16 Jul, 2013 | Ryle Lagonsin

Social issues

Travelling 20,000 km from the Philippines, Ryle Lagonsin arrives in Bolivia to find chilling parallels between the countries’ regionalism and identity crises. Can either set of nations disentangle their convoluted histories and prejudices to act affirmatively as a cohesive whole?

Illustration: Gielizza Marie Calzado

I am Filipino. When I leave my country for another one, my passport will always say I am Filipino. But within the Philippines, I am Tagalog. I am not Bisaya nor Kapampangan. Within my country, I am someone else. I have a specific identity.

But what does identity even mean? I can imagine Bolivianos, inside the country and out, asking themselves this same question.

For the last two months, Bolivia has become my temporary home; La Paz, specifically. And although at first, it felt as if I had hurled myself from one extreme to another, I have become quite used to this new environment. So much so, that it no longer feels like a completely foreign world to me. Because inasmuch as landlocked Bolivia contrasts the archipelagic Philippines, I have come to realize that these two countries share a resemblance deep beyond their stark physical differences.

A rich indigenous heritage, a long history under Spanish rule, a blessed and cursed wealth of extractable resources: these are obvious similarities that could be noticed by anyone who has ever been to, or at the very least read about, both countries. Along with these, one could also say they share political and economic instability and, as probably known by more people, a lingering third world status.

However, none of these pertain to the kind of resemblance that has caught my attention. What I really mean by the word is a face: the shared face of an identity crisis.

Just recently, I went on a city tour of Bolivia's famous White City, Sucre. Wanting to impress my guide, I remember saying something along the lines of 'Bolivians are all called Paceños, right?'. Ignorant assumption, apparently.

'No, I am definitely not Paceña ! I am Sucrense!', was her response. Let me clarify, it was not said as severely as it looks like in print. The response was, in fact, followed by an I-understand-you're-a-tourist kind of laugh.

Whether and how much she took offense, I would not know. She did warn me other people, specifically cambas , could take such a statement very seriously. Why? Historical rifts, stereotypes, government favoritism—the list goes on. The bottom line is that many Bolivians just don't want to be associated with other Bolivian groups.

The revelations from that day felt both interestingly and disturbingly familiar. Interesting, because of the stories my guide told me, especially surrounding the lingering bitterness between Sucre and La Paz (over where the government seat of power is located). That one sounded a lot like the history of Cebu and Manila, two important places in my country. Disturbing, because of her firm declaration that she was not Paceña, but Sucrense. That one sounded a lot like hearing a Tagalog firmly denying being a Bisaya. In fact, that one could have sounded a lot like hearing myself speak.

Why is this such a big deal to us, Filipinos and Bolivianos? Why is it so necessary for us to point out which group we belong to and disassociate ourselves from the rest, who are nonetheless of the same nationality?

One just needs to watch a YouTube video of some Fil-Am singer giving a good audition on American Idol, spurring thousands of comments that repeat the words 'Pinoy (Filipino) Pride!' Or observe how an international Club Bolívar win rouses the entire country to proclaim 'Viva Bolivia!'

Yet, mistake a Quechua for an Aymara and watch them take it as an insult. And don't even think about straying from the posh Metro Manila accent if you don't want to be the butt of jokes.

It is a fascinatingly ironic, and ultimately disappointing, mindset how people from these countries project a solid national union only in times of supposed pride in front of foreigners, but crumble to their own factions within their own borders.

It would be pointless to blame the diversity of peoples in both Bolivia and the Philippines, but it cannot be denied either that with so many different customs, beliefs, and ways of thinking; disagreements and prejudiced conditioning are bound to happen.

Should this issue of lineage be reduced to a binary of inferiority or of superiority? White skin, light-colored eyes, and foreign accents—this is no less of a recipe for instant celebrity in the Philippines as it is in Bolivia. And, consciously or unconsciously, we all play a role in reproducing these biases.

Perhaps I have had the slightest privilege of personally seeing two sides of the world confronting the same social sickness. But as I said, its manifestation in both places is uncanny. For this reason, it is not hard for me to imagine the questions in my mind running within that of an ordinary Boliviano as well.

I am sure it would take long before either of us find a proper definition to our dubious ‘identities’. But for now, I say I am Filipino. And by me, this is to acknowledge that I am Tagalog, I am Bisaya, I am Kapampangan, I am of every indigenous Filipino group. I hope my Boliviano brother, too, would accept being every Boliviano as the answer to his own identity questions.


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