Notes & Essays

Liza Soberano, Bagani, and Other Fantasies

Sarge Lacuesta shares his thoughts on ethnicity, identity, Black Panther, and Bagani.
IMAGE ABS-CBN Film Productions, Inc.
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My great-grandmother Mama Pupuy belonged to the Mansaka tribe, an indigenous people that lived in Davao and the Compostela valley, and whose beautiful name is said to mean “the first to go upstream.” I use the past tense because my great-grandmother is long dead, though she survived long enough to hold me in her frail arms when I was a small child and to speak to me in her language. Also because, apart from a scattering of families that have remained in their valley of origin, most the Mansaka have long been assimilated into society.

I don’t know if I should consider myself Mansaka, although I always wish I could. I remember ticking the box to indicate I was part of an indigenous people when I filled out my college application form, and I wondered immediately afterward if I was being exploitative. But it was my mother, who was closer upstream and spoke the language fluently, who told me to tick it, proudly and almost indignantly. Doing the opposite would have stank of denial of heritage, which might have been more disastrous.

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It was also my mother who told me we had an ancestor who was a bagani—a tribal warrior that was feared and revered, the stuff of legends and daydreams.

And present-day TV shows, it seems, as a recent trailer announced:

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It’s easy to see what’s off with the picture—even people in the very industry that generated this show recognized it—so I’m not really going to talk about that.  

It’s nothing we haven’t seen before on local or foreign TV, either. Even the show’s head writer, in defense of accusations of misrepresentation and “brownface,” cited the American film series The Lord of the Rings and the American TV series Game of Thrones as examples to support his assertion that the show is not “historical fiction about pre-Hispanic Filipinos” but a “fantasy universe inspired by Philippine mythology.”

There’s nothing wrong with fantasy. Sometimes what Filipinos really want is a little bit of it, to get them through the day and live their lives—eat sinigang, watch a downloaded movie or do some TV shopping.

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But wait, there’s more. Or, there should be. This is what I felt right after I ticked that box: shouldn’t I have been more or done more to deserve to call myself part of my great grandmother’s and my grandmother’s and my mother’s people? Shouldn’t I have spoken the language more, or fought against assimilation more? Shouldn’t I have known more about how to understand and respect my roots?

By the same token, shouldn’t we be more aggressively protective of our culture before it sinks into our Gucci sneakers, fades into the news of the moment, and disappears into the lower depths of our Instafeeds?

I’m a sneaker-wearing realist myself, and I’m acquainted enough with the entertainment industry to know how it works—and especially how it doesn’t. There are audiences and the bottom line to think of, too.

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But then, perhaps the point is that we all already live in a fantasy universe, where journalists are accused of spreading fake news by fake news purveyors themselves, where the rights of indigenous peoples are violated, where a lot of Filipinos think and act like they’re white people, and where it’s OK to have zero idea of any kind of context.

So maybe we need more real things—real stuff to remember and real stuff to be proud of. Maybe we need real stories and real history—so that one day we can make our own superhero film just like Black Panther where the actors don’t need to be half-white and about which people will say “hell yeah, that’s us, that’s what I’m talking about!”

Maybe this is the fantasy we need. Maybe this is the fantasy I live for.

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Sarge Lacuesta
Editor at Large, Esquire Philippines
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