Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Philippine Literature: Socio-Historical Background

The Pre-War (from the 20's to 1941)

            Historically, Philippine Literature in English began with the coming of the Americans in 1898. The Filipinos learned another foreign language and were introduced to another alien culture. Used to the “leisurely tempo and ornate phraseology of the Castilian speech”, they had to adapt to a new language that was more or less direct and less florid. Spanish continued to dominate the circle of the elite but in the 30’s, it began to give way to English. At the same time, the vernacular languages continued to be used in the homes even while Tagalog, the language of the capital and the provinces around it, successfully held its own against English and Spanish.

            “The most effective means of subjugating a people,” write Renato Constantino, “is to capture their minds.” The Americans made English the medium of communication in the bureaucracy, and the medium of instruction in schools. It became therefore both an instrument for the acquisition of social status and even a requisite for employment. Hence, English was considered the official language of communication.

            As previously mentioned, Spanish was retained in the homes and the business establishments of the old aristocracy who clung to the power and prestige which they had during the Spanish era. Soon, however, English gradually replaced it and was picked up by the middle class, the new economic and intellectual elite. The young generation became themselves the purveyor and staunch exponents of English, making it the medium of communication among themselves.

            With the improvement of Fil-American relationship, American soldiers who were the first public school teachers, were replaced by professional teachers who at the start were all American teachers, in fact, who exercised the initial and one of the more important influences on the first Filipino writers in English.

            A landmark in the literary development of the country along the lines of Western cultural traditions, was the establishment of the University of the Philippines in 1908. More and better teachers, Americans and Filipinos alike, here harnessed. Inevitably, therefore, for better or for worse, both in concept and technique, the educational system followed that of the United States.

            The changes wrought since the Commonwealth era in 1935, like the teaching of the lives of Filipino national heroes, the introduction of a wider concept of education, and the introduction of community schools affected literature to a considerable degree, mostly for the better. With the inauguration of the Commonwealth, Tagalog began to assume a national role. It is now taught in schools and since 1940 has been considered one of the official languages of the country. Sympathizers to the cause of English blame the teaching of Tagalog, or Filipino, as a factor in the deterioration of English especially among college students after the war.

            The almost four centuries of foreign dominations had made many Filipinos proficient in several tongues. By learning Spanish and English, educated Filipinos came into contact with the humanistic and scientific works of the most advanced countries of the world. On the other hand, some scholars claim that the acquisition of this Western cultural orientation resulted in the “submergence of those Asian values which are the bases of the national culture evolution,” quoting Renato Constantino historian-writer.

            With American textbooks, American instructors, American writers as models, the Filipinos started to learn not only a new language and a new way of life alien to their traditions. This began their Western education, or mis-education, as some would put it; the start of a colonial orientation, or disorientation. On the other hand, there were those who insisted that this kind of education was really “a grace rather than a scourge,” an evolution into progress, from dark obscurantism into enlightenment.

            However, one would want to look at it, the fact remains that literature of the pre-war years was influenced, shaped, and inspired by the historical conditions that surrounded the country.

            The Commonwealth period was interrupted by the Japanese naval bombers attacking Pearl harbour in Hawaii in December, 1941. The United States declared was against Japan and the war in the Pacific was on. The bitter experiences during the Japanese occupation, the three long agonizing years of war, became the subject of literature and continued to be long after the last sounds of war had died down.

            The damage done by this historical event to the Filipinos was indeed incalculable. The ravages of war had left an imprint not only on the economy of the country but on its literature as well.

            ref: Philippine Contemporary Literature in English, Ophelia A. Dimalanta, et.al.