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2nd November 2011

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What do we mean by pre-hispanic Philippines?

One of the historical markers I have found most curious is the phrase: “pre-hispanic Philippines,” it is less curious than, let us say, “pre-Colombian Americas,” but equally curious of the historical marker like the “medieval dark ages.” This phrase is curious not so much that it points to a non-existent phenomenon since surely communities have sprung across the islands that we now call the Philippines prior to the arrival of the galleons, but rather of its connotation and its inherent consequences on our present identity-building and our collective memory. As pointed above, the phrase medieval dark ages carry with it the connotation that those who live within it are de facto superstitious, backward and stupid despite what documents and anthropology would tell us that these people basically are as curious, as artistic and as civilized as any period in humanity. It is my impression then that we still continuously develop the same dangerous historical bias similar to what we develop when we use the term “dark age” when we insist on telling a story of a pre-hispanic Philippines.

It might be unjust for me to insist without weighing other interpretations; indeed, perhaps the phrase might simply suggest a geographic place, a cartographic concept, that now holds such name, similar to the phrase pre-Colombian Americas. However, when we do deconstruct both phrases we realize that what we mean by the Americas pertains to a continuous landmass that separates the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and remains so despite the many wars, revolutions and divisions, empires and tribes, the term Americas still remains coherent therefore has a cartographic meaning that is more stable. Also, the term pre-Colombian pertains to a particular time, particularly when Columbus arrived to tell the ‘Old World’ of this ‘New World’. The arrival of Columbus serves also as a distinct and  a stable marker as an object of reference when discussing time, it is clear as an either-or.

Now contrast this when we speak of the Philippines in terms of pre-hispanic times. The glaring problem is when the Spaniards arrived, they referred to Leyte, then Cebu, and then Manila, as Philippines, and at the height of her power, one must remember that the Philippines extends as far as Formosa and, by virtue of being a property of the Sultan of Sulu, as far as Sabah. In addition, some would point out that only at the time of the Yankees did the Mountain Province truly become a part of the Philippines. The Philippines then, if you will, in its hispanic phase, has a more dynamic connotation. So dynamic that if we entertain the idea of a defeat to let us say the British or the Dutch it could forever dissolve the notion of the Philippines into numerous provinces of sort.

The original question becomes more intricate when we ask if the idea of the Philippines as a cartographic idea really holds water when we divorce it away from its Hispanic roots. The question is important since, unlike the term pre-Colombian, where it simply points to an exact historic turn of the arrival of a European man, the term pre-hispanic does not have that clean reference since it refers to a dynamic contour of a concept. The term Hispanic in Pre-hispanic, at least how that impresses on me, refers to a process, a becoming, that is historically and intimately colonial. To affirm that there is a pre-hispanic Philippines without pointing out what makes up, in the cartographic sense (and perhaps existentially too), the Philippines is to assume that a Philippines, and subsequently the idea of the Filipino, exist outside and without the colonial process. Joaquin has written a lot on the dangers and pitfalls of rejecting our colonially-begotten Filipino heritage and what it means in assuming such posture, so I would rather point you towards his essays. Now to surmise my point, before the Galleons, we could be anything but to be Filipinos; these islands could be anything but the Philippines.

This is not to rob the Manobos, the Ibanags, the Tausugs, the Aytas or the other tribes that built communities prior to the galleons of their stories by refusing in thinking in terms of pre-hispanic Philippines, but rather it is pointing out that to re-tell their stories as if they are Filipinos a priori  to the Galleons is all together, echoing Paul Ricoeur, an unnecessary violence. Simply put, they are not Filipinos then, but rather they are Manobos, they are Ibanags, they are Tausugs, they are Aytas, and to tell their stories then as if it is a story that is Filipino, or to use it to give credence to a fictive account of the existence of a Filipino-outside-the-colonial-experience, is not to tell it at all.

Tagged: HermeneuticsPhilippine mythologyhistoryinterpretationphilippinesricoeurcolonialismspainnick joaquin

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