Ethnicity and Kinship in Filipino Centennial Novels

Shirlita Espinosa

Aurelio S. Agcaoili. Dangadang. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2003.
B.S. Medina, Jr. Huling Himagsik. Manila: De La Salle University Press, 1998.
Jun Cruz Reyes. Etsa-Puwera. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press & Philippine Centennial Commission, 2000.

The most recent event to bring little earthquakes to Filipino writing in the vernacular was the Philippine Centennial Literary Prize. Held in 1998 to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Philippine revolution against Spain, the contest invited entries that would contextualize and celebrate the revolution in ways relevant to the contemporary demands of Philippine life. Centered on the belief that there was a need to “revive” nationalism a century after the Revolution – acknowledging that nationalism as an ideology has fluctuated due to globalized culture (Appadurai 1996) – this state-sponsored battle of the literati invoked the power of literature. To see why, one has only to recall the importance accorded, in post-revolutionary assessment, to Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, the newspaper Kalayaan, and the off-shore La Solidaridad in contributing to the nationalist dispensation of the 1890s. In the same vein, the 1930s Commonwealth Literary Awards, sponsored by the Philippine Writer’s League, legitimized among intellectuals and the reading middle class the race for nation-building in accordance with the colonial government’s ten-year Independence timetable (Quezon, Romulo, Lopez, et al. 1973).

The 1998 Centennial Literary Prize was likewise designed to advance a reformist national agenda. In a foreword contributed to those winning novels published jointly by the University of the Philippines Press and the Philippine Centennial Commission, prize committee head Adrian Cristobal deems literature serviceable in rethinking, reformulating, and reinstating the value of nationalist expression among the masses. Cristobal does not specify the kind of nationalism, but it is worth noting that the winning entries all discoursed on the nation, the 1896 revolution, patriotism, Filipino history, the Filipino, and the masses; topics that challenged the outer limits of these themes would risk losing if not outright disqualification. That said, writing about the nation in order to instill the old nationalist fervor was not without its rewards. Enticed by the one million peso first prize award, many authors responded to this call of merging the literary and the popular to purposely lead to “transformative action” (Hau 2000).

The winning novels are now part of the country’s national literature; this means they have penetrated the upper echelons of canonized, academic texts and through this have helped form the national imaginary. What constitutes this imaginary implicates the manifold colonialist history of the Filipino people. However, to say that colonialism is an important phase of our history is an oversimplification that needs to be threshed out in order to relate colonial ideology to the circumstances that engender the current state of literary production in vernacular languages, particularly Tagalog, which is politically inflected as Filipino. The enthusiastic response of the writers, or perhaps the indecision of the judges, is attested to by the fact that six novels share the three allotted prizes. Although possibly motivated by the “little wealth,” as described by Cristobal, this impressive exhibition of novels is a telling sign of the bond that links the ideology of the nation to the novel in the vernacular.

Many studies of the Filipino novel focus on the rise of vernacular novels after the revolution, rather than on Rizal’s exemplary pre-revolutionary novels (Mojares 1998, Reyes 1982, Lopez 1983). Mojares (1998) particularly links the rise of the vernacular novel in Tagalog (later “Filipino”) to the birthing of a nation under the American colonial regime during the first decade of the twentieth century. From 1900 to 1940, the literary production of Tagalog writing in the genre reached unprecedented heights, despite its departure from Rizal’s Western-modeled form. Mojares gives several reasons for this growth of “imperfect” prose writing, all of which are sociological. The end of the clerico-fascist Spanish rule loosened the mental noose around Filipinos and made possible a vigorious practice of writing novels in the natives’ languages. The absence of the unkind European possibly unleashed the native tongue.

Although the American civil government implemented public schooling soon enough, the gap between Spain’s departure and America’s impact created a hiatus that allowed the native “culturati” – mostly clerical officers involved in publishing – to move into the production of serialized narratives. A bourgeoning “intellectual” class – though different from Rizal, Pedro Paterno, and Trinidad Pardo de Tavera – found members among those who were too young to join the Katipunan but old enough to become civil servants of the new colonial structure. They were journalists and typesetters who combined the romanticism of the old literary forms of awit and corrido with the new form of the novel introduced by Rizal, though without his sophistication. Lope K. Santos, Faustino Aguilar, and Lazaro Francisco were some of the authors who popularized the vernacular novel among the masses at a time when Filipino writers in English were still learning the rules of grammar of the alien language. Santos’ 1905 novel Banaag at Sikat, which would become the consummate novel of proletarian struggle, showed that “all novels are social novels,” especially when cultural workers are from the tradition wrought by pervasive social inequity and injustice (323).

