Ilonggo Culture Can be Toxic, and We Don’t Realize It

By jam lebrilla

The Philippines is a proud culture filled with proud people. But unfortunately, it can also be a toxic one.

I am an Ilonggo, so I see my culture through the eyes of my people. And I see we are talented and creative, but we suffer underneath the yoke of a culture that oppresses us, a culture that we continue to perpetrate and spread. This culture is Us.

Our culture discriminates between color, language, and place. We judge others based on the lightness or darkness of their skin. We believe in racism. We know it exists, yet somehow, we cannot see that we ourselves are racist. Indigenous tribes are raised up to be exoticized or, worse, treated as “something” that is below human.

Daw sapat lang!”

The Ethnic Implications of Dinagyang

Dinagyang is the number one tourism event in the country. In Iloilo, it’s a month-long series of small events leading up to a culmination—the ultimate stage, if you will. Hundreds of dancers paint their skin black and dance along to drums hinting of a more primal and more primitive world through its beats.

Dinagyang is two things, beautiful and fake. We paint our skin to mimic the Aetas, but most of us Ilonggos know nothing about them. We cringe and shiver when we meet true Aetas on the street. We are willfully blind to entire families sleeping on cement floors and children with thin arms and bulging bellies. And yet, for one month, we use their culture as a tourist trap. We create the most elaborate celebration in the country. We rejoice because our blindness bars us from seeing the ugliness beneath.

Underdog Mentality At Play

We discriminate based on language. I am an Ilonggo and, for years, I thought my language was a dialect. That’s what my teachers called it. I was a kid, and I learned that if I spoke English or Tagalog, I was somehow better than the rest.

How much is ₱ 5.00 to you? Not much perhaps. But when your allowance is only ₱20.00 and you’re asked to pay a quarter of that every time a classmate tattles to a teacher that he or she heard you speaking the “dialect”, you realize pretty fast that speaking Ilonggo is “bad”. So, from the classroom to my home, I drank in what I was taught until my thoughts and my dreams were all in English.

I was taught to judge merit based on who spoke English or Tagalog better. To be conscious of not only the language I used, but how I sounded. I learned to delete every trace of my accent when speaking a “real” language. I became deaf to what matters: content, thought, actual intelligence. I sounded American, but does it mean I was smarter? More deserving of respect? I’ve known people who say a lot but who say little. And, I’ve known people who say little but say a lot. Does it matter what language we speak, or how we sound, when the thought is there?

A Small-Scale Diaspora

We have a sensitivity to place. We applaud people who travel because they have seen more. They have walked strange roads and eaten strange food. Their ears, filled with the sound, of a foreign language. We want to be like them. We, too, want to leave our country and feel the soil of a different land between our toes.

But there is a difference between “looking outward”, and “ONLY, looking outward”. We see other places and other countries as salvation, as if our own is marred beyond repair. We don’t see that our country is just as capable of being as good, or better, as these other places we look up to. The Philippines is blessed with a multitude of riches.

If only we could see it.

The ‘Barangay’ as a Country

In Nick Joaquin’s “A Heritage of Smallness”, he says, “Society for the Filipino is a small rowboat: the barangay. Geography for the Filipino is a small locality: the barrio. History for the Filipino is a small vague saying: matanda pa kay mahoma; noong peacetime. Enterprise for the Filipino is a small stall: the sari-sari. Industry and production for the Filipino are the small immediate searchings of each day: isang kahig, isang tuka. And commerce for the Filipino is the smallest degree of retail: the tingi.”

The above excerpt shows that we only think small, and we are prejudiced by that thinking. We are as smart, as hardworking, and as innovative as any other person in the entire world—but only if we gave ourselves a chance. We look outwards, waiting for a sign, an opportunity. But what if the opportunity has always been here, right in front of us, but we’ve just been too small-minded to see it?

In comparing Filipino commerce between here and those abroad, Nick Joaquin also says, “We work more but make less. Why? Because we act on such a pygmy scale. Abroad they would think you mad if you went in a store and tried to buy just one stick of cigarette. They don’t operate on the scale. The difference is greater than between having and not having; the difference is in the way of thinking. They are accustomed to thinking dynamically. We have the habit, whatever our individual resources, of thinking poor, of thinking petty.”

This is us. I see it everywhere. I see it in me. All people tend to conform to the reality around them. As Ilonggos, we see it, we live in it, and we think it cannot be changed. Because it is in every person, every household, every school, workplace, and community. It’s in the music we hear, the clothes we wear, and the friends we have. It’s in how we judge ourselves and others. It’s in how we discriminate or become willfully blind.

But it is time for a change. And we can change the reality around us. And it all starts with us saying “No” to our culture. To stop judging people on their skin, to see and act on racism when it happens, to be proud of our language, and to see possibilities on a bigger scale. Don’t be afraid to do all of these even though everyone around you is telling you to think small and be realistic when, in truth, “thinking small” is a mere Filipino reality and not a global one.

I think it’s possible for every Ilonggo, every Filipino, to learn to end the blindness. It’s only a matter of will. I changed. If it was possible for me, it can be possible for anyone.

Editor’s note: This is edited from the original piece of the writer posted on this link.

Original photo by Xtian Lozañes.