An Alternative Cebuano Literacy Model

Hope Sabanpan-Yu

By Hope Sabanpan-Yu

Paper presented at the 2nd Philippine Conference Workshop on
Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education (MTBMLE 2)

held February 16-18, 2012, at the Punta Villa Resort
Sto. Niño Sur, Arevalo, Iloilo City, Philippines


Imagine that you are an educator in the arts tasked with enhancing your students’ education by optimizing their engagement with the varied media expressions of the Philippines. Such a task presents new challenges for you as an educator and for your students. There is the global challenge to facilitate the students’ engagement with diverse Philippine culture and their development of critical cultural literacies. There is the media challenge of the students’ engagement with non-textual mode of communication and expression and their development of digital literacies. Finally, there is also the challenge of situating these literacies in a suitable pedagogical framework.

Globalization has shrunk the world. Communication technologies develop with the speed of light to disseminate information in the “information superhighway.” In this paper I am interested in the concept as it concerns the academic practices of the university and the attendant challenges for educators. First, the underlying presumption is that understanding our own culture is good for students but in many cases, the students are not prepared nor oriented toward this experience but are left to negotiate the experience without any structure of guidance. Educators must be encouraged to embrace this challenge and to assist their students toward a critical engagement with our cultures instead of leaving them to fend for themselves in this new academic frontier.

Second, the new media challenge poses the following questions: does the rise of new technologies mean the end of old literacy practices? Do students still read? Most teachers complain that students no longer read but Nicholas Carr in “Is Google Making us Stupid?” notes that today’s students are reading more but are reading differently. Internet is fast becoming the conduit for most information that flows through students’ eyes and ears and we can only wonder at what the implications are for academia. Carr’s article helps us think critically about communication and the effects of new media realities on old practices. Richard Lanham observes that the oral/literate distinction is significant and this brings us to the shift from the book to the screen. Students’ engagement with the world whether or not in the classroom take place through means and media radically different than what our parents were used to.

Today’s students are a generation of “internet natives” as they have learned to communicate through non-print media. They are comfortable in engaging in what digital and visual media offer but this kind of competence is certainly not equivalent to critical cultural literacy. Students may search new websites and blogs but will not be able to build websites unless they are encouraged to compose in such media. In addition, the forces of electronic media on culture challenge national identity, a situation which demands new approaches to the shifting nature of identity. Arjun Appadurai in “Globalization and the Research Imagination” writes that there is a need to rethink areas driven by ideas of “geographical, civilizational and cultural coherence which rely on some sort of trait list” because these tend to perceive areas as “relatively immobile aggregates of traits” (7). He further notes that

[i]n contrast, we need an architecture for area studies which is based on process geographies, and sees significant areas of human organization as precipitates of various kinds of action, interaction and motion . . . Put more simply, the large regions that dominate our current maps for area studies are not permanent geographical facts. They are problematic heuristic devices for the study of global geographic and cultural processes. (7)

Technologies are changing the world in which texts are read and created. There is a need for new multimodal literacies to account for a communication environment that is progressively more digital. Engaging new literacy challenges must be done in the context of the forces that encourage discussion of multicultural, cross-ethnic and global experiences.

Culture is a subject, a set of information that can be examined and analyzed. This means that culture may embrace a complex set of signs, symbols, practices and vocabulary of information that can be studied by a researcher. With this view of culture there is room for different approaches to the study.

Working from the assumption that meaning-making happens through signs and symbols and codes accepted by the community, it is important that we explore how forces within a society establish such signs and codes. A host of varied opinions may exist within the cultural group but the signs and codes are commonly held as the dominant discourses which exercise rhetorical decisions that show the society’s intentionality in meaning-making in public spaces like galleries, museums and others. As group pasts gradually become parts of exhibits and collections in national and transnational spectacles, culture becomes more “an arena for conscious choice, justification, and representation, the latter often to multiple and spatially dislocated audiences” (Appadurai 44). Appadurai’s observation reminds us that culture is dynamic and that it involves the agency of those who create cultural texts. Most of this agency is the agency of the dominant. The control of the dominant discourse within a culture however should not be taken as total. Appadurai further notes that instead of provoking uniformity of values and beliefs, “the consumption of the mass media throughout the world often provokes resistance, irony, selectivity, and, in general, agency” (7). Such resistant agency provides some kind of cultural formation power to the resisters in a society.

