Who is the Filipino?

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Philippine Flag

Alan Geoghegan

Vigan kids
Vigan kids by Alan Geoghegan

"Who is the Filipino?" by Alan Geoghegan

Presented at the 10th Annual Filipino-American Gala, Embassy Suites Hotel, Columbia South Carolina

All images © by Alan Geoghegan unless otherwise specified: Please share any content, though please ask permission before reproducing this article, thank you very much!!!


Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I welcome you all to our 10th Anniversary GALA and hope you all enjoy yourselves at our annual function. I was born in Manila of a British father and a French mother. My first 2 1/2 years were spent in the Philippines and I don't remember a thing, though my first contact was with my mother, it was my Filipina YAYA, or nanny, INDAY who looked after me for the first 2 1/2 years of my life.

Children in Muntinlupa, a suburb of Manila by Alan Geoghegan


Soon afterwards, my family moved to New York where my father would work for the United Nations and only in 1989 would I reconnected to the place of my birth. Fresh out of college, I headed to the Philippines sent by the World Association for Orphans. As I began a 2 month video documentation on street children, I did not know that it was Marc Loinaz, a Filipino inventor from New Jersey, who first made the one-chip video camera. (link)

Filipinos are spread all over the world and I often ask myself, what is the essential character of being Filipino?

At the root of Philippine culture is the
MALAY spirit (link), said to have come from the south of continental Asia. The Malay share a brownish skin with slanting eyes, similar to the Thai, or Vietnamese. The Malay began as a nomad moving down to the Malay Peninsula, down to the South Pacific, and eventually to the Philippines.

Free Baguong to the one who rows the most.


What is incredible is that these voyages were not made by ship, but on quite small rowboats. During the time of the earliest settlers, Religion was in the hands of the WOMEN and the basic belief was that everything in this world - a tree, river, roof, a season, had it's own ANITO , or SPIRIT. In this period, the rulers were called DATUS and BARANGAY or "community" culture respected other people's property, the more you had , the more likely you could become a DATU (link). (Roces)

Many existing health beliefs and practices in the Philippines are rooted back in the pre-colonial period are still practiced today, belief in nature spirits or DWENDE, supreme deities, such as DWATA and an ability to repel the naughty spirits, or MOMOH (ghost) with ANTING ANTING, or talismans & amulets (link).


Soon after MAGELLAN landed in CEBU in 1521 and claimed it for Spain, MIGUEL LOPEZ DE LEGASPI (link) named the country after the Prince and later King of Spain, Philip II . Today, there is a small grass-roots movement in the Philippines whose members want the countries' name changed to MAHARLIKA: Maharlika is a Filipino term which means "NOBLE".

The church (right)was built by Miguel Lopez de Legaspi and Fr. Andres Urdaneta on the site where the image of Santo Niño was found in Cebu in 1565.
Spanish rule lasted for over 300 years in the Philippines during which time the Church maintained strict control over a
HACIENDA system of landlords and peasants.

Basilica Minor Del Santo Nino

Spanish church tower in Vigan by Alan Geoghegan

With over 7000 islands, containing numerous ethnic groups speaking a reported over 170 different dialects (link), the Philippine Islands would not be easy to control: although Spain had domination over the Philippine economy, they would also not have complete control over it's people.

From 1588 to the 1890's ,The Philippines was hit by countless earthquakes, a cholera epidemic killing thousands, hundreds of typhoons, thousands of of fires such as the Chinese Ghetto or PARIAH in Intramuros which burned down 6 times in between 1588 and 1642 . During this world-wind of change, The University of Santo Tomas was founded in Manila in 1611 and is older than Harvard University (1636) by 25 years. (Joaquin)

The Philippines was repetitively invaded by the British, the Dutch, the Japanese and Chinese, by both pirates and wealth-seekers who all wanted control over the spice trade centered in the Moluccas.

