The Question of the Plural, and the Question of the Philippine State: RIZAL AND THE VIRTUES OF DIVERSITY AND CULTURAL PLURALISM

The Question of the Plural, and the Question of the Philippine State: RIZAL AND THE VIRTUES OF DIVERSITY AND CULTURAL PLURALISM

·      Aurelio Solver Agcaoili
University of Hawaii at Manoa

(Talk delivered at the 2012 Knights of Rizal Regional Conference, Ala Moana Hotel, Honolulu, Hawaii, September 2, 2012)

The paper reinterprets the ideal of a Philippine state in the context of the plurality of cultures and languages in the Philippines. Teasing out from the pronouncements and practices of revolutionaries before and after Rizal, the paper proposes to reread the energy of diversity and pluralism today, and argues that while this was wasted by both the rabid nationalists and the rabid leftist groups, such an energy remains one of the pillars in today's quest for a Philippine state that is sensitive to the legitimate claims of the various Philippine nations. Today, one of the proofs is the return of the mother language in Philippine basic education.

O. Preliminaries

My topic is borne of a continuing reflection on what I call the Philippine condition.

I look at the Philippines with fondness and nostalgia. Always.

I look at our people with delight and surprise and their capacity to endure and persevere despite the failure of government to deliver the goods of public life.

People like us who have somehow left the country, and have stayed away for a long period of time perhaps no longer understand what our compatriots go through even as they try to make sense of their everyday life.

There is much courage and boldness and daring among our people.

There is much virtue in their clinging on to dear life despite the odds they witness everyday.

No, life has not become better for many of our people.

The government statistics of the incidence of poverty has not improved much during the last ten years despite claims to the contrary.

The last time I went to the Philippines, at the height of a flood this August, people were using empty plastic containers as floats and lifesaving devices.

Think of ingenuity here.

But think as well of the failure of the state to provide even the basic necessities so that while prime lands in the central parts of our bigger cities are filled with skyscrapers, other people still live in riverbanks and at the belly of bridges.

Disparity is on the rise, and it is not going south.

It continues to become the rule of the day.

I am not going to paint a grim picture that you already know.

I am not going to deliver the message that somehow, our country has failed us.

I am going to deliver the message that somehow, the political instrument of that country, the state, has failed to deliver the common good, that fiction and reality with which we are a country after all.

The social contract is clear: that the country, through the state, should provide for the good of public life, and in return, the people should become good citizens.

So many of our people have become—and continue to become—good citizens despite the failure of good governance.

So many of our people have not abandoned their part of the contract by remaining decent and self-respecting despite the failure of the state to govern.

But how can we hold on this arrangement is something that we must wonder.

When a people have reached the limit of its tolerance, what do we expect?

1.0 Invitation to a Journey

I would like you to journey with me in revisiting this Philippine state and what it means to us.

I would you to journey with me in revisiting this Philippine nation, and the conception of this Philippine nation relation to the issue of diversity and pluralism.

At best, this I can say: we have a political fiction here not backed up by empirical facts.

In our attempt to get away from our colonizers, we have abandoned our contract with diversity and pluralism.

For this is what we are, indeed.

The country is made up of diverse peoples.

The country is made up of diverse languages.

The country is made up of diverse cultures.

The language count from the Ethnologue (2005) and the Central Intelligence Agency World Fact Book tells us of the kind of diversity that we are: 180 languages, and therefore, 180 cultural communities.

Before this, the Summer Institute of Linguistics reported 175 languages of the Philippines, four of these having gone extinct, thus leaving 171 others still alive and kicking, but some about to go extinct as well.

The context of the number count is clear: it gives us a measure of the richness of a country in terms of linguistic diversity, so that while some countries and continents are economically rich, these countries and continents are at the same time very poor—very poor—in linguistic diversity.

The first candidate in the list of continents poor in linguistic and cultural diversity, of course, is Europe.

While the rest of the world from Africa to Asia knows so much about what is happening to the world, some other continents so enamored by its own monolingual world just do not know what is happening elsewhere.

The phrase ‘what is happening elsewhere’ is not an innocent phrase, and it is not about news that comes to us by Tweet, or by Instagram.

It is about the substance of other people’s lives, and the concerns of communities, including their hopes for a better life.

An event of the world reduced in Twee terms is a non-event: it is just information that clutters our day.

In our quest for the diverse and the plural, that is not what we mean here.

Of the first twelve countries considered linguistically diverse, Papua New Guinea stands as number 1, with 800 languages. (The count is this: Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Nigeria, India, USA, Mexico, Cameroon, Australia, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Brazil, the Philippines).

