To ‘P’ or not to ‘P’: That is the question: whether ’tis more correct to use “Pilipino” instead of “Filipino”…
by Allan G. Aquino
This article was originally written in 1998 and published in the Philippine Post. Allan has given his permission to republish this article. Keep in mind that Allan wrote this before grad school, when he used to drink a whole lot more. Enjoy the throwback.
One of the things I really like about my ethnic identity is its seemingly infinite ambiguity. After all, Filipinos surely have their own individual perceptions about what our collective identity is, how it is to be defined. If there are millions of Pinoys on earth, then surely there are millions of models of what is and what isn’t “Filipino.”
Some folks still feel Pinoys are distinguishable by phenotype, despite the fact that many of us are commonly mistaken for Latinos (our mostly Spanish surnames adding to the confusion), other Asians, even African-Americans. I myself am often prejudged by my looks as being Native American (people often ask me, “From what nation are you?”). Interestingly, the fact that I’m spelling our collective label with an “F” (rather than as “Pilipino”) is likely to raise now long-running debates on self-definition.
So, to “P” or not to “P.”
This witty little brain-wracker of a question has been posed for may years now, notably by such scholars as retired UCLA professor Royal Morales, one of the founding parents of Pilipino American Studies.
Like many others, Morales asserts the social significance of the P over the F. During the 1960s, people of color initiated a movement that resulted in a chain of events that eventually led to activism and self-determination. Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King are prime icons for the African American community. People began to reject their social labels which they deemed offensive, and reclaimed newer, redefined and more dignified ones.
Thus, Negroes became Blacks/African Americans; Mexicans/Hispanics/Chicanos became Latinos; Orientals became Asian Americans, and Filipinos, at least some of them, became Pilipinos.
The argument was this: since there were no “F’s” in the indigenous language of the Philippines, the “F” is therefore “colonial” and unsuitable for a new self-determined and decolonized identity.
Another interesting fact: you could break down the word in two. “Pili” means “to choose,” and “Pino” means “fine.” Ergo, Pilipinos choose to be fine! (This witty little word play was concocted by Orvy Jundis). Also, the term Pinoy, still considered contemptible by some today, was subsequently reclaimed.
Others however, like scholar Fred Cordova, prefer the “F.” For one thing, the earliest immigrants — the largely forgotten elders and ancestors who toiled on behalf of today’s generations — who came to the U.S. around the turn of the century asserted their identity as “Filipinos.”
Surely, the honorable thing to do would be for us to carry on and perpetuate their legacy? If they were “Filipinos,” then so too are we.
Others take the pro-F stance more personally. As scholar Doris Trinidad writes: “I have always found it ludicrous on spelling our national language Pilipino when we are perfectly able to spell and pronounce the letter F.” (The Philippine Constitution currently states that the “F” refers to people, the “P” to the national Tagalog-based language.) Therefore, in order to fully resist those dreaded colonial consonants, should Mr. Cordova change his name to Pred?
I myself have been confronted outright for my settling on F. I once was very “pro-P,” embracing every aspect of the P over the F argument. Eventually, I started thinking about all these arguments.
To say there was no F in Philippine indigenous languages is, I dare say, naive and ethnocentric. True, there’s no “F” in Tagalog, but what about the other dialects? Again, Ms. Trinidad writes, “Why is the Pampango dialect riddled with this breathy consonant…(and why is the Pampangue/o) the object of “kafamfangan” jokes?”
Also, I have observed that at every Pinoy cultural dance performance I’ve seen, traditional Igorot dances are almost always performed; and, once in a while the culture of a tribe known as the Ifugao is re-created.
Moreover, how do we know that specifically F-based tribal nations weren’t eradicated by disease and Spanish colonization? For all we know, some of us may have ancestors who used the F on a regular basis in their mode of communication.
Lastly (and I suppose some may choose to call me “pro-F”) I submit this: P/Filipino, regardless of the first letter, is rooted in the Spanish word which referred to Spanish creoles born and raised in the Philippines during the colonial era. Anyone who by today’s standards is considered a Filipino would have been considered nothing more than an indio. “Filipino” was the former title of white nobility in the Philippines.
Regarding the Pili-Pino/ choose-to-be-fine argument: pino comes from the Spanish fino. Although I am not proud of our painful colonial legacy, I cannot deny that it is part of who we are, whether we like it or not.
There is really no such thing as “collective” moniker/label which can appropriately define each and every one of us. Many of us object to using the word “Pinoy.” Some have suggested using the ancient word Ma’i, but that’s Chinese and therefore not indigenous. What of the indigenous peoples of the Philippines — the T’boli, Maranaw, Bontoc, etc.– who probably don’t care to label themselves P/Filipinos, opressed as they are by the Philippine government itself. What label could embrace them as part of our collective existence as a people? It is rather fashionable for many of us (not excluding myself) to wear “tribal-ethnic” jewelry; as much as I love wearing tungkaling around my neck, like most everyone elese, I know almost nothing about T’boli culture.
“To P or Not To P,” nonetheless, will always be a fascinating and compelling topic that should not be ignored nor neglected. While the Pinoy identity crisis brings much frustration and conflict, I nevertheless see it as yet another reflection of our wondrous diversity, our infinite identity.
Do I pitch a fit whenever I see or hear the word Pilipino used; do I feel compelled to correct every P-brain (no pun intended) out there for “further blurring our quest for self-definition?” Of course not. My usage of the F is merely a personal choice. Many of my friends, including Professor Morales, proudly view themselves as Pilipinos, and I have no objections nor reservations about their choice of self-definition.
The legacy of self-determination, wherein Filipinos became Pilipinos, is sacred in our private, and albeit, personal histories. I am an avid supporter of Pilipino Studies, as well as community organizations such as the Pilipino AIDS Task Force. Many college organizations feature the F in their name (the Filipino American Student Association, for example), organize a Pilipino Cultural Night year after year. The Filipino American National Historial Society of Los Angeles (FANHS-LA) often works in conjunction with the Search to Involve Pilipino Americans (SIPA).
We obviously have larger, more vital issues to confront as a community than our collective settling on a single consonant. I am proud of the treasure occasions when many of us can mobilize and work, even party, together. When we learn to co-exist, even if only for a brief period of time, arguments over names, labels and single consonants become inconsequential.
“To P or Not To P” is therefore more to me of a personal choice, rather than an issue demanding debate and conflict.
What’s in a name? People don’t even care to ponder such a question when they’re too busy working together and appreciating each other’s company, striving to attain common goals.