The Chinese already had thousands of years of dealing with the Philippines: the Spanish imposed strict taxes for Chinese doing business, though if they converted to Christianity , they were exempt from paying taxes for 10 years and could marry a Christian Filipina. This could explain some of the CHINITO or Chinese look of some Filipinos today. (Joaquin) The Filipino character is a little bit of all these cultures mixed together: "Filipinos are Malay or BAYANIHAN in family, Spanish in love, Chinese in business, and American in ambition."

Due to the Philippines long association with Spain, Filipinos are emotional and passionate about life in a way that seems more LATIN than Asian, and a common trait that distinguishes them all is FILIPINO HOSPITALITY.

It is interesting to note that last names were adopted by people in the Philippines only in 1849, by a decree issued by Spanish Governor NARCISO CLAVIERA, who observed that Filipinos had no surnames. (Joaquin) Still, who are the Filipinos? I have described these historical facts, because in essence, history shaped and moulded the Filipinos as they are now. I am amazed that a people who have undergone so much change have still managed to prosper and spread around the world.

Girl, Quezon City by Alan Geoghegan

Before I traveled to the Philippines last January to document the T'BOLI tribe in Southern Mindanao, I referred to my project as a documentary study on a vanishing tribe. I was so impressed by what I saw preserved in their art forms and customs, I decided a different title would be more appropriate, "Preserving Culture: The T'boli."

Filipinos are masters of celebration, music and art , presentation and imitation: If you visit Manila today and spend a few evenings in the music clubs and you will find the most perfect carbon copy of Country music, American Blues, Bluegrass, even Disco, complete with dyed hair and all the right attitudes and clothes.

Squatter family, Quezon City by Alan Geoghegan

Still, the most powerful music in the Philippines are Tagalog and English Love songs: ask any Filipina at your table what type of movie she likes, she will probably say ROMANTIC STORY. It's almost as if, the accommodation other cultures for so long have left the Filipino continually ready to adapt to ANY change, YET still, there is that longing search for an identity. Maybe it is the Malay spirit, always on the move, maybe it's the recognition that throughout all this time, the Philippines rarely invaded any foreign country: with a perennial supply of fish and a virgin forest which used to cover 90% of the Philippine Islands, the country never needed to, they were already living in a paradise.

Yet the romantic restlessness continued: JOSE RIZAL ventured out of the Philippines, mastered over 20 foreign languages, published books and poetry, lived abroad and serves as a national hero for many Filipinos, who seem to be able to assimilate just about anywhere, blending easily into the landscape, from Dubai to Alaska (hopefully not) to South Carolina. Despite the multiplicity of languages, the country has one of the highest literacy rates, (90% of the population 10 years or older are literate), and the Philippines has the third largest number of English speakers in the world, 34 million people for 1993 estimates, not too far behind Great Britain with 56 million.

People are often struck with meeting Filipinos; they are always well groomed, impeccably dressed and clean, and they smile ALL THE TIME: they smile while commuting, they smile at work, they smile in smog-infested traffic, even in an argument, or overthrowing their own President, they SMILE! The Filipino "YES" puzzles most westerners. A yes means just that, though it can also mean "maybe" ,"I don't know", or, "If it will please you", OR "I hope I have said it enough for you to understand that I mean NO!" . (Grace Roces) GRACE ROCES explains it in a perfect way: "A Filipino does not like to openly agree or disappoint, The Filipino anticipates and gives the expected answer. Hence, a question by a person seeking a direct answer concerning, for example, the quantity of a payment for services rendered will answer with a smile and say, It's up to You."

The Making of The Filipino Filipino Flag by Fernando Amorsolo

"A foreigner who makes an effort to learn, or understand Filipino culture is very appreciated, especially when it comes to food." Filipinos have a particular love for a SALTY PASTE made of TINY SHRIMPS called BAGUONG, and a common indoctrination into the culture, is usually to eat the incubated duck egg called BALUT. By making you to eat the BALUT, Filipinos promise you that it works just like VIAGRA, as long as it is mixed with 2 or 3 SAN MIGUEL BEERS. There is also a fish of a pungent odor called DAING, (also called smelly fish, known as BUWAD for Visayans) I think they named it correctly, because when you smell it, you feel like Dying!

