Absent Characters in the National Story

Patricio N. Abinales

Gwendal Le bec 620x325

Illustration by Gwendal Le Bec

What would happen if one wrote about the truly marginal characters in Philippine history? Can national narratives accommodate stories that challenge the premises of the nation?

What would Philippine history look like if one were a Moro woman standing in Tawi-Tawi, sorting out smuggled iPhones and Blackberries from Borneo, eagerly awaiting money from a daughter working in Saudi Arabia? The answer is not easy to come by because of the way we write Philippine history. This history focuses on the origins, development, and eventual renaissance of the nation. It recognizes social divisions that slow down the march of the nation but also sees hope in the unceasing struggle of the “Filipino people” to overcome these obstacles. But it is also precisely because of its partisan nature that today’s national(ist) history encounters problems.

Take, for example, the gender of this fictional Moro woman. Integrating Filipina stories into the nationalist narrative is difficult for several reasons. There is the absence of what Maria Florendo calls a gender-sensitive historical methodology that recognizes, foremost, “the plural contexts [where][l]ocal histories allow the unfolding of historical constructions founded on unique developments…in contrast to reconstructions that simply locate local articulations of national events.” Current writings on Filipina history likewise stand on a thin empirical base. Data on women’s oppression and exploitation are incomplete, while the position of elite Filipinas is understudied. The biographies and autobiographies of outstanding women are of the literate. But we know very little about the “ordinary” Filipina who is more at home with the oral tradition.

Maria Luisa Camagay argues that it is not the lack of data that hampers the writing of Filipina history but the kind of data that is out there: “iconographic evidences (sic) such as pictures, literature, diaries, letters, and those that are derived from oral history.” But she admits that colleting these sources is still at its early stages and she enjoins her sisters to move faster in “systematically set[ting] up a clearing house or information specifically for women.”

Still, even if we assume that despite the poor data and undeveloped methodology we still can bring Filipinas into the nationalist narrative, their presence can complicate its cohesion. In the first place, Camagay notes that the narrative is still male-oriented. Strongmen (presidents, tycoons, or revolutionaries) are the favored historical actors and when their wives (or mistresses) find themselves at the political center, they have to act like men. Those who do not act appropriately are marginalized. Yet forcing women to stand mutely alongside their partners may precisely be what women want. For such a position hides their real power. Women privilege the “informal” over the formal, the non-official over the official; the wife or mistress prefers to quietly lord over the husbands and lovers stealthily.

To this very day we still do not have a feminist study of Corazon Aquino and her archrival Imelda Marcos. The latter is normally depicted as the grotesque subordinate of her husband, while Cory had to be masculinized to make her fit the portrait of a tyrant in democratic and Christian clothing. But the inadequacies of their existing biographies notwithstanding, we all know that these two Filipinas were right smack in the center of decision-making processes, matching their husbands in cunning and controlling. Imelda has kept the family out of jail while Cory ran the family corporation before she became president.

This dilemma of inconvenient narratives complicating national history is more explicit with the Moros of Mindanao. Moro separatists and scholars attribute the armed separatism that engulfed Muslim Mindanao for most part of the late 20th century to a fear that the government and the Christian majority were out to destroy their “way of life.” The story, however, is slightly more complicated than this and we have to go back to the American colonial period where, after wiping out scattered Moro resistance, the Americans ruled the Moros directly for the first decade of colonial rule. Anti-imperialists underscore American brutality against the Moros, but ignore the more important and singular process of army-led state-building not under civilian colonial bureaucrats but by army officers.

With its senior officers bristling with ideas from the American Progressive movement, the army established a strongly pro-Moro regime that was different from the one being constructed in Manila. A consequence of this was the preservation of “anti-Christian” sentiments and the Moros’ sense of superiority over the people of central and northern Philippines. This persisted even after the officers left and handed power to civilian and Filipino leaders in the second decade of colonial rule.

After realizing that their datu-officers were not coming back, Moro elites adjusted to the new order, entering into patronage ties with Manila’s politicians, thus forging the only links between Moros and the Philippines. These ties were preserved by elite coercive and “traditional” powers, backed by the colonial police. Combined with the apathy of the young republic towards the dark “Mindanao frontier” during the post-war period, this arrangement kept Moro Mindanao impoverished. With the state hardly present in Muslim Mindanao, ordinary Moros were able to nurture their sense of being different. Popular memories of the past were retained because there were no public schools to brainwash the young in national ideology and history. And part of that remembering looked back to the rule of the benevolent anti-Filipino US military.

