ENGLISH IS YOUR MOTHER TONGUE,
Or, Ang Ingles ay Tongue Ina Mo
In 1900, the U.S. Director of Education in Manila made English the official language "with the intention of making it the common language of the people, the medium of expression on the street and in the home, as well as in the classroom, in the school shop, and on the school playground." English was the principal course in one colonial legacy that made the Americans radically different from the Spaniards: public education, something the Filipinos never enjoyed under the primitive policies of Spain. Needless to say, English was going to pluck the Filipinos out of their backwardness. It would keep them attuned to the progress made possible by Anglo-Saxon knowledge and traditions. It was also an effective way to further demonize the vanquished colonizers, to create the dual psychic forces that would endure to this day: Spanish hate and American love.
"English opened the floodgates of colonial values through the conduits of textbooks originally intended for American children,” wrote Bienvenido and Cynthia Nograles Lumbera, editors of Philippine Literature: A History and Anthology. “Books and magazines beamed at an American audience that familiarized Filipinos with the blessings of economic affluence in a capitalist country; phonograph records that infected young Filipinos with the same concerns and priorities as American teenagers; and films that vividly recreated for the Filipino audiences life in the U.S., feeding the minds of the young with bogus images of a just and altruistic government and its wondrously happy and contented citizens."
Historian Renato Constantino, in an essay called The Mis-Education of the Filipino, said: "The Filipinos became avid consumers of American products and the Philippines, a fertile ground for American investment." But there was something else that English achieved in the Philippines. He wrote: "English became the wedge that separated the Filipinos from their past at the same time that it helped to further separate educated Filipinos from the masses." (12)
In other words, English became a mark of social standing. The more proficient one was in it, the more education one was presumed to have had. This perception was important in controlling the islands. When the United States organized the Philippine Assembly shortly after the Philippine American War, it restricted voting to Filipinos who were above a certain income and who had had considerable American education. By doing this the United States ensured a continuum of the archipelago’s feudal structure – a system wherein members of the native law-making body would protect their own interests as well as those of the United States. These native lawmakers would be kept under the tutelage of the United States, a relationship that more or less guaranteed that only the United States could decide if and when the Filipinos were smart enough for self-rule. To this day, with the post-colonial feudal structure still in place, the Philippines is still largely dependent on American largesse. As Frantz Fanon wrote about post-colonial Algeria in 1961, the status of the native is “introduced and maintained by the settler among colonized people with their consent.” (13)
Richard E. Welch, Jr. wrote in Response to Imperialism: "If American administrators sought to promote 'progress' in the islands, they often fell victim to the occupational disease of the pedagogue who would dominate as well as instruct and who remains reluctant to declare his pupil equipped for the freedom of graduation. Tutelage can have a crippling effect, and apprenticeship too long continued can promote a sense of psychological as well as economic dependence." (14)
Today in the Philippines, English is the official language of media, government, business, and higher education. English is a status symbol: an indication of being civilized. The perception that English is a sign of progress and education and the native languages a sign of backwardness has been so successfully instilled in Filipinos that even today, many Filipinos are ashamed to be caught speaking their language.
In everyday life, from shopping to government and business transactions, a Filipino must speak English if he or she is to be taken seriously. This is perhaps illustrated, rather bizarrely, in a recent incident in the Philippines. During mass demonstrations against incumbent president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, police began arresting the demonstrators, who came from a weird coalition of the right, the left, the academe, and the urban poor. When they started to arrest Professor Randy David, a University of the Philippines professor and TV host, he allegedly protested in English, and the police, daunted by his proficiency in the language, simply let him go. The urban poor, not having a similar advantage, were all hauled to jail.
This bias is reinforced even in the U.S., where one’s accent, like one’s color, is a basis for racial discrimination. In American mass media, for instance, a person with an accent is often portrayed as stupid, no matter how articulate he may be in another language. An interesting exception has been pointed out to me, however: this form of discrimination does not generally apply to people with British or French accents.
"Colonial subjugation for more than three hundred years during which the Filipinos were kept ignorant and made to believe that they belonged to an inferior race produced a cultural neurosis which admitted the superiority of the conqueror," observed Hosillos. "The trend toward growth and progress attainable only through Westernization and the American outlook encouraged imitation in almost all phases of life. The ability to speak, read, and write in English became an enviable achievement of the ‘modern’ Filipino; it became the key to one's success in life."