The emergence of the vernacular novel in Tagalog supports the claim that the form sufficiently cradles the narratorial necessities of Third World fiction as “national allegory” (Jameson 1991); in our early novels, public and national discourses are metaphorically enlarged fictions of the private and the individual. At a time when the country was shifting from one cultural hegemon to another, from a tradition of sentimentalism to a growing proletarian consciousness in the 1930s, novelists in Tagalog articulated people’s desire for freedom in their references to the Sakdalista movement and the Tayug rebellion. Although the dynamism of the Tagalog novel in the early decades was later replaced by excessive commercialization and formulaic plots, its importance in suturing the spaces in the Filipino national imaginary remains unparalleled. It is in this context that the Philippine Centennial Commission, headed by Salvador H. Laurel and Cesar E.A. Virata, thought it valuable to kick off a literary contest that would occupy a prime space in the pantheon of local writing competitions. The Centennial Literary Prize’s celebration and use of the literary arts was thus a nuanced duplication of the vernacular novel’s early history; they both translate the abstractness of the nation into the concreteness of “Filipinoness” sold as a novel.

The Centennial Literary Prize did not call exclusively for works in Filipino, although “national” and “nationalistic” endeavors are prescribed as conceptually Filipino; it also invited entries in English and Spanish. Significantly, however, although the project thus played with the paradoxical relations between “national” literature and language with its “nationalization” of two adopted foreign languages, it did not call for texts in vernaculars other than Tagalog couched as Filipino. Its reticent attitude in dealing with the question of (what) language, and therefore ethnicity, was curious. While the prize committee engaged our colonial history as a legitimate facet of our past by considering the legacies of both English and Spanish, its linguistic preferences gloss over the presence of the ethnic, which is the specter haunting the ties that bind this nation together. In a nation-state with a history of violence against and displacement of its many indigenous peoples, the contest’s choice of languages was disappointing, but unsurprising.

The response of the writers was equally revealing. The six prize-winning novels in Filipino, two tied at each position, are good specimens of narrativizing and debating the ethnic. They give us the opportunity to ask: Just how strong is the ethnic presence amidst the national pronouncements of oneness that cut across the Filipinos’ quest for identity and history? How do these novels, good and insightful as they should be, embark upon the very difficult attempt to represent who “we” were and who “we” will be?



Three of the six prize-winning novels in Filipino use, to a significant extent, the ethnic cultures of the Philippines to discuss the nation’s glorious past. In treating collective historical experience as a source from which to resurface and resurrect subjugated knowledges, they posit the novel as the most effective genre in creating a semblance of a truthful narrative account of pre-national ethnic culture. This articulation implicates two powerful discourses, colonialism and nationalism, that feed off each other in legitimizing a representation of ethnic groupings and customs as categorically anthropological. Although “tribal studies” has long been an established area in anthropology, it was only in the 1960s that Anglophone social anthropologists officially began to use the term “ethnicity” and in 1972 that the Oxford English Dictionary’s inclusion of it directly pointed to racial signification and minority issues (Eriksen 1993). Today, in the advent of the global movement of peoples and issues of ethnic cleansing, the discourse of ethnicity has permeated socio-political, economic, and cultural definitions of contemporary life (Appadurai 1996). It has also penetrated fiction’s use of ethnicity to essentialize the differences between the noble savage and modern man. (For example, Alfred Yuson’s Voyeurs and Savages [1998], third prize winner in the English category, exemplifies the postmodern romanticization of the native.)

