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The Masks of Filipinos, June 17, 1961

The Masks of Filipinos

by Teodoro M. Locsin

To be a Filipino is not a simple thing but a great bewilderment, a matter of great complexity, which is only a way of saying what is to be a man

June 17, 1961—THE FILIPINO as Spaniard, the Filipino as American, the Filipino as Japanese—when is the Filipino going to be himself? He has worn so many masks, appearance is difficult to distinguish from reality. But the mimic, no matter how expert, must, sooner or later, be himself. The act must stop, when the lights go out, in the loneliness of his room, in the loneliness of his soul.

The fate of Ezra Pound is instructive. Unhappy in his country, contemptuous of its culture, he went into voluntary exile, and, not able to be anything but American, disguised himself in his poetry as an ancient Roman, an ancient Greek, an Anglo-Saxon bard, a Provençal poet, a Confucian Chinese, in his politics serving Italian fascism, and wound up in an American insane asylum.

“I began this search for the real in a book called Personnae, casting off, as it were, complete masks of the self in each poem. I continued in a long series of translations, which were but more elaborate masks.”

Ezra Pound in the asylum

He is the master of many styles, but what, it is asked, does he have to say for himself? His identity eludes the reader. Perhaps, in this disjointed world or ours, he is the true hero. There is a picture of him taken after his release from the sanitarium, just before his departure once more from the United States. Only those would share his fate who have a taste for tragedy. He left his country to go home—into exile.

For centuries, Filipinos had constantly to prepare a face to meet the faces that they met: those of their new rulers—to paraphrase Eliot. Protective coloration is the scientific term for it. Here is a Filipino under Spain:

“If he heard anyone speak ill of the natives, he, who did not consider himself as such, would join in the chorus and speak worse of them; if anyone aspersed the Chinese or Spanish mestizos, he would do the same, perhaps because he considered himself already a full-blooded Iberian. He was ever the first to talk in favor of any new imposition of taxes or special assessment, especially when he smelled a contract of a farming assignment behind it. He always had an orchestra ready for congratulating or serenading the governors, judges and other officials on their name-days and birthdays….For such occasions he would secure laudatory poems and hymns in which were celebrated ‘the kind and loving governor’, ‘the brave and courageous judge for whom there awaits in heaven the palm of the just’, and many other things of the same kind.

“He was the president of the rich guild of mestizos in spite of the protest of many of them, who did not regard him as one of them. In the two years that he held this office he wore out 10 frocks coats, an equal number of high hats, and half a dozen canes. The frock coat and the high hat were in evidence at the Ayuntamiento, in the governor general’s palace, and at military headquarters; the high hat and the frock coat might have been noticed in the cockpit, in the market, in the processions, in the Chinese shops, and under the hat and within the coat might be seen the perspiring Capitan Tiago, waving his tasseled cane, directing, arranging, and throwing everything into disorder with marvelous activity and a gravity even more marvelous.”

Protective coloration tends to be, with human beings, overprotective. The Filipino who would survive Spanish rule tried to be more Spanish than the Spaniard, more “Catholic” than those who brought the faith here:

“In the sala of Capitan Tiago’s house, that door hidden by a silk curtain leads to a small chapel or oratory such as must be lacking in no Filipino home. There were placed his household gods—and we say ‘gods’ because he was inclined to polytheism rather than to monotheism, which he had never come to understand. There could be seen images of the Holy Family with busts and extremities of ivory, glass eyes, long eyelashes, and curly blond hair—masterpieces of Sta. Cruz sculpture. Paintings in oil by artists of Paco and Ermita represented martyrdoms of saints and miracles of the Virgin; St. Lucy gazing at the sky and carrying in a plate an extra pair of eyes with lashes and eyebrows, such as are seen painted in the triangle of the Trinity or on Egyptian tombs; St. Pascual Bailon; St. Anthony of Padua in a guingón habit looking with tears upon a Christ Child dressed as a Capitan-General with the three-cornered hat, sword and boots, as in the children’s ball at Madrid that character is represented—which signified for Capitan Tiago that while God might include in His omnipotence the power of a Capitan-General of the Philippines, the Franciscans would nevertheless play with Him as with a doll. There might also be seen a St. Anthony the Abbot with a hog by his side, a hog that for the worthy Capitan was miraculous as the saint himself, for which reason he never dared to refer to it as the hog, but as the creature of holy St. Anthony; a St. Francis of Assisi in a coffee-colored robe and with seven wings, placed over a St. Vincent who had only two but in compensation carried a trumpet; a St. Peter the Martyr with his head split open by the talibon of an evildoer and held fast by a kneeling infidel, side by side with another St. Peter cutting off the ear of a Moro, Malchus no doubt, who was gnawing his lips and writhing with pain, while a fighting cock on a Doric column crowed and flapped its wings—f rom all of which Capitan Tiago deduced that in order to be a saint it was just as well to smite as to be smitten.”

