OPINION: The Philippine languages are tied to land, life, and liberty

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Our language is not merely words on paper, but meanings we share with each other. What it means to have rights, to live in freedom, to build a home, and to struggle solidarity should be shared across languages. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — To be Filipino is to carry the weight of centuries’ worth of colonization. It is to live in a country named after King Philip II of Spain, a king who issued the codes and statutes which specified that towns and cities must be laid out with a version of the standard plaza complex. It is to live in a country where English is an official language, a product of having had English as a medium of instruction since over 500 American teachers known as Thomasites came in 1901.

It is to live without knowing who you were, before colonizers named you and your people. For a time, that for me was enough.

My first words were numbers and colors, all in the English language. When I started to speak, it was English that I started learning. Through the years, I have focused on perfecting my English, while my love affair with the Filipino language started late into high school. In college, I took pride in my facility for both languages and, for a time, it made me feel invaluable. Not a lot of my peers can write in English and Filipino with relative ease, let alone translate from one language to another.

And then I moved to Mindanao.


Many Filipinos, given recent developments in the Mindanao peace process, have struggled with the idea of the Bangsamoro, which roughly translates to Moro nation. A version of the same question is always asked of me when it comes to the Bangsa: “how can there be a nation distinct from that of the Filipino?”

In a country where children learn of three major island groups — Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao — but not of the sultanates and indigenous political structures that ruled over nations and islands before the colonizers came, it is not surprising that Filipinos question words like Bangsamoro. It is relatively new to the Filipino ear, with the word gaining currency only in the early 2000s as the peace talks progressed — despite being used by Moro revolutionaries who sought to differentiate themselves from the majority of the Philippines since the late 1960s.

The cause behind the assertion of the word, however, is far from new. Before islands were named after a king, sultanates thrived in the south of what would eventually become the Philippines. The Sulu Sultanate ruled over the western peninsula of Mindanao, with its power extending to Palawan and Northeastern Borneo. In Central Mindanao, the Maguindanao Sultanate stretched towards what is now known as the Davao region. In Lanao, the Pat a Pangampong ko Ranao reigned, often translated as the Four Principalities of Lanao.

During the siege of Marawi, news across Metro Manila referred to four bridges leading into the city. One can find these bridges easily enough in Google Maps: Banggolo near the commercial center of the same name, Mapandi near Mapandi medical school, Raja Madaya near a lakeside village of the same name, and the Pumping Bridge near the water district. Early reports following the start of the siege used these bridges as points of reference, naming a landscape unfamiliar to most Filipinos.

Our Filipino-ness is so often hinged on the erasure of others that we are hardly different from the colonizers we fought.

Within days, a Meranaw government official appealed to media and asked that the official names of these bridges crossing the Agus River be used — Bayabao, Baloi, Masiu, and Unayan — named in honor of the four principalities that are at the heart of Pat a Pangampong ko Ranao.

The city of Marawi was once known as Dansalan — destination, and its people are known for their maratabat — pride. Years after the siege, the Meranaw people hold their heads high as they seek justice and reparation, while hoping for the inevitable kambalingan — homecoming.

In September last year, the national government began a program called Kambisita. League of Filipino Students-Marawi Chairperson Abdul Jalil Datuan said the program is insulting to the people of Marawi City, as the government treated them much like a bisita — visitor — who was only allowed to visit the city instead of coming home to it.


In the mountains of Pantaron, where the land is called “yutang kabilin,” histories are passed on as indigenous peoples inherit stewardship of the land. Here, the people know that the land came before them and will eventually outlive them. Here, it is essential to remember that land, while shared, is not owned.

Here is the site of Lumad resistance.

In the past two decades, the Pantaron Mountain Range has been at the epicenter of the fight for land rights and self-determination with the Higaonon, Talaandig, Mamanwa, and Manobo peoples at the frontlines. As mining and logging encroach on Lumad communities and turn them into conflict sites, schools built and kept by the Lumad are shut down, often with the endorsement of the state.

In 2016, the Katribu National Alliance of Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines issued its demands for the first 100 days of the Duterte administration. This included an appeal to stop the attacks against schools run by indigenous peoples, which includes those under the Tribal Filipino Program of Surigao del Sur (TRIFPSS), Alternative Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development (ALCADEV), and Salugpongan Ta Tanu Igkanugon [meaning Unity to Defend the Land] Community Learning Center (Salugpongan), among others. In the same year, a few weeks before the said demands were issued, paramilitary forces killed ALCADEV Executive Director Emerito Samarca, Maluhutayong Pakigbisog Alang Sumusunod (MAPASU; meaning Persevering Struggle for the Next Generation) Chairperson Dionel Campos, and Datu Aurelio Sinzo.

