Volcanic eruptions and identity

First published on Philippine Generations on 19th April 2012

A Filipino volcanic eruption made it on to the news last weekend – and I don’t mean Pinatubo or Mayon.

Rather, the news was rather happier: the Philippines rugby sevens team a.k.a. the Volcanoes made their grand debut at the most famous sevens tournament in the world, the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens. Granted, they lost every match they played (including to the old colonisers, Spain – boo hiss!) and conceded 99 points, but what do you expect for a country where rugby is, of all the sports played there, probably still the little toddler? The Philippines still scored 32 points, nearly beat Zimbabwe and impressed the crowds with their gutsy and physical performance as well as a charismatic and cheerful attitude on the field – nothing for a newcomer to be ashamed of.

Or is there something shameful about the Volcanoes? Remember the controversy over Arnold Clavio’s misjudged comments about the ethnic backgrounds of the Azkals? Well, the entire Philippines rugby sevens team is made up entirely of mestizos, predominantly from Australia and England. The Fijian rugby team took a swipe at this via Twitter and suggested that the only thing Filipino about the team was its name – a ‘joke’ that they swiftly retracted and apologised for after causing an online ruckus.

Proud members of the Philippines rugby sevens team in Thailand, November 2012 – who are the mestizos and who are the full-blood Pinoys?

Proud members of the Philippines rugby sevens team in Thailand, November 2011 – who are the mestizos and who are the full-blood Pinoys?

At what point do people stop being Filipino? I, like many of my fellow mestizos, am proud of my Filipino heritage, gained in my instance from my mother: I adore the food, I have an understanding of some of the culture and the things that make Filipinos tick, I love to visit the country, and I’ve even tried to correct an early failing by learning the language too. I’m always proud to highlight this to my friends and colleagues, even to strangers in markets and abroad who seem curious about where my looks come from.

But I am also English. Asians pick up that I don’t look or sound fully like ‘one of them’, I love playing football and watching rugby, and I think a warm-yet-cool English summer’s day with a garden party full of strawberries, cream and Pimm’s is something to be treasured.

So, inevitably, the question comes up: which do I identify with more? At the moment, I would probably say the English side, as it is an environment that I have grown up in and I have never lived in the Philippines. But that is not to say that I would decline the chance to play for my mother’s country, if I were a strapping young rugby/football-playing lad. In fact, I would deem it an honour, and many of the Azkals and Volcanoes have publicly said the same.

Perhaps because it is still relatively un-multicultural (in terms of not experiencing large-scale immigration like the UK), the Philippines still struggles with coming to terms with a wide-ranging definition of what it is to be Filipino. There has been little merit given to the idea of self-identification, the idea that if I feel myself to be Filipino enough to call myself Filipino, then that is a valid and patriotic enough choice to make. If I am willing to dedicate myself to my mother’s country, then surely I should be welcomed, or at the very least not have my heritage called into question.

This is surely a conversation that the Philippines should have, considering the vast size of the Filipino diaspora (with some 10% of all Filipinos now living overseas). To dismiss a self-identifying Filipino because they are mestizo and/or born overseas is to miss out on a vast pool of talent, ready to help when asked. It may not necessarily be their choice that they ended up living overseas, but it may very well be their choice if they decide to return.

One day, I hope that a more open-minded environment is cultivated in the Philippines. Perhaps sport will be instrumental in bringing this about, by giving balikbayans and mestizos an opportunity to commit themselves to the country of their ancestors. And for British Filipinos, perhaps helping to grow the popularity of football and rugby in the Philippines can be one of the ways we can reconcile our dual heritages.

But judging by the popularity of the Volcanoes amongst the female population (Google the words Philippines, rugby and Bench together to see why), perhaps the sport doesn’t need our help that desperately…

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