However, the same free man, at the point of a sword or at the nudge of a gun, will give up his hands and surrender to the shackles. And as the Spaniards, Americans, and Japanese have made us pliant to their weapons, we have been moulded into a people desperately, continuously seeking identity. The ghosts of foreign influences—positive, negative, political, social, and economic—seem to hide us from who we really are. We are a lost Filipino.
But I have found identity, at least some of it, in two little provinces named Ilocos on top of each other. This is a story of epiphany, of self-discovery, of a lost Filipino. It is also a story about a house.
Ilocos had an enviable cacophony of massive cathedrals burning in the equatorial heat. Their brown hundred-year stones were immovable in the cities, while their interiors were a blend of the gold-gilded Catholic extravagance of old and humble modern restoration. Ilocos also boasted ageing traditional artisans who continue to work on their looms and pottery ovens as if machines were only a passing fad. Only in Ilocos do millions of separate, single threads interlace by hand to form the bold and dream-like patterns that run through your dinner tables. Only in Ilocos does the pottery platform still rotate—like a scene from Patrick Swayze’s Ghost—to create from dirt a masterpiece.
Only in Ilocos do the houses remain as magnificent as they were when the Spaniards were amongst us, and this was my favourite part.
These houses stood low—two- or three- story boxes whose rectangular facade cascaded with capiz shell windows and brown wooden planks. The shape was almost indomitable, impenetrable, and yet delicate. To have stood the test of a hundred years, each house was almost one breeze away from destruction.
A visitor would go in through a gate, a master doorway, a receiving room, another receiving room, and into the privies of the household. He would feel like a stranger in a fortress with all the layers of skin held up against him. However, once inside, he was suddenly a beloved audience, and the house would go from fortress to entertainer.
The interiors were spacious and magnificent, each room an opportunity to comfort and impress. Every room had a meticulously-made European sofa or group of chairs as well as a splendid view outside. Decorations bedecked tables and shelves—figurines of children, angels, saints, and demons together with memorabilia of the recognitions of children and the travels of the family. Paintings were never small in the houses; they loomed above or in front of you like frontispieces demanding interest and creating grandiosity. The carved, four-poster beds were works of art in themselves.
The mood was also different.
The doldrums of siesta hung in the air as the wind blew generously inside and as the familiar chime of the wooden flooring resounded with very step. The placement of the bedrooms outward produced inner living spaces that did not have their own light. Colossal catacombs that they were, every ray of light, at any time of the day, was a precious painter illuminating colours of so many kinds. The effect was tranquillity and calmness. This was a true home.
Standing in the sala, within hundreds of square meters of home, I had realized that the old Spanish house said a lot of things about the Filipino that I had not seen before.
There was mistrust and then trust—a cycle of changing skins that pervaded every minute of our textbook history. The first skin, the gate, was our first defense. The second skin, the great doors, was our last great vestige of hope against conquerors. There were influence and variety in the rooms—European, American, Asian, etc.—that represented the influences and varieties that have created our aesthetics and values as a people. There was also immense beauty: as if the 7,107 naturally beautiful islands of the Philippines condensed into a single house with our breathtaking beaches as the frontispieces. Lastly, there was tranquillity, a state we seek continuously as we try to veer away from the pressures of a fast-paced, never-say-die, Western-oriented way of life.
I, like many people, think repeatedly, “What if we were never colonized?” Would we be a great civilization of indios brimming with bravery and independence? Would we be a mystifying culture of Malays wherein each island remained to be a portrait of a unique heritage?
I, like many people, often seethe in hate towards the cruel Spaniards and Americans and Japanese who had pulled us from the crest like crabs in a pot. I, like many Filipinos, wish that the past hadn’t happened.
However, we had been colonized. This is us now. Is that our identity?
Revisiting the past in Ilocos had made me realize that I cannot change the past. It was an indomitable block of stone in our cathedrals and old houses; it was immovable and impenetrable as a fortress. What I can do is remember it, the way millions like me explore Ilocos, and never forget. After all, my identity as a Filipino now is not the identity of the Filipino before Magellan. It is an identity that continues to change—along with the changes that progress with society.
A free man will not willingly choose oppression or suffering or tyranny, but a wise man knows that, if you cannot accept the past, you cannot truly be free.