In Philippine colloquialism, “sablay” presents a duality of meaning. In everyday language it signifies failure, but for University of the Philippines (UP) alumni, it embodies the hard-earned, esteemed sash worn during graduation. Symbolizing academic honor and excellence, the sablay shifts from the right to the left shoulder, marking the end of one’s academic journey.
Enter Filipino-American sports journalist Pablo Torre, whose single act of wearing a sablay brought both meanings to life. Donning the sash on his left shoulder at the 2023 Gold Gala in Los Angeles, he sought to pay tribute to his UP alumnus father and Philippine heritage. He captioned his photo: “So, just wanted to answer a couple questions about the sash I’m wearing here, which is called a sablay. And this specific one proudly belongs to graduates of the University of the Philippines. I didn’t go to UP. But both of my parents, and both of their late fathers, did. So shoutout to my dad for letting me borrow his sablay for one night, so I could pay tribute to all of them.”
Little did Torre know he’d spark a “tweetstorm” of controversy.
Reactions were polarized. Some applauded Torre for showcasing baybayin and Filipino culture on a world stage. Yet the others argue that wearing the sablay (especially hanging on the left shoulder) is a privilege reserved for those who have endured the rollercoaster of emotions (and, at times, torture) that is a UP education. If Torre wanted to honor his family or showcase his Filipino heritage, he could’ve opted for a family heirloom or even a barong. The sablay, they say, is something else entirely. It is symbolic. It is earned. To everyone but the UP Maroon, it is off limits.
However you view it, one cannot help but detect a whiff of intellectual snobbery in the air. Sure, Torre’s good intentions don’t excuse ignorance, but neither does it give us UP grads—ang mga hari ng sablay—free license to don crowns of superiority. On the contrary, we must rise above and beyond the spectacle of armchair critics and perhaps, on what would be a once in a blue moon occasion, live up to the values of honor and excellence.
This, my friends, is no time for gatekeeping. It is to impart a lesson. Because if there is one thing that Torre is most guilty of, it is ignorance. Though well-meaning, he so clearly is out of touch with Philippine cultural norms. But the solution to misguided decisions do not lie at the end of the nail. This is not a time for crucifixion, but comprehension.
Sure, Torre may not have complied with UP regulations on the use of the sablay, but since when did we treat that as an ironclad rule book? If we took these rules to the extreme—as the holier than thou would claim to do—not one of us should wear the sablay outside of the academic events enumerated by the regulations. According to these textualists: You can sport the sablay during the graduation ceremony at the UP Amphitheater, so long as you make sure you take it off by the time you get to Racks in UP Town Center.
I graduated from UP College of Social Sciences and Philosophy in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, and again—with my wife—from the UP College of Law in 2016 with a Juris Doctor. We know all too well the indescribable feeling that comes with wearing the sablay. Indeed, it is that same pride, joy, and honor that prompted us to wear it during our respective graduate ceremonies at Oxford and Harvard. Beneath our HOxBridge regalia, we wore the sablay because underneath it all—before the international credential and accolades—we recognize that we are but products of UP and of the Philippines through and through. Indeed, you can bet that we’ll don the sablay again during our upcoming ceremonies in London and Cambridge. Yet textually speaking, this too would violate the rule book!
The UP regulations read that “due respect should be given to the sablay.” While Torre was misguided, we also need to rein in our objection and recognize that, in his own way, he was living up to the spirit of the rule. He wasn’t disparaging the sash, nor was he appropriating it by claiming it as his own. In a country where some first and second generation Filipinos sever Philippine roots all too easily, Torre was attempting to honor them. Surely that ought to be worth something.
All in all, from my view, this isn’t as big a deal as people have made it. Rather than indulging in cancel culture, we should take this as an opportunity to educate, to share our culture and our pride in our country and university. And in the little ways we can, let us appreciate the tribute for what it was. Kahit medyo sablay.