The Philippines: quest for national identity

The Philippine’s quest for self-identity, especially at the national level, must be continuously forged.
Kai Lehmann / CC BY 2.0 / Flickr /

The history of the Philippines has been permeated by foreign influences, namely Spain, the United States and Japan. The centuries-old colonization introduced a lot of  deadweight, a type of excess baggage in the Philippines’ understanding of itself. The quest for self-identity has been pervasive, making it difficult for Filipinos to carve out their identity in the world. In his article entitled “The Unfinished Evolution: Towards a Filipino Consciousness,” Felipe M. de Leon, Jr. tackles the issues and challenges that Filipinos face in reckoning with their identity as a nation, and offers penetrating perspectives on how to overcome this.  

Deadweight produced by colonialism

The arrival of colonizers produced a lot of disadvantages for the Philippines. The colonizers fragmented the colony as much as possible in order to achieve opportunistic control. For example, de Leon refers to how higher education in the Philippines was designed by the Americans in such a way that it produced narrow specialists of their respective fields, molding people who are oblivious to the issues and ills of society and of their fellow men. As a result, students failed to fully grasp the reality that is oftentimes impregnated by a wide spectrum of disciplines, thus, paving the way to individualism.

The author also accurately points out the greater malady of the Filipino community – alienation from their own culture and community because of self-abhorrence. de Leon called this the “Doña Victorina Syndrome”, based on  a socialite character in Filipino Jose Rizal’s classic work, Noli Me Tangere. The colonial influence appears to have led Filipinos to the wrong thinking and understanding that any foreigner is superior and that any local is inferior. As a result of this low self-esteem, many Filipinos have fallen into self-contempt and indulgence in the notion that anything that is good must be foreign, whether they be goods, concepts, approaches, services, techniques, among many more.

The quest for Filipino identity through the arts

de Leon’s proposed solution is to have Filipinos undergo a healing process and an evolutionary quest for self-identity through the arts. Art has served humanity from time immemorial, presenting itself as a looking glass into a society’s innermost core, touching  [society’s] way of being and consciousness and revealing its deep-seated cultural norms and values. Further, art is a powerful tool that helps Filipinos more fully appreciate who they are and what they have. As de Leon said, “people can only be united by the things they love, and divided by the things they hate.”

The author believes that art is already very much embedded in the Filipino psyche and consciousness. First, art is not valued for its own sake – in other words, aesthetics is not separated from religious, social, ecological, and moral functions. Attention is also given to the entire creative process and not only to the finished creative output. There are no “superstars” because it is understood that there is no single person who acts as a channel of divine creativity. As a result, there is a communal participation in the arts – everyone is expected to produce art – and this is regarded as the norm. Additionally, de Leon points out that Filipino art reflects some of the natural characteristics and values of Filipinos such as togetherness (“pakikipagkapwa”), harmony, unity, intuition, and relatedness (as opposed to estrangement, aggression, disunity, logic and individualism, respectively).

Artistic ways to carve out national identity

The author provides concrete suggestions for how to heighten Filipinos’ social consciousness about their nation. For instance, he refers to acting as an exercise in being. By addressing national issues in theaters, Filipinos are able to choose roles and/or get exposed to various roles, and in turn, are able to reflect on the most pressing issues in their society. Gastronomy is another sphere that highlights the togetherness of Filipinos. Filipino meals, which more often than not are served in one go, reflect Filipino’s notion of time – as non-linear. It reflects how the past, present and future converge, and thus, allows different kinds of people to contribute whatever they can to the common social fabric.

Another example is Filipino architecture, which allows a variety of forms and techniques to blend into the creation of art, and thus, make room for greater civic participation. The literature of Filipinos is also very advanced in gender equality. This is evident in language, myths, and legends that depict a gender-neutral voice and incorporate heroines into their stories. Another area to capitalize on is the design of Filipino icons such as those found on jeepneys, kalesas, and bahay kubos. These are characterized with open spaces that show Filipinos’ penchant for principles like transparency and openness.

The Philippine’s quest for self-identity, especially at the national level, must be continuously forged. It is important to reiterate de Leon’s point that there is no such thing as a damaged culture, but just a damaged self-image. It is along this vein that art can find its way into the heart and soul of the Filipino people, and teach them how to understand themselves more fully, appreciate what has been taken for granted, and express the unexpressed.

Human RightsOpinion
Pia Lorenzo

Pia M. Lorenzo holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of the Philippines, and is an incoming scholar of Advanced Master of Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies at the Katholieke Universiteit (KU) Leuven. She is also a registered teacher and a licensed trainer. Her other writings can be accessed at
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