The United States ranks 5th in linguistic diversity, at 311 languages, while Brazil, at 200 languages, tops the Philippines.

The Philippines, at 180 languages, ranks as the 12th linguistically diverse country.

Now, what has this linguistic diversity get to do with your conference?

What has this get to do with Rizal?

What has this get to with the Philippine condition?

2. The Story of the Philippine State

The story of the Philippine State draws its narrative energy from so many sources.

One of these sources is the quest for statehood of at least four European kingdoms such as England, France, Germany, and Spain.

It is a classic story of kings, queens, and monarchs lording it over the public lives of people.

It is a classic story of people coming together and putting an end to the excesses of these rulers claiming ‘authority from God’ even getting mandate from the god of their own making.

Once the people realized that this kind of a life could not go on forever, the people revolted, called for a new of life, and eventually put an end to the fairy tales of queens and princesses.

This is the 19th century that gave rise to the state, away from the kingdom.

This is the same 19th century that we were drawing our initial idea of what a state is all about.

Rizal, in his education in Europe, got the last glimpse of the medieval world that produced these excesses.

But Rizal also came to see the beginnings of a new political reality—the beginning of the state.

In light of this reality, we now come to understand that the state, as the political instrument of public governance, as a political apparatus, is a new invention.

As a new invention, it must answer the questions of people, questions that are old, and questions that are new.

With the coming of the Americans, we inaugurate another energy from which we draw the conception of a Philippine state.

It is the energy of American independence, declaring a separation from Mother England, the energy of the fourth of July.

It is energy from a revolution, from the loss of lives and limbs in order to reclaim liberty for an oppressed people.

That is the classic American story that would go to the Philippines, exported by well-meaning conquerors that were once oppressed by English masters an ocean away.

The exportation of that idea of a democracy gave rise to the Philippine state.

We see here therefore that long road to the Philippine state, from the visions of a free Philippines at the Malolos Congress of 1898 to the Commonwealth of 1936, with Quezon giving what could be regarded as the State of the Nation report to the United States.

It could have been good, with the Philippine Independence finally happening in 1946.

But we need to ask for more.

3. There is Problem

The seal of the United States contains a phrase, not codified, but stands as one of the fundamental principles of a federated country: “E pluribus unum.”

The phrase is simple: “Out of the many, one.”

There is also a motto by one of the cultural advocates of diversity in the United States, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages that says about “many languages, one voice.”

For those who knew what President Ferdinand Marcos wanted done with his experiment about a New Society for all, we have his “one country, one thought, one language”—of what purports to be his Utopia for a new Philippines: “isang bansa, isang wika, isang diwa” (“one nation, one language, one thought”).

Somewhere in time, when Ricardo Nolasco was chair of the Commission on the Filipino Language, he pursued what he called “maraming wika, isang bansa”—or many languages, one country.

And here comes Jose Rizal, with his declaration, each time misused by rabid nationalists and equally rabid and narrow-minded leftists: “And taong di magmahal sa sariling wika ay higit pa sa hayop at malansang isda.” (“Those who do not love their own language are likened to a rotten fish.”)

That declaration, coming purportedly from his poem written when he young, “Sa Aking mga Kababata” (“To My Peers”), translates freely as “The person who does not love his own language is worse than an animal, or a rotten fish.”

There are two problems here: one, a misuse of this phrase when it refers to Tagalog/Pilipino/Filipino as the national language, and two, an attribution of the same poem to Rizal as the author when internal and external evidences point another as a possible author and cannot be Rizal. In either way, we are using a wrong evidence to prop up an idea that justifies the turning into the Philippines as a single-language speaking country. 

If we look at these examples, the uncodified motto of the US clearly establishes a precedent for the American conception of diversity and pluralism.

Clearly, we see: we are many, and sure we are, but we are one too.

Of course, our American history teaches us that somewhere along the way, between 1776 and today, we have substantially failed to pursue this motto to its end.

The inequities—and there are a lot of them—continues to haunt us in the United States of America.

But the haunting is a result of not fulfilling and pursuing an ideal, or not having one.

There is an ideal—and the ideal has remained as the force that drives the US into a continuing reassessment of itself vis-à-vis its goal to achieve diversity and pluralism.   

In the Philippines, with the inauguration of the Marcosian idea of a New Society, as if that society being flaunted was really new, with more promise than pursuit, with more rhetoric than result, the statist notion of a ‘national language’ came about, a notion carried over from a Commonwealth conception of an idealized ‘national language’.

