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The Dialectical Process of Cultural Identity: Some Reflections on my Ateneo Cultural Laboratory – Kalibo 2013 Experience and on Being a Palaweño

Identity can be defined simply as how a person views oneself. As a Palaweño, however, this is problematic because in my experience identifying myself is not only based on my internal reflection but also means taking in the perceptions of the people surrounding me. Identity stems from both internal reflection and social interaction. In my experience, it becomes difficult when others unknowingly impose an identity upon me. A simple mismatch of these factors can cause a confusion. This was my dilemma; it is a battle for an identity.

When somebody asks me where I come from, I always answer Palawan because it is the place where I was born and raised. I find that the answer “Palawan” is a good conversation-starter, especially during my first few years in campus when I had not made many friends yet. I would usually receive a feedback about how beautiful they think my province is and how they wished that they could stay there for good.They ask me if I always go on trips to our white sand beaches, if I always hang out in bars in Puerto Princesa City, if I live near El Nido, etc. I feel that what people are talking about – the image they have of my home province – is a stereotype of Palawan. It is the imagery of a tourism center, oversimplified as beaches of white sand and an underground river. And yet the island of Palawan has the largest land area among the provinces in the country and has a more diverse terrain than just white sand and a river. This reminds me of an insight from Jean-Paul Dumont’s Visayan Vignettes(1991): the moment someone imagines and perceives an island, he limits what he can still experienceabout it. This insight was affirmed after doing fieldwork in the life history of workers in the piña industry during the Ateneo Cultural Laboratoryin Kalibo, Aklan Province with the Department of Sociology and Anthropologyfrom April to May 2013. This time, however, I was the one perceiving an unfamiliar place.

 “…in my experience identifying my self is not only based on my internal reflection but also means taking in the perceptions of the people surrounding me.”

In preparation for Kalibo, one of the things I did was to research about Aklan online. Seeing photos of the place, I immediately associated Kalibo and Aklan to the imagery I saw:pictures of the Ati-atihan gave an image of festivity, while pictures of Boracay gave an image that Aklan is truly a tourist destination. Since I had not been to Aklan, these images dominated my emotions and perceptionsof the place.And so after the one-hour flight from Manila to Kalibo, I was rather disappointed. It was not because I did not like what was there, but because my expectations of the place and the actual experience of the place itself were not the same. The airport was still being renovated and it was surrounded by farms and plantations. The imagery I had was changed by being there. Furthermore, as I stayed in Kalibo, this image of Aklancontinued to change.As I interacted in and with the place, my understanding of it was continuously created.I began to realize the understanding that Dumont describes: “always momentary, caught as it is in the dialectic of the duration” (Ibid: 16).

I also realize that in the effort to share my actual experience of Palawan to non-Palaweños so I could give a realistic image of my hometown,I am also interpreting my hometown to them. And so their understanding of Palawan will still be limited to what I say. Thus, the tendency to have a generalization about my locality – or any locality -is inevitable as interpretation is a dialectical process.

Therefore, I also realized the value of fieldwork and its necessity in social research, because it gives us access to that dialectical and reflexive process within which we expand our understanding by interacting with the places we study.

The Insider-Outsider Dialectic

My Atenean friends once asked me if I knew how to speak “Bisaya.” I answered that I can only understand but not speak it. One of them sighed and said that he expected me to know Bisaya since Palawan is in the Visayas. This sparked a debate among them: Was Palawan really part of the Visayas or of Luzon? Why does it belong to region IV-B (MIMAROPA) when it shares some ethnolinguistic similarities with Visayan provinces?I listened as they debated about my province, thinking to myself that they assume they know how to categorize my province. In all honesty, it felt uncomfortable and threatening to hear how they as outsiders discuss such things without first asking me about it. However, it was more uncomfortable to realize that I myself am unclear about the cultural and geopolitical issues of Palawan. In such instances, the dialectic process becomes quite challenging because an idea of Palawan is decided by a group of outsiders, while the Palaweño  – myself – is unclear about it.

I understood this more clearly while gathering data on the history of the piña industry in Kalibo. If various institutions and individuals from within and outside Aklan had not perceived its decline in the 1980s and made efforts to revive it,the piña industry could have possibly died out (Montinola, 1991: 181-185). This social decision had great effects on the industry, particularly by identifying the weaving of piña textile as an important part of their culture.Moreover, if locals did not continue their tradition of weaving piña textile, the industry would not have persisted as well. In this sense, the outsider view and interpretation of the value of part of Aklanon culture – the piña textile – was vital to stimulating local attitudes and practices in piña weaving, perhaps also clarifying its value for the locals. Thus, this dialectic process promoted, not just the production of piña textile, but also an awareness of culture and heritage in Kalibo and Aklan.

