Some years ago, I was traveling with a friend in the mountains of Luzon, north of Manila. We stopped at a roadside café perched against a slope, at the top of a steep flight of wooden steps. As we sat at a table on the verandah overlooking the rugged scenery, a waiter came to take our order. My friend’s native speech was Kapampangan, a dialect spoken mainly at the top of the horseshoe formed by the Manila Bay, but he used Tagalog, the language of the capital and essentially the national language, to ask the waiter for recommendations. Our server looked at us impassively. “I’m sorry,” he answered, “I don’t speak Tagalog. Can you speak English?” Therein, as the saying goes, hangs a tale.
The Philippines is a nation of many tongues. English arrived with my own countrymen, the Americans, and that was, at best, a troublesome arrival. From the sixteenth century to the end of the nineteenth, the Philippines was a Spanish colony. Although the Spanish ruled the Philippines, though, there were comparatively few Spanish colonists and Spanish never became the common language of the islands. Instead, each separate region maintained its own language.
By the mid-nineteenth century, educated Filipinos had begun to grow impatient with being ruled from Spain, and especially impatient with the rule of the religious orders. Many of these educated Filipinos began to call for removal of the religious orders and for representation in the Spanish parliament. José Rizal, a half-Chinese doctor, scholar, and writer, was one of the best known of the Filipinos seeking greater freedom for the country. When the Spanish executed Rizal on charges of treason in 1896 this contributed to the cause of more radical Filipinos who were demanding complete independence for the islands. The most successful rebels were under the command of the young Emilio Aguinaldo and Aguinaldo became leader of the independence movement.
In 1898, war broke out between Spain and the United States, which was trying to drive Spain out of Cuba. Aguinaldo's forces allied themselves with the United States and provided information to the American navy, which attacked Manila Bay. After Spain surrendered, the Spanish agreed to grant Cuba independence and to cede the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the United States for twenty million dollars. In the meantime, however, the Filipinos had already created their own government, with Aguinaldo as president. The United States sent in troops and rapidly went from being an ally of the Philippine independence movement to being an occupier. The struggle to establish American power was a long and bloody one, but by 1902, the United States had defeated Aguinaldo's troops and a year later the Americans had put down most of the resistance.
This sounds like the classic tale of colonial malevolence, the standard story of European and American appropriation and exploitation through bad faith, betrayal, and brutality, a tale told over and over again in our classrooms. But it isn’t that simple. Having established themselves in the Philippines by military conquest, the Americans proceeded to create what they saw as a democratic government. By 1907 the Americans held elections for a national legislature in the Philippines. Two major political parties competed. The Nacionalista party favored independence for the Philippines and the Federalista party favored becoming a state in the United States. The Federalistas were not just cozying up to the new imperial master: many of them saw statehood as a desirable goal. There were some good reasons for taking this view.
The Americans set about building town halls throughout the islands and improving sanitation. One of the most far-reaching reformist efforts of the Americans began in 1901 when a ship named the Thomas arrived in Manila Bay. The Thomas carried five hundred American teachers, who would spread out to bring American-style education to the archipelago. Today, the Philippines has one of the best educational systems in Southeast Asia. The system culminates in the University of the Philippines, an American-style university, founded by the Americans in 1908.
So were the Americans duplicitous exploiters or enlightened idealists spreading participatory government and civic improvement projects? Well, we were both. In conversations about my country’s heritage in the Philippines, I used to make both my Filipino nationalist friends and defenders of the American legacy angry by insisting that each side oversimplified in seeing the colonial history as some version of a morality play.
When we consider the historical background to the opening scene in the restaurant, the story becomes even more complicated, and the question of political domination becomes even more difficult to see as a matter of darkness and light. I don’t know whether the waiter in our restaurant really couldn’t speak Tagalog or didn’t want to. But he was not going to communicate with us in the speech of the Philippine capital. American control of the archipelago did not rest entirely on its own arms or on popular support created by the civic programs set up after the conquest. In the years following 1898, many Filipinos wanted to be governed by Americans precisely because they did not want to be governed by other Filipinos. The mountain tribes, in particular, saw the lowland Tagalog speakers as the colonizers and the Americans as allies and protectors.