This idea of success became more apparent to students during the first two decades of the American regime. They were young moderns who witnessed the gradual demise of Filipino literature in Spanish, a demise hastened by dwindling audiences. At the same time, American education created an increasing English readership. From this milieu -- the transition of the Philippines from one language to another -- a new branch of Philippine literature would emerge: the literature of the American colonial subject.
Philippine literature in English began as an extension of the tutelage relationship between the United States and the Philippines. In literature's case, it was literally so: In the first decade the United States established the University of the Philippines, and patterned it after Harvard. Training here was rigorous and graduating from it would soon rival the distinction of graduating from the universities founded by the Spaniards in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1910 the University of the Philippines published its College Folio, the first scholarly journal in English in the country. It was a landmark of sorts, because through the efforts of Dean and Harriet Fansler of the English Department, Filipinos for the first time were encouraged to write beyond imitations of the standard reading texts of Longfellow, Irving, Holmes, Arnold, Eliot, and even Shakespeare.
By 1915, the American-owned Philippines Free Press, which had only published Americans, was receiving so many poetry submissions from Filipinos that it gave in, but not without first commenting: "The Free Press is not much in favor of encouraging the young Filipino to verse, for he seems to take to it like a duck to water, and with much less reason."
It can be said that Philippine literature in English began when Filipinos writing in English began writing about themselves. Teachers like T. Inglis Moore were responsible for weaning Filipino writers from the early Romantic models. In 1930 he wrote: "The Filipino has to learn not only to write with English but to write against it. He has to write English without becoming an Englishman or American. This difficult task is necessary not because Filipino English is better than English, but because a Filipino literature must remain Filipino if it intends to be literature."
Many Filipino poets followed his advice. The nationalism created by the literature of the Reform Movement would still echo under the new colonial regime, and not surprisingly, once Filipino poets began writing "Filipino English," many of them wrote about their dual identity.
A poem by Trinidad Tarrosa Subido, written in 1940, summed up the angst of the age:
They took away the language of my blood,
Giving me one "more widely understood."
Now Lips can never
Never with the Soul-of-Me commune:
Alas, how can I interpret my Mood?
They took away the language of my blood.
Similarly, Rafael Zulueta y da Costa, in his famous poem "Like the Molave" (1940), questioned the alleged paucity of Filipino culture, and took inspiration from an American literary rebel, Walt Whitman:
My American friend says:
Show me one great Filipino speech to make your people listen through centuries;
Show me one great Filipino song rich with the soul of your seven thousand isles;
Show me one great Filipino dream, forever sword and shield --
Friend, our silences are long but we also have our speeches...Speeches short before the firing squad, and yet of love. (15)
The issue of language and identity would become more prominent in the 1960s, during the period of renewed nationalism in the Philippines. The sentiment would become stronger among Tagalog writers, who continued to write in the dialect despite the disadvantage posed by English media and education. Alejandro Abadilla, in his book Tanagabadilla (1965) wrote:
Ang poesyang Ingles
Lagi nang maisip
By Filipinos is a fakery,
Always in deep thought,
In intellectoilet pose!) (16)
Whether it was intellectoiletism or not, soon a number of Filipinos would eventually study in the United States, or settle there. In 1905, Philippine American government scholars, known as pensionados, published The Filipino Students' Magazine in Berkeley, which carried poems in English and Spanish. We can argue that this marks the inaugural moment of Filipino American literature. We shall see that later, after several waves of immigration from the Philippines to the United States, these two branches of Filipino literature in English would develop their own literary histories, with sometimes interweaving and sometimes conflicting intersections.
Two Filipinos who received considerable recognition during the early years of Filipino American literature were Jose Garcia Villa and Carlos Bulosan. No two writers could be more different from one another. In the Philippines, Villa was lionized because he represented the break from morality and tradition that Filipino poets had long wanted to achieve. The combination of Hispanic Catholicism and American Protestanism left no room for the moral and artistic experiments of Villa, who was suspended from the University of the Philippines for using sexually graphic language in his poetry. Settling in New York City's Greenwich Village at age 21, he was lauded by poets like Marianne Moore, Mark van Doren, e.e. cummings, and Edith Sitwell, who wrote, in her introduction to Villa's Selected Poems and New, "The best of these poems are amongst the most beautiful written in our time." He received several of the country's major national awards and fellowships, and loved to portray himself as a global artiste:
The country that is my country
Is not of this hemisphere, nor any
Other: is neither west nor east:
Nor is it on the north or south:
I reject the littleness of the compass.
