Early this month, the New York Public Library released more than 600,000 digitized images, such as photos, postcards, maps and songbooks. The impressive new collection, however, turned out to include a few racist songs from the late 1800s, with titles like Ma Filipino Babe and My Filopena Pet. The former, written from the perspective of a (presumably American) sailor, sung of a Filipino woman named Caroline who was his “treasure and his pet… Though her face is black as jet… her heart is pure I know. She’s my pretty black-faced Filipino baby.”
The specified content was written more than a century ago. Still, it holds true today that being a minority in a global landscape entails having dominant, privileged cultures hand down their perceptions of us and have that dominate the conversation. Never mind if they’re dismissive, fetishizing, or get the whole picture wrong.
Fortunately, as society begins to recognize diversity as a value, we’re slowly gaining the space to tell our stories on our own terms. Buzzfeed Philippines, which began in August 2014, is a prime example of this — from creating and compiling silly Jollibee and Pia Wurtzbach memes, to executing an in-depth coverage of the Jennifer Laude case. We at Supreme thought this was particularly interesting. While many prominent Filipino figures are still talked about more than they talk, BuzzfeedPH as a media outlet is very hands-on about producing and shaping content that is genuinely ours in the wider, global — not to mention viral — landscape.
We sat down with BuzzfeedPH editor Matt Ortile, who himself had to work on staying in touch with his roots, after moving to the States at the age of 12. “I’m gay and I’m Filipino. Those are two really difficult minorities to be at the same time in very white, very heterosexist America. But ironically, what was more difficult for me was being Filipino. Mas apparent kasi, diba? Nasa mukha, nasa balat, nasa features,” he tells us.
He remembers wanting to change his stage name (as a once-aspiring actor), and has admitted to having seriously dated only white guys. “Definitely, a lot of that has been aspirational. Andyan pa rin yunginstinctive social climbing ko. When I moved to America, because I was Filipino, feeling a little bit less than (others), I felt maybe dating someone who was of a better social standing than I was — someone who’d be white, upper middle class, educated, that kind of thing — (thinking) that they would elevate me at the same time.”
But as he grew up, Ortile came to realize that his being Filipino allowed him to bring a different perspective and cultural knowledge to the table. And during his recent 25-day visit to the Philippines, he tells us that he’s had the pleasure of meeting so many other great gay Filipinos, “and may pagkalandian rin paminsan-minsan… actually this past weekend,” he divulges. “And I’ve definitely slept with different kinds of men. I’ve realized pwede rin. I’m not a total racist when it comes to sex. I’m an equal opportunity lover, I’m sure of that now.”
It starts on a personal level for Ortile — by figuring out how to maintain his being Filipino for himself, and coming to terms with how he honestly loves both being in Manila and being in New York. And on a global level, BuzzfeedPH has been a “really cool and interesting” way for him to express what he wants to contribute to the Filipino Internet culture.
Here in no particular order are the most interesting things we touched on, gleaned from a one-hour interview.
SUPREME: What do you think of Pinoy Pride?
MATT ORTILE: Ako kasi I love that about Filipinos on the Internet na palagi “Pinoy pride! Pinoy pride!”Talaga, I love it. Because what is so wrong about (having) pride? Other Filipinos will say, “Ugh, I’m Filipino, too, but stop.” I don’t know if it’s self-censoring or if they’re embarrassed that Filipinos are “trying hard.” I don’t know. What’s so bad about trying hard? What’s so bad about our names coming up out of the cracks and being recognized for our talents and our ambition in all different parts of the world, whether it’s in the States, Europe, other parts of Asia, or here in the Philippines?
Filipino pride is something that Filipinos really love to bring up. And I enjoy pride because it just means you are excited to talk about your identity and to share it with other people. And if you’re excited to share, it’s something that speaks to you as a human being. You’ll find other people to share it with, and then they’ll also hopefully say, “O, same! Ako rin. Pareho tayo!” It just creates more connections and more networks and more of a feeling of togetherness.