John Breuilly (1996) asserts that the path from ethnic formations to nations and national identities is a discontinuous one, implying that boundaries and alliances may be formed in a mechanistic manner. Anthony Smith (1996), on the other hand, claims that the existence of the nation is directly related to ethnie or ethnic communities; their “serviceable past,” accessed through memories, identities and myths, provides a bridge to the modern nation. His position proves to be widely held: References to ethnic groupings in Philippine education and media do not emphasize oppositional relations of ethnicity and nationality; instead, they accentuate the “givenness” of minorities’ sub-national function. And these Centennial Filipino novels show a distinct propensity to recreate the highlights of the modern Philippine nation-state by rummaging through its mythic past. Smith asks: “[i]s the nation, then, simply an enlarged ethnic community?” (2). He addresses the presence and importance of myths and memories in historical formations:

there can be no identity without memory (albeit selective), no collective purpose without myth, and identity and purpose or destiny are necessary elements of the very concept of a nation (2)…. [T]he nation [is] in search of its past. Needing a history and destiny to overcome death and futility, communities like nations must find them in the cults of nature and the heroic past. The returning intelligentsia, in particular, needs a living past into which it can re-enter, and it uses disciplines like archeology and philology to reconstruct those poetic spaces and golden ages in which the ‘nation’ can and must locate itself (5).

These arguments point to the need for the nation’s master narrative to reconstruct an ancient past, to bridge gapped memories and to claim them as one beautiful, heroic story of a people. Writers, as “returning intelligentsia” or maybe literary-social anthropologists, seek the lost culture and animate the noble savage only to perpetuate the usability of the ethnic presence.


Etsa-Puwera, a Centennial first prize winner by Jun Cruz Reyes, narrates many stories of the ethnic inhabitants of north central Luzon’s Cordillera mountain range. (Etsa-puwera is a colloquial expression for “excluded.”) The novel opens with a scene that evokes the distance and serenity of the biblical genesis. Carrayyo, a brave Igorot hunter, awaits self-discovery in the hinterlands of Cordillera in the company of the wild. The idyllic backdrop – which uses Igorot mythic complexes – is disrupted when Oysang, Carrayyo’s woman, is contaminated by a sweet-talking Spanish priest named Francisco de San Esteban. This man is the last standing member of a mission sent to pacify and indoctrinate the Changyasan tribe – the rest of his Christian brothers lay dead in an encounter with fearless natives – for which he has earned the moniker “labuyo ng Cordillera” (the bravest in Cordillera; labuyo is a local variety of chili). In converting Oysang, the intruder leaves the highlands not only alive but with his ethnographic notes and the young “savage” he renames Rosa. Reyes’s psychologizing of the “noble savage” stops here as he turns to depicting the lives of mainstream, lowland Latinized Tagalogs. The last words heard from Carrayyo are a curse of solitude – “ang lumbay ay isang sumpa” (solitude is a curse) – which is to haunt every one of Rosa’s descendants.

The opposing valences in Reyes’s novel are pre-modernity and modernity, pure and contaminated, familial and institutional. Etsa-Puwera uses a woman’s origin as a metaphor to represent the ethnic as constitutive of the nation; part of both its spectacle and its struggle. Reyes depicts the path towards nationhood through his character, Rosa, whose relationships with men of different political persuasions embody the long and difficult journey towards self-actualization. Initially, the story suggests that when Rosa allowed a Spanish priest to Christianize her, change her name, and sleep with her, the ethnic subjectivity that formed her early world experience slowly drained away, as if ethnicity were something an individual could lose over time and distance. Yet this is contradicted by the theme maintained throughout the novel of ethnicity as innate, natural, and inalienable.

Rosa’s contamination does not stop at her “bastardization” as an Igorot in the lowland but continues as she becomes a kept woman of a Chinese mestizo who has blackmailed her in exchange for sex. In contrast, Reyes depicts Rosa’s true happiness in the context of her attachment to Dune and his millenarian community, a spiritual simulacra of her ethnic roots. Later in the novel, after the sudden disappearance of her Tagalog husband who joins a local group of revolutionaries, Rosa realizes how something as abstract and intangible as the nation can mobilize different kinds of people to act in common faith. She wonders how it is possible that her first husband’s enemy is the same band of state mercenaries that hunted down Dune’s millenarian ring. These personal events politicize Rosa to believe that the ethnic, the “cultural dregs,” is linked to the societal re-structuration happening at the turn of the century.

