By Firth McEachern
I WAS standing in a school courtyard in Sagada, Mountain Province. Some boys, not more than 10-yrs-old, were noisily playing a make-shift bowling game. A few of their words sounded Ilokano, but I assumed it was my imagination. When I spoke to them, I was just as much surprised that they understood Ilocano as they were surprised to hear a foreigner speak it.
“Aren’t you Kankana-ey?” I asked them.
“Yes” they replied.
“So how come you are speaking Ilokano?”
“Because most of the people around here are speaking Ilokano. It’s mixed.”
Many a time have I spoken out against the supplanting of Iloko by Tagalog in traditional Ilokano areas like La Union and Ilocos Sur. But now I was faced with a different situation: Iloko was not the victim in Sagada, it was Kankana-ey! The irony hit me like a brick. Here in Mountain Province many of the Kankana-ey prefer Iloko. In La Union, many of the Ilokanos prefer Tagalog. And in Manila, many of the Tagalogs prefer English. Why does everyone prefer a language different from their own? It’s a domino effect, and nobody is happy with who they are.
This mentality permeates other aspects of Filipino society. People frequently admire my American-bought shoes, my “guapo” Caucasian nose, my white skin, my surfer shorts, and other artifacts of my foreignness. What is so great about these things? My American shoes, which so many of my Filipino friends have requested, have fallen apart after only 3 months of use. Meanwhile, the cheap shoes that I bought here for only $3 have lasted me 6 months! Just because it comes from abroad does not mean it is good. And what’s so great about Caucasian noses? Who said large slender noses are better than cute button noses? A nose that looks beautiful on one person’s face may not work for another, so there is no such thing as the ideal nose. And as for skin…I would gladly trade my white skin for the smooth brown skin of a Filipino. Brown skin is more resistant to sun damage, it looks more youthful, moles and other blemishes are more camouflaged, and it simply looks better!
Another manifestation of Filipinos’ dismissal of local creations is the music scene. American pop and RnB are by far the most popular music here. Even popular Filipino music sounds like American music, with very similar styles, instruments, and content that American bands are producing. Most of the music that reaches these shores is simply the redone, overplayed, simple, and uncreative pap found among the Top 40 list, but there is so much more music to experience that simply isn’t heard here. Why don’t Filipinos-like South Asians, Africans, and Middle Eastern people-develop their own brand of music influenced by their own traditions?
My point in describing all this is that there pervades (and please speak up if you disagree), a deep-seated apathy for local traditions in this country, whether it be local music, local clothing, local anatomy, or local vernaculars. In addition, whenever a trend comes along, masses of people chase it without questioning whether or not it is actually good. Ilokanos and Pangasinenses sometimes call their mother tongue “corny” or “not useful”, and try to teach their children Tagalog instead. I’ve asked many Ilokano mothers, “Why are you only speaking Tagalog to your child?” and many say, “Because that is the trend.” And? So what if it’s a trend? PERHAPS IT’S NOT A TREND WORTH FOLLOWING! Wouldn’t it be better if you taught your child both languages? And won’t your child learn Tagalog at school, from Tagalog friends, and from television anyway!?
For those who want to follow the trend and abandon their native tongue, I should probably add: teaching your children Tagalog will not miraculously fix their situation. One trip to Central Luzon and you will realize there are millions of Tagalog-speaking poor people. The people you see on television are a very small minority of wealthy, fair-skinned celebrities, and getting your children to talk like them won’t make them any closer to stardom. Unless other self-help measures are taken, a poor person who switches languages is still a poor person-all she has accomplished is the loss of her culture and heritage. So now, in addition to having little money, she has lost a piece of her identity as well.
Poverty, in essence, is relative. It’s not just about a lack of money; it can be many other things too. Poverty is an existence in which everything valuable is defined by someone else. Poverty is the acceptance of trends without room for your own creativity. Poverty is when everyone has to be the same, rather than respect and learn from each other’s differences. You are poor if money is the only way you measure progress. If you lose your culture, and then for some reason lost all your money, what would you have left to support you?