“Tunghayan natin ang pagbabago, sa paglipas ng mga dantaon, sa imahen ng diwata sa ating mga mito’t alamat. […] Maaari noong unang panaho’y walang kasarian ang mga ito, ‘di kaya’y hindi makabuluhan ang kanilang kasarian. Sa wikang Espanyol, ang kasarian ng tao’y binabatay sa huling titik ng pangngalang tumutukoy dito. Kung a ang huling titik ay nilalapatan ng kasariang pambabae, kung o ay kasariang panlalaki.”
— Rosario Cruz Lucero, Ang Talinghaga ni Mariang Makiling: Isang Panimulang Makapilipinong Teoryang Feminista (2007)
Cotabato City (CNN Philippines Life) — Filipino, as an indicator of citizenship, is a gender-neutral word. That this word tends to register as male given the o at the end is indicative of our colonial history, more than three-hundred years of which were under the Spanish crown. That our country is called the Philippines and we are called Filipinos are both markers of a colonial past. Apart from being tagged as "indios," we were named after a king whom we never saw.
When Spain “[ceded] to the United States the archipelago known as the Philippine Islands” through the 1898 Treaty of Paris, a treaty signed six months after the Philippine declaration of independence in Cavite, it annexed Mindanao territories that Spain never conquered. Suddenly, we were all Filipinos, our identity sealed by an exchange between imperialist nations.
In the 1935, 1973, and 1987 Constitutions, we proclaim ourselves as a Filipino people whose national language is Filipino.
But what does it mean for the word Filipino to be gender-neutral when it is placed in the context of conservative Catholicism that the Spanish friars brought to our shores, as they accused the babaylan and katalonan of talking to evil spirits and instructed women — only women — on virginity, chastity, and modesty?
What does it really mean when our collective identity is rooted in a history of imperialism and colonization that reinforce a patriarchal society?
'Filipina' and the rise of feminist thinking
Filipino is a word that identifies us in official documents like passports, a word written to indicate our nationality which is passed on by blood — jus sanguinis. It does not matter where we were born or if we are identified as male or female at birth; it only matters that we are born to Filipino parents.
If the word is gender neutral, why then does the word "Filipina" exist?
There is a need to name what is known, if only to acknowledge it, and as early as the 1900s it was very much clear that society made a distinction between Filipino men and women.
In her 1993 paper entitled "Filipino Women and Political Engagement," Belinda Aquino notes the early efforts of “prominent ladies” such as Concepcion Felix de Calderon to “secure reforms in schools, prisons, factories, and other institutions employing women” by establishing the Asociacion Feminista Filipina in 1905. A year later, Pura Villanueva Kalaw formed the Asociacion Feminista Ilonga which carried women’s suffrage as one of its causes.
To identify one’s self as a Filipino and to speak the language requires a constant interrogation of our shared histories, while confronting the links between our personal privilege and another’s oppression.
At a time when Spanish was used within their social circles, they chose not to identify themselves as mujeres but as feministas. Meanwhile, the use of Filipina and Ilonga highlighted the intersection of their womanhood and identity which was central to the struggles they waged.
These early Filipina feminists weren’t without fault, however. Among them was a woman civic leader who “complained bitterly that her driver could vote and she could not.”
Looking into the roots of 'Pinoy'
Class struggle is inextricably woven into the Filipina’s struggle for rights and freedoms. Citing Maria Luisa Camagay’s work in 1986, Amaryllis Torres notes how women were already working outside the home in the late 19th century as criadas (domestic helpers), maestras, matronas (midwives), cigarreras, buyeras, bordaderas, and sinamayeras (women selling sinamay and other fabrics). However, discrimination was apparent as maestros earned more than maestras, and women were subject to sexual harassment from their male amo and the frailes.