However, the problem remains. The readers of Etsa-Puwera are given no further understanding of this ethnic subjectivity that is assumed to be of great significance; the novel sympathetically psychologizes Rosa’s problem as simply one of severance and solitude. It fails to set the plot in a framework that would expose the function of ethnicity in the formation of the Filipino nation. Sadly, readers are privy only to the thoughts and feelings of the ethnic in Rosa, or whatever is left of it after her cooptation. Reyes does not hint at the continuity of ethnic memory and national historiography as “serviceable” ideas that propelled the nation into being, the same nation that his novel was written to glorify. It becomes apparent that it is too much to ask of Reyes’ narrative that it theorize the connection between ethnic-mythic complexes and the birth of nationalism. The novel promises to champion the ethnic by tracing Rosa’s path but ends up advantaging the ideology of nationalism, because it sets ethnicity within the nationalist discourse as an assumed, fossilized presence – a theoretical Other – not as sign of continuity but of polarity. Etsa-Puwera’s effort to hark back to the maternal ethnic origin of its juvenile protagonist, Rebo, is not an attempt to historicize and politicize the ethnic within the hegemony of the nation; this merely serves as a façade behind which making any mention of the ethnic is to make oneself a nationalist of sorts. Finally, the novel’s condemning of Rosa’s contamination is a puristic fetish, a kind of “racial biologism” that presents itself as an “anthropological universal.” This is the same justification used by racists, sexists, and nationalists to conquer their Others (Balibar 1991).


Another novel which inserts the problematique of the ethnic in nationalist discourse is B.S. Medina’s Huling Himagsik (The Last Revolt [lit.] or The Final Stand). Although rather trifling in range and scope compared to Reyes’s, this novel also singles out Baguio and the Mountain Province, demonstrating how ethnographic stereotypes in the archipelago tend to concentrate in the Cordilleras. Salvacion is a native of Ifugao who goes to Baguio City in Benguet to attend school. There she meets Philippine Military Academy graduate Juan Andres; after copulating once in the mouth of a cave, they part ways and Salvacion gives birth to Israel. Juan Andres would later become a Presidential Security Guard torn between allegiance to the state and affection for his estranged family, while Salvacion forges ties with Amang Dille, an Igorot whose militant character and dependability mark him as worthy to be Israel’s stepfather. Medina pits the apathy of Juan Andres against the radicalism of Dille, who accompanies his stepson to rallies and demonstrations at the Malacañang gates in order to bring justice to the disenfranchised farmers of Bukidnon. In his fortitude to become an instrument of change, Dille even lets himself be held hostage in a confrontation that presents Juan Andres with a dilemma: save the life and therefore the advocacy of Amang Dille or fulfill his oath of loyalty to the state. This choice is evident in the following exchange between Salvacion and Mark, another Presidential Security Guard:

[a]no ba ang bayan mo? Iisa lamang ang bayan mo. Ang Pilipinas…[a]ng ethnic communities, ang mga taga-Bulubundukin, lalo na, ang katutubo, ang talagang naka-daramang kanyang bayan ay bayang Malaya. Katutubo. Katutubo (194).

(What is your country? You only have one. The Philippines…[T]he ethnic communities, those from the highlands, especially the natives, they are the ones who deeply know that their country is a free country. The natives. The natives.)

This passage shows how Medina employs essentialist ethnicism, first at the personal level, where the ethnic Dille sacrifices for the woman who was neglected by the modern, colonially coopted, and careerist Andres. Second, and more importantly, Medina utilizes the presence of the ethnic and its cultural representations to show how nationalism maintains two faces: the official (capitalist) state nationalism exemplified by Juan Andres and the socialist nationalism of Dille, which is renounced by Juan Andres. Medina’s novel, like Reyes’s, strengthens the notion that to anchor a narrative in the ethnic is to guarantee it a nationalist slant. Unsurprisingly, Juan Andres dies for the love of his son, while Amang Dille dies for the nation’s (ungrateful) sons.

These two novels address the question of nationalism and Filipino identity by using the discourse of ethnicity with an emphasis on the politics of difference. The metamorphoses of characters slowly submerging under the weight of the majority’s pressure to acculturize is countered by the strong essentialist inclination of the writers. The meaning of indigenous culture in these novels can thus be read as the political use of the (ideally uncontaminated) ethnic. Unlike Smith’s articulation of continuity between the nation-state and the ethnie, however, these authors capitalize on a conceptually constructed opposition between the two wherein the indigenous appears risible. It is worth noting that the Centennial’s use of the novel is reciprocated by the form’s strengthening of the very stereotypes the nation finds so necessary. Another of these “necessary fictions” (Hau 2000) evident in the winning novels is that of the family as a central functionary in the perpetuation of nationalism. Patriotism by kinship, gendered and hierarchical, is a common thread running through the generational sagas that celebrate Filipino history.