If we read the complete proceedings of the 1934-1935 Constitutional Assembly, we see clearly the machinations of leaders, the conspiracy of those in power in order to bring about not a state marked by diversity and plurality but a state marked by hegemony.

This hegemony is plain and simple the handiwork of a cabal of impostors purporting to act in the name of a people in order to unite them.

We might as well call the puppetry of the grievous kind, with one hand swearing allegiance to everything American and English, and the other declaring Tagalog as the basis of a national language, even if the spirit of the 1935 Constitution had another thing in mind.

And the formula for that unity is not the delivery of the public goods and services, but the delivery of a false panacea of all the social ills of a country.

That panacea was simple—and meant for those with the simple mind: if we had but one and only one language, we would develop, we would go the route of progress, and we would be united.

That panacea is the concoction of a ‘national language’ from a brew of formulas that are both passé, unproductive, and ahistorically grounded.

Include here that that panacea is at best culturally callous and insensitive, as it overlooked the fact that the Philippines is a country of many nations, many peoples, many languages, and many cultures.

So here we go.

The 1935 Constitution gave birth to Tagalog as a national language.

The Marcos Constitution of 1974 gave birth to Pilipino.

And the Cory Aquino 1987 Constitution gave birth to Filipino.

We have here three layers of Constitutional deception that is codified, making us believe that indeed, the way to progress is in the speaking of single language, making us believe that Rizal was right in telling us that we need to love our own native language otherwise, otherwise…

We have constitutional guarantees that inaugurated monolingualism, monoculturalism, and homogenization.

We have constitutional guarantees that paved the way to Tagalogization under the guise of one nation, one state, and one country.

Of course, we are misquoting Rizal.

Of course, we are interpreting his intentions and his meaning out of context.

Rizal, we must remember, was speaking in Spanish.

His thought was from Spanish.

His conception of the world was from Spanish.

He was telling this thing to himself, even as he was giving the same admonition to what he called his “kababata” or his peers. Or so we think, if we continue to believe in the lie that he wrote those lines in that poem wrongly attributed to him.

But we must remember that he was Tagalog.

He should have spoken in Tagalog.

He should have thought from Tagalog.

But he did not—or most of the time, he did not.

Part of the proof is that when he began writing his third novel, the Makamisa, he could only start it, with a handful of pages, with a handful of chapters, but was practically left unfinished.

Part of the reason was that he realized he was incompetent in deploying his very own Tagalog language.

If his poem’s admonition is a premonition to what he would become, that failure in finishing Makamisa is a proof that indeed, we need to love our native language, the language in which we are born into.
The rabid nationalists, many of those reacting to the excesses of Marcos and the consequences of having the Philippines at the beck-and-call of the United States through what scholars call the imperialistic agendum of the US, called for a ‘national language’ that would unify the people.

Here we go again, with the same panacea—with the same mistake, repeating all over again the same errors of the past, mistaking the national language as the formula for freedom, for economic justice, and independence from imperial aggressors.

We have forgotten that in the formation of the Spanish state of the 19th century, the Catalans, the Basque, and the Andalucians had to be vanquished in the name of single language.

We have forgotten that in the formation of the French state, so many of the diverse peoples, languages, and cultures of France had to be vanquished in the name of the French language.

In 2001, the French Minister of Education, Jack Lang, admitted 200 years of repression of the regional languages of France in the name of a monolingual education. As a consequence, bilingual education was never the norm of French education, but the new exception to the rule.

We have forgotten that in the UK, where we locate England, we have other languages apart from English (such as Cornish, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Gaelic, and Lowland Scots).

We have forgotten that in Germany, we have other languages, also repressed for so many years, in the name of the German national language: Low Rhenish, Limburgish, Luxembourgish, Alemannic, Bavarian, Danish, Upper Sorbian, Lowe Sorbian, North Frisian, Saterland Frisian, Romani, Low German.

We have it on record, from the proceedings of the 1934-1935 Constitutional Assembly that these are the very four countries that Manuel Quezon, then president of the Commonwealth, was looking at for the models of what he dreamed of as “the Philippine national language.”

We forgot that prior to these wild dreams of politicians like him, our peoples, in the plural, were never concerned about a national language that was a product of these people’s imagination.

We forgot that it was natural—it was part of our estilo de vida—to be multilingual, to learn the language of the other, to be multicultural, to understand another community.

We forgot that it was natural to pick up another community’s language when one is that community.

We forgot that many Visayans learned other Visayan languages apart from Sebuano.

We forgot that many Waray people could speak Sebuano apart from Waray even before Quezon put forward a national language that provided an abracadabra to the evils of our social life.