Is not the Philippines:
Nor America: nor Spain…
Nations, tribes, peoples, flags:
I disclaim the Filipino. (17)
In contrast, Carlos Bulosan was a self-taught writer, the son of disenfranchised farmers, victims of the oppressive feudal system America perpetuated in its colony. Born in 1911, he immigrated at age 18 and worked in farms on the West Coast, often under harrowing conditions and meeting the ire or racist hate in Depression-era America, a personal saga he recounts vividly in his classic America is in the Heart. A poet as well, he helped organize farm labor and became a champion of Filipino immigrant workers living in harsh conditions in the United States. Interestingly enough, his works never really caught on in the Philippines, where his portrayal of farm life and racial prejudice ran against the still commonly held image of America as a wealthy, happy utopia:
You did not give America to me, and never will.
America is in the hearts of people that live in it.
But it is worth the coming, the sacrifice, the idealism. (18)
Both these writers broke ground, because after them it became clear that the United States offered unlimited opportunities for publication. In 1958 Filipino writer NVM Gonzales wrote in the Free Press that "some genius…might make a name for himself in the United States." This obsession still pervades Philippine letters to this day. While opportunities for publication and prizes and professorships have grown in the Philippines, publication in the United States still seems to be the highest goal. At the same time, a more international readership seems to be the only alternative for a writer with a dwindling audience in his own home.
Today, the Filipino writer in English seems to be facing the same fate of the Filipino writer in Spanish a hundred years ago. With ever increasing nationalism in the Philippines, the Tagalog-based national language, Filipino, is gaining more ground as the official medium of education and government communications. Increasingly, too, mass media uses Filipino. The death of Philippine literature in English had been predicted since the 1960s. In a symposium conducted by the US Information Service in 1954, writer Gregorio Brillantes said that "the outlook for Philippine writing in the 1960s was less bright than it had been in the 1940s."
But in the same symposium poet and novelist Nick Joaquin reportedly gave a less pessimistic prediction. "There are many young writers, he said, and they are doing something to the English language: it is no longer simple English; not the English of America or England, but their English. These young writers, said Mr. Joaquin, will continue to write." (19)
Why then do Filipinos continue to write in English? In the 60s and 70s English was a burning political issue, and many writers were compelled to do some soul searching. Can English truly express what I think and feel? Am I a traitor to my country for writing in English?
A poet and former pensionado, Francisco Arcellana, wrote: "There is something uncommon in the not enviable situation of the Filipino writer in English and this is the insuperable problems of language. The life from which he draws substance is lived in a language different from the language he uses. He is therefore twice removed: by the language and by the work of art. But the writer doesn't choose his language -- no more than he chooses to write. It is surely an accident that the Filipino writer in English writes in English, a historical mistake." (20)
A curious mutation of this "historical mistake" was the increasing popularity, beginning in the late 50s, of Taglish, the urban-centered, media-fueled, hip young lingo that merged Tagalog and English. Poet Rolando Tinio was perhaps the first to use the language in poetry, creating poems like "Valediction sa Hillcrest," written in Iowa in 1958:
Pagkacollect ng Railway Express sa aking things
(Deretso na iyon sa barko while I take the plane),
Inakyat kong muli ang N-311 at dahil dead of winter,
Nakatopcoat at galoshes akong
Nag-right turn sa N wing ng mahabang dilim… (21)
After the Railway Express collected my things
(They're heading straight to the boat while I take the plane)
I took the N-311 once more and since it was dead of winter,
I was wearing my topcoat and galoshes
As I made a right turn to the N wing in the lengthy darkness… (22)
Although Tinio disavowed Taglish poetry after a while, he still maintained the freedom of the poet to write in any language he wanted: "There seems very little in our national literatures which can be solved in terms of programs. The Tagalog writer will write in Tagalog for those who wish to read in Tagalog. The Spanish writer will write in Spanish for those who wish to read in Spanish. And, for as long as there are readers in English, the best thing for the Filipino writer in English is to write in English. If tomorrow, I suddenly recide to read nothing but Tagalog poems, perhaps even to write Tagalog poems -- well, isn't that nice? Perhaps I will, and perhaps I won't, but whatever I choose to do is certainly nobody else's business." (23)
Even today the issue of language and identity continues to be discussed in the Philippines. In an issue of the Asian Pacific American Journal in 1998, novelist and poet Jose Dalisay said: "Among the writers I know here in Manila, the issue of whether to write in English has ceased to be an issue -- if it ever truly was; you write in the language you know, and through which you can do more knowing; otherwise, quite simply, you can't and you don't." (23) But the recent debate about the choice for the country’s new National Artist, a debate that seemed to focus on who wrote in which language, proves that English – and nationalism -- is still a smoldering issue.