The Filipino family has been described as “the strongest unit of society, demanding the deepest loyalties of the individual and coloring all social activity with its own set of demands;” it is further observed that “the communal values of the family are often in conflict with the impersonal values of the institutions of the larger society” (Jean Grossholtz, quoted in McCoy 2002: 1). This theory of kinship is sustained by the principle of primordialism wherein the “we-ness” of kith and kins outranks other groupings. This thesis, accounting for the indivisibility and indestructibility of familial ties, is the same logic that maintains the visibility and resilience of ethnic belongingness. Ironically, the modern nation-states’ existence and perpetuation depends on the “outgrowth of [these] natural affinities,” while keeping at bay the more extreme expressions of uniqueness and identity (Appadurai, 1996). Two of the prize-winning Centennial novel demonstrated the belief that links forged by bilateral kinship relations engender participation in the national(ist) struggle for democracy.

The notion that kinship is a “natural” pipeline through which nationalism runs is nowhere better articulated than in Aurelio S. Agcaoili’s Dangadang (Struggle [Ilocano]) (2003). This Centennial third prize winner was published three years after the University of the Philippines Press, in cooperation with the National Centennial Committee, had released the bulk of its publications. What separates Dangadang from the other prize-winning works is its author’s cognizant admission that the novel is a narrative of a family, a story of kinship, with the family as allegory of the national imaginary. On the page between the prologue and the first chapter is a seven-generation family tree in which two names are repeated significantly in several branches: Wayawaya (Freedom) and Bannuar (Hero). The familial map’s “congenital appellation” reminds us of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970), although heroes in Dangadang are set apart by a qualifying clause that follows the name being mentioned; for instance, “Kinuha ni Bannuar Agtarap, ikaanim na Bannuar sa kaputotan [generation] ng mga Agtarap, ang megaphone” (Bannuar Agtarap, Bannuar of the sixth generation Agtarap, took the megaphone) (8).

Aurelio S. Agcaoili, author of ‘Dangadang’. What separates it from the other prize-winning works is the author’s cognizant admission that the novel is a story of kinship.

This novel – an astounding 72 chapters long – chronicles the legacy of the Agtarap family, which is to produce heroes and fighters who become vanguards of Ilocano freedom. Although Agcaoili is conscious of his effort to “ethnicize” his discussion by identifying his “people” in political terms, his thematically calculated discussion clarifies that his intention to “ethnicize” has a national limit. Despite the novel’s insistence on issues peculiar to “Kailokuan,” a socio-politico-regional group in Northern Luzon, it does not raise the question of sovereignty or the specter of separatist movements as found in Muslim Mindanao. Dangadang, despite its strong essentialist/regionalist discourse, maintains that the freedom of the “Ilocano people” – whoever this may be – is a freedom umbilically connected to the country’s freedom. The novel opens with an inevitable death – that of one Bannuar whose militant participation in the Tignay movement has led him into the hands of Marcos’s mercenaries. This Bannuar folk hero is given a funeral pilgrimage with people coming on foot from all over Ilocandia to witness a ceremony led by a priest who is proudly a communist symphatizer. The family’s collective history then shifts to a monologue in the form of a letter, in which Ili, a priest, tells the family’s journey of poverty, hunger, insanity, violence, displacement, and disenfranchisement that followed Bannuar’s death. Setting the mood that the narrative would champion their family history is this statement by Quiades, father of Bannuar and himself a guerilla fighter against the Japanese: “‘I came from a family whose history is linked with the revolution itself. Check the Katipunan files and you will certainly see our family name’” (27).

The novel’s articulation of kinship as the pipeline of nationalist subjectivity includes those whom the Bannuars marry. When Agtarap children marry, the family incorporates the woman who would help bring forth heirs to the legacy. This discussion focuses on three women who have married Agtarap boys: Linglingay, Teresa, and Maria. Linglingay is married to Bannuar, fifth generation Bannuar of the Agtarap, who joined the guerilla forces in Sinamar. An argument transpires between the couple about the insecurity of having a nationalist husband:

“Putang inang rebolusyon na ito…[n]apapagod na ako sa ganitong sitwasyon, Bannuar. Nakakapagod na. Wala naman yatang patutunguhan ang ginagawa natin. Mabuti pang magbalik na ako sa lungsod, magturo sa eskuwelahan ng mga madre o pari o dili kaya ay magpagamit sa mga kapitalista sa Ayala” (7).