The female counterpart of Capitan Tiago is Doña Victorina who, “in the ecstasies of contemplating herself … had looked with disdain on her many Filipino admirers, since her aspirations were toward another race,” and married a poor wretch of a Spaniard, who looked into a mirror a few days after the wedding night and saw that he had aged 10 years.

Jose Rizal

There was the liberal mask which would consider, in the liberal tradition, both sides, as if there could be two sides to the question, as if there were something that could be said for the oppressor. And there was the mask of reform, well-meaning and futile, of which we have said elsewhere:

“The voice of moderation pleading for due process of law under a despotism, arguing the possibility of persuading the tiger to change its stripes and cease to be a tiger, does not know the tiger. Asking the tiger and the lamb to lie down together, as though it could be done, disarms the lamb and feeds the tiger. It is a form of Pharisaism, doing evil with a good conscience.  In the end, the tiger, grown dull and stupid from too easy an existence, fails to distinguish between friend and food, and devours not only lamb but also Pharisee. And that clears up the confusion.”

The American regime produced a grinding sense of incompetence in the Filipino; before so much American know-how, he could only feel overwhelmed. How could he ever be as good as an American? If he could not be one, however, he could seem to be one. Hence, the cultivation of American ways, including the American accent. The Filipino would be indistinguishable from an American—in the dark. After all, one woman is equally so from another under the same condition.

The motivation here is obviously not protective but something else. Not fear but admiration is the compulsion. No people ever came under a foreign rule that went for it with such enthusiasm as Filipinos did for the American after the initial brutalities. When independence came, it brought no great rejoicing but nostalgia and regret. “The good old days” were recalled—with a passion that might have been absent had the new republic shown any dedication to the public good. But who took over the government? Snakes, vultures, hyenas…whales, sharks, crocodiles! Animals! The government might have been a zoo. The old days that were not really so good seemed good, indeed!

Manuel L. Quezon

The late President Quezon expressed a preference for a government run like hell by Filipinos to one run like heaven by the Americans, knowing very well that no government run by Americans or by anybody else for that matter could possibly be heavenly. Weren’t dogs—and Filipinos—barred from certain establishments where Americans foregathered? But if no government run by Americans could possibly be heavenly, does the new government run by Filipinos have to be hellish? Were it merely purgatorial, hope would be possible. But what hope can there be in this?

The American mask fitted not too well, but at least it was put on—after a while—most willingly. It is significant that while nobody objected to calling one of the bridges of Manila “MacArthur,” many were quite upset by the renaming of a street, “Azcarraga,” after a Filipino who had made a name for himself by trying to put the Americans in this country in their true place.

Despotism produces protestations of loyalty, rewarded with uncertain toleration, with the “loyalist” as likely as not being eventually shot. (The case of Rizal is instructive.) The “benign” imperial rule of the United States resulted in what might be described as happy self-depreciation. If Americans could do everything, Filipinos, it was widely held, could do nothing. Of course, one must be superior in something—let it  then be in vice. A short story by Alejandro Roces, “Filipinos Are Mild Drinkers,” celebrates Filipino triumph in the vice. What knocks Americans out—a native concoction—hardly affects a “mild-drinking” native. A humorous masterpiece, yet a sad one. Filipinos may not be able to win wars or make planes that fly faster than sound or cigarettes for which one would walk a mile, but they can drink Americans any time under the table. What further reassurance does the national pscyhe require?

Admiration, however, is all very well, but it leads to what? The thing admired is not the admirer.  Filipinos who go to the United States—this is all they need to realize that they are not, in spite of having elevated Americanism to a religion, Americans. They are not Americans at all. But what are they? They are filled with an overwhelming sense of not belonging; they would go home—but what is home? What is the Philippines? What is the Filipino? An imitation American….