We forgot that Quezon, at a political rally in Vigan in the Ilocos, he was so incensed in not being able to talk to the Ilokano people directly because (1) he did not know Ilokano and he was president and (2) he could not speak to the Ilokano people directly and therefore had to resort to an Ilokano interpreter.

We forget that when Quezon when to the Visayas, he had to use an interpreter because he could speak Visaya, and he was pissed that he could talk to the Visayan people.

To be a president and not knowing Ilokano is not the Ilokanos’ problem.

It is the presidents’ problem, personal and presidential, professional and political.

To be a president and not knowing Visayan is not the Visayans’ problem.

It is, by default, suggestive of a person’s multilingual incompetence that should not be blamed on others but on oneself.

If you want to talk to your constituents, learn their language, and not vice versa.

But that was what happened, and that would inaugurate the whole scale Tagalogization of all peoples of the Republic of the Philippines.

The vision was simple enough: to speak a common language for common understanding.

But the solution was sinister: one language, the Tagalog language, was used to fight the incorrigible Ilokanos, Bikolanos, Kapampangans, Bikolanos, Warays, and Ilonggos.

We forget that before there ever was Tagalog revolution under the guise of the Katipunan, there were revolutions outside the Tagalog areas, and these revolutions provided the impetus for a wider revolution that became whole scale.

Those of us who understand Philippine history from the margins, not the Philippine history sanctioned by the hegemonic center of cultural life, including the apparatus of education, would understand the contribution of people away from that hegemonic center in the conception of a revolution that would pave the way to a real and honest-to-goodness freedom for all peoples of the Philippines.

From the Commonwealth until today, this deception of the state-sanctioned ‘national language’ continues.

Rizal, for all he cares, did not talk about a ‘national language’ now misused even by educational leaders and the Commission on the Filipino Language, the salary of its staff and officers being paid for by the taxes of the peoples of the Philippines.

Think of the language, culture, and educational policy of the Philippines: it a policy that reflects in a naïve way the hazy conceptions of a state by the leaders before us.

That notion of a Philippine state, we must remember, is notion grounded on the repression of diversity, on the systematic act of dismissing the plurality of the languages and cultures of the Philippines.

With the imposition of a “national language”, the measure of citizenship becomes just that: the national language measure.

With the imposition of a “national language”, the measure of one’s brilliance becomes just that: the national language measure.

With the imposition of a “national language”, the measure of one’s civic abilities and citizenship is just like: the national language measure.

The symptoms of this new social disease are all over the place: when an Ilokano speaks Tagalog, we laugh and say, “Ey, you, your Tagalog sounds like your guttural Ilokano, brah!”

When a Visayan speaks Tagalog, we laugh all the more and say, “Ey, you, your Tagalog sounds like Binisaya.”

We laugh because we do not know any better.

We laugh because we have been conditioned by more than 80 years of thought-programming, that thought making us believe that in the “Tagalog” as national language lies the redeeming power of our state, the redeeming power of our lives, the redeeming power that lifts us away from this conditioned and state-sanctioned wretchedness.

We laugh because for generations from Quezon, every one of us has only to learn Tagalog and English in order to become Filipino.

There was never any policy that tells that you can become Filipino by knowing full well that you are Tausug, Maguindanaw, or Ilonggo.

There was never any policy that tells us that you can be education by educated in the ways and language and culture of your own people.

There was never any policy that valued the native language—in the way Rizal understood what native language was—of a Filipino person.

Instead, what we have got as an official policy is to declare to all and sundry that from hereon, we all should become Filipinos, and that to become Filipinos, we all should speak, and think, and love and curse each other in Tagalog, also known as Pilipino, also known as Filipino.

And since the systematic programming is complete, who can say that this is all wrong?

Practically, no one.

For we have come to believe in Goebbels: Lies repeated make them true.

We repeated these lies all over—again and again, again and again—and they all have become true.

Now, the Ilokano is ashamed of himself as Ilokano.

In Hawaii, either you speak a bad English, or speak a fake Tagalog, one in imitation of the brainless television shows.

That is the measure of nationalism over here.

Back in the Philippines, each student now is speaking in bad English, or a fake Tagalog too, in imitation of brainless television shows, and some brainless senators who plagiarize their speeches.

4. Responses from the Public Intellectuals and the Left

The symptoms of these ills are very clear we could have an easy diagnosis without having to go through a CT-scan or an MRI of the brain of each of our students.

Our students in our Philippine schools are of two kinds: one, those who make sense, and thus, question the official truths the government passes on as absolute; and two, those who swallow hook, line, and sinker what is being rammed into their throat.

