Mistaken identity—what is Filipino?

Published August 16, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Raymundo W. Lo, MD, FPSP


Dr. Raymund W. Lo

As a follow up to my previous column (Loco over local 8/9/22), I’ve been reflecting on what constitutes a national identity. As a nation having a long colonial history (as writer Carmen Guerrero Nakpil has said, “300 years in the convent and 50 years in Hollywood”), Filipinos are often lost when it comes to defining their own identity. We seem to be more Western in attitude but conflicted due to our innate Asian-ness. Our language, though basically Malay, is infused with many Spanish words, often corrupted in common usage.

The same lack of definitive answers to what constitutes being Filipino (which by the way, is actually very colonial, being named after the Spanish king at the time of Ferdinand Magellan’s “discovery” in 1521), beleaguers even National Museum director, Jeremy Barns, who expressed his reluctance to replace our Philippine national flower, the sampaguita (Jasminum sambac), a plant native to India and Arabia, with the waling-waling (Vanda sanderiana), an endemic Philippine species.

This was in response to a Senate bill proposing such a change in July 2020. What makes it very puzzling is that it should be a no-brainer. Symbols of national identity should be what’s native to the country, and if they’re unique to the Philippines, so much the better. Thus, our national bird is the Philippine eagle, the national tree is the narra, and our national animal is the tamaraw. These are all native to the Philippines and definitely not found in other countries, and so we take pride in such distinctions.

As a backgrounder, the sampaguita was declared by Governor-General Frank Murphy as the Philippine national flower in 1934 when we were under American colonial rule. We have no way of knowing if he knew it was not a native flower, but the mere fact that it was an American who dictated it shows how nationalism is viewed in this country. Was it a case of mistaken identity, and if so, shouldn’t we correct this distortion of history?

In a post in September 2020, Charito Puentespina, a prominent member of the Philippine Orchid Society and foremost advocate of the waling-waling, said, “Among true and independent nations, their people take pride in the preservation of their culture as manifested in their penchant for names and symbols.” She and co-author Eleurterio Fuentes further cited the re-naming of countries to either their pre-colonial or native names such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Myanmar.

If the national flower is supposed to embody the national spirit, then naming the wrong one should be corrected. Another prominent orchid authority, University of the Philippines Los Baños professor Dr. Vicente Saplala likewise asked in 1984 if it was too late to correct an error and replace the sampaguita with the waling-waling as our national flower.

Why, you ask? There are many reasons. First, the waling-waling is endemic to the Philippines, meaning it does not exist in the wild state in other countries.

Second, it has a central role in the legends, myths, and traditions of the Filipino people. Much has been written on the waling-waling.

Third it has an intrinsic value, since horticulturally, it is considered the most beautiful of all Vandaceous orchids. Filipinos can truly take pride in this beautiful orchid that has spawned thousands of hybrids worldwide. It is the single most important parent in breeding among vandaceous orchids.

Why persist in naming a foreign species as a national symbol just because a foreigner said so, when there is a better Philippine alternative? Are we forever bound by such a pronouncement? Mr. Barns’s reasons to retain the sampaguita for its ubiquity and cultural value I find rather shallow. Ubiquity implies commonness as opposed to being unique. Cultural value? We may use the sampaguita as garlands, but this practice is not uniquely Filipino; the Thais and Indians make more extensive use of the sampaguita even in their religious practices, so there’s no advantage in claiming similar practices.

As for it being the symbol of the Filipinos’ “purity, simplicity, humility, and strength,” these are artificial constructs that are not embodied by a small flower, albeit fragrant (stiflingly so for some). Rather, they refer solely to its white color and simple flower shape common to all non-orchid flowers. There is nothing strong about a fragile flower that wilts the following day.

In contrast, the waling-waling flower is a large (up to five inches), brilliantly colored pink flower with an interesting pattern on the lower half. The many flowers that are borne on a strong upright stem lasts for weeks and can be seen even from afar. The plant is a survivor and lives symbiotically on dipterocarp trees. It is thus a fitting symbol of beauty, strength, resilience, and peaceful co-existence. These are qualities you’d want to have in a country known for its beauty both masculine and feminine, resilience of spirit, and peace-loving citizens.

So, folks, which would you rather be represented by—a foreign flower but rather common or a unique large and proud native of the Philippines? I’ll take the latter any time.