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Literature and Filipino identity

By Amando Doronila
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:05:00 09/01/2010

Filed Under: Literature, People, Culture (general), Language

AMID THE frenzy of blame-seeking over the paralysis of the Aquino administration during the hostage-taking and massacre of Hong Kong tourists last week, a non-political event took place at the University of the Philippines Asian Center on Saturday, when the Union of Writers of the Philippines conferred the Francisco Balagtas awards on five Filipino writers in different languages forming the main body of Filipino literature, including in English. The awards underscored the failure of Filipino to foster national unity. The writers include Bonifacio Ilagan (drama in Filipino), Gremer Chan Reyes (fiction in Cebuano), Go Bon Juan (essay in English ) and Ricarte Agnes (drama/essay/fiction in Iloko). Having received the award for English essay, I was impressed by the diversity of the contributions to the body of Filipino literature from our various linguistic regional cultures, but I was bothered at the same time by the fact that since President Manuel L. Quezon legislated the establishment of the national language, based on Tagalog, we have not evolved a national language to which all linguistic groups can relate. I raised the issue whether Filipino is the proper vehicle to promote Filipino nationalism and define our national identity. In my response, I delivered a message, an edited extract of which follows:

Reputed as the ?Prince of Tagalog Poets,? Francisco Balagtas inspired the Gawad Pambansang Alagad ni Balagtas, of the Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL), which recognizes works of Filipino writers in languages other than Tagalog.

Balagtas wrote his poems in Tagalog, notably the epic ?Florante at Laura,? during an age when Filipino writings were written in Spanish. The poem reflected the abuses of the Spanish colonial regime. These abuses were the persistent theme of social protest literature by Filipino writers and provoked sporadic rebellions.

At a celebration of the birthday of Balagtas in Pandacan, Manila, in April 2003, a lecture was delivered by the late Adrian Cristobal. Some people in the audience were heard grumbling that the lecture was delivered in English by a writer in English. This incongruity has remained up to today?s awards. It is highlighted by the fact that although Balagtas wrote in Tagalog, the literature of protest has not been the monopoly of Tagalog, and has found wider expression in the languages of other important Philippine linguistic regions.

When the founders of Umpil held their first meeting in 1974 to organize Filipino writers and promote Philippine literature, they did not intend to limit contributions to the development of Filipino literature to Tagalog writers alone. They opened up the literary mainstream to writers in other Philippine languages. In 1987, Umpil enlarged its board of directors to embrace representatives of writers? organizations in languages other than English and Filipino. Writers in Ilocano, Bisaya, Hiligaynon and Chinese were represented.

This expansion reflected the multi-ethnical dimensions of Filipino culture, shaped by the Philippines history of waves of colonial invasions and occupation, from Chinese trade penetration, to the Spanish conquest and up to the American occupation. These interventions wrapped up our cultural and historical heritage with layers of the intruders? cultures.

From these waves emerged a plethora of foreign languages that left their imprint on Filipino, the national language, and on several of our regional languages. From each of these confluences has emerged a bas-relief of Filipino cultural identity and a manifestation of the Filipino soul. Each of these languages expressed Filipino aspirations for political, economic and cultural emancipation from foreign domination. Balagtas? linguistic base alone has proved to be inadequate to express these aspirations. Tagalog has not produced literature that has captured the Filipino soul in the same way that Russians writing in Russian, such as Tolstoy, Pushkin and Dostoyevsky, plumbed the depths of the Russian soul.

Nonetheless, to make up for this deficiency, we have developed a large body of regional literature that reflects the diversity of our sub-cultures. A national or citizen is conventionally identified by the language he speaks and writes. But since we speak and write in many tongues, we have been assailed by the question: What is the Filipino identity? Too often, critics of our society tell us we have an identity crisis, a consequence of the influx of foreign influence left by decades of Western colonization. This should not cause us needless anxieties.

Facility in speaking in Filipino, or the lack of it, has historical roots. Over several periods of colonization, we have used the language of our conquerors and their political cultures (such as concepts of democracy and political liberty) to turn the tables on them and as weapons in the struggle for political emancipation. The ideas of the European Enlightenment inspired the Propaganda Movement of our ilustrado exiles in Europe. Rizal wrote his novels in Spanish, hardly in Tagalog. English, the language in which most of us were educated in public schools, has been the cutting edge of our entry to the secular modern world. It has been the window that opened our path to economic and ideological globalization, including Marxist ideology, capitalism and liberal democracy.

The Filipino cannot prove his identify by wearing the flag on his sleeve each time he is confronted by disputes over national sovereignty involving rights of foreign interests coming to our shores to exploit our national patrimony. Our languages and our literature define our identity and the rich cultural heritage behind it.

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