"The Filipina" by Sylvia Mayuga

from Insight Guide: Philippines

The smiling, swinging figure of today's Filipina emerged from a chequered history. Walking the world as nurse and beauty queen, scholar and chambermaid, career girl, torch singer and roving ambassador, her origins can well be traced -- far into the misty beginnings of her native land -- to a long line of priestesses.

It is no longer well remembered, but the majority of the Philippines' early tribes relied on the woman to perform their most sacred rites. Catalonan to the Tagalog, baliana to the Bicolano, managanito to the Pangasinense, babaylan to the Bisaya, the priestess healed with herbs, exorcised the devil-possessed and, receiving spirits in trance, guided her tribe through crucial junctures of communal life.

At times, the catalonan or babaylan was male. If so, he had to perform his functions in priestesses' robes, with simulated feminine voice and gestures, almost as if the gods would not speak to men without the ruse.

There is no cause for wonder, then, that women furiously fought the European's coming. Feeling the cornerstone of tribal life threatened, priestesses of Cagayan, Pangasinan and the Visayas let out one long wail of incantation against the conqueror. As Catholic missionaries cursed them for being agents of the devil, the priestesses moved their tribes to poison the cowled strangers, burn their altars, and all else failing, flee to thick forest and higher ground.

The Filipina who stayed behind to be Christianized proved to be the colonist's delight. A most malleable creature, she traded and parlayed with the white man, often helping him pacify warlike neighboring tribes. Here began the special relationship between friar and Filipina.

Once daughter and consort to proud, free men, she became an adopted waif to be melted in the Castilian mold. The friar who was a father figure to whole villages fancied her a naive child, tenderheartedly teaching her his alphabet. He gave her only enough to keep her serving and worshipful, withholding higher education from her eager grasp until as late as the 19th century.

Christian fervor: The fervor withwhich she once worshiped nature and ancestral spirits was rechanneled now to Christian piety. She said endless rosaries, put flowers prettily on the altar, sang songs to the Virgin as she walked, a holy fertility queen, in Maytime processions. A cheerful presence around God's house, she embroidered vestments, cooked and cleaned for her friar-father.

Bound now and "saved" from former joyous abandon to life, the solemn young thing with all her thoughts on chastity became a tempting morsel. Over and over again, and much to her trauma, the Filipina was seduced by her good father in sacristy and confessional, in dim quarters of stone convents over the still siesta hour. There are no statistics, but today's third generation after the Spanish counts many grandparents who are mestizo anak pare,"friar bastards."

These indiscretions caused a subtle fissure in tribal life. Friar children, though illegitimate, enjoyed a slightly higher status as Castilian progeny. In the care of mothers worshiping at altars full of fair-haired saints with blue and green eyes, the anak pare aroused new visions of beauty. To be white became the object of many a silent prayer for the next generation. To find a rich, handsome Spaniard to marry became the goal for which many daughters were whipped when they played too long in the sun. The hang-up against a suntan lasts to this day.

The effect on the Filipino male was devastating. Battered by forced labor and exorbitant taxes, he found his status even more galling when wife or daughter was raped by a powerful Spaniard. There was no recourse, except perhaps in drink, and many a young Filipina grew up only to be torn between her own longing for a better life and her father's wounded and festering pride.

The revolution was a chance to gamble for freedom. In death's embrace, both indio and india sought to overthrow their common tyrant. He plodded and fought; she hid his arms, carried secret documents, nursed his wounds, aided his escape. Brave widows, foremost among them Gabriela Silang of the Ilocos, took to the battlefield in place of slain husbands, charging at fortresses at the head of male troops.

But the moment was not to last. As the Americans took over soon after, they walked on ground laid smooth by predecessors who had staked strong foundation in the brown man's psyche. White was still somehow better; not wiser but stronger.

The modern Filipina: With the same earnestness that she had memorized the cathechism, the Filipina now knelt to worship at the altar of formal education. The more egalitarian cast of the American mind prodded her now into giddy new experiences -- voting for the first time, shedding the saya (long skirt) for tennis shorts, bobbing her long dresses, driving a car, speaking her mind.

It was a relatively easy thing to declare political independence. It has been a totally different ball game coping with loose ends of colonial mentality. Under two kinds of white rule, the relationship between the sexes in the Philippines has lived through severe imbalances, giving it both comedy and tragedy. The Spaniard molded the Filipina to an old world charm. The American touched her ambitions to the quick, kindling a fire that still smolders today. Now one encounters the Filipina in a great variety of professions, jockeying for public office, running modern corporations, even governing the country as president. She does it all without losing a whit of grace.

In recent decades, new blandishments -- Miss Universe and Miss International titles -- have done their bit in turning this person's head as they toast her subtle combination of dusky Malay, fair Spanish and a touch of Chinoise. The Filipina now graces fashion shows and political stages with equal aplomb, an observation borne out by Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, who rose from being an ordinary housewife to the country's first female president, after taking over her slain husband's role in opposition.

Yet, all the while, the laws of her country continue to remind the Filipina of her former status as a friar ward. She still cannot draw up or sign contracts without her husband's consent, her adultery is more stiffly punished than his, and a separated wife is not given the same tax exemption as her spouse. These inequities rankle the Filipina, now advocating divorce, abortion and other particulars of women's freedom, is told she shares equality with her man.


Mayuga, Sylvia, Alfred Yuson et al. Insight Guides: Philippines, Eighth ed. APA Publications (HK) Ltd., Houghton Mifflin 1995.

Sylvia L. Mayuga was an editor of Ermita, a short-lived but highly-acclaimed magazine published in the mid 1970s. She spent 14 years in four different convent schools in Manila, after which she became a feature writer for practically all Manila magazines. Mayuga surveyed the local, political and cultural landscape as a columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. She has published a book of essays, Spy in My Own Country.

Disclaimer: All of the article text and author information was taken directly from the above source verbatim without prior consent of the author or publisher. I do not intend to receive or divert any money or credit away from the author or publisher. I hope this will actually serve as a short message about the Pilipino culture (my culture) and maybe interest and educate people about this culture, and maybe even buy this book.

Valid XHTML 1.0! Valid CSS!