Some of them are the brilliant ones.

Some of them are the radical, or radicalized ones. Okey, call them the activists.

Many of the brilliant are mentored by brilliant professors who believe in one holy crap: that “the national language” is the solution to our national problem, that the moment we speak a single language, we will all become rich, very rich for that matter.

Some quote Japan as an example.

Some quote other places.

But these professors are lying, of course.

Japan and some other developed countries they quote have never been in the top 12 of the diverse countries of the world, that these countries are poor in linguistic and cultural diversity.

The message being given is that we have to let go of this diversity and plurality to adopt a common culture, a common language, and a common way of life.

That life, of course, is the life of the center, the life in Manila, the life about Manila, so that when everyone acts like a Manileño are problems are over.

We forget about the social institutions propping up all these problems.

We forget about the educational institutions that are so rotten—rotten to the core—that it is easier to say that the problem is that we do not speak the same language.

And so have a merry-go-round: brilliant professors teaching brilliant students to become monolingual.

And so for three generations, we have had the same narrative, the story of producing and reproducing the same intellectuals that mouth the same slogans about monolingualism, monolingualism, Englishism and the like.

No one ever remembers any more that one is Ilonggo, Waray, Bikol, Pangasinan, or Igorot.

Today, it is bad business to become Bisaya.

Today, it is regionalistic—and therefore anti-national—to speak Ilokano.

Today, when we speak T’boli or Tausug, we are terrorists, as if speaking one’s own language is equal to an act of terrorism.

But what about the Leftist movement?

In broad strokes, we do not get any insight from them. The official pronouncement coming from the work of Monico Atienza speaks of a statist notion of language, and a national language for that matter in the pursuit of what he called ‘national democracy.’

The position, of course, duplicates—is, in fact, a xerox copy—of the same imagined ‘national language’ as propped up by the Marcos and the Cory Aquino regimes.

The Left speaks as well of an imagined Filipino language, but that language is based on Tagalog, the deception coming from the very nature of  ‘base’.

What is the meaning of having a national language based on another regional language?

Scholars and philologists all agree on the nature of another, or a new language when it meets the following:

(1)    that there is a new syntax, or a new structure of a purported new language, which is the case of Tagalog rammed into our throats as Filipino, and

(2)    that the new language, in this case Filipino, can no longer comprehend another language, which is Tagalog.

Either way, the lies are clear.

Either way, the deception is complete.

Either way, the deception continues to be reproduced in our minds as truths.

5. The Virtues of Diversity and Cultural Pluralism

We cannot continue with this deception forever.

Somewhere along the way to this long road to fooling our people is the a rupture that results from generations of repression.

People get tired of being deceived.

People get tired of being robbed of their fundamental rights to their own languages and cultures.

People get tired of being bullied by the state into believing that their languages and cultures are not legitimate, that their languages and cultures are never good enough to educate their own people.

The results of educational achievement of our young people—the very people who are supposed to be our hope—have indicated that  
for so long we have not been just and democratic.

Our young people are becoming less and less competent in many areas of knowledge such as math and science, because these people have to deal with this subject matter in a language that is strange to them, and tested as well in this strange language.

In the testing of achievement, those who are taught and tested in their own native language came out always on top for reasons that are obvious: You are taught in your own language, you understand better; you understand better, you register a better achievement test.

Part of the hard work of so many people and groups is this continuing fight to make the Philippine state understand that the country is made up of diverse peoples that the country is a multinational country that the country is made up of nations.

Understanding those—in those terms—means a realignment of educational and cultural policies so that about four years ago, the Philippine government, through then Secretary of Education Jesli Lapus, signed a department order mandating the return of that native language into the classroom in what is called now as the Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education.

This is the third year that the MTB-MLE is being implemented.

There are, of course, problems. All innovations go through those challenges.

But the educational philosophy behind it is sound.

And it is sound because it is based on the very virtues of diversity and pluralism.

Today, we can say: the fight for our basic freedoms has begun.

Dios ti agngina kadakayo amin.

Mahalo nui loa.


Agcaoili, A. 2007. “The Lies of the 1934-1935 Constitutional Convention,” Tawid News Magazine. Dec 15.

Atienza, M. 1992. Kilusang Pambansang-Demokratiko sa Wika. (Lunsod Quezon: Sentro ng Wikang Filipino).

Fishman, J. 1973. Language and Nationalism: Two Integrative Essays (Rowley: Newbury).

Gonzalez, A. 1992. Language and Nationalism: The Philippine Experience Thus Far (Quezon City: Ateneo).

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