Why Filipinos Should Read: ‘Elites and Ilustrados in Philippine Culture’ by Caroline Hau 

by Bryan Meniado

The election season is getting more intense as we inch closer to the national polls in May 2022. In the past months, we have already seen a lot of political drama, seesaws, and mudslinging among the presidential aspirants. This grapple for position also creates a bitter divide among the supporters who are getting tired of all the failed and empty promises, and are aspiring and demanding for (another) real change. 

Furthermore, fierce debates on who to vote for or not to vote for in the upcoming elections permeate the social media. We see a lot of these online “bardagulan,” which loosely translates to word fights brimming with sarcasm and mockery, that don’t really raise the level of discourse. Unfortunately, this troll culture is the new norm in the Philippine political scene, and we’ll certainly see more of this brouhaha in the coming months. 

But of course, we want to set the bar higher and make the discussion more constructive and educational because choosing our leaders should not be left on our whims and gut feels. Voting requires knowledge and skill, too. We should bear in mind the importance of this exercise and what is at stake. It’s not just about our lives but also the future of our children. Hence, for us to cast an informed vote and make better political decisions, we have to do our research well. Apart from scrutinizing the candidates’ credentials, track record, and platforms, we have to understand the bigger picture from which the current socio-political landscape arises and operates. 

So to help us become more aware of our socio-political, and historical circumstances, I’m sharing about Elites and Ilustrados in Philippine Culture, winner of 2018 National Book Award, by Caroline Hau, a Chinese-Filipino author and professor at the Center of Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University.

Published in 2017, the book explores the historical origins, ascendancy, power, legitimacy, and the ongoing redefinition of the elites in Philippine literature and society. Here is why Filipinos should read Elites and Ilustrados in Philippine Culture and how it can help us choose wisely in May 2022 and beyond. 

Reading Filipiniana

Reading Elites and Ilustrados reminds me of the importance of reading Filipiniana in order to understand ourselves as Filipinos and why we are in this current state in our nation-building. As a Filipiniana enthusiast, I’ve already shared about why we should read more Filipiniana in the previous WFSRs, but this book further fuels my interest because of how it closely and thoroughly looks into different sources in Philippine literature, and how it critically examines the historical trajectory of the word “elite” and the concept of elitism in Philippine society. (Related: “Why Filipinos Should Read: Philippine Arts and Literature”)

In the book, Caroline Hau brings us into a tour of Philippine literature—from Jose Rizal, Nick Joaquin, and Ninotchka Rosca to Miguel Syjuco and Ramon Guillermo among others—to help us deeply understand these concepts and their history. It has voluminous footnotes and a long list of references that can help you explore further on the topics discussed in the book. It’s like a portal that leads you to the rich intellectual tradition and Philippine literature. 

 However, I must admit that I’ve yet to read most of the works cited in the book. But even after finishing Elites and Ilustrados, I still find myself revisiting some parts and peeping at the footnotes and bibliography sections in search of references in Philippine history, culture, and society. It’s a treasure trove of titles that can help us understand our past, make sense of our present, and shape our future. So I hope more Filipinos, especially the young ones, include more Filipiniana books in their reading piles because our writers and thinkers deserve to be read and appreciated.

Tackling oligarchy, elitism, and dynasties

We usually encounter the words elite, bourgeoisie (or burgis in vernacular), oligarchy, and political dynasty from the media, at school, or sometimes in our everyday conversations. We tend to associate these words with power and wealth, as embodied by our expressions “pangmayaman,” “elitista,” and “nakapaburgis.” 

Moreover, the term “oligarchy,” which means the government of the few, is slowly slipping into and becoming a part of public consciousness brought by the campaign promise and tirades from the president that he would crush the oligarchs, and ultimately give the power and wealth back to the people. But we still have not seen that happen. Shutting down a broadcasting network and supposedly “exposing” a single influential family definitely does not equate to toppling the oligarchy. 

Indeed, the proposition of ending  the reign of the supposed oligarchs sounds great and empowering to the ordinary Filipino. Who wouldn’t want to end a government of the few, the powerful, and the rich, right? However, how can we topple something we don’t fully understand? How can we aspire for change if we still fall to the ruse and game of local politics, landlordism, cacique democracy, and political dynasties? 

While many of us know the meaning of oligarchy and why it’s bad, the truth is that we don’t really understand how it came to be, how it operates, and how it maintains power over all of us in the context of Philippine society and politics. And that’s what Elites and Ilustrados is trying to confront. While it may not have all the answers and solutions, the book gives us a perspective and helps us make sense of these seemingly floating concepts that have real and tangible implications in our lives.  