But there are criticisms that it can be rooted in insecurity and a hunger for approval. One of the common pet peeves is whenever a foreign artist flies in, they’re pelted with questions about Filipinos. Like, “How do you find our women? What do you think of our beaches? Have you triedbalut?”
That’s a really good point. It’s sort of saying, “Hey, we’re here!” But I think that attitude can go two ways. One is the feeling of saying, “Hey, we’re here!” because we’ve so often not been recognized. We’ve so often been invisible in a lot of the places where we are the minority.
There was this really great moment at the Golden Globes between Eva Longoria and America Ferrera about how Hollywood sometimes treats Latina actresses as interchangeable. They were able to make a really great joke about it and make a fair and smart critique of what’s happening in Hollywood, so that’s really great for them.
But then sometimes I think Filipinos see that and they ask themselves, “Well, what about us?” Same. We go through very similar experiences as non-white minority figures in a greater global landscape, and I think it’s absolutely valid to say, “Hey, we’re here. Recognize us.”
But at the same time, I get what you’re saying. I guess I would just have to say for those people who try to bring Filipino-ness into everything: Is your question/comment productive? Is it pushing the conversation in a direction that is conducive to actual change? Are you making really good points — salient points — about what you want to be saying about Filipino culture? What are you doing to make this conversation a good one? Is their substance in this? It’s not just fluff na parang, “Oh, what do you think about Filipinos?” You have to be smart about your questions in order to shape the discourse in a really positive and helpful way. There should be forward movement in the direction you want to go.
Filipinos tend to be very concerned about translating who they are and what they have to offer to foreigners. In the music industry, for example, it’s not uncommon to hear artists say that they compose their music in English because they want to reach a broader audience. On BuzzfeedPH, however, there’s a lot of content that clearly won’t translate. Is that intentional?
Yes! Sadya yun. One example was a screenshot of Pia smizing in her blue evening gown, tapos yungcaption is “Nanay says: Anak, punta ka sa kanto, bumili ka ng suka.” Tapos “Me: *Pia’s picture*.”
That literally will not translate. And yes, sadya yun. That’s for Filipinos playing with real Filipino humor. I think that’s what we do best, actually — when we really hit that Filipino nerve of “Pasok!” “Benta!” “Pwede!” “Ang ganda!” “Meron pa!” It’s really fun because… it’s just funny.
Even as we talk, how do you translate “charot”? ‘Diba? Hindi mo matra-translate yon. Basta lang na if that’s how the story or the joke is best told, then why not do that? Why not take advantage of our flexible language? Speaking Tagalog, napaka-saya eh. It’s a very lively language. May putok eh. May dating ang pagta-Tagalog.
What, for you, is the significance of shaping the discourse about Filipinos through Buzzfeed?
Right now, we’re just exploring markets. But the particular thing would be to create a space where people look at BuzzfeedPH’s Facebook and they’ll go, “OMG, me, too!” or “OMG, that’s so funny!” “OMG, that makes me think.” “OMG that makes me cry.” “That’s so sweet.”
A feature we did on a lesbian Filipino couple getting married in Boracay made people realize that love still wins. Someone was able to bend over backwards and make it work here. While others were saying that when two people love each other that much, why should we bar them — legally?
And then people see a little silly thing that I posted saying, “Find your happiness” with two pictures of Jollibee meals — and it’s at 21,000 likes. People connected with it and shared it with others.
So those things. Just making people happy, opening their eyes, making people think. Those are what I would love for BuzzfeedPH to do in this bigger landscape of media practitioners. There’s no big, overarching goal. It’s just to add another kind of voice to the conversation.
It’s about being in this big, weird place called the Internet where I can speak to literally anybody, find other people who are similar to me and build a network of people who like the same things. I experienced that firsthand coming from the States and building a weird, small family of people that I knew from the Internet in the Philippines. I actually met them in person, and it’s like, wow, these are people that get me! And get the things that I understand that I don’t always have in the States. I think that’s what I would love for any Internet endeavor to do. To bring people together. It’s cheesy, pero ganun eh. Pasok.
Originally published in The Philippine Star SUPREME (23 January 2016)