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  • Pao Vergara

A hundred islands, a hundred nations

Updated: Dec 22, 2020

What divides us may just connect us

Photo by Peter Duque on Unsplash

As First Philippine Republic generalissimo Emilio Aguinaldo dispersed his forces in his northbound retreat from pursuing US Army soldiers, a small contingent led by the young General Gregorio del Pilar stayed behind at Tirad Pass to buy el presidente more time.

The ensuing battle is a legend, at least among Filipinos schooled in the 20th and late 20th centuries.

Touted as the “Philippine Thermopylae” (by United States textbooks), many a young Juan (hehe) during playtime with the other kids has imagined him- or herself the titular general, holding their monkey bar fort, armed with acacia branches and goma slingshots. Who doesn’t love a last stand battle?

The truth, however, as read from firsthand accounts is quite different. And a movie released in 2018 didn’t hesitate to present the warts blemishing the nascent Filipino nation. Older movie goers, like a former Manila mayor, who’ve seen the battle in older movies, criticized such a portrayal.

This latest movie aligns with the late writer Nick Joaquin’s belief that the battle was unnecessary, a vanity on the part of del Pilar and Aguinaldo, and that the ensuing textbook account was an inflation by Americans trying to win the hearts and minds of their new colony.

Here, Filipino soldiers were lazy (lounging for months by the beach as the Americans made preparations for their northward campaign), hastily-prepared, overconfident, and in the final confrontation, cowardly.

But one particular scene stands out, (apologies for this spoiler): As the Filipinos retreat, they come across some Ifugao (indigenous) villagers, who were never really controlled by the Spaniards, and they begin mistreating these villagers. One Ifugao later helps the Americans outflank the Filipinos.


Our colonizers have always used our dividedness and tribe-mindedness to solidify their hold on us.

In the Fili, Rizal composed a scene where native prisoners were brutalized by their compatriots serving the guardia civil, only for these military police to later be ambushed by bands of brown-skinned outlaws.

Even during the First Republic’s founding, the term “Filipino” – originally reserved for Spaniards born in the islands – let alone its identity, was tenuous. Our ancestors built their selfhoods around province and language, echoing what the first Spanish conquistadors saw when they arrived in early-1500s Manila: a city divided between Indianized Rajas, Islamized Sultans, and native Datus.

When the northerners revolted, southern guardia civil were sent. When central plains dwellers revolted, northern-sourced and southern-loyal guardia civil were deployed. It took a while before Ilonggos, Ilokanos, Kapampangans, Tagalogs, and more saw themselves as part of a bigger Republica Filipina, as the Spaniards surrendered to the Americans in late 1898.

A friend in grad school makes the assertion (yes, beer with a grad schooler counts as a primary source) that our ancestors weren’t so much conquered by Spain, as textbooks suppose, but willingly aligned themselves with the Castilian crown. There is some truth to this: as, amazed by Magellan’s cannons, Datus like Humabon saw a way to end old rivalries with Datus like Lapu-lapu.

As more and more factoids like these reveal themselves, Philippine history looks a lot less black-and-white, and a lot grainier and grittier, like the color gradients in Game of Thrones or Vikings.


I recently received an email from a media practitioner’s bulletin informing recipients that the country’s “first (since the 20th century) Spanish-language publication, La Jornada Filipina,” is looking for interested writers. This very piece is in a language, complete with turns of phrase, not exactly “native Filipino.”

There’s a common stereotype that Manila’s elite university students are more American than Americans; and with a cultural diet saturated with Netflix and Tumblr, Nikes and Hollywood, this isn’t far from the truth. But that’s as far as appearances go.

Among Manila’s elite university students, the whitest of the white, so to speak, are those from Cebu: they have the accents that make security guards call upon what smatterings of English they know. In Cebu, they say, taxi drivers will look at you weird if you speak Tagalog, but not so when English hits the road.

And even then, still within Metro Manila’s uni elite (let’s take this as a sociologist’s sample size) are nations: academic scholars from poorer homes trying to navigate a culture alien to them, “migrants” from the provinces, and even among these, those from barrios and those from big cities.

Perhaps Filipino nations today aren’t solely based on province but also: where you studied, who you befriended, what cultures you consume or shun, what jokes you tell or miss, who you voted for, what you’re for or against, the degree of your devotion to the Hallyu Church...

We’re loyal to our villages, but disproportionately hostile to outsiders.


The Tagalog work “pagitan” is cool, I’d wager that it’s cooler than the opposite meanings of the word “banal” in English and Tagalog (vulgar in the former, holy in the latter). On one hand, “pagitan” can mean border, limit, or, as implied by the phrase “sa pagitan,” margin.

And yet the noun, when turned into a verb – when action replaces stasis – takes on a meaning opposite the original: “sa pamamagitan,” a means, a method, a way through which something is able to happen.

Perhaps language is the biggest troll.

A hundred nations, spread out over a hundred, a thousand islands, a hundred, a thousand moats, a hundred, a thousand chasms, a hundred barangays, a thousand nations. The word for our smallest political subdivision, “barangay,” is based on an ancient boat by which Datu-led villages travelled and warred. Entire families boarded armadas of barangay to migrate or conquer.

Our shared experience of water, oh-so-divisive, is what unites us.

As the historian Ambeth Ocampo writes and as the voice actress behind Disney’s Moana sings, water does not so much separate us as it connects us, a bridge as much as a moat, a highway as much as a barrier, sa pamamagitan as much as pumapagitan.



generalissmo - Italian military term referring to the highest-ranked generals, more common during the 18th up to the early 20th century. Aside from Emilio Aguinaldo, Chiang Kai-Shek, Kim Jong-il, and Joseph Stalin also applied the term to themselves

el presidente - Spanish, meaning “the president.” Spanish was the elite language of the era prior to American colonization

Philippine Thermopylae - The Battle of Thermopylae occurred in 480 BC between the Greeks and invading Persians. The Greeks fought a delaying action despite being massively outnumbered. This was popularized in the movie The 300.

goma - Cheap rubber bands often used in Philippine wet markets for packing small purchases

Rizal - Jose Rizal, the Philippine’s foremost national hero wrote El Filibusterismo, a novel depicting the abuses of Spanish friars as well as revolutionary thoughts, which resulted in his execution by Spanish authorities and subsequent martyrization by Filipino revolutionaries

guardia civil - The guardia civil were the military police of Spanish Philippines. Often staffed by natives, they were notorious for their brutality.


Pao is a creative based in Metro Manila whose works have appeared in Youngstar PH, ANC-X, Scout Mag PH, Northern and Southern Living, and Art Plus Magazine. In truth, all Pao wants is to become a cat whisperer. (This one's for the Fajardos who once lived in Sta. Lucia.)

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