In 2017, I celebrated National Heroes Day with the students and teachers of ALCADEV who were celebrating the school’s foundation day with the communities it served. As a guest, I was asked to judge the literary competitions, and I agreed despite my struggle with Bisaya as a language. I have been based in Maguindanaon and Maguindanaon Tagalog-speaking Cotabato since I moved to Mindanao, which meant that opportunities for learning Bisaya are few and far in between.

Language works best with context, I would eventually remember. Knowing the history of militarization and resistance in the hinterlands of Surigao and Agusan made understanding every performance possible. Years of conversations with hundreds of bakwit (local term for internally displaced persons, from the word ‘evacuate’) across Mindanao have familiarized me with words like hilak (cry) and hadlok (scared), patyon (kill) and panalipod (protect).

Being familiar with the words of another’s language does not necessarily mean the message is received with ease and comfort. The students used pieces about their peoples’ struggle and loss, and performed words they wrote themselves.

Our language is tied to land, life, and liberty. Whatever language we use to speak, may we always speak in honor of our peoples’ revolutionary history.

Just a few months ago, 55 Lumad schools operating under Salugpongan were suspended by the Department of Education. The decision was based on a military report that accuses the schools of teaching “communist ideology,” and was carried out under the DepEd’s “mandate to protect the students.”

Sharing a language requires more than shared words. Sharing a language requires shared meanings — what it meant to live on land stained with your peoples’ blood, to live with the imperative of solidarity, and to live out a struggle where defeat is not an option.

In Pantaron, every word is spoken and every step forward is taken with every intent of winning the fight.


Every year, during Buwan ng Wika, Filipinos talk about how we have forgotten about our peoples’ many languages — as if these weren’t forced out of our mouths, as if our tongues weren’t cut when it spoke in a language that speaks of rebellion. All of these languages have been used in revolutions against colonizers who stole our lands, raped our women, and killed our children.

These languages were used by hundreds of heroes whose names we may never know.

And yet, to this day, lands are being stolen, women are being raped, and children are being killed across the country. The violence that people across the Philippines fought in order to win its independence is the same violence that is committed against people across the Philippines today, especially in the peripheries. From laws written in the same English land titles carry to the conversations carried out among those in the capital who only speak in a mix of Filipino and English, with very little room for words from the margins — words like maratabat, kambalingan, salugpongan, and pakigbisog — our capacity for shared meaning and struggle is limited by the language we choose to use whenever we speak, and whenever we choose to speak before listening.

Because sometimes, speaking in itself is violence when the language we use forces others into silence. This includes tagging people in Mindanao as traitors and terrorists, rebels and criminals, just because they choose to fight for their land and right to self-determination.

This is not the way to strengthen a country that is home to many nations. Our Filipino-ness is so often hinged on the erasure of others that we are hardly different from the colonizers we fought. Weren’t our Filipino ancestors the ones who moved southward, opening up a frontier as if it was ours to occupy? Wasn’t it the Filipino government who sought the Filipinization of Moros and indigenous peoples, and passed laws* that disenfranchised Moros and indigenous peoples when it came to land ownership?

To be Filipino is to carry the weight of centuries’ worth of colonization, and hopefully learn from our peoples’ struggles that are being fought until today. Our language is not merely words on paper, but meanings we share with each other. What it means to have rights, to live in freedom, to build a home, and to struggle solidarity should be shared across languages.

Writing in Baybayin means nothing if we cannot write a future together. Speaking in Bisaya means nothing if we cannot have conversations that lead to a common understanding. Having a language called Filipino that is supposedly built on the vocabulary of our diverse people means nothing if we cannot build a country where we respect each other’s right to land and life.

Our language is tied to land, life, and liberty. Whatever language we use to speak, may we always speak in honor of our peoples’ revolutionary history.


*Among these laws was Commonwealth Act No. 141 of 1936 which allowed a presumably Christian Filipino citizen of the Philippines to “enter a homestead” of 24 hectares under Section 12, while it allowed a “non-Christian Filipino” to only “occupy” four hectares of land “on any of the reservations set aside for the so-called non-Christian tribes” under Section 21.