My Pepeha is not a River: Finding Ways to Decolonise my Filipino Identity by Leal Rodriguez

Runner-up in the 2021 SAANZ Student Blog Writing Competition

What’s your pepeha? A Filipino-Kiwi once asked if there was a way to find her family’s indigenous ancestors, and what swells and formations bind her identity to the land. Her mother is Filipino. Surely she has a tribe?

How can one find a Filipino marker of identity? The pepeha is a way to introduce oneself in Te ao Māori. By identifying your connections, the pepeha can help others contextualise their interaction with you.

Before coming to Aotearoa I never considered the formations surrounding me as any marker of my identity. But I thought to try:

Kia oratātou

ko Cordillera temaunga

ko Marikina teawa

Nō Manilaahau

ko Rodriguez tōku whānau

ko Leal tōku ingoa

I created this pepeha to relay my identity with respect to this Māori tradition in a format familiar to most Kiwis. However, the mention of a mountain, river and place to which I was born is hardly telling of my identity. I come from a country of 7,107 islands. My city has the population of New Zealand located in the landmass of Auckland. The Cordillera mountain range runs across half of the country’s north, and only shows itself on days when heavy rains clear the city’s smog. Memories of the Marikina river incite both fear and awe as its flooding in 2009 caused much death and destruction (NDCC, 2009). My last name is one of the most common. My pepeha is not unique. While these markers of identity work for some Filipinos, the strings that place me are not the polluted riverbanks of my childhood nor the city subsumed under the umbrella label of Manila. Perhaps the pepeha does not work because I am not indigenous. 

But you were born and raised in the Philippines. Surely you are indigenous? 

The word indigenous has a different context in non-settler societies such as the Philippines. The Philippines has strict laws that recognise Indigenous Persons. To be indigenous, you must have a homogenous identity, living in a bound territory, “sharing common bonds of language, customs, traditions and other distinctive cultural traits (RA 8371, Sec 3, part h). How are indigenous persons differentiated from other Filipinos? – “through resistance to political, social and cultural inroads of colonisation, non-indigenous religions and cultures, became historically differentiated from the majority of Filipinos” (RA 8371, Sec 3, part h). To be indigenous – to find your true, pre-colonial Filipino self – is to have resisted colonisation. 

I believe in decolonisation. To decolonise is to resist. That is what I am studying now, finding livable alternatives to heal the harm caused by current world orders. What does it mean to decolonise? Is decolonisation a grassroots movement, with anti-colonial issues at its core (Zavala, 2013)? Is it a return to the indigenous spaces? I yo-yo between romanticising pre-colonial Indigenous Philippine values and flirting with the thought of destroying colonial systems, whatever this means. How can one find a framework for decolonisation  without being tokenistic (Tuck and Yang, 2012)? But my subject-position as a Filipino merits close analysis. I am not indigenous. My family, though Filipino, is not indigenous because we do not have ties to an ancestral domain (HRAO, 2013). That being said, I too am of “coloniser” origin.

How can a Filipino, as a victim of colonisation, be a coloniser?

My great grandfather had Spanish heritage and is from the North of the Philippines. He was sent to Zamboanga, a land in the country’s southernmost region, to establish a hospital. Zamboanga has multiple tensions between the Filipino-Christians who had hoped to “Christianise” the Philippines’ Muslim south. The region suffers multiple insurgencies (Abad, 2019) due to these tensions, but my family remains largely unaffected, while many of the Indigenous persons suffer. While my family is native Filipino, we are not Indigenous. But my family has become part of this colonial narrative, consenting to colonial values and benefited from a colonial structure. We leaned into colonisation.

Can you decolonise when you are of settler origin? 

Most Filipinos have this dual identity. We are not as tied to our ancestors’ land as those considered lawfully Indigenous (RA 8371) by the Philippine government. We have a transitory identity, due to constant migration, searching for the land of milk and honey. Former dictator-president Marcos’ Labour Export Policy of 1972 created a ripple effect of labour migration which changed the form of the Filipino family. More women went abroad to work, becoming primary income earners, and leaving their husbands to care for their families (Torres, 1991). 

Filipinos go abroad to find themselves. For them, identity is elsewhere. The hodgepodge of colonial and Indigenous Filipino values make defining the Filipino identity confusing. Being a migrant in a foreign land leaves room for others to question your identity, constantly. Filipinos in the Filipino-American diaspora cling to caricatures of a Philippines that no longer exists. Representations of Filipino-ness in Academic circles may zero in on one ethnolinguistic group. As a Filipino abroad, you are thrust into issues you thought were alien to you. You find yourself a victim of Asian hate and xenophobia, which take a while to recognise because you are not “that kind of Asian”. Only to remember: people find reasons to hate, regardless. 

Decolonisation would be a recognition of one’s shared humanity (Alejo, 2018). We call that pakikipag-kapwa [a shared identity] (Enriquez, 1992). The term kapwa “is at the core of Filipino social psychology, and “at the heart of the structure of Filipino values” (Pe-Pua and Rogelio-Marcelino, 2002, p. 56). Perhaps to decolonise would be to recognise this aspect of our identity. The Filipino identity is community. And we have a responsibility to this imagined community that has become very real in its effect on others.

After more than 400 years under colonial rule, how can one define the Filipino identity? Hindi ko alam, kumakapa pa [I do not know, I am still feeling my way around]. One thing is sure. If a Filipino abroad sees someone who looks vaguely Filipino, recognises the accent of enunciated vowels and hard P’s and F’s, they will shout Hoy, Kabayan! [Hello there, fellow from my country]! To one may respond – Uy, Kabayan!. Despite the confusion regarding Filipino identity, one thing is certain. When we’re abroad, we can recognise each other. And there is solidarity in the often less-than-pleasant reason for seeking to make a life elsewhere.

So let me try the pepeha again, but in my language:

Ako si Leal. (My name is Leal.) 

Laking Quezon City, (Who grew up in Quezon City) 

OFW at guro ang nanay, guro ang tatay, (My mother is an Overseas Filipino Worker and teacher, my father is a teacher) 

nag-abroad para mag-aral, (I went abroad to study) 

naghahanap ng paraan para maglingkod sa kapwa. (Who is finding ways to be of service to her fellow human beings.) 


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