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Are You Really Filipino?: An Exploration of Individualism and "That Colonizer From Within"

Updated: Mar 3, 2023

Written by Rome Lim

For almost a year, I started to learn Tagalog. The reason for wanting to start is actually kind of silly (if you must know, it’s because I started liking someone who fluently spoke Tagalog and I thought it’d be cool if we both spoke Tagalog together), but the outcome of it certainly is not. It’s been enriching, to say the least.

My Tagalog, and my confidence in speaking it, has only improved slightly over the past year. I’m a little slow to learn languages, but the effort and willingness to learn is still burning inside me. What is mainly keeping my interest alive is the connection I feel whenever I speak it in public. Even if it’s wrong, if it’s simple, if it’s 90% English, there is still a sense of joy tingling on my tongue.

However, my family’s first language is not Tagalog. It’s Malaueg (alternative spelling is ‘Malaweg’).

According to my Mom, and Wikipedia, the only people who speak Malaueg live in Rizal, Cagayan - which is where they’re from.

Growing up, I knew there was a difference between Malaueg and Tagalog, but I didn’t know what words were from what language. Even now, I still mix up certain Malaueg words, thinking they’re Tagalog (which is apparently, very funny, to both my family and my crush).

I never thought about Tagalog as a language of “power”. Living in the diaspora, I feel that I am so far away from any discourse back in our homeland that, even for a moment, I wonder if I can even call it my home.

Nonetheless, reading Cynthia Addawan’s thought piece on Dr. Aurelio Solver Agcaoili’s presentation at the International Conference on Cultures, Languages and Histories (NAKEM) at the Kalinga State University (hybrid), has reframed the way I see the Tagalog language and has left me to explore the limitations behind national unification outside of the Philippines.

Like so many of us living abroad, we do not always know the history that has brought us here. After so many generations have passed, what we know of ourselves is only as recent - and as relevant - as the people alive to share our history with us.

Many of us simply accept that Tagalog is the Philippines' national language without really questioning why? Why, with a country with more than 180 languages actively being spoken across it, do we need a national language?

Why do we accept the verbiage that Tagalog is a language, but languages outside of that are dialects? It might just be me, but I didn’t know the difference before writing for KasamahanCo.

Upon meeting Chachie for the first time, I had told her that my family speaks Malaueg - a dialect spoken in Rizal. She then corrected me, saying, “No Rome, it’s a language. A dialect is different.” I had grown up my whole life describing Malaueg as a dialect - never once did I question why. It was just what my family had said, and so I said it too.

‘There is individuality in a language’

In Manuel L. Quezon’s 1937 speech to the people of the Philippines, declaring Tagalog as the national language of the country, he quotes Rizal’s address to Basilio: “Spanish will never be the language generally spoken in this country; the people will never speak it. Each person has their own language and its own way of thinking… you forget that as long as a people preserves its language, it retains its sense of liberty… A language expresses the ideas and ideals of people.”

The use of this quote in designating a singular language to be a reflection of the nation is hugely ironic.

Commonwealth Act No. 184 states that the native language to be chosen as the basis to create a national language will be chosen on the basis of “the tongue that is most developed as regards structure, mechanism, and literature and is accepted and used at the present time by the greatest number of Filipinos.”

This is where the Cebuanos step in.

Cebuanos are a part of the Visayans (those coming from the southern part of Luzon) - both of which are the largest ethnolinguistic groups in the country, with Cebuanos being the largest subgroup inside the larger, Visayans. Following this logic, the greatest number of Filipinos are Cebuanos who speak Visaya.

And this is where power steps harder.

Tagalog is the language that contained the most literature in the Philippines (besides Spanish); it is the most widely spoken and understood language in the country; it is the language used in the political center of the country (Manila); and was the mother-tongue of those who led the 1896 Revolution and the Katipunan.

But, let us not forget that when the Spaniards touched the country’s soil for the first time, they had entered Visayas territory and only deemed Manila the capital due to its “proximity to the Bay”. Manila Bay would allow the Spaniards to trade easier and engage in naval activities.

If the Spaniards chose to stay on Visayas islands, would Tagalog still be the language of choice for politics, literature, and all the other qualifiers it possesses in order to be the skeleton for our national language?

Most likely not.

We did not have a hand in the Spanish choosing Manila to be the capital of the country, which in turn, allowed it to build its literary repertoire and dominate its presence in our country’s history. We did not have a hand in choosing the language that was spoken in Manila.

But we do have a hand in reshaping what it means to be “Filipino”.

What even is a “Filipino”?

When Addawan said, “Clearly, we have normalized that idea that countries need by one and only one language to make sense of their nation,” it expanded my view of the Filipino identity and revealed the limitations I had within my own understanding of culture.

To compare, India is similar to the Philippines in the sense that there are many languages spoken throughout the country. It is rich in its diversity and, from an outsider perspective, each individual celebrates their individualism proudly.

A comment I had read on this Reddit thread sums up my point perfectly: “To be a [sic] indian you have to belong from one of its cultures. Like I am Indian because I am marathi.”

They also say that, “People often forget [sic] that India is not one nation in the traditional sense, its union of different cultures, languages, even ethnicities.”

The need to unionize ourselves as Filipinos in order to define ourselves as Filipinos, is the by-product of the “exogenous colonizer”. In order for them to understand ourselves, they simplified us. And as a part of the diaspora, we continue on that tradition of simplifying the parts of us that are not of the society we have settled in.

We can say that we are “Filipino-Canadian”, “Filipino-American”, so on and so forth. But what does that even mean when we do not acknowledge the richness of our own individual cultures.

Dr. Aurelio Solver Agcaoili of the University of Hawaii said it best: in omitting the acknowledgement of our individuality beyond the non-Tagalog languages that we speak, we are contributing to the “epistemicide, linguicide, culturicide, lettericide, and historicide” of our people.

As diaspora, our conversations surrounding reclaiming our Filipino roots often start with keeping our national history alive and sharing the stories we had pre-colonization. But, history is not only in the past. We are also living in it.

By saying, “I am Bicolano/Ilocano/Cebuano/Ibanag/Kalinga/Malaueg” etc. We are breathing life into our ancestors, the islands that we have come from, and burning the colonizer’s definition of the Filipino identity.

This article is by no means offering an alternative solution to the Philippines' national language and is not appointing any other language to replace the use of Tagalog.

In fact, I will mention that “Filipino” is actually the national language of the Philippines, and that more regional languages were to be added into its lexicon aside from Tagalog. However, very little has changed in its evolution, and still holds a majority of Tagalog-based words and structures. (Culture Trip has an article that explains the differences between Tagalog and Filipino and how those changes came to be – an informative read!).

My intention with this article is to invite us in the diaspora to think more critically about how we are shaping our Filipino identity away from the motherland, and to guide us to embrace an understanding outside the definitions our oppressors have fed to us.

Tagalog is not the enemy, power is.

So maybe it’s ok that I mix up Malaueg and Tagalog sometimes. At the very least, when I do, not only am I honoring my heritage but also my family and crush can laugh at my linguistic blunders.

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