This paper specifically focuses on a theoretical model (figure 1) for cultural investigation that cannot be divorced from the emerging digital media environment where it now takes place. The multimodal literacies will be situated in meaningful relation to cultural literacy in order to address the set of challenges pertaining to students and teachers engaging culture in the classroom.


Students are instructed to look at their own cultural distinctions through a project called “The Cebuano Way.” Students are asked to think about what their culture might look like to a foreigner who is not familiar with the actions and artifacts that they might see as ordinary. A suggested scenario is to imagine hosting a foreign student who has never been to Cebu or the Philippines. This will encourage students to set aside the idea of their own culture as the norm and to see their culture as a result of many sources contributing to a complex and dynamic system. In describing the different aspects of Cebuano culture and names, the student realizes the role history plays in the cultural impact of naming within the culture. For instance, there are local place
names that seem very exotic to those outside the culture but may be commonplace to those within the culture due to familiarity, such as Lapulapu, Parian, Plaza Independencia, Fuente Osmena, and Fort San Pedro. These are names which are used by local residents to refer to small communities and geographical locations, with little thought to the meanings behind such names. A close reading of such names as “cultural texts” has significant potential for learning about social, political, natural and social forces that shape the culture. The student may find very little factual information on the etymology of these places, but the study may also reveal rich anecdotal veins that provide cultural

In an assignment a student can explore the city named Lapulapu which can discuss not only the original naming of the town but also hints at the evolution of the community. Lapulapu/Mactan will reveal something about the movement of geographical boundaries of the community as influenced by capitalist expansion and commercial considerations such as the desire to construct resorts to attract foreigners. The student can use this as a starting point to additional research on how these concerns affect the cultural development of the community in terms of artistic and industrial inventions (like the guitar and shellcraft) and self-identification based on dominant occupational concerns.

The compulsion of naming serves to constitute, disclose or resist the practices of a community through which meanings are made out of the visual and textual world of representations. It shows classification as shared knowledge-making tools, names as agreed-upon social convention and for reifying dominant discourses.

In the Philippines, it is common practice for trademarked names of large commercial concerns to enter the language as everyday vocabulary. Cebuanos may refer to pop of any kind as “Coke,” and ask to buy “Colgate” when wanting toothpaste. They will also say they will “Xerox” a copy and “LBC” when wanting to send materials by courier.

By integrating names in cultural study, students are not directed to look for a particular thing but rather are encouraged to look at the actions, artifacts and practices that stand before them. This approach allows students to experience the culture as they encounter it instead of encouraging them to rush past what is potentially informative cultural engagement. By attending to the possibility of meaning-making through names, every cultural experience is a potential source of learning. Without a critical readiness to observe the impulse of naming at work, students may give no attention at all to the cultural significance of places like Fort San Pedro or Colon Street.


Culture preserves and displays artifacts and acts of tradition for the purpose of making meaning and establishing beliefs as socially legitimate. The selection of actions and objects that are significant to the cultural group will be visible in the prominent display of such selections like holidays or festivals – like the Sinulog – and preservation of cultural values through monuments or buildings like – the Basilica Minore del Santo Nino. While each artifact is a valid source for student research, they can also consider the persuasions behind the construction of such artifacts.

Monuments and artifacts may be used as narratological objects that enable a culture to tell a story that can be studied. Repetitive celebrations and performances are observable acts that compliment the culture-making of permanent objects in a society’s monuments. Intentionally displayed rituals like the Sinulog or the Ati-atihan serve as a conveyance of cultural stories and values. These observable performances are rhetorically powerful ways to communicate and promote cultural knowledge. They suggest that a culture can be “known” partially, by critical observation of the temporal but repetitive displays. Even public displays like the EDSA Revolution that illustrates rifts within a social order can be culturally informative. Such social drama which may seem as the breach of the norm reveals a (r)evolutionary change in cultural mores.

Many examples can be presented to students for discussion in groups, class discussion or for analysis outside the classroom. Depending on the make-up of the class, discussions may vary in length and depth.

  • Casa Gorordo in Parian – with discussion of the role of colonial homes and certain cultural values
  • Magellan’s Cross – with a discussion of the multilayered rhetoric of display including references to historical issues
  • Taoist Temple – with a discussion of how “ethnic” artifacts can speak for the Chinese influences in Cebu

Keeping in mind that students are directed towards comprehensive projects reflecting personal engagement and analysis of social issues within the culture, the examples will be snapshots of larger projects. Each instance is a part of a larger body of work which can be a meta-commentary on the interconnectivity of things.