In 1930, the Liga ng Kababaihang Filipina, a grassroots women’s organization fighting for women’s suffrage and better working conditions, was founded. According to Torres, it was most likely that the organization fought alongside male co-workers as they demanded for “equal pay for equal work,” the prohibition of child labor, and for free education for poor children.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Filipinos have started to take on a new name for themselves. In "Little Manila is in the Heart," Dawn Bohulano Mabalon shares how, according to first-generation immigrants, the words “Pinoy” and “Pinay” were developed in the 1920s specifically by Filipino immigrants as a nickname for Filipinos living or born in the United States.
Melinda de Jesus quotes an email from Mabalon in her introduction to "Pinay Power: Theorizing the Filipina/American experience," where the latter notes how these labels were used to “differentiate (Filipino-American) identities and experiences” from Filipinos based in the Philippines, and how “interesting” it was that the terms found their way back to the Philippines and how “the controversies surrounding its usage in the ‘60s and ‘70s point to ongoing issues surrounding class” in Filipino-American communities.”
Is 'Filipinx' a valid term to use?
Unlike the now commonly used Pinoy and Pinay, the word "Filipinx" is a relatively new label that Filipino-Americans have been using to differentiate their own “identities and experiences.” Debates regarding the use of Filipinx as an identifier pops up every now and then in an increasingly online world, as every side asserts seemingly strong points of contention such as inclusivity, gender neutrality, and solidarity.
Filipinx is hardly the first word Filipino-Americans used to distinguish themselves from Filipinos based in the Philippines. Aside from Pinoy and Pinay, there was the word "Pin@y" — as if the letters a and o merged together to form the @ symbol.
However, there is a point that is often easily missed. What it means to be Filipino is always subject to an interrogation, and it takes more than switching letters around to deconstruct and dismantle systems of oppression. “Filipino” may be a gender-neutral word but, as far as languages go, it is hard to find a language that is gender-neutral in a world where imperialism, colonialism, and white supremacy persist.
We may have gender-neutral words like "magulang," but we curse in Filipino by calling one’s mother a whore instead of calling one’s parent a whore. We may have the gender neutral "asawa," but our books still describe a mother as the light of the house while the father is the pillar. We refer to our country as "Inang Bayan," often describing the violence of colonization and imperialism under a patriarchy in ways that approximate rape.
How hard is it, then, to accommodate a substitution of letters if it leads to a better understanding of one’s place in the global diaspora?
Filipino as a language, regardless of the gender-neutral words we take pride in, continues to perpetuate harm against women, especially when they are transgender, nonbinary, or gender non-conforming. Filipino as an identity, regardless of our good intentions, sometimes risks the erasure of precolonial identities such as that of the Bangsamoro and the Lumad who seek to assert their right to ancestral land and self-determination within the Philippine state. To identify one’s self as a Filipino and to speak the language requires a constant interrogation of our shared histories, while confronting the links between our personal privilege and another’s oppression.
How hard is it, then, to accommodate a substitution of letters if it leads to a better understanding of one’s place in the global diaspora, and facilitates a truly intersectional politics that makes room for gender and sexuality in the language we use as we struggle for liberation?
This is not to say that we should use words such as Filipinx to identify ourselves without engaging in a critical analysis of our own sociopolitical contexts. Surely there are both distinct and shared experiences between a Filipino who has lived all her life in the Philippines and a Filipino-American who is based in the United States. Acknowledging these different experiences and locating them in our shared struggle against structural violence and systemic oppression is necessary for a genuine and meaningful practice of solidarity.
In a speech by Black feminist Audre Lorde, she points out that “the failure of academic feminists to recognize difference as a crucial strength is a failure to reach beyond the first patriarchal lesson. In our world, ‘divide’ and ‘conquer’ must become ‘define’ and ‘empower.’”
We must learn to interrogate the hegemony and essentialism that the word Filipino carries within our shores and beyond our borders, as we collectively pursue liberation for all. We must focus on the historical and material conditions that surround our language and identity if we are to dismantle the imperialist, white supremacist, and capitalist patriarchy that defines the landscape of domination and oppression here in the Philippines and abroad.