Strength, resilience of Filipinas discovered during Fridenstine's sabbatical research project
By Cristina del Rosario Fridenstine '75, '86
Director of Student Involvement and Leadership Programs, and the Multi-Ethnic Resource Center
Filipinos and coconuts have a special relationship. A stubborn child may be teased as "coconut-head" (hard to crack, but one would sure like to). Thirsty travelers are refreshed by coconut milk bought from sidewalk vendors.
Moreover, Filipinos teach children about resourcefulness, creativity and economy by telling them about the coconut's utility. Its milk can be used for cooking, or fermented to make wine or vinegar. The husk can buff and polish wood floors. Toasted coconut garnishes sweets and produces oil. The hard inner shell transforms into a bowl. Nothing wasted, every part of the coconut can be, and is, put to good use.
This practical approach, and finding opportunities that others might fail to see, are characteristic of Filipinos. It allowed them to adapt to 300 years of Spanish colonization, followed by democratization by Americans and occupation by Japanese soldiers, to reinforce the cultural tradition. Yet this resiliency may be facing the greatest test yet: an economy that seems terminally ravaged by a self-serving wealthy class, corrupt politicians and foreign investors.
Prompted by feminism, I wondered how Filipinas are faring in the midst of this challenge. Precolonial Filipinas had occupied significant roles, serving as tribal leaders, negotiating commercial transactions, and making independent decisions about child rearing and other family matters. They were not dominant so much as on equal footing with men.
When the Spaniards "discovered" the Philippines, women were the acknowledged spiritual rulers throughout the archipelago. To the Catholic friars, they posed the strongest resistance against conversion. "Feeling the cornerstone of tribal life threatened, priestesses . . . let out one long wail of incantation against the conqueror, " (from Insight Guide to the Philippines, edited by Bill Williams, 1998). The priestesses waged war until forced to flee to the countryside.
Other women chose the more expedient road of embracing Catholicism. They assumed the role they were given: submissive, shy and obedient to authority, embodied in those days of colonialism by foreign men. How have these encounters affected Filipinas in the long run?
During my sabbatical, I interviewed a number of Filipinas and found them taking life in stride with a no-nonsense attitude. I was told: "You take what God gives you." They are leaders in their own right, though more often behind the scenes. The vigorous independence of their priestess-ancestors is still there, albeit masked by modesty and reserve. They employ diverse and imaginative approaches, some controversial by certain standards, to improve their families' circumstances.
For example, dwindling options are driving increasing numbers of Filipinas abroad. Some will work under unregulated labor conditions. Others will seal romances cultivated through correspondence with foreign men.
Their quest for survival intersects with increased demands for cheap labor in foreign markets, and an apparent hankering for so-called "traditional" marriages among Western men. Filipinas, however, describe the sacrifices they often must make as "building character." As the cornerstones of the Philippine family structure, they feel obliged to rise above any challenge.
No coconut should be too tough to crack.
Cristina Del Rosario Fridenstine's sabbatical was one of the first two granted to PLU administrators after the President's Council approved such leaves in November 1997. For ongoing updates of her sabbatical research, visit www.plu.edu/~delrosca.