(Fuck the revolution…I am getting tired of this predicament, Bannuar. It’s exhausting. I don’t think we’re getting anywhere at all. I might as well go back to the city, teach in a convent school or be used by capitalists in Ayala.)

The exchange of dialogue about what is supposed to be personal within a fledgling family implies a clash between the ideological orientation of a man following a familial/national tradition and a woman depicted as a deserter. About who this Linglingay is or where she came from, the author remains obscure. If Agcaoili intended to let ideologically incorrect wives remain shadowy, he makes his point clear enough. Linglingay’s concerns are political statements. When she asserts that the revolution of the masses is not the scenario to raise a family and that the radius of the family circle is outside of the revolution, she is depicted not as a wife bent on self-preservation, but as an enemy antagonizing not only her own man but the whole liberation movement. Linglingay’s alternatives are also made clear: living by the paycheck for multinational capitalists or religious institutions, both symbols of hegemony, is the corrective to whatever a guerilla husband can provide.

Another non-Agtarap character whose thinking and behavior the novel disapprove of is Teresa or Sor Serafica, a nun serving the parochial territory of Father Ili Agtarap. Teresa liberates herself from the trappings of religious hypocrisy, falls in love with this spunky priest (infamous for beating up the villainous bishop), and, fulfilling her function in the Agtarap tragedy, becomes pregnant. Her maternal “instincts” for self-preservation against the fate awaiting her as the woman of a nationalist priest lead her to seek a way out. Not unlike Linglingay, Teresa tries to secure her child’s future by choosing to bear and raise her son in Honolulu, Hawaii, a destination for Ilocano expatriates. This act of severing the fruit from the branch, both literal and figurative, is for Ili a most unnatural breach of bond with the fatherland:

“[s]a iyong pagsilang sa ibang lupain, hindi na kita maaangkin pa kahit kailan… Taga-ibang lupain ka na, anak, at sa lupain kung saan ka unang nakahingi ng hininga, diyan, nariyan ang kontratang kakawing ng iyong pagsilang. At dahil isinilang kang iba bagama’t ang dugo mo’y dugo ng mga Ilokanong patuloy na naghahanap ng kanilang katuturan, hindi ka na namin bannuar, Bannuar” (336-337).

With your birth in another land, I can never own you anymore. You belong to that land, my child, and wherever it is you breathed your first, it is where you forge the contract of your birth. And because you were born different from us though your blood is the blood of Ilocanos who continue to make meaning of their lives, you are no longer our hero, Bannuar.

Here, Agcaoili draws out several essentialist notions on the nation, nationalism, and the working of citizenship that remind us both of Renan’s (1994) romantic articulations and Anderson’s (1990) historicized approach.

The last woman is Maria, wife of Quiades, mother to Bannuar. The young Maria had declined Quiades’ proposal of marriage. But for the aging man who wanted a wife, her response was not acceptable; as soon as he has the chance, he rapes the Ilocana. Shamed for being pregnant and unmarried, she thankfully accepts the first available offer, becoming the mother of three sons, all of them nationalists by word and deed, and an unknowing wife of her rapist. Agcaoili tolerates this chauvinistic act as “plant[ing] the seeds of paternity” for the nationalist cause. The rape of Maria by Quiades, himself hailed as a fierce fighter against the Japanese, is tangentially juxtaposed with Maria’s love affair with Uliteg (Uncle) Leon. When Quiades’s ailing mental health leads to his family’s disintegration and sends him to a sanatorium, Leon comes to the rescue. However, this love coupling, while depicted as sincere and true (as opposed to Quiades’s forced and duty-bound), is fraught with contradictions – and this is not because of its unlawfulness but because of Agcaioili’s articulation of nationalist progeny. Maria’s children by Quiades, celebrated for his nationalist lineage, are three young men whose lives are distinguishably tragic yet heroic. However, when the same woman gives birth to the illegitimate Mira, the young girl does not exhibit her half brothers’ nationalist tendencies. Moreover, she becomes remarkable for her heartless capacity to cheat, then abandon, the pitiful Amor, a guerilla fighter. This woman’s terrible person is also used to explain her abandonment of the revolution to marry Marco Agdaquep, a Hawaii émigré. Her betrayal is excused by her need to “forget” a past that continually feeds on the specter of a dark episode of the Agtarap family – as if forgetting is possible and a guarantee of a peaceful present. But the dark past is not only Mira’s; the twist lies in the fact that her father, Leon, is the son of a relative who collaborated with the Japanese. Therefore, Leon’s “bad” genes, no matter how kind and accommodating he was to Maria’s children and how upright he has become despite his father’s reputation, cannot remedy the flaw and the lack of producing a Bannuar. In Agcaoili’s plot, kinship and the making of heroes are as formulaic as this.


