My name is, pure Filipino, no trace of Spanish, no trace of Chinese, straight Tagalog, from the sound of it, though maybe not if a historian, an anthropologist, a genealogist, an etymologist, or an onomastician were to put it under close scrutiny.
Surely, I'm no pure Filipino, if we go all the way back to the beginning, all the way to Africa, if we follow the trail left by Charles Darwin's Descent of Man (1871), or all the way to where Eden was, somewhere in the Persian Gulf, somewhere in the Armenian Highlands, somewhere in what is now Iran, or somewhere in what is now Iraq, if we follow attempts to demystify the Bible.
I speak Tagalog and I'm good at it, at least conversationally. In college, queued up at a McDonalds, I was amused by a bunch of coeds in the line bantering with the crew, university students on part-time duty, in Ilonggo, and I had the idea I should speak a local tongue other than Tagalog.
My mother was from Bicol (though she spent only a bit of her childhood there; she moved to Manila early in her teens) and my father was from Pampanga (though I think he was born in Manila). Unlike my father, who was a ManileAaAaAeA~o through and through and a bit American, the pla and language of his dreams, my mother stayed close to her roots, speaking to her kin in one of the Bikol languages and hiring all the help she needed from her place of birth, some of them relatives--household staff, employees for her businesses, the yayas assigned to us her children.
You can throw me anywhere in Bicol that speaks the Tabako-Legaspi-Sorsogon (TLS) dialect or a variation of it and I won't be lost. I can understand completely and tatao ako magtaram kahit diit lang (I know how to speak, though only little). Throw me elsewhere in the Bicol Peninsula, however, say in Daet, where I have very close relatives, or in Mount Iraya, and I might as well be in Mongolia. There is a variety of dialects in the Bikol languages and the variations are such a departure from each other that, to the uninitiated, they might as well be totally different from each other. When a cousin of mine from Daet spoke to his father in their native tongue, I could very well be listening in on the conversation of birds. It's all sound to me.
I've only once been to Bicol and only last year, upon the invitation of Sen. Chiz Escudero and his wife Heart Evangelista, now celebrated Filipino painter Love Marie, though I remember planning a trip since my early 20s. I recall highlighting the route on a PNR map and imagining a journey of a lifetime, my own version of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, minus the murder (I hoped), not to mention the first class dining cars with crystal chandeliers creaking overhead (why not?), where, instead of Hercule Poirot looking for the clues of a mysterious death, it would be I unraveling the mysteries of one side of my personal history.
I had lunch once with National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose and he said in no uncertain terms that I should read more Filipino books, whether in English or Filipino. He emphasized that it was not because I should patronize my own, but because as a writer I must be in constant search of what made me different from other writers in the world. I did not take his advice lightly and I've since bought and read or tried to read more Filipino books than I ever had in the past, although when I shared this with a fellow Filipino writer, her immediate reaction was "I am in no search of who I am and I have no wish to be so different from others."
I used to think the same way. I still don't apologize for having read more foreign authors than Filipino ones or that I invested more time and money and effort studying French rather than Bikolano or that, when I am in faraway cities like Prague or Vienna or Paris or New York or Istanbul or Tokyo, I often wonder why we can't be the same, why our cities can't be as efficient or as beautiful or as walkable or as pedestrian-friendly or as historical or as forward-thinking. I still feel that just because I write better English than Filipino or that I mostly think in English than in Filipino that I am less Filipino than Juan de la Cruz.
There are many things about me that I cannot help. I have 300 hundred years worth of Spanish colonial history running through my veins and I cannot shake it off, even if I wanted to and, since I could not shake it off, I'd do better acknowledging it, playing up the good side and downplaying the bad, if I could. The Americans have been in the center of my history since the end of Spanish colonization and that, too, whether I accept or deny it, is part of my cultural makeup. Before the Spaniards and the Americans, there were the Malays, the Polynesians, the Arabs, the Chinese with whom, way before we gathered our scattered islands into one country, we traded not only goods but also behaviors, beliefs, values, truths, myths, a way of life. Throw in the Japanese and a bit of the British from their invasion of Manila from 1762 to 1764 and then throw in globalization, the new invasion of every nook and cranny of our everyday life in the Philippines by international brands and lifestyles from food to fashion to movies and TV shows to music to musicals, etc.
I'd like to think that, like everyone else on earth, I am of this world, as much a creator as a consumer of the global culture. But I am who I am, a Filipino. It doesn't matter whether I was born here (though I was), that I was raised here (though I was), that I still live here, (though I do)--and that I vote, pay my taxes, suffer in the streets, hate my government, dream of a better nation, hope for the best for my country and my countrymen, or lose all confidence in them.
My friend who moved away, who is resolved to stay away, is as Filipino as I am, though she is now a US citizen living in the East Coast. My cousin, who is now French living in Paris, is still Filipino, too, though her story is now branching off elsewhere in the world. There's no escaping who we are, no matter how fast we run or where we go or what we aspire for.
I was born into a country I did not choose, but I know now--I accept now without any reservation--that I am not that helpless. This is my story and it is my choice where this story should go. But it does take a little effort, if it means only patronage of our own stuff or an understanding of what we've been through, to make our place under the sun and the life we live in it as meaningful (or poetic or wonderful, the stuff for books!) as any other place in the whole wide world.