Roots of our disunity | Inquirer Opinion
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Roots of our disunity

Recently, I theorized that the “divide and rule” approach used by our Spanish and American colonizers could lie at the root of our intense regionalism and disunity as a people, which get in the way of achieving oneness as a nation. I contrasted this with the national pride and unity that the Thais and Vietnamese draw from their respective histories: absence of foreign domination and a long-standing monarchy for the former, and pride in having been the only victor in war against the United States, for the latter.

For us, disunity traces farther back than our colonial history of the past five centuries. I was happy to receive a mild correction from an Ateneo faculty colleague who’s a far better expert than the economist that I am, in tracing the roots of our culture and traits as a people. For anthropologist Dr. Fernando Zialcita, “the good transcending the kin” has been among his lifelong pursuits in studying farmers and urban dwellers. A renowned expert in his field, he points out that in our indigenous, precolonial past, there was hardly a sense of belonging to a community broader than the kin in much of Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao hinterlands that were not Islamized.


In societies all over the world, Zialcita notes, it was the advent of the State and the City that led to the social construct that the common good extends even to strangers in other neighborhoods, municipalities and provinces, as fellow human beings. But in societies where the State and the City are absent, individuals live in organizations that are largely kin-based, leading to a sense that the primary moral obligation is only to the kin and not to a broader, abstract community. Corollary to that, the nonkin tend to be regarded as a potential enemy or a potential victim.

He cites geographer Robert Reed’s historical observation that in 16th-century Southeast Asia, Luzon and the Visayas stood out for not yet having true cities/urban centers to sustain a genuine urbanism. Reed mapped the different monarchical states in place in 15th-century Southeast Asia, including the Majapahit in Java—which did not include us.


Zialcita qualifies that the Sultanate of Sulu, with its capital Jolo, was a genuine State with a City that had already formed by the early 15th century. When the Spanish colonizers established their foothold in 1565, the overall picture of Luzon and the Visayas was that of small, scattered settlements under respective chiefs, at peace or at war with one another.

Why were our ancestors living in scattered settlements with no urban centers ruled by a monarch? Professor Zialcita believes that a crucial reason was the prevalence of swidden cultivation (over wet rice cultivation), which made sense in our thickly forested and very mountainous geography. It was, in fact, with Spanish governance and conversion to Christianity that we began to develop a sense of belonging to a community broader than our kin, particularly in Luzon and the Visayas.

The missionaries gathered parishioners living in scattered hamlets into the emerging urban centers. Most of our towns and cities began with the foundation of a parish, and not earlier. The colonizers established an administrative apparatus with several layers of authority from the barrio/barangay, the pueblo/municipio, the province and up to the capital city of Manila. And, through time, abuses by the State and the Church led to a crystallization of shared grievances that led to the Propaganda Movement and the Revolution.

Professor Zialcita argues that, as we seek oneness among our people, “we need to take a dialectical stance vis-à-vis both our indigenous and our colonial past. Reject the headhunting raids and the slave raiding of our indigenous ancestors, but glory in their marvelous epics and visual arts. Reject the clericalism of the Spanish colonial past, but take pride in the flowering of the visual and literary arts during the 19th century, and continue building pride in our towns and cities through fiestas and shared rituals.”

In other words, we need to highlight the positive things that unite us, rather than play up our differences and perpetuate them through an even more divided political structure and system.

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TAGS: American, opinion, regionalism, Spanish
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