By giving attention to the artifacts, students are able to develop a more textured, complex, nuanced picture of the culture. Artifacts are useful in making visible the easily-overlooked stories and rhetorical work in a culture display. It can equip people with a useful tool for critical reading of cultural texts and provoke their inquisitiveness toward discovery that may otherwise escape them.


As we pointed out to the particular actions and artifacts in the previous section, we realize that in more cases than not, we would be led to relate a story connected to Cebuano culture. The student’s curiosity to the cultural meaning-making found in the displays may elicit from interviews stories ranging from the battle of Mactan, to the legend of Datu Manggal, to the “Aginid bayok sa atong tawarik”, a narrative written by Jovito Abellana in 1952 based on the oral material recorded by his grandfather, and to the role of Cebu in nation-building and so on.

These stories, existing apart from – but challengingly connected to – statues, memorials and festivals, are laced in the national consciousness to form a web that shapes and reveals Cebuano cultural values, beliefs, preferences and prejudices. This is the work of the narrative that serves to institute and conserve and even problematize cultural meaning through stories, legends and myths.

Haring Gangis ug Haring Leon

“Ang leon sa dakung kaulaw, nawala lamang ug nahanaw; ang ubang mananap nangampo, nangluhod ug nangaliyupo.” (The lion in great shame went to who knows where; the other animals surrendered, kneeling and pleading). This statement explains how abuse by those in power can result in defeat. No excess can ever result in good. Of course, students of Cebuano literature will recognize this example as being taken from the “Haring Gangis ug Haring Leon” folktale. And even if fictitious, the example serves to raise questions about how a society’s dominant ideology can, through narrative, shape the values, beliefs and cultural practices of that society’s members.

The folktale serves as a kind of microcosmic model to see how dominant ideologies affect cultural practices and values. In their article “Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer show the media controlled by a society’s dominant ideology as a “culture industry.” They see these media as propagandistic in their utilitarian role, serving to educate the masses in the ways of the dominant ideology.

Though rich-poor, powerful-powerless comparisons may easily be made here, Adorno and Horkheimer speak to the functional effect of the “culture industry” as having the same influence on cultural values and practices as the influence of narrative in “Haring Gangis ug Haring Leon,” and as the influence of film through the screen in the Philippines.

The narrative is a convenient illustration of some basic principles of narrative as culture-builder:

  • Collectivism has a correlative relation with acceptance of social myths and legends.
  • The dominant discourse will somehow reward those who accept the collective narrative and punish those who don’t embrace the collective story.
  • In cultural settings, narrative changes and shifts through breach, adulteration, augmentation and revolution.

As an example for expanding discussion is Ang Panday, which was a comics story that was brought into the Filipino minds and consciences by the movie of the same title. The narrative of Ang Panday has reached a point of ubiquity in Filipino culture such that the story can be recalled and referentially situated in conversations. The story is about a metalsmith, Flavio, who uses a meteor to make a dagger and a bell. He is able to use these to counter the evil force of Sombra Oscura, particularly their leader, Lizardo. In the telling of the story, several concepts are endorsed:

  • Flavio’s role in the community is shown as admirable and important
  • The culture of heroism and sacrifice as very significant thought of the 70s
  • Justice (Lizardo’s evil can never flourish within the community)

This narrative embodies many cultural beliefs and values that are at once central to the Filipino identity.

In the project, students focused on understanding the culture and by attention given to the narrative, they note the prevalence of beliefs which connect the narrative to the original Panday Pira of Pampanga who was so skilled at weapons making that the Spaniards then entrusted him with the artillery foundry first opened in the Philippines. The attention to narrative as a tool for cultural analysis also helped them understand the legends and histories of mythmaking that inform the marketing practices of companies, since there were four films along the same storyline – Ang Panday, Ang Panday: Ang Pagbabalik, Ang Panday: Ikatlong Yugto, and Panday: Ikaapat na Aklat – as well as the cultural perception of this society’s product.

