Word travels fast. It condenses worlds of meaning. Although language can approximate a culture’s progress—it can also measure points of regression. Case in point, five Filipinos talk about the terms and conditions that shaped their self-image. By challenging definitions of identity from forced assimilation, they’re setting a new future in motion.
If we follow Japanese designer Kenya Hara’s claim that “design is a form of gentle education that influences the quality of desire,” then we can draw countless insights about the Philippines by observing a slice of its financial centre, Makati.
Even at the peak of a sweltering summer, Makati refuses to cool down. It’s the middle of action, an inhospitable cocoon for even the shortest of siestas. Its roads are built in such a way that one wrong turn can send you on endless detours. Still, cars speed by and drivers curse. Killing time in traffic is an everyday hazard. Shoot an upward gaze to the high-rises, and it’s easy to forget what’s underneath your feet. But if you dig deep enough, it is said that Makati will offer you its secrets, like how it carries a floor of stray seashells for once being a seabed.
As early as the 1500s, Spanish Governor-general Miguel López de Legazpi dismissed the city as a worthless swampland. He asked the settlers what it’s called, and they replied with the turn of phrase, “Makati na, kumakati na,” pointing to the spot as a place of ebbing tide.
Centuries later, Spanish-Filipino industrialist Don José Bonifacio Róxas and his successors, the Zóbel de Ayala family, developed the city. To this day, highways bear their names such as Ayala Avenue and Zobel Roxas Street.
Near these city arteries—I meet the subjects in Ferros Bel-Air Tower, a condominium situated among backpacker lodgings, gated subdivisions, shopping malls, and the recently gentrified outskirts of Poblacion. The thriving piece of real estate reflects the increasing self-awareness of the population, especially the younger generation. They’re the type who would question the authority of statues and monuments. Determined to unpack the weight of tradition from their surroundings—they find historical loopholes and make leeway for change. This gentle resistance enables them to chart new territories.
It’s impossible to understand the Philippine concept of beauty without acknowledging its history. Reading Filipino addresses and surnames alone will reveal that Hispanic, American, Chinese, and Malay influences dominate the daily thoroughfare.However, this annexed heritage instigates the prevalence of demographic prejudices. For example, landlords are likely thought to be mestizo—a racial classification reserved for those possessing European features such as fair skin and a high nose bridge, whereas urban degenerates are thought to be scrawny, dark-skinned, and flat-nosed. These platitudes go way back when Spanish colonisers drilled the myth of the lazy native so they can enforce superiority. Their propaganda branded defiance as Filipino indolence, and this belief became embedded into the nation’s psyche. In the 1920s, the narrative relapsed when Filipino idlers were called “Bum Brown”—a trickle-down term for the “Bamboo American”, also known as marooned soldiers who caved into the pleasures of bar and beach.
Unfortunately, the general public embraced these backhanded commentaries. The difference is they no longer come from invaders but domestic factions. Mano Gonzales, artist and fashion stylist, often endured a battery of interrogation from security guards and immigration officers who found his “beach babe” swagger suspicious. Crowned by bleach-blond hair and sunkissed skin, his style didn’t check out with the boy-next-door image of Manila strivers who dressed like the mannequins in department stores.
“If you’re dark and attractive, you’re labelled:
‘black beauty, Why can’t it just be ‘beauty’?”
But for Mano, “It’s empowering to be blond and brown because these two things don’t usually mix. I like subverting preconceived notions about fashion. We need to understand that we have the freedom to be anything we want to be and still be able to call ourselves beautiful.”To my surprise, he wasn’t always this confident. As a kid who grew up in the coastal province of Ilocos, being moreno was a crutch because in the 90s, rosy white skin was all the rage. “If you’re dark and attractive, you’re labelled: ‘black beauty,’” he laughs. “Why can’t it just be ‘beauty’?” With the help of fashion and image-making, he escaped the trappings of his youth. Although the mainstream advertising industry is still at fault for white worship, Mano trusts that it’s changing for the better and that it’s part of his job to aid that movement. As we conclude our conversation, he shows me his impressionistic sketches of Filipinos, “I drew it blurred because a lot of our Filipino-ness is being erased, but also in that erasure, there’s something you can’t see. Is it being erased or is something emerging?”
Meanwhile, sunset and scandal frame the backdrop of director Judd Figuerres’ hometown, Olongapo. Known as @subicbae on Instagram, he grew up near the former U.S. naval base, Subic Bay. Lined with bars, discos, and pizza parlours for American sailors—it was a strip for the vices once upon a time. Its former mayor Richard Gordon even told the New York Times, “People call Olongapo sin city.” But that was in the early 80s; Judd only glimpsed the remnants of its past. “Growing up, I always hung out in my uncle’s video shop, Achievers Video Rental. There were bomba films that I was forbidden to watch, but I realised in hindsight that ‘sexy stars’ could be powerful figures,” he says. The one who caught his eye was Jestoni Alarcon whose claim to fame included his matching mullet and moustache. “The male icons of the 90s were not gayot or masculine in the traditional sense. Their toughness didn’t rely on muscular bulk,” he adds. To be gayot in today’s world means to possess desirability through gym-manufactured brawn. But in Judd’s world, strength takes on many forms. It took him decades to realise this. As “the fat kid who excelled in all the gay stuff,” being a baby-faced soft boy added insult to injury. To toughen up, he conformed to the Filipino image of masculinity by climbing the ranks of his Citizen Army Training in high school. Though that stint was successful, he broke out of that mould, and his moustache became instrumental in embodying his maturity. “It’s so hard to get out of the small-town mentality,” Judd shares. So, with the help of the dot-com boom, he sought his people. The internet, as dark as it can get, became his safe space. It’s a site where he didn’t have to be a man in uniform.
