Sunday Signs & Symbols: Philippine Nationalism

Philipppine Independence Day is celebrated on June 12. The symbols that evoke great Filipino pride are the country’s flag and its national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal.

Taken at the Philippine Consulate in NYC

Flags are designed to have symbolic meaning.  According to World Flags 101, the Philippine flag means the following:  

The blue stripe symbolizes patriotism and justice. The red represents valor and the blood spilt for freedom and independence and the white stands for peace and purity. The white triangle represents equality and the Katipunan nationalist organization. The three stars represent the three main geographical regions of the Philippines: Luzon, Mindanao and Visayas. The sun represents independence and its eight rays represent the eight provinces that led the Philippine uprising against Spanish rule.

When I first visited my family in the Philippines as a child, my aunt (an elementary school teacher) taught me that the flag can be flipped so that during war time, the red stripe flies on top.  Fortunately, this turning of the flag has never been purposefully done.  Recently, it was wrongly displayed to the embarrassment of the US government.

Dr. Jose Rizal is considered to be the Philippine national hero.  Trained as an ophthalmologist, Rizal was multifaceted and seemingly a genius.  He apparently spoke over 20+ languages, wrote poetry, essays, and books, drew, and had many more interests.  Every Filipino child learns about Rizal in school.  His books Noli Me Tangere and its sequel El Filibusterismo are required high school reading.  These books describe life in the Philippines under Spanish colonial rule in the late 19th century.  Eventually, the Spanish imprisoned and executed him as a revolutionary instigator.  His death made him a martyr and fueled the movement to fight for independence from Spain.  Today, the Rizal Memorial located within Rizal Park, or Luneta, stands near the site of his execution in Manila.  The memorial has a statue of Rizal along with his remains; it is guarded at all times by two soldiers.  Below, an excerpt from “Mi Ultimo Adios” a poem written by Rizal, on the eve of his execution.

“My Last Farewell”
Farewell, my adored Land, region of the sun caressed,
Pearl of the Orient Sea, our Eden lost,
With gladness I give you my Life, sad and repressed;
And were it more brilliant, more fresh and at its best,
I would still give it to you for your welfare at most.

Sunday Signs & Symbols is a weekly blog event, showcasing a picture and an explanation on this broad topic.  Every culture uses signs and symbols to interpret their environment, inject meaning to life, and attach value to an object or practice so that its people share a common understanding of the world and the social rules that dictate the behavior within it.

Wanderfly Video: My Travels to the Philippines

A few months ago I collaborated with Wanderfly, an online travel planning site. Below is the outcome of our collaboration:  a video of me talking about the land of my birth, the Philippines!  It centers on my first trip to the country as an eight year old and how that experience affected the way I saw the world and how I travel.  Enjoy!


People Power

The Tunisian people successfully toppled their president from power after mass protests in the streets, instigated by a humiliated fruit vendor who set himself on fire (and subsequently died) after a female police officer confiscated his wares and slapped him.  On the heels of these events, the Yemeni and Egyptian people are also taking to the streets to protest their dissatisfaction with their governments.  It is Day 6 of protests in Egypt and  I am transfixed by what I see on Al Jazeera TV.  These images bring my mind back to late February 1986, when a nation took to the streets of its capital Manila.

The People Power Revolution in the Philippines occurred on February 22-25 when masses of people publicly protested against the authoritarian Marcos regime.  Presidential snap elections occurred earlier in the month and declared the incumbent, Ferdinand Marcos, the winner despite widespread rumors of election tampering and corruption.   With members of his cabinet and the military turning against him and the archbishop of Manila calling the people to peaceful protest, Marcos eventually fled the country.  Corazon “Cory” Aquino, his opponent in the election and widow of Marcos-opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., assumed the presidency.

I see a lot of similarities between those protests 25 years ago in the Philippines and the ones today in Egypt.

  • People are fed up with a despotic regime led by someone in power for too long.Despite claiming to be purported democracies, these presidents have been in power for 20+ years (Mubarak for 30 and Marcos for 21)  with administrations full of rampant corruption, political repression, nepotism, and human rights violations.  The media is controlled by the government.

    The Phlippine Sunday Express Headline on September 21, 1972

  • The military fraternizes with protesters. The recent images I’ve seen from Egypt have been ones of a baby sitting on a tank and a woman or man kissing a soldier.  In the Philippines, people brought their families/children to the streets, young women handed flowers and food to the soldiers.
  • Religious prayer is observed despite the chaos. In Egypt, I am struck by a line of men on the floor, kneeling and bowing in prayer as soldiers surround them.  They remind me of the Filipino nuns and priests linking arms and joining the people to form  a human chain against an approaching army of soldiers and tanks.  They prayed the rosary out loud and raised up their hands which held rosary beads or the Bible.   Some protesters even cradled statues of the Virgin Mary.  They used prayer as a powerful tool of resistance. 
  • The United States finds itself in an awkward position.Historically, both Egypt and the Philippines were considered US friends and allies.  Both countries provided the US the anchor it needed to carry out its political interests within a region of instability (the prevention of the spread of communism in Asia and the spread of religious fundamentalism in the Middle East).  In fact, the US aided Marcos when he fled from the Philippines.  He was extracted from Malacañang Palace and eventually brought to Hawaii by US Armed Forces.  He stayed there until his death in 1989.

