I was adjusting my playlist to cover the half-day long bus trip from Trinidad to Santiago de Cuba when the guy seated next to me, who I later learned was from the Netherlands, commented, ‘Una Cubana rica! (a rich Cuban).’ I turned to him thinking he might be talking to someone. But he was indeed talking to me. No, I’m not Cuban, I replied. I’m a Filipina.
I passed it off as just a person from the Global North homogenizing everyone he meets from the Global South. But a month later, I was walking to the museum in Aguas Calientes when a road guard stopped me and asked, in Spanish, where I was going. I replied to him in English and that was only when he softened his tone, asked where I was from, and recommended I should take photos of the uninspiring Welcome Billboard in front of his post. He apologized because he thought I was a local trying to climb up to Machu Picchu when it was already near closing time.
These were not isolated cases. Many times, I had been mistaken for a local in that region halfway across the globe from my ancestral lands. It was a bit exasperating, of course, especially in the countries where skin whiteness is still the standard for respect. Dark-skinned, dark-haired, slant-eyed, I could easily be mistaken as one of the indigenous who might hand over marijuana in exchange for a bag of rice.
Habla espanol?- them. No- me. Ah, china- them. I have learned to politely say no, I am not china. Our continent is called Asia. And I am a Filipina. Ah Filipina! Pero parece como Mejicana/ Guatemalteca/ Peruana /and so on.
Sometimes this really shakes the firm grounding of my identity. Most of the time I would ask the good Father in Heaven why I was not given the patrician nose and the white skin which seemed to command awe and admiration wherever flashed and shown.
Instead of waking up transformed with a magazine-standard face, I felt enlightened while freezing in the December temperature of Bolivia, dizzy from the varying altitudes my bus roller coasted through.
In my tour through the ruins of the Tiwanaku culture, the guide pointed out a stone sculpture of their indigenous forefathers who built their structures with precision not even modern technology could replicate. He asked me to note the similarities of the profile of their ancestors to my profile. And instead of the usual annoyance I feel when I encounter these references – and consequently the stereotypes attached to being indigenous –I felt very dignified. These were the ancestors of grand civilizations.
I looked at the guide who was explaining the artifacts in Spanish and English, languages that he had mastered but would never be his. I saw his pride as a citizen of Bolivia, the only country in the world which officially calls itself a Plurinational state —a recognition that it is composed of several nations that are unique, that can never be homogenized.
I remembered the faces of the indigenous peoples I used to work with theirs were faces often mocked for their material poverty despie the untold wealth of their heritage. Faces turned down because of their illiteracy, their rich traditional knowledge systems unrecognized. Faces from which we, lowlanders, spring from and yet we try to hide inside our baul as we go about our modern lives.
I thanked the guide who convinced me to look at the artifacts before going to the ruins. With the pressures of globalization, in trying to prove my worth in an international academic institution in a foreign country, I almost forgot who I was. I almost denied my face.
But this is actually the face that had peopled our lands since time immemorial, who weathered the pressures of powers juggling our country around. This is the face of unconquered peoples.
(Mary Louise G. Dumas is an MA in Media, Peace and Conflict Studies candidate in the University for Peace and a strong advocate for Indigenous Peoples’ human rights. She is also the Media Literacy Advocate of Women Writers of Mindanao.)