The Japanese occupation interrupted the Americanization of Filipinos. The military bankruptcy of the United States—a temporary one, it was to turn out—provided Filipinos with the traumatic spectacle of Americans being led captive and helpless into concentration camps. This had an equivocal effect. Love and contempt struggled for possession of the Filipino soul. Never had the master race been closer, that is, more human, than then. To be humiliated—is that not the human, the Filipino, condition? And here were Americans in actually the same situation!

The mean rejoiced, but the masses of the Filipino people lost their hearts to the Americans as they had never done before. They were one with them in an unprecedented fashion. They were truly brothers. Not power but weakness united them.

Meanwhile, one must live—an arduous process. Life was possible through resistance or collaboration. It may be that those who are afraid to die do not deserve to live, but many who were afraid to die managed to live, some quite comfortably. The price of survival seemed, as under all oppressive rules, protective coloration. Some Filipinos became, or seemed to become, even more Japanese than the Japanese.

What could be more “Japanese” than these pronouncements?

“Let us express in unmistakable terms our deepest gratitude and sincere good wishes to the August Virtue of His Majesty, the Emperor or Japan, fountainhead and origin of all the blessings that we are now enjoying.”

All who continued to oppose the “New Order” after the old had so obviously fallen, who still fought in the hills and the countryside, who sniped at the Japanese and their Filipino collaborators, were lawless bandits and brigands, the Filipino-as-Japanese argument went. And when Japan granted the Philippines “independence,” the indignation of the New Filipino was boundless. Couldn’t Filipinos understand that the Japanese had come as friends, to deliver them, to lead them out of the house of bondage? That the “independence” so generously given was “genuine”—a word that was to cover, significantly of the regime, more articles and faiths than honor and only somewhat less than faith—and true?

“O Almighty God, Creator and Lord of the heaven and the earth,” went another voice, “Omnipotent Judge who holdeth the destinies of men and nations, to Thee we offer this eternal oblation and everlasting gratitude for all the blessings that Thou hast  condescended to shower upon these fortunate islands.

“Four hundred years had passed before [sic] the first light of Thy teaching broke upon this land, when it became the shining start that has been guiding the nation through vicissitudes of fortune, until this great day when we realize our wildest dream of freedom and witness the birth of a new Republic of the Philippines.”

Gen. Homma and Filipino officials, January, 1942

Thus, the “Republic” was praised, pawed and prayed over. The Japanese could not have asked for more.  A year later, shortly after the American attack on the Japanese airfields around Manila and the Japanese ships in the bay, the existence of a state of war between the “Republic” and the United States was declared. It is indicative of the mentality prevailing at the time that a distinction should have been made by the collaborators (in private) between a declaration of the existence of a state of war and a plain declaration of war. The distinction had to be made, for though one was with the Japanese, one was also, really, in secret, with the Americans.

The wish to cushion the shock of the occupation by playing ball with the invader, or sheer opportunism—to make hay while the Japanese sun shone—or hatred of the Americans, suppressed all those years and now coming to the surface and finding profitable expression—who can tell what was the motivation for these utterances? Who was to distinguish patriot from scoundrel?

The Americans, we know, returned.  It is no use for “nationalists” to depreciate that event. The sense of liberation that Filipinos felt with the return of the Americans cannot be described. But it is a fact of national experience. Filipinos meeting American soldiers on the street while the battle for Ermita and Malate raged “shook hands with their eyes,” as one put it.

Independence, which installed the unspeakable in office, did not liberate Filipinos from their emotional dependence on the United States. How could they possibly have felt any pride in the Filipinos who assumed office? What was there good about being one of them?

Imitation may be emotional suicide; it is also, to repeat, protective coloration. After four centuries of foreign rule, a certain national ambivalence is inevitable.  Filipinos managed to live through those centuries by appearing to be what they were not.  A deplorable slyness developed in the Filipino character. The Filipino as eel which eludes the foreigner’s grasp—that is a plausible portrait of the Filipino.

The question arises: What is the Filipino after he has been stripped of his many disguises, of his successive masks?

There was a general opening of geography books in the United States after the American victory in Manila Bay. Thus, Americans “discovered” the Philippines. The Filipino has still to find himself; his search for national identity is the theme of this rambling piece. So foreign has he become to himself that he feels pathetically desolate.  At times he almost doubts his own existence.

“Is there anybody there?”

Like Walter de la Mare’s traveler, only silence answers him, and the sound of plunging hooves as he spurs his horse away from the lonely scene.

“Is there anybody there?”