“...There were bomba films that I was forbidden to watch, but I realised in hindsight that ‘sexy stars’ could be powerful figures,”
When the vernacular fails to arrest the nuance of someone’s individuality, the individual reinterprets the vernacular. At least, that’s how Lukresia, a.k.a. Luke Sylvester Quismundo, rolls. She had bayot boang tattooed on her neck and arm, which means crazy queer in the Cebuano dialect. Though it doubles as a slur, Lukresia brandishes the description with her vivacity. Inspired by Lady Gaga’s born-this-way approach to life, she says, “I’ve always been feminine. My family already knew I was gay ever since I was a kid. I grew up in a very devout Catholic home in Cebu. Every Sunday, we would go to church. My grandmother would put on her blush and lipstick, and I would stare, wishing I could wear them.” A muse to designers like Carl Jan Cruz, Lukresia exceeded her childhood aspiration. Tall and willowy with a queenlike stride, she’s a force who can stir fire and fracas. But before she found her tribe in Manila, she walked for fashion shows in her province only to be tokenized. Her attendance may have been a nod to gender inclusivity, but her peers excluded her behind the scenes.“But nothing forced me to change myself,” she affirms. Not even her estranged dad. Unlike most queers who had to come out of the closet, Lukresia bypassed the closet. “I just show this to everyone.” She emphasises the word ‘this’ and points at herself, “I show people who I am untilmthey get tired.” Her backyard has become a sanctuary where she spends the seventh day of the week for rituals. It’s during this time that she gets to shoot portraits and blast classic hits from the likes of Doris Day. Having discovered her new church, Lukresia is proof that wearing your Sunday best isn’t about parading prudish attires but mustering the guts to accept who you are in all your nakedness.
“Every Sunday, we would go to the church. My grandmother would put on her blush and lipstick, and I would stare, wishing I could wear them.”
Far from having a quiet weekend, model Bruce Venida had an epiphany after a midnight bender. He went to the balcony and observed the skyline at sunrise. Stoned as he was, it struck him that everything he set his eyes on, from buildings to billboards, was sullied by colonial influence. Nothing was wrong with that, but driving around brought him closer to seemingly innocuous advertisements, that in retrospect, normalised racism. Among them was a banner for the show, Nita Negrita, which portrayed oppression through the image of a blackfaced actress.Since then, Bruce became weary of the mainstream media. He avoided the news and turned to books. That’s how he discovered the wealth of pre-colonial literature in the Philippines. Akin to the early animists who worshipped rocks and rivers, Bruce honours natural entities before personalities. “I’m inspired by the beauty of trees and want to travel the country to discover the lost knowledge destroyed by our colonisers,” he says. The nearest reference to an idol that Bruce can name is Bulan, an androgynous moon deity from Bicolano mythology who seduced the god of death. His Instagram handle, @libulan.666, pays tribute to this tale, and the influence spills into the energy he radiates. When you ask what pronouns he uses, he won’t give you a straightforward answer. Instead, he would reply, “I’m not precious with terminology.” As a free spirit who values fluidity, Bruce protects his peace by being a guardian of nature, not by joining the thought police.
“I’m inspired by the beauty of trees and want to travel the country to discover the lost knowledge destroyed by our colonisers,”
Textbooks tend to gloss over the fact that before
the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan set foot in the Philippines on behalf of the Spanish monarchy—Indianized kingdoms, ruled by Rajahs (kings) and Pramukhas (chiefs), had already occupied the archipelago. That’s how loanwords from Sanskrit such as guro (teacher), sampalataya (faith), and mukha (face) were adopted into the country’s native languages. But in 2019, the late president Rodrigo Duterte attempted to bring the narrative to the forefront. He wanted to rename the Philippines Marhalika with the intention of dissociating the country from Westernization. Understood by the masses as the ruling class, maharlika was a recognition given to warriors two millennia ago. It originated from the word, maharddhika, which means “man of wealth, knowledge, and ability.” To be one is an ambition that haunts a citizenry burdened by a lack of economic opportunities.
But to counter strife and scarcity, Filipinos can always incorporate padayon into their lives. It’s a concept from the Eastern Visayas region of the Philippines, highlighting a person’s dogged determination to keep advancing even if fortune frowns. It means to persist; to keep going; to do promptly, hastily, unceasingly. It’s a mantra like Hare Krishna.In adversity, padayon. In peace, padayon. When someone hurls the cursed euphemism, “May you live in interesting times!”— padayon. Alas, we’re already living in interesting times rife with violence and disinformation— padayon.I turn to the youngest in the group, Suraj Mikhail Aku, and ask whether he gets discouraged by the Philippines’ current state of affairs, what with the elections and ongoing pandemic. The 19-year-old model shies away from my question but hints at his anticipation for the future. Beaming with pride, he mentions, “I’m excited to go to Bangkok for a shoot!” Though sometimes he gets sidelined for more commercial-looking faces, that doesn’t stop him from wanting to represent his Filipino-Indian roots.Along with Mano, Judd, Lukresia, and Bruce, Suraj exemplifies the modern Filipino identity. From language to looks, its provenance is mixed. It’s an ever-shifting consciousness hitting a critical juncture. There’s no be-all and end-all qualification except getting the niggling feeling that you’ve got to fight for your right to just be.
“Though sometimes he gets sidelined for more commercial-looking faces, that doesn’t stop him from wanting to represent his Filipino-Indian roots.”