Understanding social classes

Since the book primarily talks about the elite, the powerful, and the rich in Philippine society, it is also almost inevitable not to think about the other social classes—the middle and the lower classes. Reading the book made me ponder on how we classify the people around us and dichotomize the concepts of being “poor” and being “may kaya.” So, I wonder: how do we know whether one is “mahirap,” “may kaya,” or “alta?” 

We usually have indicators to tell people apart such as the things they own, the way they speak, their clothes, their gestures, and sometimes if “may pinag-aralan.” We often see the rich and the poor as binary opposites, which certainly makes sense. In relation, we also see these classes as something like a ladder or a destination that can be climbed for social mobility as manifested by our expressions “may narating sa buhay” or “umasenso na.” But sometimes, we tend to forget the causation between the two: the poor remain poor, not only because they are lazy, but because the rich keep getting richer. 

The sad reality is that resources and opportunities are finite. The poor can also do so much to get themselves out of the quagmire. Sometimes, the hardest workers are the poor but they usually remain poor because of the unfavorable conditions the current social order dictates. Surely, there might be some exceptional instances of rags-to-riches success but that’s not a sustainable way to address social inequality.  

Thus, if we really want real change, we have to examine and understand our positions in society first. In the context of Philippine society, particularly politics, we have to realize that the elite’s primary agenda is to protect and perpetuate their social, political, and economic interests, which most of the time is at the expense of the ordinary people. Furthermore, running for a political post requires a ton of resources and machinery. That should make you think why politicians are willing to spend billions in campaigns or even kill just to stay in power, and why many Filipinos are still poor. 

Revisiting the past

Another thing I realized from reading Elites and Ilustrados is our apparent forgetfulness as a people. We easily forget about the horrors and crimes of the past, even as recent as 30 or 50 years ago. It might be the collective amnesia kicking in, or maybe we are not that well-versed about our history in the first place. That’s why we tend to fall prey to propaganda, lies, and historical denialism and distortion. 

In relation, some argue that we Filipinos don’t like to read and don’t know much about our own history. Even at school, many students don’t like studying history, civics, or social studies because of the way it is being taught where they have to memorize a litany of forgettable names and dates. I think this aspect of our education is one of the reasons why we have little appreciation and understanding of our past. Rote memorization at school makes history boring and bland, which is saddening because it doesn’t give justice to history, as a subject, and its importance to our social lives. 

But reading history is more than just memorizing facts. It teaches us how to think critically, to spot biases, and to appreciate the narratives and lessons from those who came before us. In the process, it also teaches us humility, honesty, and empathy—values that are beneficial to our society, especially in this time of crassness, hostility, and disinformation.

Given that, history is relevant in our lives and should be an inherent part of the discussion as we choose our next leaders. I hope we also take this upcoming election as an opportunity to know more about our history by reading from credible and verifiable sources, educating ourselves, learning how to cross-check information, asking difficult questions, and engaging in fruitful and respectful discussions, so that we can make informed political decisions and, hopefully, make the country great. 

The politics of knowledge production 

As mentioned, we see a lot of sarcasm, mockery, or ignorance online, particularly when it comes to political posts and debates. Aside from personal attacks and insults being thrown by the diehards, I often see comments along the lines of: “mulat na kami sa katotohanan, hindi n’yo na kami maloloko,” which I think should also merit introspection. How do we know if the information we are being fed is accurate and true? 

Some of the ways to know have already been mentioned earlier such as reading from credible sources and so on. But in the book, Caroline Hau also discusses knowledge production among Filipino academics here and abroad, and how knowledge about the Philippines is being “deterritorialized” and redefined because of the Filipino diaspora. It tries to show the history as well as the reimagination of our intellectual tradition in a globalized setting. 

The lasting impression I got from Elites and Ilustrados is the need for Filipinos to have enriching conversations. We have to keep growing, be more receptive to new information, and accept that we can be wrong sometimes in order to raise the level of discourse. We also have to be open to question our beliefs and assumptions, and be more self-aware and reflective of both our strengths and weaknesses toward our quest to define, or redefine, what makes us Filipinos. And hopefully, through that, we can be truly be “mulat sa katotohanan at hindi na maloloko.”





One response to “Why Filipinos Should Read: ‘Elites and Ilustrados in Philippine Culture’ by Caroline Hau ”

  1. Why Filipinos Should Read: Akin Lang Naman: Mga Tula by Aristotle C. Pollisco a.k.a. Gloc-9 – Bookbed Avatar

    […] The recent national elections may have been the most polarizing and divisive one in recent memory. While I’m disappointed, I’m not that surprised by the results. With all the miseducation, disinformation, historical distortion, and blatant lies we have been fed over the past years, it’s not far-fetched why many of us still fall for the ruse and game of cacique democracy, patronage politics, and political dynasties. (Related: “Why Filipinos Should Read: ‘Elites and Ilustrados in Philippine Culture’ by Caroline Hau&…)  […]


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