If there is nobody there, if the Filipino is only a collection of masks, an accretion of foreign cultures, if there is nobody behind them at all, then we must, it is obvious, invent someone. Nature abhors a vacuum.

We cannot go on as nobody at all. It is true that wily Ulysses got around the man-devouring Cyclop by giving his name as “Nobody’. He blinded the Cyclop, who cried for help in vain—for help against “Nobody”. His fellow monsters thought nothing was the matter with him and Ulysses made good his escape.

But we are not Ulysses; we are not Greeks; we are Filipinos and we cannot go on as we are, as “Nobody.” We must have an identity of our own. How are we to know what we should do if we do not know who we are. If we have, after centuries of masquerade, of imitation of our foreign rulers, no identity any longer of our own, we must imagine one.

We act and feel according to our conception of ourselves. As we think, we are.  Now this self that determines our reactions is something else that may be wholly artificial, for is it not the product of something external, outside ourselves? Are we not what life, what experience, has made us? If our experience had been different, would we not be entirely different persons?

Experience, then, is all-decisive, or, to be precise, the memory of experience. We are the sum of our remembrance of things past. If memory, therefore, could be changed, or manipulated, so could our identity or sense of ourselves. A new self could be created.

This should not be too difficult to do. Modern life tends to make the same kind of people of us all. Conformity is the end product of a materialist civilization. What is desired is not quality but quantity, not the individual but the common man. Very well, let there be more of the same. The same inhibitions, the same anxieties, the total insecurity. Not a pleasant situation, but better, surely, than nothing.

There should be no difficulty in erasing such identity or illusion of identity as we have, in replacing it with an artificial one. The vague would be substituted with something positive, logical and, therefore, restful. Pasts may be invented, relationships assumed, a sense of purpose developed, a new harmony gained by an arbitrary choice of identity. If God could say, “Let there be light,” and there was light, why can’t we say, “Let there be me”? Something is bound to appear.

There is a novel, Cards of Identity, by Nigel Dennis, which tells of how the inadequate are made to feel up to existence by merely reconstituting—like powdered milk—their shattered selves. The product is, of course, not the same as the original, whatever that might be; the mixture is never quite as before. But what an exhilarating sense of wholeness, of direction!

“But First, I think, I must ask: what is your name? We have been very patient about it, you know, but if all the staff were as reticent as you, we should find ourselves living in a state of suspended anonymity.”

“If I knew my name, sir, I would feel more myself than I seem to feel.”

“Surely it is written on your ration-book and identity-card.”

“I’ve never thought to look, sir. What’s come my way, I’ve eaten and been grateful for, with no thought to spare for the name that’s brought it. Now, when I’d like to know, I can’t find the dratted books.”

“It is not an edifying story, you know. You might just as well have put the food in the larder. Tell me, is there any name that would appeal to you particularly?”

“Pardon?”

“Can’t you think of anyone you would like to be known as?…We have been taking a grave risk in continuing to employ a person who has no sense of nominal responsibility….You must try to understand that the old days are over—the days when you could take your identity for granted. Nowadays, all the old means of self-recognition have been swept away, leaving even the best people in a state of personal dubiety. Even dispossession, the surest means of bringing home the naked identity, has disappeared.  Very wisely, governments all over the world have sought to stop this riot before the entire human population has been reduced to anonymous grains. They give you cards, on which they inscribe in capital letters the name which your fading memory supplies before it is too late.  It is their hope that by continually reading and re-reading your name, you will be able to keep your hold on a past that no longer exists, and thus bring an illusion of self into the present. What I want to emphasize is: don’t lose your name again….Don’t, at least, lose the cards on which that name is written. Not only would you yourself be left nameless, but people have been known to pick up such lost cards, put them in a wallet with their own, and start a hopeless tangle of selves that spreads like a bush fire. Even people in very high places today, men whose names are being printed and spoken aloud repeatedly, are often so foreign to their selves that they become involved in the most extraordinary identical lapses….”

The Rubaiyat anticipates it all:

Ah Love! Could you and I with Him conspire

To grasp this sorry scheme of Things entire,

Would we not shatter it to bitsand then

Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

Wouldn’t we shatter our sorry selves to bits….And all we have to do is get a brand new set of memories. This can be done by sheer fabrication or by the patient excavation of our past. If we dug deep enough, we might recover what we were. We might find, to replace our series of masks, our ancient self, which, though perhaps a poor thing, would be our own. We could be Filipinos at last, after having been imitation Spaniards, Americans, Japanese…and Americans again.

