Tuesday, August 24, 2010

miss universe as metaphor

Does anybody care at all about the Miss Universe pageant? Apparently nearly every Filipino does. For the last several years, we have been searching for that elusive crown, perhaps to recapture the two we had had and that seem so, well, historical. I believe it also has some bearing on our need for global adulation, and I am aware I will get into trouble for saying that. We are a people constantly looking for a source of international pride. Manny Pacquiao, Miss Universe, what's the difference. Whatever captures world attention, we want it. (This is not to say that quite often, we probably deserve it.)

But why has that damned crown been so elusive? For the last few years I have wondered if it’s because of that dreaded “final question.” Yes, we are adorable (or some Orientalist partner-seekers think our women are). But we are still obsessed with the illusion that we are articulate in English, and that has been our downfall (at least in beauty pageants). What would Mexico have said if she had to say it in English? And how intelligent and articulate Miss Philippines would have been (given that she was “proud to have graduated with honors”) had she been provided with a translator?

That, of course, is never going to happen. Being proficient in English has always been considered a singular honor for a Filipino. It reflects the values we inherited as a colonized people—that efficiency in the colonial language is a mark of intelligence, status, and power. And speaking in our native language is, heaven forbid, a sign of feeble-mindedness, if not of a significantly lower social class.

English ceased to be the language of choice for us about a couple of decades ago, when, in a spur of nationalist fervor, we decided to uplift Filipino as the official language for education and government. It was a supremely heroic and laudable effort: who, after all, would castigate a nation for insisting that their people use their own language--one which would ideally facilitate better communication and understanding?

What that initiative lacked was political will. It lacked support for infrastructure, follow-through, opportunities. Does anyone recall that Law Class who were the first to receive instruction in Filipino--and flunked the bar, because the test was given in English? It was a clear omen, and it haunts us to this day. A national language needs to be a national language. You can't have a national language and be ashamed or reluctant to champion it.

I've met young Filipinos who are amazingly articulate in Filipino--something I envy, I myself having been brought up with a strictly colonial education. I wonder if they, in turn, envy my being able to blather on like this in English. It could be a handicap, but try telling that to Miss Philippines.

To me, these young Filipinos who speak and write like true heirs of Balagtas and Huseng Batute seem to be proud of their linguistic heritage, proud and proudly able to articulate the most complex and interesting and provocative ideas. I wonder if they constitute a small majority, or a groundswell.

It may seem silly to fret about such an event as a Vegas beauty pageant. But as a metaphor for our lingering dysfunction and our indelible infatuation with our stepmother tongue, it is, and once again I say this at the risk of inciting hatred from my own people, a sign that we have not grown up.

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