Clearly, one legacy of the imposition of English in the Philippines is a continuing identity crisis among Filipino writers, a crisis that was not even present during the Spanish era. If the dire predictions do come true, however, and Philippine literature in English dies a natural death, there is evidently another center in which this literature will continue. A new generation of Filipinos and Filipino Americans are being published in the United States, a trend that seemed to have hit its stride shortly after Filipinos overthrew Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Like anything else in the American market, however, interest in Philippine literature, or in the Philippines in general, depends largely on the vagaries of politics and commerce, and whether such interest is sustained today depends on, well, perceived market demands.
Whether the United States will fully accept the literature of its former pupil is a different matter altogether. In a seminar on British literature in Cambridge, U.K., in 1989, the critic George Steiner said that the most exciting British literature was coming from its former colonies. Will America look to its former colony and give its literature the same honor? Possibly, but in doing so the United States will also eventually have to confront the truth about 1899. Even today, there is no official acknowledgement that the Philippine-American War was a war of aggression. The economic relationship that motivated the United States to colonize is still largely in place. Filipinos, by virtue of their unceasing poverty and political instability, are still seen as the backward children that they were a hundred years ago, the infantile subjects who could not produce literature, in Spanish, English or their native languages, because of what Arthur Riggs, in an essay called "Filipino Literature and Drama" published in Overland Monthly in 1905, blamed on "a lack of hard, common sense, analytic powers, power of synthesis or grasp of principles." (24) By using these same constructs applied a hundred years ago, it is easy to justify why such a people still need to be continually uplifted and civilized.
And Filipino literature in English -- will it suffer the same fate as Filipino Hispanic literature? A decade ago this seemed likely. Today, when the centers of literature are no longer geographically predictable, and the Internet continues to create new readerships throughout the world, it may just be possible that this literature will survive for a while. But one thing is certain. At the close of the first century of the American Empire, it is obvious that the United States has achieved its goal: to transform Filipinos, or at least a great majority of them, into an English speaking nation.
1 George Dewey, The Autobiography of George Dewey. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913, 156.
2 Ronald P. Gleason, ed., The Log of the Thomas. Publisher not specified, 1901, 11.
3 Lucila Hosillos, Philippine American Literary Relations 1898-1941. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1969, 27.
4 Thomas J. McCormick, "Insular Possessions for the China Market," American Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1973, 64.
5 John Barrett, “Manila and the Philippines,” Harper’s Weekly, August 6, 1898.
6 The Autobiography of George Dewey , 219
7 Christopher Lasch, "The Anti-Imperialist as Racist," American Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1973, 117.
8 Philippine American Literary Relations 1898-1941 , 107.
9 Theodore Roosevelt, Colonial Policies of the United States. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1937, 134.
10 Philippine American Literary Relations 1898-1941, 40.
11 Ibid, 44.
12 Renato Constantino, The Filipino in the Philippines and Other Essays. Quezon City: Malaya Books, 1966.
13 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. New York, Grove Press, 1963.
14 Richard E. Welch, Jr., Response to Imperialism. University of North Carolina Press, 1979.
15 Excerpts of Tarrosa Subido and Zulueta y da Costa from Gemino H. Abad, ed., Man of Earth. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1989.
16 Translation by B. Lumbera in Antonio Manuud, ed., Brown Heritage. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1967, 357.
17 Jose Garcia Villa, Selected Poems and New. New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1958.
17 Man of Earth.
18 Manuud, 794.
19 Ibid, 607.
20 Bienvenido Lumbera, Cynthia Nograles Lumbera, eds., Philippine Literature: A History and Anthology. Manila: National Bookstore, 1982, 368.
21 Translation by Gamalinda.
22 Manuud, 619.
23 Asian Pacific American Journal. New York: Asian American Writers Workshop, 1998
24 Philippine American Literary Relations 1898-1941,107.
Originally published in Vestiges of War: The Philippine-American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream, 1899-1999, New York University Press, 2002.