one—and their names told me where they were from (for example, Bontocs from Bontoc). But I was surprised when he said there was a big group of Ifugaos, not from Ifugao, but from Nueva Vizcaya. Then he gave more examples of groups that were being displaced from their original ancestral lands.
Land and life
When people are pushed out of their ancestral lands, they lose not merely geographical space but a whole heritage. It is not surprising that they talk about how their land is their life (“ang lupa ay buhay”), so different from how “lowlanders” look at land: a piece of real estate to be bought and sold, or a piece of land from which to extract minerals.
Earlier on Wednesday I was conducting a graduate class, and a student mentioned how Maranao businesspeople who have settled in Manila or Cebu will send their children back to Mindanao to learn how to become Maranao again. This yearning to preserve one’s culture is found not just among national minorities; we Filipinos, when migrating to another country, also find ourselves worried about our children becoming “less” Filipino.
The Lakbayan in UP Diliman is not complete yet, as we expect larger delegations to arrive from Mindanao. In the next week or so, there will be interactions between the visitors and students and faculty, as well as among the national minorities themselves.
Discussions using “national minorities” as a term will be important in resolving the many conflicts that have arisen through the years. The term opens the door to recognizing autonomy and local development, even as we try to find common ground in our aspirations as a nation.
It has not been easy preparing for this event, what with the rains inundating the camp site (kampuhan) and turning it into a swamp where greens grow (kangkungan). But the delegations are determined to stay the course. It will be a “slow” dialogue, stretched out across some 10 days, where we will all learn to listen to each other, and to discover how we are all minorities in search of nationhood.
Come visit. Come support our national minorities.
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