Many female scholars have theorized on the asymmetrical rise of nationalism and women’s significance in nation-building. They have pointed out that the dominant theories of nationalism are either masculine or simply silent about women participation’s in nationhood. To feminist scholars of nationalism, it is a case of patriarchy more than a division of labor. Anne McClintock asserts that “[a]ll nationalisms are gendered, all are invented and all are dangerous… as systems of cultural representations whereby people come to imagine a shared experience of identification with an extended community, they are historical practices through which social difference is both invented and performed. Nationalism becomes in this way constitutive of people’s identities through social contests that are frequently violent and always gendered” (352-3). However, although the power of the man is reinforced and an extension of the power of the nation, national symbols of freedom and liberty have remained female, such as the French Marian, the United States’ Liberty, and the Philippines’ Inang Bayan. This seemingly daunting paradox is not a paradox at all, but rather an instance of how patriarchy has encroached on the nationalist discourse. Catherine Hall reinforces McClintock’s point: “[w]omen can often be conceptualized as ‘mothers of the nation,’ an image which places their reproductive capacities at the center of their service to the nation. Familial language, ordering gender relations, is also frequently at the heart of the ‘imagined community’” (100). Dangadang’s celebration of male virility and depiction of women as the literal repository of semen and nationalism shows that nationalist texts must necessarily and theoretically work within a gendered notion of nationalism.

The attempt to link Philippine history’s moments into a continuum can be compared to a family’s participation in the creation of such moments through the sacrifice of its worthy members. However, it is always compelling to problematize this notion of history as pages without breaks, highlighted by some events that are greater than others. History, the making and writing of it, can be as quotidian as everyday living in the same manner as families do not cease to get involved in the making of history. A family’s active support in mass uprisings over a hundred years’ time cannot be easily validated as handed down and customary. While Dangadang’s tracing of its characters’ heroism undergirds such a point, it cannot explain why, during every season of oppression, a family member turns heroic, nor how family relations lead to transformative action. Maybe the answer to such a baffling question is rather simple: that nationalism passed on through kinship is merely incidental to the fact that every self-respecting individual must resist fascistic power. Maybe it is safer to conclude that all Filipino families exhibit Agcaoili’s thesis of nationalism by kinship, if the family is seen as a grouping whose members can participate individually in the making of the nation – as their subjugation under the state’s power and performance of civic duties on a daily basis define it.

Medina’s Huling Himagsik is also engaged in the current discussion of nationalism by kinship. Written in uninvitingly convoluted Tagalog syntax, the novel employs a fragmentary narrative technique to dramatize two heroic episodes separated by a long period of time. The first of three parts revolves around the life of Juan Andres, whose struggle is his responsibility to protect the head of the state versus his instinctive desire to safeguard his son Israel. This and the next section of the novel are linked by two seminal clues. The first involves the use of two names with one phonological difference: “Juan Andres” in the first section and “Andres ‘Anden’ Maypag-asa” in the next. Any sensitive reader cannot miss such a contrived move. The second hint is the repeated references to Andres Bonifacio, his brother Procopio, the Magdalo versus Magdiwang faction, the “treason” that led to Bonifacio’s murder by the soldiers of General Miyong, and the use of Montalban as an early setting for Bonifacio’s secret society. Medina’s calendrical flashbacks spanning a century suture the lives of an Anden Maypag-asa murdered in Mt. Buntis and one Juan Andres, a presidential guard who hails from Divisoria. The messianic fate of Anden becomes complicated as his journey towards Salvation becomes intertwined with the lives of Magdala and Juan Puti, her adopted brother who secretly loves her. Anden and his brother Opyong, Magdiwang members, are persecuted by the contending faction from Tangway (Cavite). What follows is a Christ-like procession that brings Anden to the hill of suffering followed by Magdala, an allusion to Magdalene, who is in love with him despite his marriage to Lakambini, a relative of hers. This love affair started when Anden resuscitated Magdala after her collapse during the burning of a friar estate in Noveleta. In a scene reminiscent of the Christ in calvary, Anden, bloodied and breathless, asks Juan Puti, brother to Magdala and ally of his, to “take care” of the woman. This enigmatic exchange only makes sense after realizing towards the end that the “heaven” Magdala keeps on repeating to herself is a tryst with Anden. The story ends with the nagging suspicion that maybe this “centennial” woman’s child is the forefather-to-be of the first section’s Juan Andres, thereby covering a century of Philippine history. Thus, Israel Bagongbayan, a modern-day activist, would be a descendant of Andres Maypag-asa, the messianic revolutionary, thereby sealing the ring of kinship and nationalism.