When thousands of Christians moved to Mindanao after World War II , the Moros felt more threatened as ownership of land and other resources shifted to the more adept settlers. And when the national government began to be more intrusive, fears of marginalization were reinforced by the anxiety of becoming victims of a state and Christian-led genocide. When the MNLF and the MIL F were formed they already had a sympathetic constituency waiting for their leadership. These two movements failed in their quests, but this did not mean that the separatist spirit has dissipated. Even today one can still encounter communities which never stand up when Lupang Hinirang is played.

Complicating the integration of the Moros’ stories into the national narrative is the fact that these communities live amid southern Mindanao’s illicit sector. There is the obvious contradiction between the legality that is a built-in feature of the nation-state, and the illegality of the illicit enterprises. Can these two realms that are constantly at war against each other be merged for the larger national narrative? If you have a long history of a weak state and strong patrimonial elite, it could. But this is probably not the kind of national history one wishes to write. Alfred W. McCoy notes that a prominent feature of the Philippines since the American colonial period has been the fusion of the licit and illicit. He argues that Filipino leaders, from Manuel L. Quezon to Gloria Arroyo, have kept the illicit sector vibrant and indispensable for the advancement of their careers.

A smuggler’s place is also different from that of the nation-state’s. Her realm cuts across maritime Southeast Asia, central-eastern China, and Japan, while the nation-state’s is narrower. Smugglers are involved in an economic activity that the nation-state sees as contrary to law because it is untaxed and competes with legal goods. Her world thus subverts the national geo-body. Finally, the smuggler’s world has had a longer history than that of the nation-state. The fidelity of her communities to this world is thus older and more expansive than that of the narrower sense of citizenship.

It is also cosmopolitan. People in the borders switch languages with ease in a zone where being multilingual is the norm. They seamlessly switch from one identity to another depending on which part of this regional network they happen to be in: today Sabahan, tomorrow Hokkien, the next day Tausog, the day after Visayan, then Tagalog by the week’s end. They carry a national ID or passport, but in everyday life these pieces of paper do not matter to them. Contrast this to those in the “center,” familiar with the language of their birth (Tagalog, Bisayan, Ilocano) and that of social mobility (English). Unless they migrate, these metropolitans do not switch identities. Can the regional be incorporated into the national frame? I doubt it, because to do so would mean the forcible termination of the region. Becoming Filipino means doing away with the more expansive identities that enable people like smugglers to live their multiple lives.

This antinomy between nation and region is replicated in the relationship between the diaspora (immigrant and/or OFW) and the nation-state. Dierdre McKay tracks a family’s movement from the village of Haliap, Ifugao Province, to Hong Kong, and finally Vancouver. She notes how much her subjects longed for “home” as they traversed the OFW network. But “home” to McKay’s subjects was not “the Philippines.” It was Haliap; they missed the village, not the nation—friends and relatives, not fellow citizens.

OFWs see Manila only as the transit point in their movements from village to Hong Kong or Vancouver. Manila is where they get their working visas, but once these are approved, they cannot wait to leave the metropolis and go back to the village. And when the OFW returns to the Philippines after two years away, we see her leave Vancouver’s International Airport, transit through Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport, land at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, and transfer to the domestic terminal for the connecting flight to Laoag.

At the latter the family meets her and by the end of the day she walks up the stairs of the family house where she can finally relax and enjoy the feeling of being home.

To write a national history that includes this significant diaspora (already over 8 million) would entail first breaking down these “localized” relationships and replacing them with national ties. But a perennially weak state and an elite concerned solely with class and clan power would make it impossible to implement the beginnings of a re-orientation of perspectives and fidelities. And as more Filipinos leave for abroad to work or immigrate, the more likely their devotion to village and town (and not country) be reinforced and thereby preserved.

Are these reversible? Possibly. For one, like it or not, the geo-body’s territoriality is already there. If Pulse Asia were to ask the question “What are you first? Filipino or _____”, most would answer the former. Ironically the country’s internal wars have enabled communities, groups, and individuals to talk to each other. Magindanaos who were displaced by the MNLF’s war were only able to deal with the national army after learning Tagalog. The national language was introduced to Moros through coercion. The war also created the space where licit and illicit could blend with each other. Moros, who moved north because of the war, set up markets for pirated DVDs and pearls from the illicit sector. These Moro migrants now live in enclaves inside larger ghettoes and inevitably interact with other probinsyano migrants. In Tagalog. Today the pirated DVD and the hijab are commonplace features in the country. They have become icons of the nation’s everyday life. There is hope of minorities and smugglers, even the diaspora, becoming part of the national history. But of the Filipina women, one is not sure.