An Archipelagic Paradigm
for Our Culture
By Edilberto N. Alegre
Suriang Ugat-Loob (SULO)
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I. Not quite a geographic isolate
HE root word comes from Latin, insula, meaning island. From Late Latin and Italian insulatus it moved to the French past participle isolé. "Isolate" continues to signify "place apart or alone, cut off from society." In medicine, the word refers to "place (patient thought to be contagious or infectious) in quarantine." "Isolate the problem" means to "identify and separate for attention." In chemistry it has a rather extreme meaning, "prepare (a substance) in pure form." In politics, "isolationism" is a "policy which holds aloof fro the affairs of other countries or groups."
The root meaning is singly, not relatively. A person of an insular mind is "ignorant of or indifferent to cultures, peoples, etc. outside one's own experience." Narrow-minded, that is. To be isolated is to be detached from one's surroundings. In pop culture, Paul Simon (of Simon and Garfunkel) used an island as the objective for his aloneness in the late 1960s pop hit I am a Rock: "a fortress that no one can penetrate." He has "no need for friendship" for "friendship causes pain." He is hiding in his room with his books and his poetry to protect him. He intones: "I touch no one and no one touches me." The willed isolation. The song ends in a mixed metaphor, meaning he was not able to maintain the objectiveness of the correlative.: "And the rock feels no pain/And the island never cries."
To return to science, specifically to epidemiology, which studies the "incidence and distribution of diseases and other factors relating to health," there was that moving movie which starred Robert de Niro, Awakenings. It depicted the neural depression of a normal child to loss of muscular control and eventually to catatonia. The book of the same title was written by Oliver Sacks, a practicing neurologist. He found out that the illness was post-encephalitic disorder which was caused by a virus.
In a 1997 book, The Island of the Colorblind, Sacks relates his travels to epidemiologically geographic isolates, like the village of Umatak in Guam, where there was an unusually high rate of a rare disease which combined the symptoms of neuro-degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's. Parkingson's and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (a motor neuron illness).
I quote from Sacks's 1997 book:
"The study of geographic isolates -- islands of disease -- plays a crucial role in medicine, often leading to the identification of a specific agent of disease, or genetic mutation, or environmental factor that is linked to the disease. Just as Darwin and Wallace found islands to be unique laboratories, hothouses of nature which might show evolutionary processes in an intensified and dramatic form, so isolates of disease excite the epidemiological mind with the promise of understandings to be obtained in no other way."
The paradigm of geographic isolates is valid in epidemiology. And earlier, in the case of the Galapagos Islands, in genetics or biological evolution. The paradigm assumes that the isolates exist in a sea of non-isolates or normatives. We cannot transfer the paradigm as it is to the culture domain, which is non-biological, in the strictest meaning of the word.
However, isolates/islands are metaphors for specific and distinctive characteristics in a sea of general traits can be useful to culture studies.
II. And this is true
And this is true, especially to our case: Many islands comprise our nation. We are bodies of differences in a sea of similarities. The bodies of land themselves contain commonalities, i.e. not only the sea is common to the islands, but also they have similar trees, plants, animal life, terrain and climate. That is, the islands have the same climate and generally the same geography.
Logically, the question which could be addressed to this archipelagic model is -- aren't all national cultures comprised of small local, regional distinctive features and the larger national commonalities? Examples are the many Chinese languages and the national Chinese Mandarin language which image the Chinese local cultures and the Chinese civilization; the Japanese dialects and standard Nippongo, as well as the numerous dialects in the US and the accepted normative American English.
In the case of China, Japan and the US, it's a question of official, government-approved and government-encouraged language as against the many non-official dialects and languages, There is official government acknowledgment in terms of textbooks, curricula and licensing standards. That is the linguistic aspect or the literal level of the paradigm.
Our Constitution recognizes English, Pilipino and Spanish as official languages. Except for textbooks in Pilipino, all other utilize English as a means of communication. All the civil service examinations here are in English. We are unlike any other nation in Asia in our continued adoration of the foreigners who ruled us, the Spaniards and the Americans. No wonder the official line is that we were Hispanized and then Americanized.
This is the view espoused by Dr. Nicanor Tiongson, editor of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Encyclopedia of Philippine Art and artistic director of the CCP for many years. All the other writers of that P20-million encyclopedia of errors obviously subscribe to the same idea.
The other official view is also being disseminated with unimaginable hundreds of millions of our people's money. This is the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) headed by the illustrious Jaime Laya and Virgilio Almario and a host of second stringers who claim they are into Philippine culture studies.
The CCP, NCCA and Philippine textbooks mutually feed on their mistakes. Personally, I have given up hope for them. They form part of the anti-Filipino elitist faction. They are very well entrenched in official positions and private institutions. The battle is for the millions of Filipino minds who reap no personal rewards nor glory from culture theory ek-ek.
