Identity and independence

I admit to little knowledge about our Independence Day, celebrated yearly on June 12 in commemoration of our nation’s independence from oppressive Spanish rule. It holds just a degree of relevance, serving only as a highlighted mark on the calendar that means either of two things: that the start of the school year is just around the corner, or, if it has started, that a holiday will be celebrated even before students had warmed their seats.

Independence Day had always taken a casual form of commemoration since my consciousness of it. I’d watch TV coverage of the simultaneous raising of the flag in various locations nationwide. The sight of men and women dressed in Filipino attire, the disciplined lines of ceremonial guards, and the vin d’honneur at the Palace provided glimpses of historical Philippines. But after the live coverage ended and regular TV programming resumed, life went on as usual as though it were just another day (albeit with no work and less traffic).


But this year’s Independence Day serves as a special hallmark, with the dawning of a new administration and the awakening of a new generation of Filipinos. And as in any other turning point, an identity crisis looms.

There is good enough reason to believe that we still have an identity crisis, which makes our independence somewhat precarious. For one, our recent history as a young nation is marked by three upheavals beating the name “Edsa,” with the last two being a little baffling. As a fellow millennial noted, the name of the events itself was confusing, for what seem to have transpired in all three fell short of a “revolution” and warranted only the title of a “revolt.” But our nation’s predilection for repetitive events dates back to our birth as a nation, with independence declared seven times between 1895 and 1946. The June 12 celebration we know today marks the fourth declaration, in 1898, when our flag was first unfurled and our national anthem was first conducted. On Sunday, we are celebrating its 118th anniversary.


Ambrosio Rianzares Bautista, the man who penned our Declaration of Independence, could not have written sweeter words for the thousands of people in attendance in Kawit, Cavite, on that day. The document proclaimed that the Filipino people “have the right to be free and independent,” in a paragraph coming after a statement saying that we are “under the protection of the Powerful and Humanitarian Nation, the United States of America.”

Today, activists rally against our country’s dependence on its longtime ally in terms of security and economics. I wonder if all of them have read the declaration. US general Robert Hughes is said to have told the US Congress that Filipinos who wanted freedom had “no more idea of its meaning than a shepherd dog.” Have we as a nation collectively exerted efforts to dismantle this notion? Or are we still a shepherd dog chasing its tail?

Nonetheless, we uphold our independence in the best way we can despite our forgetfulness of our identity as a nation, or our lack of appreciation for it. Stanley Karnow, in his book “In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines,” said it was easier to gain Filipinos’ cooperation compared to other Asians. “The Indians, Vietnamese and Indonesians had a sense of their national character. They could gaze with pride at stone temples that symbolized their past grandeur,” he wrote. “By contrast, the history of the Philippines was colonial history. The Filipinos lacked fabled kings and heroes; the saints they worshiped were Western rather than Filipino.”

In the course of the Independence Day celebration, the Philippine flag, our symbol of identity and independence, will be displayed in government institutions, commercial establishments, even private homes. And then it will be neatly folded and put away for next year’s use. But the reality of the Filipino a century after the Declaration of Independence is that the unfurling of our flag occurs in the privacy of our homes, in the streets, in global arenas, or in the spectator sport that is politics. For a flag is unfurled every time a single mom manages to put her children through school, every time a taxi driver returns money and valuables left on his backseat, when our artists win critical acclaim here and abroad, and when there is a firm resolve to stamp out illegal drugs and criminality. And a flag is unfurled when, under our democracy, we participate in a healthy discourse about what the new national leader had just said, or what the outgoing administration will be leaving in its wake. For that, the Filipino is honorable.

However, as much as our flag is unfurled in these momentous battles, it is also trampled on when we forget to learn from the mistakes of our forefathers. The flag is dishonored whenever we allow anyone to threaten our hard-won democracy—worse, when we allow these threats to be made over and over again. The flag is discredited when we exchange our vigilance with forgiveness, such that other nations would think of us as masochists, or fanatics. The flag is disrespected when we stop believing in a better quality of life and settle for mediocrity. (And our history is littered with mediocrity!)

Our struggle for independence and our identity crisis need not feed on each other, creating a vicious cycle of repeating the same mistakes. Perhaps our independence may not equate to full liberation from economic or protective alliances and diplomatic bonds with other nations. It is a borderless globe nowadays, after all. Perhaps what independence means for us Filipinos is the liberty to choose our identity in the face of changing administrations, generations and trends. We are free to choose better leaders, better ideas, a better life. And this choice we ought to defend “with our lives, our fortunes, and with our most sacred possession, our honor.”

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