Of Abba and Igorot Cowboys


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This last Friday, my wife and I began the 6.5 hour trip from Baguio City (a city built by Americans during their occupation of the Philippines) to Laoag, the “center” of the Ilocano language and culture. On the way, we had a pitstop near Vigan, one of the best preserved Spanish colonial cities.

Along the way, our bus driver was playing song after song of hits by (the Swedish group) Abba, and I was mulling a book that I brought with me on contextualization of theology to the Philippine culture.

One of the writers (it was a compendium of articles) stated that the Philippines is losing its culture. It must reclaim its true culture. But I see two problems with this.

Problem 1.  The amazing diversity of culture. Often common Filipino cultural values are emphasized in school rather than cultural diversity, a bit akin to the “melting pot” model of American culture that was taught when I was in school. Baguio City is very different than… well, pretty much anywhere else in the world, including the Philippines. Much of the characteristics of the Filipino people does not really apply here. And why should it? As a young city (just over 100 years old) it missed the Spanish colonial period. It is a blending of cultures today with a large population of “lowland” Filipinos mixed with the highland tribal peoples. It also has a large minority Muslim population (from the Southern part of Mindanao seeking economic opportunity). It still has a fair number of Americans who have been around since the construction of the city. More recently has been a large influx of Koreans. Along with other smaller populations, these groups have put their own stamp on the culture here. The sub-culture is unique in Baguio, and children often struggle in school as they have courses in Philippine language and culture that don’t really resonate with the culture they know.

Is it wrong to have the normalizing influence of a common education for Philippine culture? Not necessarily, although I would like to see more respect for Filipino diversity. But when it comes to theology, it is possible that a common Philippine theology would fail to connect with Batanes, Bontoc, Baguio, Bulacan, Boracay, and Basilan.

Problem 2.  The second problem to me is more serious. It is the presumption that there is some inherently Philippine culture that is lost, or is being lost. One does not really lose culture. A locality is like a swimming pool full of people, and culture is like the water they are immersed in. Culture does not come and go (in a manner more like how the term “culture” was used in the 1800s). Jollibee, SM, jeepneys, and “Eat Bulaga!” are as much Philippine culture as bayanihan and tinikling.mira1

Culture is always changing, for better AND for worse. But what is of more concern is whether Filipinos are losing their connect with their heritage (“pamana”).

Cultural heritage provides a stabilizing, and even transforming, force within a culture. Culture is pushed and pulled by (A) social needs within its geographic context, (B) cultural heritage, and (C) intercultural mixing and interaction. One could see these as three atractors in a complex dance (made even more complex because each of these attractors are dynamic to some extent.

Consider the Case of many of the Cordillerans (people of the “tribal groups” of the Cordilleran mountain range here in the lands surrounding Baguio City). When I first got here in 2004, the people seemed to dislike the term “Igorot.” It was a term used for people of the Cordilleras by outsiders and it was considered pejorative by many. Some would use the term “Torogi” (“Igorot” spelled backwards) as a way of finding affirmation. However, in more recent years, I have seen more and more people here choose to embrace the term. Many vehicles will have a bumper sticker on the back that simply says “IGOROTAK” (“I am an Igorot”).

The culture here has been challenged to integrate itself:

  • Cultural Heritage. In the last few years there seems like there is a greater affirmation of Cordilleran cultures. It seems like in Baguio there are more native dances, clothing, and arts than there were. Many Christians here are now trying to connect their faith with their ancestral practices. This has not been without controversy, but the very desire shows the potential power of cultural heritage to not only preserve, but to transform.
  • Intercultural Influences. In the last few decades has been the growth of what is sometimes called the Igorot Cowboy culture. In the Highlands here, country music (originally an American phenomenon) has taken hold. Included in this are country music bars, country music videoke, locally produced country music (in a variety of languages), and Western (as in American cowboy) clothes. One man who automatically comes to mind was (maybe still is) the barangay captain of a mountain community. Whenever I saw him he was dressed in cowboy boots, blue jeans, a big big belt buckle, and a blue suede cowboy hat. I have to say he was able to make it work for him. I have come across some other Filipinos who look derisively on this local behavior. However, every culture is affected by other cultures. Sometimes it may seem like a plague, but sometimes it is a welcome addition. This Country-Western culture seems to resonate with the people here in the mountains than the culture in the lowlands. Cultures do embrace what is foreign and make it their own. Pizza is now welcomed as part of American culture well beyond its role in Italian culture.
  • Societal Demands in Geographic Context. Many Cordillerans are drifting to the cities due to economic needs that are seen to go beyond what the mountain villages can provide. This has adversely affected the extended families, and has decimated many such villages. On the other hand, better roads and the cool weather of the mountains has been bringing in more people from the cities, as well as foreigners. This increased income provides more local moneys, and has helped revive some of the local art-forms such as woodcarving. Of course, more outsiders also brings outside problems as well.

Conclusion

So what does this all mean? Not exactly sure. But a local theology needs to do more than simply look wistfully back on the cultural heritage(s) of the Philippines. In the New Testament, Abba is the term that Jesus used to describe God the Father. A radically new idea. However, Abba was also the term that the native Visayans (who met Magellan in the 1520s) used to describe the top god of their pantheon, powerful and unapproachable. And Abba is a music group played on a bus that goes back and forth between Baguio and Laoag.

A local theology should embrace God’s revelation, local cultural heritage, and the culture that is (not simply the culture that was, or the culture one wishes it to be).

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