Language, nationalism, and identity

My friend, the writer Andres Cristobal Cruz, recently gifted me with copies of a priceless translation of Noli Me Tangere in Kapampangan. “One for yourself,” he said in his note, “and one each for your two brothers, the priest and the politician.”  The book, a project of the Commission for the Rizal Centenary during the administration of President Macapagal, brought back to me unresolved issues of language, nationalism and identity.

It was my first time to read Rizal in the language of my ancestors.  The experience was akin to going home to the old house in Betis where I grew up, or going back to scenes of my childhood when the only language that filled the air was Kapampangan. On reading this wonderful book, I could not resist giving life to words long dead in my consciousness, forming them in my lips and rolling them in my tongue, and then sharing with my ears the pleasure of familiar sounds. Slowly, the images came back to me, like souls from the past offering to bridge my own personal discontinuities.  Strangely, I began to grieve for a language I thought I had permanently lost.

My introduction to Rizal’s novels had been through Charles Derbyshire’s The Social Cancer and The Reign of Greed.  I was in grade school then and I remember how my father used to read these books to us.  He read slowly, savoring the English, while I wanted to get to the end of the story, and felt frustrated that English was getting in the way of my understanding.  It was my mother who completed the stories for us in Kapampangan, but her remembrance was selective. For a long time I thought Noli was all about Sisa, Basilio and Crispin.

Kapampangan remained no more than a spoken language for me, destined to be forgotten as I moved out of my home and my community.  At school, only Tagalog or English were allowed.  More English than Tagalog actually, for while Tagalog was taught as a separate subject, English was introduced as the key to everything that was thought worth knowing.  At UP in the early Sixties, all learning was done exclusively in English.  Thus my own private alienation came in two stages: I was first estranged from my ethnic community, and then I was cut off from the wellsprings of the national culture to which Tagalog had led me.  It was typical of my generation.  Mercifully in my case, Tagalog movies and komiks sustained me.

In the immediate postwar years, the quest for modernity eclipsed nationalism.  Our generation was not concerned with knowing who we were and where we came from, but only with deciding how to get to where we were supposed to go.  We learned Philippine history, but only as a subject, not as a tool for self-understanding nor as a warrant for national striving.   Identity was farthest from our minds.

Nationalism enjoyed a brief revival in the late 60s and early 70s, when it provided a vocabulary for student activism against a state that was perceived to be in the grip of a lingering neo-colonialism.  The objects of its attack were the colonial content of Philippine education, the presence of the American bases, and US domination of the national economy.   This nationalism found resonance in the global struggle against imperialist exploitation, and became the dominant perspective of the radical movement in the country.

In other societies, nationalism is the language of reaction and conservatism.  It is the ideology of the state, and its articulators are usually the ruling elites.  The nationalist consciousness is propagated to the detriment of sub-national communities and the exclusion of marginal peoples.  A national tradition is consciously invented because the cultural heritage that exists often belongs to tribes or ethnic communities.  National identity and national language become the means of suppressing other loyalties and identities based on subnational histories.  In these contexts, nationalism is oppressive rather than liberative.  Fueled by notions of mission and destiny, nationalism often provides the moral warrant for imperial expansion.

Nationalism has had a more respectable history in our country.  The founders of our nation employed it as a vehicle in the quest for human liberty and social justice in an era of colonialism.  Its beginnings were radical, and to this day it continues to be a progressive perspective largely because of its oppositional potential against the threat of global regimentation and control.

But viewed from the complex dynamics of identities within the national community it has demarcated, nationalism can pose some serious problems.  If not handled with sensitivity and prudence, nationalism can be a vocabulary of tyranny rather than of autonomy.  The Mindanao Muslims are a living reminder that for many ethnic communities in this country, integration into the Filipino nation has been conducted to their great disadvantage and largely without their consent.

Today the formation of personal identities taps a variety of sources: gender, ethnicity, religion, work.  Young people rightly question tradition, and for them national identity often constitutes but a small fragment of their personal identity.  No other generation has demanded more of its elders that they prove the moral value of a national identity. Loyalty to nation is no longer taken for granted.  The nation-state has to show its worth in the everyday lives of its citizens.

Meanwhile, I am still reading the Noli in Kapampangan, and I cannot help thinking how much better Rizal sounds to me.  I wonder what Filipino national identity would have been like if we had been able to read history in the languages of our ancestors.


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