Anyway, back to the problem of the archipelagic paradigm of Philippine culture. Let me rephrase the logical objection to it: How is our national culture different from others, e.g. Chinese, Japanese, American? What arte its contrastive, and at the same time, distinctive characteristics?
Most importantly, the many ethnolinguistic languages/cultures which contain, express and embody our national culture exist simultaneously? Take any one day of the year and imagine that you could travel across the archipelago. That same day, the the non-English and non-Tagalog speakers of the inhabitants of the Cordillera of the north (Ifugao, Bontoc, Tinggian, and Kalinga are only a few examples), the non-English and non-Tagalog speakers of the rest of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, including the non-English and non-Tegelog speakers of the Cordillera of the south in Mindanao (the Manubu of Agusan and Surigao, the Higaonon of Bukidnon, Misamis and Davao, and the T-boli of Cotabato are only some of the examples) are living their own cultures and, of course, speaking their own non-official languages. They number in the millions.
That same say, millions of Ilokanos, Pangasinans, Tagalogs, Kapampangan, Bikolanos, Waray, Sebuano, Ilonggo , Kiniray-a live their own culture. Let's say they know Tagalog ang English. The knowledge of Tagalog or English does not erase their basic ethnolinguistic identity. Neither does it render them non-Filipino.
We have what is an ideal situation for a cultural field researcher -- many times in one time. Or, simultaneity of different periods of time in one place. Our different cultures and their different time/periods exist contemporaneously.
We don't have to go to the museums nor refer to hoary archival documents to know them. They are living cultures. It is as if we are a living compendium of of many cultures which began at different periods and continue to exist. It is an astounding feat and feature: a multitude of times in one time.
III. Our present agenda
The isolates are the characteristics particular to as ethnolinguistic group. For instance, three days prior to Hariraya, the happiest last day of the month-long fasting during Ramadan, the Maranaw visit the graves of of their dead, clean them, and offer food and prayers. The Iranum clean their houses, open their doors and windows and light candles in these places, and offer prayers and food in a family altar in the house which they call lamina. In La Paz, Leyte, many candles are lighted on an upturned saha -- banana stem stalk -- and specific songs are chanted. In the cemetery food is offered -- candies and biscuits for children, tuba and pulutan for adults.
These Maranaw, Iranun and Waray isolates take place in a sea of a belief system which holds that the departed return or are just around. Our pre-Islam pre-Christian belief system held its own across the 16th to the 20th centuries. No question that changes took place: The Muslim Filipinos welcome their dead three days prior to Hariraya and the Christian Filipinos connect with their departed on Nov. 1. The belief became institutionalized in these religions, Islam and Christianity.
One can see the same belief, i.e. the dead have not gone away and are not beyond calling; they are in this world though they inhabit a different place ("they who look like us although we cannot see them," among the Manubu of Bintangan, Carmen, North Cotabato, whose belief system has not been institutionalized in a sacred book, such as the Qur-an and the Bible, nor in a fixed structure called a church, nor in a trained set of priests or religious persons).
The isolates remain as islands cut off from all other islands if their connection with other isolates cannot be identified. This is the colonial ploy. The Spaniards and the did not want us to see how interconnected we are from each other. They wanted us to believe that we are islands, separated and different from each other. They wanted us to believe that we can only be a united people, nation, if we were Hispanized or Americanized. That our salvation was with them.
The present government, and that includes CCP and NCCA, andthe elite continue to support that perfidy. They wish that we all be literate in English. That we like them be inglisero. We won that battle long ago. We continue to be basically what we were since thousands of years ago. And we continue to triumph over them in our daily lives. Being islands of a multitude of ethnolinguistic groups with their own distinct cultures does not separate us from (one another) as they would make us believe.
The sea! The sea around each of us, each of our islands. We have to discover the sea that unifies us. And, too, that particularity of our shores, our land, our mountains. That particularity defines us partially/ Our other self remains connected to the sea of commonalities. We are that, too.
We have been developing these commonalities since 7,000 years ago. That's what archeologist and language historians tell us. We had been co-mingling with (one another) for thousands of years before Islam and before Spanish Roman Catholic Christianity. And long before American Protestantism. They are recent arrivals. Islam's introduction here dates back only to the beginning of the 16th century. Legaspi and Urdaneta colonized some of our places only starting in 1565. And the Spaniards are gone. We're here. The Americans colonized most of our country only since 100 years ago. We kicked them out in 1991. We're here.
We're here. We should be in control. In time the force of logic and field evidence will bury Tiongson, Laya, Almario et al. in the ignominy which they deserve. Our islands and sea buried thousands ofthose Spanish clones. They have buried thousands of inglisero. They, the islands and the seas, continue to be what they were since around 7,000 years ago. They have maintained their power, strength and integrity.
Our task is to discover the islands in which we dwell and the seas that enveloop us, nurture us, keep us Pinoy na Pinoy.
(First published in Businessworld, November 1999)
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