The Virgin And The Video

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CULTURE [image, unknown] Missionaries' marketing strategies

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The Virgin and the video

Cinema and crucifix: dominant influences in the Philippines. Photo: Blair Seitz
Cinema and crucifix: dominant influences in the Philippines.
Photo: Blair Seitz

One of the casualties of the early Spanish expansion, the Philippines was an important trading port where Peruvian silver was exchanged for Chinese silk. Catholic missionaries joined the traders and today 90 per cent of the people are Christian. In 1898 American colonisation and consumer goods completed the rape of traditional Filipino society. Ruth Seitz paints the portrait of a twice-plundered culture.

A flaxen-haired child wanders down the street. 'Walking doll!' gush admiring Filipinos. Indeed, the dolls that gaze down from the sala shelves of middle-class homes are invariably pink-cheeked and blue-eyed. And images of the Virgin paraded during religious processions have ivory skin and wear a wig - often black Filipino hair dyed auburn. Brown is not yet beautiful for the Philippines 48 million people.

Their ancestors prized the lightest skinned child and coveted a mestiza wife with some Spanish blood. After 333 years of Spanish colonial experience, downgrading their own native beauty is an inevitable result. The earliest dictionary for friars studying Tagalog - now the national language - used definitions with derogatory implications: Pango, which means 'flat nose' was followed by the comment 'Filipinos have flat noses', but the adjective pangat or 'flat nosed' was translated as 'ugly'.

The Spanish friars also discarded the animism of the native religion and carried off cartloads of amulets for burning. Filipino priestesses were forced into convents and time and energy that might have developed Malay civilisation was diverted to do the bidding of the conquistadors. While Indians were constructing the Taj Mahal and Thais their Wat Phra Keo, Filipinos were sweating in forced labour teams to erect baroque cathedrals designed by Spanish architects. Standing before the largest basilica in Asia, in a small Philippine town, an elderly resident recalled that her great great grandfather is part of the foundations. 'When workers carrying stones fell into the pit', she told me 'their bodies were never recovered'.

Dr. W.H. Scott, a missionary who worked for several decades among mountain peoples explains some of the appeal of Christianity in the Philippines. 'In the native religion', he says, 'success is believed to result from the favour of powerful personalities - spirits, deceased ancestors, or living people.' So the church's wealth is itself a powerful and attractive symbol.

By rejecting Filipino clothes, houses, food, medicines and social customs early missionaries were also inadvertently teaching 'that anything Western was superior to anything native'. To such an extent, argues Dr. Scott, 'that mountain dwellers began to think that good things come, not from God Almighty, but from some foreign country here on earth'.

When Spain officially withdrew from her colony in 1898, she left behind a culture too alien and imposed to fit Asians easily. Yet in conquered areas there were few traces of pre-Spanish culture. Nevertheless the ruling ilustrados - ever conscious of status and craving of privilege - bypassed the chance of re-shaping a national culture. Instead they accepted America's rescue offer. Though declared independent from Spain, they preferred to put themselves 'under the protection of the Mighty and Humane North American Nation'.

With all trade barriers removed within ten years of Spain's departure, Western values were reinforced by America's economic policies. Having squashed resistance to her presence in the islands, US products flooded Philippine ports. 'The promotion of their (Filipino) material and intellectual welfare will necessarily wants (which will) become necessities' pointed out W. H. Taft when explaining America's marketplace rationale.

Today manufactured possessions carry much status and Stateside goods are cherished presents. Happy family snaps include a TV, stereo, or fridge, and trading Betamax movies has become the 'in thing' among wealthier Manilenos. Barrio people prize tinned sardines over fresh fish and poor Mandenos serve spaghetti with hot dogs on a festive occasion. Nescafe has replaced the native coffee that used to be grown for family use and American cigarettes have virtually wiped out hand-rolled Filipino tobacco used before World War II. In one generation the US shaped a country of America-lovers.

Part of the success of Americanisation lay in the school system set up by the 'partners in democracy' with English as the language of instruction. Under an American inspired curriculum, foreign values soon seeped into Filipino consciousness. 'The very first day I learned A is for apple, B is for ball' explained a Manila poet. 'Neither of these objects was a part of my boyhood.' After European fables and nursery rhymes, he became immersed in the greats of English and American literature; 'so much so that my early poems resembled Frost's. There were no Filipino models sanctioned by the education system.'

Even though many Filipinos speak several languages, depth of command in a single language is often poor. Educated in English, they speak Tagalog on the street and their regional dialect at home. Historian Renato Constatino points out a consequence of this 'miseducation': 'Independent thinking is smothered because the language of learning ceases to be the language of communication.'

Only two decades ago school children were fined for using the vernacular in school - in classroom or playground. Such pressure to speak only English left damaging imprints: 'I became very quiet at school' recalled one woman; 'I was ashamed of the way our dialect sounded.'

'Any pinoy strums easily on a guitar'. Photo: Blair Seitz
'Any pinoy strums easily on a guitar'.
Photo: Blair Seitz

But Filipinos pursue much of the foreign culture with lustre. With their own musical talent and a diatonic scale acquired from the Spanish, they play the best Western music in Asia. Over 300 Filipino groups and performers entertain in Asian capitals and many more keep jazz, rock and kundiman - lyrical folk singing - thriving in cities at home. They imitate last week's US top of the pops, and any Pinoy strums easily on a guitar. Most towns rate a marching band, too, and it is not surprising to hear a string ensemble in a barrio three kilometres from the road. So much musical activity, yet the traditional instruments of tribal Filipinos - brass gongs, drums, nose flutes, bamboo percussion - are completely alien to the country's jeans and pizza generation.

Ruth Seitz is a freelance journalist living in the Philippines.

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