The return of the tisay

The first thing that my daughter wrote to her sisters while visiting

Mexico early this year was how many Edu Manzano and Dayanara Torres look-alikes she had seen everywhere.  Even the taxi-driver looked like Aga Muhlach, she gushed.  And a woman behind the counter at a shopping mall could have been Charlene Gonzalez.  The young man who sold tokens at the Metro station was handsomer than Hans Montenegro.

Mexico City was indeed brimming with mestizo beauty.  There was so much of it, in fact,  that it no longer stood out.  Yet, my daughter, raised like most everyone else of her generation on the mestizo standard of beauty, could not help feeling less endowed as she surveyed herself in the mirror.   In this state of mind, she could not quite believe it when a Mexican gentleman tried to ask her out to dinner, night after night.  And she was of course even more skeptical when he said she was beautiful.

It took an old lady from Vera Cruz, who ran a restaurant in Coyoacan, to convince her that, with her small face and slit eyes and long neck, she was indeed pretty.  She promptly introduced her to all the young men in her family, the likes of whom my daughter could only admire from a distance on T.G.I.S., the TV show.

In Mexico, we did not hear about the spectacular Thalia or Marimar or Maria Mercedes.  Our relatives and friends, knowing we stayed over a month in Thalia country, simply could not believe that this Mexican goddess who blew into town like a storm does not draw crowds in Mexico the way the Virgin of Guadalupe does.   There were just too many singer-actresses like her in a country that tries to keep the population morose by an overdose of telenovelas.

One brief visit to Mexico was enough to cure my daughter of a lingering colonial concept of beauty, one that is based on fair skin, large eyes and tall noses.  But it is an attitude, I am told, that is pervasive especially among the younger generation.  I can only suppose that  this concept of beauty is one of the more enduring legacies of Spanish colonialism, which has been reinforced by American television.

There was a time in the 1970’s when we thought the Filipino had at last outgrown the cult of the mestizo.  It was the decade of Nora Aunor – dark, short, indigenous and beautiful.  She spoke in complete Tagalog sentences, never corrupting her speech with the borrowed utterances of half-breeds.  She also sang some English songs but always made them her own, never imitating the style of their originators.   

She was the cult figure of one short-lived generation, a generation that consciously wielded culture as a weapon of resistance and as a badge of self-esteem.  When Martial Law came, the dictatorship made every effort to appropriate Nora for its own purposes.  At the same time, the bomba  films were introduced as cultural anesthesia, providing some space for the return of  mestizas as objects of sexual fantasy.  The paradigm for this was Dovie Beams, who had earlier mesmerized a great Ilocano.

But for some curious reason, the cult of the mestiza underwent a revaluation after the Seventies.  The mestizo standard became once more the sole arbiter of beauty and talent.  Local producers simply neglected to develop new Nora Aunors.  As a result, the natives were once more relegated to the role of gawking spectators, and the experience of seeing one of their own act out and sing the themes of their lives was never repeated.

Today in the era of globalization and unobstructed cultural invasion, even the local tisays and tisoys are threatened by the flood of imported telenovelas.  The wonders of dubbing have made Marimar and Sergio speak Tagalog and thus infiltrate their way slowly into our dreams.

Television was once defined as the process of collecting audiences so that they could be delivered to the waiting arms of merchants.  We now have a fairly good idea of the merchants who stand to profit most from the return of the mestizo – the peddlers of beauty products, and foremost among them, the producers of skin whiteners.  They are the ones who pay for those repetitive 30-second commercials that cost as much as 35 thousand pesos per spot.

It was that intellectual of negritude, Frantz Fanon, who had tried to analyze the nature of an inferiority complex based on the color of one’s skin.  As a black man, Fanon had bitter encounters with racism in Europe.  He thought that his educational attainment and personal capabilities would permit him to break through the color barrier.  He was a medical doctor and he married a white Frenchwoman.  But those facts did not make him white.  Traveling through Europe and even in the Third World in the 1950’s, it was always his wife who had to book hotel rooms to spare himself the humiliation of being turned away.

Returning to Algeria, he began to understand how racism had possessed the consciousness of the black person.  In The Wretched of the Earth, he described what colonialism had done to the African soul – the sight of men and women trying to straighten their kinky hair and bleach their black skin because they thought this was the way to be human.

“I am talking of millions of men who have been skillfully injected with fear, inferiority complexes, trepidation, servility, despair, abasement.” Do not these words of Fanon speak as well of many of our people in these times?


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