Home Is Where The Filipino Is

What, another cousin? "An American exclaims in mock exasperation as he is introduced to a cousin of a cousin of his Filipino fiancee.”Everybody in the Philippines is related," a Filipino friend tries to come to the rescue. "Oh yes?" the American says, not quite believing or understanding the Filipino family tree.

Poor American. He will never see the tree for the forest. For the tangled growth of relationships that bind Filipino familial society together is a dense forest indeed.

Let's see if we can find our way through this primeval landscape.

Archaeological evidence recovered from all over the Philippines attest, to there being viable settlements here as early as 5,000 BC. At the time of Spanish conquest in the 16th century, Philippine society was made up of fully functioning communities called barangay. They got their name from the vessel of the sea-faring Malays, who migrated to the Philippines in several waves and in kin-groups, together with slaves and household help, and implanted their colonies on the deltas and banks of river networks.

Like the sailing boat which held from 50 to 100 persons, each barangay contained several families and had a clearly defined social structure consisting of the datu (chieftain), rnaharlika (nobility), timawa (freemen) and alipin (slaves). It was run like a big family. The datu, as patriarch and political leader, looked after the welfare of the families. The families, in turn, gave the datu their unswerving loyalty.

The Spanish colonizers were able to destroy the political system that empowered the datu, but they failed to affect the more resilient inner social system within the family. To this day, the family remains the strongest unit of Philippine society.

As one can tell from Filipino names, the family is a bilateral structure - one branch stems from the father's side, the other from the mother's side. Therefore a child born to Maria Lourdes Dimalanta and Victor de los Santos takes, in addition to any number of given names, the mother's maiden name and the father's surname. The child also inherits all of both the mother's and the father's relatives - blood kin and integrated relations alike. By factoring in the extension of relatives, kinship can be stretched indefinitely, although recognition of consanguinity often extends only to third- and fourth-degree cousins.

All the members of the kin-group follow prescribed, if unwritten, rules of responsibility and behavior. Most of these behavioral patterns are itt the form of "covenants." Elders provide the family with stability and material wealth in the form of legacies and bestowals. Mid-generational family members are responsible for minors and elders who can no longer fend for themselves, seeing to their material and social well-being. (That's why Filipinos are appalled by the West,.- -n practice of consigning the elderly to nursing homes.) Minors in return are expected to pay both ceremonial as well as actual respect to both the middle generations and their elders. In a country with historically very few social programs, these family "covenants" substitute for the workings of a welfare society.

It is not unusual for an entire family to live under one roof, a social rather than an economic arrangement.

A second tier of relationships are formed through nonkin alliances such the compadrazo system. This is established when nonkin stand as godparents in baptismal, confirmation or marriage rites. All of those involved in these rituals - principals, parents and sponsors along with their blood relatives - become quasikin. Unlike Western cultures, the godparent (called ninong or ninang) does not perform a mere ceremonial role. He is expected to play an active part in the life of the child. And his children regard the godchild as their kinakapatid, or their own sibling.

As with any highly structured organization, the structure develops a language. Tagalog is rich with family terms, each denoting a person's position within the hierarchy. The eldest male child is Manong or Kuya. The eldest female child is Manang or Ate. The second male is Diko, the second femaleDiche. The next male is Sangko, the female Sanse. Grandchildren are differentiated according to proximity of relationship to the grandparent. The immediate grandchild is apo, the great grandchild is apo sa tuhod (grandchild of the knee), the great great grandchild is apo sa talampakan (grandchild of the sole of the feet) and great, great, great grandchild is kaapoapohan (grandchild many generations removed).

Because the family is the hub around which the social organization is built, like any monolithic society the good of the "many" must take precedence over the individual. Loyalty to the family is expected and absolute, and, in turn, the family protects its own. To break with the family is one of the most serious transgressions, and punishment can be both psychologically as well as materially akin to the medieval practices of banishment.

If one is to understand modem Filipino behavior, then one must understand the depth of these relationships. Whether a member is the transgressor or the transgressed, the family will be there. A felon can expect aid within the family; an illegitimate child becomes a blood member of the mother's clan. By extension, an entire province supporting a son's political ambitions out of sheer loyalty is not a breach of the social fabric but rather a part Of it.

It is fair to say that there is no modern Filipino family, because underneath the clan's twentieth century facade lie kinship values and traditions as old as racial memory.