Sure enough, the last section of Huling Himagsik confirms that this novel is the narrative-in-flashback of a family that struggled a century ago and keeps struggling until the last male progeny stands. The unborn baby, Juan Andres I, whose name derives from his biological father (Andres the Supremo) and his foster father (Juan Crisostomo), survives and lives through another heroic episode in Philippine history – the Japanese occupation. As expected of a son from an “archetypal nationalist family,” he becomes a guerilla fighter (Medina does not specify whether USAFFE, Hukbalahap, or a civilian group) and dies in the mountains without the opportunity to return home to teach his own son Nationalism 101. Nonetheless, Juan Andres Jr. keeps the filial legacy alive as a student of the PMA, thereby becoming a soldier with surprisingly proletarian sympathies. This Juan Andres conducts a whirlwind love affair with the militant Salvacion, who becomes the mother of Israel and marries an Igorot, Amang Dille, another radical who “teaches” Israel love for one’s country. The closing stretch introduces Gloria, the daughter of a former governor of Ilocos Sur, whose social class debars her from militancy. She becomes Andres’s wife, personifies his bureaucratic career, and bears him a daughter, Leona, whose “bourgeoisified” manner and naivete earn the love of Israel, her activist half-brother. Israel eventually dies at the hands of Mark, his father’s henchman, while defending oppressed farmers and ethnic minorities. Israel’s death hints at a fortuitously incestuous and atavistic coupling (reminiscent of Marquez’s novel) that marks the last stand of filial bravery, and literally, the final struggle, “huling himagsik,” of a family for national freedom.

The endings of Huling Himagsik and Dangadang both romanticize an idealized notion of death and tribulation resulting in compassion of national proportions. However, when nationalist novels claim reciprocity between familial lineage and democratic, often socialist, ideology, many hypotheses surface. If nationalist sentiments are “naturally” transferable through kinship and familial legacy, it seems that patriotic feelings are as primordial as breeding. However, if modernity is the precursor to the formation of the nation, then patriotic sentiments can never be as primordial as human reproduction and family formation. Simply put: because the primordiality of national feelings is a fallacy, then kinship as the pipeline of nationalism is a fallacy, too. As McCoy (2002) argues, precisely because of the excessive power of familial loyalty in Philippine society, it is doubtful that the family – self-preserving as it is in a feudalistic, neo-colonial context – would offer its children to love, and in the most dramatic of cases, to die for, an impersonal nation.

The novels in Filipino examined here also celebrate the nation at the expense of treating the ethnic as “antimodern.” The pomp and money that defined the Centennial anniversary is itself a symptom of a “postethnic” triumph. These so-called nationalist novels heavily capitalize on the contrariness between nationalism and ethnicity. While nationalism benefits from the belief that a nation is essentially an “outgrowth of natural affinities” (Appadurai 1996), a network of kins, an identified “oneness,” it is actually built precisely on their negation. These prize-winning novels use this antinomy of reasons to their advantage, reinforcing stereotypes in canonized texts without examining them. Without an insightful account of how this ethnic presence should be read today, amidst modernity, even the most talented of contemporary writers can only place the issue anachronistically in the dreamy territory of boondocks and g-strings.

Shirlita Espinosa 

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia Issue 8-9 (March 2007)


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