Saturday, December 30, 2006
The venue is in ruins, much like the Parthenon or the Borobudur, but that seemed just apt to the purpose of the play. There were promenading lovers in parasol, their slow walking pace somewhat oblivious to the chorus playing in the background and their elaborate dresses—Maria Clara gowns for the ladies and barong tagalog for the gentlemen—reminiscent of the colonial Philippines. The decrepit walls of Intramuros, the walled bastion of Spanish Manila, served as the screen of the audio-visual presentation of “Land of Our Birth,” “People of the Philippines,” and “Intramuros: Sanctuary of the Filipino Spirit.” These three videos prepared the audience to “A Walk Back in Time,” wherein Philippine history, marred as it was by colonization, showed what even could not be rewritten might proclaim beauty and uniqueness.
Right at the beginning, the audience was not made to feel an outsider to the unfolding play. We were like guests, primed by our hosts of the Walled City that’s the gateway to Asia, the gem of the Pacific, the new Tyre and Sidon. When the Spanish fleet literally arrived, crushing the precolonial culture in its wake, we were swept off our feet and were excitedly brought inside the ruins. We were walking back in time. There, we caught a glimpse of the colonial Philippine life, aided by a young storyteller whose real identity would be revealed toward the play’s end.
When I come to think about it, the term “Filipino” did not become a reference to colonial natives until at a much later time. Philippine-born Spanish citizens were the first Filipinos, who were looked down upon by peninsulares, or Spanish denizens who saw the first light of day in the faraway mother country in the Iberian peninsula. From the way it looked, the Philippine-style caste system carried the sting of cultural contempt, because not only were natives initially denied of their rightful Filipino identity, but also were their own country’s lowest-ranked citizens next to the second-class Filipinos of the Spanish colonial era.
The play proceeded to unfurl history as it was during the time when miscegenation effected several changes in the Philippine setting, from the empowering of the mestizo class to the blurring of skin color. The intermarriage of the colonizers and the natives was a given, but the label mestizo more popularly belonged to the interracial union of the Sangleys and the Filipinos. Far from today’s regard toward them as the wealthiest Filipino citizens, the Sangleys—the Chinese of old—were repudiated and were rendered literal outcasts when their lot was forcibly concentrated in Parian, in what would be renowned as Chinatown. While the rise to power of the Chinese was marked by their determination and hardship, they showed so by being cheerful—they even clowned on street while peddling their wares. From the lowly panaderos, trinket sellers and clothes hawkers, the Chinese catapulted above the Philippine society to become mall owners, cigarette and beer magnates and realty stockholders. Being a Chinese descendant myself, I felt so proud that tears stood in my eyes.
The abovementioned intermarriage caused an amalgam of cultures, so much so that it became hard to imagine present-day Filipinos as pure and unadulterated. While the colonization of the archipelago was hardly an event to thank for, the nation it brought about in the process makes me swell in pride because we are a friendly, festive, and valiant people. We boast of intellectual children, who wisely used their expatriate education to help champion the cause of liberation. We are also proud of our popular rebolusyonaryos, without whose courageous work the Philippines would have not attained Spanish colonial independence. We take pride in ourselves, because this is the only country we have and it has us Filipinos for its sole children.
The play provides one of the ways to answer the lingering question of who is the Filipino: The Filipino is a race whose richly-layered culture is of a rare Oriental and Western blend characterized by Spanish exuberance, Chinese industry and native congeniality (not to mention American, Japanese, Malay and Indian influences).
At the play’s end, the young narrator revealed that he was not other than the fatherland. He said this using the Intramuros ruins as backdrop, under the canopy of stars. The setting seemed to tell that it was written in stellar constellations for the Philippine Islands’ history to be disrupted violently by colonization, but no matter what impossibility of rewriting is posted by the demonizing colonial experience, its influences lay important foundations of our lush Filipino heritage.