    Ferdinand & Imelda Marcos visit President Reagan in the US in September 1982

We do not know what the outcome will be in Egypt despite the similarities I just pointed out.  I do hope that the protests will end as peacefully as possible.  The Philippine people are proud that the revolution in 1986 was bloodless with no shots fired at the people.  To learn more about the People Power Revolution, click hereBoth black and white photos above & the photo immediately below were found on Francesca Cojuangco Guingona’s page.

Cory Aquino in 1997 with the ubiquitous "L" sign from the revolution. The hand sign stands for "laban" or "fight". She wears yellow, the color of the revolution. Picture courtesy of the GMA News Blog.

Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, son of Ninoy and Cory Aquino, flashes the L-sign during his presidential campaign. Sworn into office on June 30, 2010, he is the current president of the Philippines. Picture courtesy of The Philippine Star.

My First Overseas Trip

Where you live should not decide
Whether you live or whether you die


I grew up in NYC.  My family immigrated to this country in the 1970s and I arrived on my mother’s arm when I was one.  My parents restarted their lives with practically nothing and worked hard the moment they arrived.  We never ate out, we never took trips.  We just couldn’t afford it.  When I was 7 years old, I was shocked to learn that my mother was planning a trip to the Philippines to visit our family.  She missed them so she decided to go home for Christmas and take me with her.

When our plane tickets were booked, mom prepared and shopped for gifts to bring home to our family.  Our suitcases were packed full of American goods to give away.  The plane ride was long but uneventful…I think I got a pair of plastic wings from the flight attendant.  Twenty four hours after we departed JFK, we emerged out of Manila International Airport to the tearful greetings of our family.  I only knew these family members from letters, greetings cards, and occasional conversations on the telephone.  Suddenly their words and voices transformed into flesh.  It was strange to know them yet not know them.

We got in the van and my first observations of the country were the weather and the people.  It was hot.  And tropical.  In December.  “Isn’t December supposed to be cold and full of snow?” my seven year old mind wondered.  I watched the people walking the streets.  They wore t-shirts, shorts, and flip flops.  And then I noticed that they all looked the same: short, brown-skinned, black-haired.  They all looked just like me.  Everywhere.

“WHERE AM I?” I asked myself.

As we crawled through Manila traffic, we approached a group of young kids on the side of the road.  The car slowed down and eventually stopped.  The kids scattered and systematically approached every car with their arms outstretched and one hand up.  I looked at them, confused and amazed.  A young girl appeared and looked inside the car.  It was as if I looked into a mirror.  Our eyes locked.  We were identical:  the same age, the same hair, the same skin, the same almond shaped eyes.  But then I noticed her tattered clothes, her disheveled hair, and her solemn eyes.  She carried a baby on her hip.  My uncle, driving, shooed her away.  I turned to my mother and asked, “Why are there so many children begging on the street?”  I couldn’t understand why they weren’t playing.  “Because they are poor and probably hungry,” my mother explained.

The girl could have been my playmate but instead she asked for money.  I realized then that even though we were the same, she lived in a world so different from mine.  She didn’t play all the time, she probably didn’t have as many toys as I did, and she wasn’t always going to bed on a full stomach.  How did other children in other places live?  Like me?  Like her?  Or some other way?

My fascination with different cultures  can be traced back to this defining experience at a young age.  It started with traveling back to the country of my birth, a place that was simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.  Growing up bicultural trained me to vacillate easily between two cultures and taught me that life is far more nuanced than we often realize.  Traveling all over the world showed me that despite our differences, people essentially seek the same things:  peace, happiness, a livelihood to support themselves and their families, and the opportunity to improve their lives.

In the intervening years, I haven’t given much thought to the girl I locked eyes with so long ago.  As I write, I wonder.  Where is she now?  Is she living in poverty or did she manage to lift herself out of it?  Is she a wife, a mother?  Is she even alive?

This post was inspired by the organizers of “Travel Talk on Twitter“.  Join like-minded travelers every Tuesday at 0900 0930 & 2100 2130 hrs GMT as we answer 5 questions, 1 question every 10 minutes.  The first #TTOT will kick off this January 25 with the topic “Your First Journey”.