Educators in many disciplines have understood and applied the concepts of story-telling in many creative ways. Using narrative as a tool for analyzing the trope can improve approaches already attending to it by initiating discovery of stories, legends and histories that are not expressly delineated, but are embedded in the living fabric of cultural artifacts and performances. Such knowledge which might be overlooked is brought to light by attention to narrative.


When a culture produces products like rosquillos, otap, dried mangoes, shellcraft, furniture and others, it reveals something about the cultural values of the makers. Additionally, such products not only express the practices and habits and thoughts of the makers, it is also true that these inventions will dictate, mold and shape the practices and beliefs of their makers. This is crafts or skills at work.

It would be fair to say that, in general, the things a cultural group invents and builds or produces are made because of desire. For instance, objects like guitars are made because these people loved song. Culinary products such as the rosquillos or otap were made because clientele wanted sweet stuff. Costume jewelry made of shell and other local materials were created because people desired adornments. Each of these products of crafts can inform the observer about the culture that produced them. Questions like “What kind of jewelry? How sophisticated is this musical instrument and what is it made of? How is this sweet stuff made and by whom?” all illuminate on the culture that is being studied. However these products not only show the cultural values and desires of the society of focus; it also shapes the values and desires of that society.

Crafts, as a framing element for cultural analysis, are helpful in situating classroom instruction and for engagement in the cross-cultural field. Students are encouraged to consider both how the cultural group shapes their products and how the products shape the cultural group. Other examples of crafts used in instructional materials include:

  • Folk art
  • Regional architecture like the Bahayna Bato
  • Bamboo furniture
  • Fashion
  • Works of craftsmen


University students involved in cultural experiences are positioned for the adventures of rediscovering new ways of thinking around their own culture. In the situation of working and studying in a critical environment, navigating the familiar world can be an entirely new experience of promise. Likewise, educators who teach students national culture can provide them with quality tutelage, as well as information on histories and customs and political analyses.


Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor and M. Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass

Deception.” Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum Press, 1993.

Appadurai, Arjun. “Globalization and the Research Imagination.” International Social

Science Journal 51.160 (1999a): 229-38.

Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making us Stupid?” <http://www.theatlanticom/magazine/ archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868>

Cowen, Tyler. Creative Destruction: How Globalization is Changing the World’s Cultures.

Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Lanham, Richard. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago:

University of Chicago Press, 1993.


About the Author:

Hope Sabanpan-Yu is a short story writer/poet from Cebu City, Philippines. She earned her doctorate degree in Comparative Literature from the University of the Philippines (Diliman) and her Master of Arts in English from the University of Calgary (Canada). She is completing a research project on prostitute figures in Indonesian women’s writings and also a study on the querida in selected Cebuano fiction by women writers.

Hope currently serves as the Central Visayas coordinator of the National Committee on Literary Arts (NCLA). She is also the secretary of the Women Studies Association of the Philippines (WSAP). A member of the Women in Literary Arts (WILA) and Bathalan-ong Halad sa Dagang (Bathalad), Hope writes both in Cebuano and in English. Her poetry has been published in several collections: Paglaum (2000), Ang Tingog ni Maria (2001), Beads (2002) and Mga Dad-onon sa Biyahe (2004). She edited two anthologies of interviews with Cebuano writers, Kapulongan: Conversations with Cebuano Writers (2008), and Kulokabildo: Dialogues with Cebuano Writers (2009) published by the USC Cebuano Studies Center. She co-edited Small wonder: a collection of essays (2010) with Paolo Macachor, published by USC Press.

Hope has also translated several authors of Cebuano Fiction. Mila’s Mother (2008), published by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, is a translation of Austregelina Espina-Moore’s serialized novel entitled Ang Inahan ni Mila. Men at Sea and other stories (2009), also published by the NCCA, is a translation of the short story collection of Gremer Chan Reyes. Crack Shot and other Stories (2010), a translation of the short story collection of Ernesto D. Lariosa was published by the USC Press together with Where the fire tree grows (2010), a novel by Austregelina Espina-Moore.

In 2007, Hope’s doctoral dissertation was given the Best Dissertation award from the University of the Philippines. Subsequently it was published by the University of the Philippines Press as Women’s Common Destiny: Maternal Representations in the Serialized Cebuano Fiction of Hilda Montaire and Austregelina Espina-Moore (2009). It was awarded the prestigious Lourdes Lontok-Cruz Award for research excellence last April 30, 2010. — From Wikipedia.

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