By Mharla Francesca Santiano
How much Filipino is enough Filipino?
There are so many things tied to being Filipino — it’s welcoming a hoard of titas in a family reunion who ask about your life with love, it’s pretending that the last piece of food on the plate doesn’t exist so another person could take it instead (which also ends with no one taking it at all), and sometimes, it’s getting your survival and balance skills tested whenever you take your daily commute (especially during the rush hour).
Being Filipino does not only count when we are on Filipino soil. Filipino identity is built from one’s way of living, beliefs, and one’s hope for not only their own Filipino identity, but also their country. With Filipinos residing around the world, being Filipino may be defined differently. But can we find a common ground?
So what makes a Filipino?
Being Filipino can be just as simple as looking at one’s birth certificate. This can be strengthened by one’s citizenship, which, according to Google’s English dictionary provided by Oxford Languages, is “the position or status of being a citizen of a particular country.”
When someone is a Filipino citizen, they are not only validated by words on an official piece of paper. They are also given an “automatic” sense of belongingness from their fellow citizens, fellow Filipinos. One’s citizenship can also easily dictate one’s identity — how they will identify, and what they represent.
And when it comes to representing, Miss Universe Philippines and Binibining Pilipinas are only two of the many entities that aim to represent the Philippines through their contestants.
The Philippines’ last two Miss Universe titleholders were of mixed heritage, with Catriona Gray being Australian-Filipino, and Pia Wurtzbach being of German descent. Though they had successful reigns, it does make one wonder if they are “Filipino enough” to win the national title in the first place, since they would have to represent the Philippines on an international scale after. It can be assumed that international audiences would remember the contestants’ faces as the faces of the Philippines. And that would bring us back to the question, “Are they Filipino enough?”
This opens discourse for an unspoken preference for Filipino contestants with Eurocentric features. As long as this preference continues to be present not just in beauty pageants, but in several aspects of society, the world’s perception of how a Filipino looks may also change.
Though beauty queens Gray and Wurtzbach have mixed heritage, as well as many of their fellow titleholders in Miss Universe Philippines and Binibining Pilipinas like Rabiya Mateo, and Celeste Cortesi, one thing is certain: they chose to represent the Philippines, as well as advocate for Philippine social issues. They vowed to use their platform for their advocacies, as well as wear the country across their chest as they compete alongside contestants with the same vigor for their homelands. With the choices they have, they choose to vocally take pride in their Filipino heritage.
Major avenues of recognition like Miss Universe Philippines and Binibining Pilipinas have the power to spotlight not only women of diverse Filipino backgrounds, but also their stories that have not been told and heard, advocacies that have not been shed light on, and faces that many Filipinos look like.
We are always known to be proud of who we are, and where we came from. That shared pride translates to our inclination to always look for Filipino representation in media, especially US media. And when we find that representation, our pride grows more immense. It feels like we are putting our own identity into the world — like a parent watching their child in a talent show with nothing but pride in their eyes.
When I see Filipino representation in Western media, it’s like also seeing myself in them as my existence is seen on a huge platform where possibly the whole world could see. Besides pride in my chest, there’s also a sense of attachment toward a character, even though their screen time lasts for 15 seconds. It’s a sense of closeness that these people, too, do not only look and speak like me, but they also experience life like me. They put their elders’ palms on their foreheads in greeting. They probably have a mountain of slippers and shoes outside their door whenever they host a birthday party. They also know my culture.
But that’s not always the case.
In media platforms like TikTok where anyone can be seen by anyone, we can also catch a glimpse of Filipinos living in the US. One example is a TikTok video by Fil-Am songwriter Raquel Lily where she debunks people who tell her that the Filipino language is beautiful by purposely saying bulaklak (flower) and kilikili (armpit) in an aggressive way. Its intention was to provide humor, but for some, it was in bad taste. As a Filipino who speaks Tagalog every day, it came off as a mockery, and maybe this can be too serious, but it also felt like our language became a punching bag for the joke. And jokes are supposed to be funny, right? In a stitch by TikTok content creator Frankie Torres, she explains why the words sound that way, and in the end, concludes that the Filipino language, after all, is beautiful.
Last May, Fil-Am sportswriter Pablo Torre wore a sablay (the University of the Philippines’s academic costume) to the 2023 Gold Gala in Los Angeles, California. He was called out by many netizens on Twitter, saying that the sablay should only be worn in events academic in nature, and worn with a barong top.
The Gold Gala was not an academic function, and Torre wore the sablay with a tuxedo.
One user also pointed out that even though Torre’s intention to wear the sablay was to honor his cultural heritage, it would just be tokenistic if the “proper context” was not learned.
And that exactly happened on both occasions. It feels like an accessory, something that holds so much culture and pride, and only gets used when it’s beneficial to someone. Without getting to know the history of a language, or the significance of a sablay, it will merely feel like a symbol to the one who’s wearing it — a joke for humor content, or a pin that can be worn anytime.
This can be seen as just being proud of the little aspects of your Filipino identity when it’s convenient for you, and even though there’s still pride in it, the heaviness of history that these aspects carry should also be honored.
Everything is political.
Our political stances are also what make us Filipino because it is also through political means that our identities were erased by years of colonization. It is also through political means that we regained our independence as a nation that doesn’t fall as a colony to any land. It is through political means that we decide how free our people will be with the people we select as leaders.
So when Fil-Am actress Vanessa Hudgens was named global tourism ambassador for the Philippines by President Bongbong Marcos last March, it raised a lot of eyebrows.
Some netizens pointed out that Filipino social media personality Bretman Rock and South Korean TV personality, and former 2NE1 member Sandara Park were better choices for the title. The reasoning stems from Hudgens only going to the Philippines for the first time that same month she was given the title. One of the reasons she visited the country was also for a travel documentary directed by Presidential Adviser on Creative Communications Paul Soriano.
Hudgens’ arrival and stay in the Philippines were already touched on by political factors — her being named the global ambassador by the president, and her documentary being directed by the presidential adviser on creative communications.
Both political figures have been working together even before Marcos took his oath as president. His godson, Soriano, directed his political ads in 2022, as well as his first State of the Nation Address. Soriano was then appointed by Marcos in October last year.
This causes a tainted perception of Hudgens’ upcoming project, and her association with political figures have been laid out for netizens to peruse. In the current political climate of the country where disinformation continues to thrive, especially in partisan groups, anything can be weaponized to deliver a particular message. So it is valid to ask if gestures like this have always been political, or will turn into something political in nature in the end.
It’s one thing to take pride in being a Filipino, and naming lumpia and adobo as your favorite Filipino food, but it’s another layer of connectedness when you immerse yourself in the country’s history, find beauty in the diversity of culture and people in the country, and partake in its socio-political discussions, wherever you may be.