I remember a conversation with my late friend and famous writer of culture Edilberto Alegre. Although Tagalog by birth, Ed lived in Leyte and wrote extensively about the Bisaya including the Cebuanos. He travelled much in Mindanao where he discovered that Cebuano was the best language to be fluent in if one wanted to go about the area and do research.
It is good information to have if only to understand certain nuances of fact. And one may note, for example, how in the videotapes that recorded the last moments in the life of the late Benigno Aquino Jr., the word “pusila, pusila” floated in the audio. A well-known columnist noted this fact and surmised that one of the shooters must have been Cebuano. He was both right and wrong.
If one understands Cebuano to mean a resident of the Cebu islands, then he was most likely wrong. On the other hand, if one takes the broader view and use “Cebuano” to refer to anyone who uses the language, then he would be correct. But then, he would be referring to anyone who speaks a language spoken anywhere south and west from the Cebu and Bohol islands, certainly over most of Mindanao, including, as my late friend opined, Basilan and Jolo.
Ed explained this wide cultural spread of the Cebuano culture and language. The early colonial records show that Cebu, the island, was never much good for growing food. It was visited by regular famine. But it was central in the islands, the belly button of the whole Philippine archipelago. It was a regular route of Asian trading and commerce. It is not a big island, and land was always scarce even then. And whatever land was there was rocky-limestone, hilly and not as suitable for growing anything as, say, Negros, which was blessed by Mt. Kanlaon with rich volcanic soil. So people who became rich here usually went elsewhere to expand their landholdings, to have farms or grow livestock that they could trade and sell. Inevitably, the trading and selling would happen in Cebu. So it may be said that since time immemorial, the Cebuanos were always a traveling people. They are an immigrant culture.
This cultural trait persists to this day. Cebuanos can be found all over the Philippines and the world. And still as ever, it is the language that distinguishes them. I once played with my children at a park in Tokushima, in Japan, when a pretty lady approached me. “Cebuano di-ay ka?” was the first thing she said. “Pareho di-ay ta.” She had her own little son playing in the park. But she had been from Bohol and was now married to a Japanese.
This exchange explains in some way why despite the cultural spread, Cebuano is never thought of as an “imperialist” culture unlike the Tagalog or, if we refer to the place, Manila. “Cebuano” is not a term of exclusivity. One may be a Cebuano but still come from another place, as in the case of the Tokushima lady who came from Bohol. One may reside in a ranch in Bukidnon and still think of one’s self as Cebuano. One could be a California-Cebuano or a Cebuana New Yorker. It is all perfectly fine. No Cebuano will ever think of you as alien even if you live in Alaska or was born there and don’t even speak the language. Any sort of connection is acceptable. And this manner of accepting is rooted on an ancient tradition.
Anybody who resides in Cebu who asserts he’s Cebuano is accepted as Cebuano. Anybody who is married to a Cebuano is Cebuano. Anybody having a connection anywhere from first to nth degree of consanguinity can claim to be Cebuano. Anybody who speaks the language is Cebuano, even if he is Caucasian and grew up in Montana. No question about it. You do not have to born into the Cebuano. You can also just live into it. Cebuano is a wonderfully ambiguous concept. It has to be. The Cebuanos love it that way.
That is why people love it here. Cebuano is an accepting, nonexclusive culture. Nobody is alien here unless he or she insists on being one. And indeed, there are many who still do. But it is only because they do not understand. They are not sufficiently postmodernized, not sufficiently up-to-date in the sense of the global conception of what culture and identity ought to be. For if one truly thought about it, this is the direction the world is already going. But for a few who still insist that cultural root is something that should be exclusive and alienating, look at London, how many old-family white Caucasian English actually live there? And why shouldn’t a black South African or an Asian from Carcar think of himself as a Londoner? If the brown man from Carcar says he is Cebuano, then all the better for everyone. Cebu is nowhere and everywhere. It is the postmodern Erewhon.
This article was published in Cebu Daily News on November 30, 2011.