"It is not necessary to pretend to like these foods, it is enough to be familiar with them and in true Filipino fashion, SMILE GENTLY when declining." (Roces) Once somebody took the liberty of placing some BAGOONG under a piece of fresh mango and I ate it: It nearly killed me and I NEARLY KILLED THEM. BUANG! (that's crazy!)

Harvesting garlic in Batanes by Alan Geoghegan

Filipinos love to celebrate. During All Souls Day in 1995, I visited the Island of Cebu, this is known as Halloween in the US. During this holiday, which lasts about a week, people from all over the country head back to their province of origin and pay respect to their ancestors by visiting and spending time at their gravestones. They do not leave a flower, say a prayer then disappear: they often stay there ALL DAY and ALL NIGHT, or even all week, with families taking turns honoring their dead.

You will find young and old, drinking TANDUAY RUM, making CHISMIS (gossiping), or chatting, lighting candles and singing songs. Sometimes a family can be seen scrubbing their ancestors bones with AJAX, or even roasting a whole LECHON (Roast Pig), adding to the FIESTA atmosphere. The feeling is celebratory, rather than sad, as daparted souls would appreciate.

The Philippine people represent to me a surviving and intuitive people, capable of adapting to and rising above almost any situation: the Filipino spirit has not only endured this age, it has done so while paying due respect to the ancestors who have passed on, while devoting themselves day in and day out to their own families, who are often far away, with a deep faith in GOD.

Filipinos continue to adapt to where they can be of best service, often allusive to the great rat race of competition, always Filipino, joyous and caring, sometimes humanitarian and protective, in a world of "takers" where a pure heart and a genuine smile can go a long way. One custom of visiting a Filipino home is always to take home some BAON, or food left over from a meal. Little is saved for their own family, giving is what is expected as an honor to the guest.

Filipinos live life with a sense of BAYANIHAN or community cooperation. Positive ethical values are deep-rooted in Filipino traditions and family life, as is a deep trust in the creator above.

Though this is only a part of the story: there are still challenges that the country must face in the future to be able to regenerate, (corruption and ecological issues) but I will not go there now, because tonight, we are here to enjoy ourselves.

Ladies and gentlemen, guests, thank you for listening, I hope you enjoy your dinner, but please, don't put any BAGUONG on my plate.

Salamat & Mabuhay!

Alan Geoghegan

Comments? e-mail Alan.



This article was a speech given at the 10th Annual Filipino-American Gala at Embassy Suites Hotel, Columbia South Carolia in Sept. of 2001.

All images © by Alan Geoghegan unless otherwise specified: Please share any content, though please ask permission
before reproducing this article
, thank you very much!!!



  • "My Manila" Nick Joaquin
  • "Culture Shock" Grace Roces
  • Travel Smart.net - Philippine Section"Historical Developments of the Philippine Economy"
  • Aaron Creech & Susan Russell "The Chronology of Philippine History: in the World Context
  • " Tribungpinoy - the filipino tribe a pictorial web journal about the philippines.
  • "Filipino Trivia and Historical Facts" unidentified e-mail
"Pinoy Pride Lives On," by Alan Geoghegan, Filipinas Magazine

BONUS Video (30. sec. Quicktime clip) : TINIKLING with The Filipino-American Community of Western North Carolina (FAC-WNC)

Visit The Filipino-American Community of Western North Carolina (FAC-WNC)

Anthony Bourdain discusses America's influence on Filipino food in Manila.)

Why is Filipino spelled with an "F"? Answer here!

Christmas in the Philippines


Filam Gala 2009 Columbia South Carolina - Filam Gala 2003 Columbia South Carolina -Filam Gala 2004 Columbia SC -Filam Christmas party 2004

Alan's T'boli Culture page -Filipino-American Association of Greater Columbia, SC