 “…the dialectic process becomes quite challenging because an idea of Palawan is decided by a group of outsiders, while the Palaweño – myself – is unclear about it.”

The dialectic process also takes another form that I realized during our visit to Boracay in Malay, Aklan. As one of the most popular destinations in the Philippines, Boracay receives an overwhelming number of both foreign and local tourists. Their interaction with the place certainly has had an effect on the locals of Boracay, especially the Ati who are now more than ever being pushed to the margins of the island as capitalists build commercial establishments in Boracay. This imposition of outsider interests upon the insiders without proper consultation causes not only a confusion on land ownership in Boracay but also the decline of Ati culture, a coastal and foraging culture that is rooted in island life. Although the Ati in Boracay have a strong sense of cultural identity, commercialization is impinging upon their traditional way of life and is creating a situation where they have to struggle just to keep their way of life and their own members alive. Thus, no matter how reflexive or culturally aware the insider is, this is not enough if their notions about their place are not honored or are contradicted by outsiders and the way of life they bring, especially when force is used.

The Indigenous-Colonial Dialectic

Growing up in my community, I was socialized by my primary groups into fearing people of other religious beliefs such as Muslims who comprise a part of the population but are not the majority. And soI still find it very difficult to remove my prejudices. This dichotomy of people from my religion and people from outside my religion has caused heated discussions among my friends in my hometown in Palawan. In the perspective of my religion,other practices seem weird and threatenour social norms.In their perspective, our religious practices come from the Spaniards,while their original practices have been preserved since pre-Hispanic time.Although our arguments end when my friends and I accept our diversity, the argument itself between the original and the colonial as sources of culture and identity is not really resolved.

Fernando Zialcita in Authentic Though Not Exotic (2005) offers an insightful perspective that our culture is a synthesis of our own with the influence of other cultures that we have interacted with. Local genius integrates with colonial influences when it is useful to us in terms of our environment and social organization. Embracing this synthesized culture helps build one’s identity. But by denying our synthesized culture, we create a dichotomy between the original and the colonial.

 “Local genius integrates with colonial influences when it is useful to us in terms of our environment and social organization.”

In my fieldwork in Alan, my group discovered that while the piña plant was brought by the Spanish to the Philippines by way of the Galleon Trade, the piña plant had already been adapted by the Filipinos, especially the creative way by which Aklanons have developed their methods for making the piña textile from the fibers of the piña plant – from planting piña and harvesting its leaves, to scraping the bastos and liniwan fibers off the leaves, to washing and dyeing the fibers, to the various methods and patterns of weaving – all of which are absent from the origin or source of the piña plant. Such is evidence that we are more original than we think.

Conclusion

Ultimately, cultural identity is a dialectical process that engages both personal or insider reflections and outsider views that interpret the locality’s culture. On the one hand, the interaction between the insider and outsider views can lead to a greater awareness or appreciation of a culture, as in the case of the revival of the piña industry in Kalibo, Aklan. On the other hand, the imposition of outsiders can lead to the marginalization of a culture, as in the case of the Ati in Boracay. Both internal reflection upon one’s identity and social reflection on Philippine identities are crucial. Moreover, full realization of our identity or identities becomes possible when we embrace the totality and dynamism of our cultures as they maintain traditional social attributes while integrating colonial cultural influences. In that way, we will be more able to accept the idea that we are more original than we think. Finally, such understanding about the dialectical process of cultural identity occurs when preconceived notions are challenged by new ideas, especially through lived experience or through interaction with a locality not one’s own.These are some of my reflections of my fieldwork experience in Kalibo and of being a Palaweño. The process of my understanding cultural identity continues.

References

Dumont, Jean-Paul (1992) “Imagine an Island” in Visayan Vignettes, Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Montinola, Lourdes R (1991) Piña, Manila: Amon Foundation.

Zialcita, Fernando (2005) “More Original than We Think” in Authentic Though Not Exotic: Essays on Filipino Identity, Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Editor’s Note: This is a reflection paper submitted as a requirement for Ateneo Cultural Laboratory – Kalibo 2013 by one of the students. Clinton Balbontin is a third year undergraduate student of Ateneo de Manila, majoring in the Social Sciences.

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