The multiplication of masks, the confusion of selves cannot go on. The Filipino as Nationalist—that’s the ticket! With this old-new identity, there should be an end to emotional bankruptcy, not to mention economic, political, cultural. The limitations of American aid are as obvious as those of slavish imitation. We cannot do much with what we are not. Nationalism should fill us with a new self-confidence, for we would be as we really are, whatever that might be. The love-hate condition is no longer tolerable.

Love and hate—love-hate. Hate and self-contempt. We are not Americans though we would be, so we hate Americans. Hell hath no fury like a would-be American scorned. But if he is not an American, what, to repeat, is he?

“Who am I?”  he shouts in the darkness, which answers, “Who am I?”

Colonialism is hateful, and the hatefulness lies in this: “This is what you made me!” When the product of colonialism screams at the system, it is screaming at itself.

A new identity, then, is the answer.

But the attempt to recover our past self—the Filipino before he was called a Filipino, before the Spaniards, Americans, Japanese made him over—has produced only a thriving business in old images. Airconditioned mansions now display more or less authentic examples of folk art. Westernized Filipinos find them “exciting”—that is the operative word. And, indeed, the naïve against the ornate—it is as exciting, we suppose, as black stocking on the white thighs of an expensive prostitute.

The Filipino-as-Filipino is, somehow, unconvincing. It is like to write English entirely in “English,” that is, by eschewing words that are not of Anglo-Saxon origin. The native should be preferred to the foreign, by all means, the authors of The King’s English counsel. The foreign, however, becomes, in time, even more native than the native; to exclude words of foreign origin from one’s speech is to be, if not completely unintelligible, certainly affected. The Filipino who would not act as if the Spaniards and the Americans had never been here should go about in a G-string.

Is there no identity, then, to be usefully recovered—or manufactured? We were much impressed, some time ago, by images of Mary and Joseph in a church in the Visayas; they were presented as Filipinos. We had known the two, who were Jews, with features derived from the Italian renaissance. We are impressed by the new presentation, but it had less meaning for us than Mary and Joseph as Europeans. The old images had not been replaced in our heart by the native version.

Whatever we were, we are. Whatever we pretend to be, if we pretend long enough, hard enough, we become. There is a story by Max Beerbohm, “The Happy Hypocrite,” that is enlightening.

No wickeder man lived than Lord George Hell. He was “a great grief” to his parents. He fell in love with a girl who refused to marry him because, well, because he looked, if one might put it that way, like hell. Being a good girl, she would marry only one with a saintly face, the face, it is assumed, being a reflection of the soul.

So, he assumed a disguise; he put on a saintly mask, and it was so good a mask that the girl married him. And to live up to his new name, that is, to his mask, Lord George Hell atoned for the wrong he had done, giving all he had to the poor. Then, a woman he, as Lord George Hell, had scorned, tore off the mask, hoping thus to avenge her injured pride and expose him, in all his wickedness, to his loving wife.

But the face was as saintly as the mask.

In bewilderment his good wife asked:

“Why did you woo me under a mask? And why do you imagine I could love you less dearly, seeing your own face? Surely, your face is even dearer to me, even fairer, than the semblance that hid it and deceived me. I am not angry. ‘Twas well that you veiled from me the full glory of your face, for indeed I was not worthy to behold it too soon. But I am your wife now. Let me look always at your own face. Let the time of my probation be over. Kiss your wife with your own lips.”

And he had never been happier before. As for the mask, which lay on the lawn, it was soon melted by the sun.

Our masks become our nature. When we try to remove them, we find we can’t. If we could, the face underneath would prove to be the same as the masks. The Filipino is all he has tried to be, the masks he has put on. He is more than the primitive darkly present in the background. To be a Filipino is not a simple thing but a great bewilderment, a matter of great complexity, which is only a way of saying what is to be a man. The native returns, but only to himself. The inescapable one.

To cultivate the virtues of honesty, industry and justice, to learn how to love, is to be human. To be a Filipino, in the best sense of the word. Whether as Spaniard or American or Japanese, or as Nationalist, the Filipino must reckon with himself at last. He has no excuse for what he does; he should blame nobody but himself for what he is. If he has courage, he is brave; if he is honest, he is true; if he loves justice, he is decent, and if he loves rather than hate, he is at ease. The rest is merely economics, politics and the movies.


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  1. [...] The Masks of Filipinos, by Teodoro M. Locsin, June 17, 1961 [...]

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