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Cultural mockery at the SONA

Red carpet celebrity photo-ops don’t just happen in Hollywood. They also happen in the SONA.

Jul 28, 2023

Antonio J. Montalvan II


5-minute read

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Red carpet celebrity photo-ops don’t just happen in Hollywood. They also happen in the SONA. Ours is a scandalous display of ostentation in a country whose state of the nation counts 51 percent of families rating themselves as poor and 30 percent as borderline.

Each year, the disgraceful indecency has worsened. As if all the corruption in government is not enough, legislators’ wives flaunt their designer gowns and accessories that can already build dozens of public school classrooms. Heart Evangelista, for example, showed up at the Senate opening with a L’Alingi London bag worth approximately P45k. Changing to different attire for the SONA, she sported a Hermes bag worth P5.1M, the cost of five classrooms.

Why do we know the worth of the decadence? Because they reply to questions from media who gobble up the information for their entertainment pages. This is wrong nation building.

This year, the unabated display of wealth has gone two steps backward. Sara Duterte and Imee Marcos appeared dressed in indigenous peoples clothing. There is no debate among anthropologists on the matter – indigenous peoples’ clothing is not a costume.

This is something that the Philippines, home to a myriad diversity of indigenous peoples, must learn to adopt as policy. Why that is not so speaks eloquently of the low value we place on indigenous peoples. In the United States and Canada, dressing up indigenously when one is not is never considered appropriate.

Imee bragged that she “wore the whole Cordillera region at the red carpet.” For example, she complimented her costume with Henna tattoos. Among the Cordillera peoples, however, only specific people who have particular abilities wear tattoos. It could signify a specific status, or the person having them possesses certain cultural knowledge. These symbols are therefore earned and bestowed, not appropriated as faux body make-up.

By showing up as a Cordilleran IP, Imee has done tons of miseducation on their cultural heritage. The misappropriation stems not unrelatedly from the representation she tried to project. That representation deliberately forgets that she is the daughter of the dictator whose regime killed Macli’ing Dulag, the heroic pangat (leader) of the Butbut tribe in Kalinga. For his opposition to the Chico River dam project, Dulag was assassinated by the armed forces under the command of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr.

Will Imee’s costume erase the repugnant attempts of Marcos Sr.’s government officials to bribe Dulag? The book Macli’ing Dulag: Kalinga Chief, Defender of the Cordillera by the writer Ceres P. Doyo (University of the Philippines Press), details three ugly instances of the Marcos bribery.

Marcos Sr.’s men offered Dulag a high-paying job that would have given him a hefty monthly salary. He refused. Then he was later invited to the Panamin Foundation headquarters where he was led to a room full of “young and beautiful women,” and told to “choose one for the night.” Dulag again refused. On the third attempt, Marcos Sr.’s national minorities adviser Manda Elizalde handed Dulag an envelope, but he refused to accept it.

Dulag said of the incident: “There can be one of two things in an envelope: letter or money. Since I am illiterate, this is hardly a letter. As for money, it is only given to someone who has something to sell. I have nothing to sell.”

Four military men were detained for the murder and were later court-martialed. Two of them were found guilty, but Lieutenant Leodegario Adalem of the 44th Infrantry Battalion was covertly reinstated in the army and restored to active duty. It was a classic case of impunity under a fascist regime. He retired from the Philippine Army as major but was later ambushed and killed in April 2000.

As we can see, Imee’s costume has instead opened the old wounds of the Marcos dictatorship.

The attention-grabber Sara Duterte was not far behind in the SONA. She came dressed as Moro royalty and wore an over-sized turban that could have better belonged to Ali Baba.

Netizens had a heyday parodizing her costume. Why the over-sized turban? Did it hide Medusa, one asked? Or did it hide her humongous confidential funds? Levity aside, Sara is no Moro royalty even if her costume tried to appropriate the color of royalty among the Moro social hierarchy.

The Muslim head covering used by women (normally a veil or hijab, but which some of them wound around their heads in turban fashion) is actually not a fashion statement. It denotes modesty and piety, as prescribed by a Hadith in the Holy Qur’an.

Again, Sara raises questions of representation. She is the daughter of Rodrigo Duterte who once threatened to bomb lumad schools in Mindanao. Of course, the greatest violence he had inflicted on the Moro was to carpet bomb the Islamic City of Marawi whose many residents until this day have not been fully restored to their homes.

It is on record that when she was mayor of Davao city, she padlocked eleven lumad schools that she alleged as training grounds for how to handle firearms. In reality, there were only two such schools in Davao city, data that eluded her because she never called for a dialogue to solve the impasse. Of course, because of her trait to display inordinate beliefs, she was silent on the fact that military and paramilitary groups had harassed the lumad communities in her jurisdiction.

The wearing of native clothing is a sensitive zone for indigenous peoples. In both cases of Imee and Sara, it amounted to bastardization. By mocking native cultures like a costume play, it dehumanizes IPs.  The mockery reinforces the narrative that Indigenous Peoples are given a low value in our society.

The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.

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