Hapa v. Mestizo | When mixed-identity equals upper-class

Posted by Miguel Santa Maria & filed under Travel.

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Having been a Filipino expat Vancouverite for six years, the minor details of my youth in Manila start to get fuzzy. However, one of the seemingly trivial things that still sticks out when reminiscing were the Dove commercials.

In almost every commercial back then, was some odd emphasis about how Dove made your skin “brighter and glowing”, sometimes providing a before and after visual of the skin itself. Maybe I don’t watch much TV nowadays, but I don’t remember this specific perk being as widely emphasized in the Canadian advertisements here.

With the 2015 Hapa-Palooza Festival underway, a local festival about mixed-heritage experiences, I think about my own childhood experience of mixed-race from the other side of the Pacific. The Dove ad highlight what is known by many Filipino Canadians as the mestizo mentality.

If you grew up in a developing nation that experienced some form of European colonialism, the term likely rings a bell. It usually refers to those with a mixed-ethnicity, especially those who have a half-European lineage.

In the specific case of the Philippines, the historical definition is half-Filipino and half-Spanish (or Portugese). Nowadays though, the term also applies to anyone whose ethnicity is mixed with any western (as in visibly white) ethnicity or at least, whose appearance gives that impression–meaning they are a lighter-skinned Filipino. During my middle-school years in Manila, I remembered some of my half-Chinese classmates being considered mestizo by teachers and peers, despite having no mixed-Spanish heritage. According to cultural anthropologist Dr. Fernando Zialcita, the semantics of this term have changed.

In short, it seemed that no matter your heritage, lighter skin, indicating traces of being foreign, automatically means you are mestizo.

So what’s the problem here? In the context of North America’s public conversation about mixed-ethnicity, which has become an integral aspect and celebrated, there also needs to be some reflection of how mixed-heritage might be used in other cultural contexts. In case of the Philippines, where mixed-herirtage was historically used as a means of reinforcing the status of colonialism, mestizo culture is more socially stratified rather than a melting pot or blending of cultures and identities.

On one hand, the idea of hapa and its celebration came out of the intent to acknowledge and affirm an identity that, for many, seemed stuck in a kind of ethnic limbo. Meanwhile, mestizo culture in the Philippines is hapa’s anti-thesis: not aimed at aiding a more complex identity, but a way of forcing a presumably superior identity onto others.

The intent and influence of the mestizo mentality is highly visible in Philippine pop-culture. Thinking back to those Dove advertisements, this hegemonic sense becomes clear with how brighter, glowing skin is defined as an improvement. On the Dove Philippines channel on YouTube, almost every other video follows this pattern. In Manila right now are billboards of local brands portraying Filipinos as light-skinned cosmopolitans. A quick online search of the currently popular Filipino celebrities will reveal a noticeable trend: that most celebrities share a mestizo aesthetic, or were raised elsewhere altogether (notably America or Europe).

Meanwhile, I can’t recall any other kind of local ethnic image having that much representation in Philippine modern pop-culture media.

How does one explain the phenomena? First, there is the impact of globalization. The westernized sensibilities of globalization tends to win over local sensibilities when it comes to aesthetics and notions of beauty.

Another key factor is history itself. One might easily point to the 200 years of European colonization. During the colonial times of the country, a caste system was in place that would have favoured those with Spanish heritage, especially those completely “pure-blood” or pre-dominantly looked like one. A darker tanned skin, the skin colour of most ethnic-Filipinos, has historically been framed to reflect a lesser social status  in many cultures. Tanned-skin (darker skin tones) were seen (and in some places still are) less desirable because of its historic association with labourers.

Blend in all these factors, it’s no surprise that idea of mestizo is a big influence on the popular Filipino image in the local media. Not only is it the look that reflects a form of social elitism ingrained within cultural history, but in a way, it also represents this pseudo-form of being the “international, globe-trotting” Filipino. As mentioned in the GMA article, mestizo now seems more tethered to cultural ideas of mobility rather than some inherent superiority. As such, this kind of “celebration” undermines any other local identities in favour of this sense of elitism.

Make no mistake though, this issue is a two way street. Being classified as mestizo doesn’t automatically mean your situation is better in terms of being comfortable in your own skin. Going back to those mestizo classmates, there were at least a few that were picked on for being “foreign” in their own country. Of course, this situation is not unique to the Philippines. This teasing has a familiar sting, a telling someone that they don’t below in the place where they’ve been raised. A common sentiment in many hapa stories.

As hapa becomes a more normalized reality in Canada, we also have the opportunity to reflect on the complex and often problematic histories of mixed-heritage elsewhere.


Mixed Voices Raised begins at 7 pm on Wednesday, September 16th, in the Alice McKay Room at Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch.

Hapa-palooza Festival is organized by the Hybrid Ancestry Public Arts Society (HAPAS), a non-profit society dedicated to bringing public programming that explores and celebrates mixed heritage.

Festival Website: hapapalooza.com | Facebook: facebook.com/hapapalooza

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