Iloilo as Wakanda
ILOILO CITY — Perhaps it’s time we stopped referring to this city as the Philippine Wakanda. The title, referencing the fictional African utopia integrated into everyday language by the 2018 superhero film “Black Panther,” aptly captured how local leadership marshaled its own pandemic response during the first half of the year, when the national government couldn’t even get its act together. These days, however, the moniker is being tossed around in various other contexts, a placeholder asserting this idea of the city as an infallible paradise.
One recent instance involved the Iloilo River Esplanade: On Twitter, it was hailed as a paragon of nature-friendly public infrastructure, the antithesis of that brainless dolomite beach reclamation in Manila Bay.
Separately, as authorities grappled with the rise of biking in Metro Manila — and preoccupied themselves with how best to earn from it — netizens swiftly pointed out how Iloilo already provided a model for this “new normal,” justifying this claim with images of the eight-lane Diversion Road with its companion five-kilometer bike lane. (So picturesque is the highway, in fact, that a year ago, pro-Duterte trolls even circulated a photo of it, claiming it was a picture of Davao City.)
A more clear-eyed perspective would celebrate the long-term vision that doubtless informed these projects—boosting the city’s “habitability” and its attractiveness to tourists and investors—while also acknowledging their consequential imperfections.
A quick online search, for example, easily reveals how these esplanades, now stretching several kilometers, came at the expense of the original river flora. As late as two years ago, mangroves lining the river were still dying, as the construction work disrupted the tidal flow and water salinity necessary for the plants’ survival. (Good news, though: A mangrove-replanting scheme has, from the looks of it, by far succeeded.)
And while anointing the city as the country’s “bike capital” may not be totally off-base, at the very least it conveniently ignores, if not altogether erases, the local lived reality — how the past decade’s mad rush to rehabilitate (and even “re-rehabilitate”) the city roads, in a place with barely the inherent space to accommodate sprawling, simultaneous road works, meant month after month of perennial, time-consuming congestion spilling across districts.
This is not to diminish the achievements of a city whose push for progress has remarkably included green spaces and cultural heritage in the picture. But in the age of virtual information warfare, a nuanced perspective must always prevail, more so in instances touting supposed progress. In other words, facts — and therefore clarity — above all else.
Scholars have long noted the political nature of names: The very act of naming spawns its own power structure, eventually influencing future thought and action. Iloilo itself is no stranger to the politics of nomenclature: Remember back when someone declared it the “most shabulized city” in the country?
The present case is the complete opposite. Now we’re dealing with a name connoting invincibility and impenetrability, at such a critical juncture in contemporary history. The danger, then, in ascribing a status of implied superiority to a single place goes beyond mere misrepresentation. It warps public consciousness, birthing instead an idea of the place that’s devoid of imperfection and immune to criticism. To go by a tenet of propaganda, repetition is key to creating the reality. Keep upholding this myth of the Ilonggo Wakanda, and soon you’ll have anything but. (In this era of right-wing populism, you might even get an army of blind believers to back you up.)
If there’s anything the last four years in Philippine politics have taught us, it’s that too much belief in something — or someone — eventually blurs the line between fact and fiction, blunting our collective judgment.
Our cities, and our leaders, should not be placed on pedestals. They must always be rendered on a human scale — to be praised where praise is due, and to be held accountable for their every shortcoming.
For Iloilo, that may mean commending its government for the way it has handled the pandemic these last six months (establishing accessible mass testing, sustaining open lines of communication, nurturing public-private partnership, etc.). But even this commendation should go hand in hand with recognizing that these mechanisms haven’t always been perfect or fully effective in curbing the threat of COVID-19.
Such a duality, in the bigger scheme of things, should be enough. Anything more — anything subscribing to ridiculous superlatives, like this perpetration of the Wakandan analogy — is unnecessary, and may even prove damaging in the long run.
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Vincen Gregory Yu (@twitter/vincengyu) is an Ilonggo physician, fictionist, poet, and theater critic for the Inquirer.
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