Nancy Catamco stands for/ represents/ exudes everything that is flawed in how indigeneity is perceived in our nation today. This is apparent through, first, the ideological underpinning of the stunts she pulled here in Davao City just this past week, and second, her nose.
The violence she has inflicted upon the displaced Talaingod and Kapalong Manobos at the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) Haran Compound was atrocious not just because it was, well, violent per se, but more so because of the underlying way of looking at the lumad that her actions have betrayed.
Let us consider her condescending tone and manner in talking to the lumad, her (at the very least) poor choice of words in describing her olfactory experience at the evacuation center, and we may even include here her cheeky distribution of backpacks embellished with her face and name among the bakwits. And let us place the greatest weight upon the incident last Thursday at Haran when she, after publicly vowing that she would make the lumad refugees return home, brought a mass of armed personnel in order to force exactly that to happen. Force they did exert, resulting in the injury of several refugees, the terrorization of children, the snatching of a family (the daughter had allegedly been ra ped by soldiers in their village, and they were in Haran precisely because they were seeking safety), and the willful destruction of UCCP property.
Only the daftest among us would not have seen that such moves were outright provocations. Catamco has defended herself by saying that she was “passionate”, that she only wanted to help, and that this should immediately be accomplished by returning the bakwits to their villages. But what these deeds and pronouncements only point to are that Catamco possesses the most repellent form of chauvinism, the sort that Ferdinand Blumentritt was already trying to put a finger on as he was mulling over the relationship of the Philippines and Mother Spain in the late 19th century.
Blumentritt had observed that some of his contemporaries who had claimed to be “enlightened” subjected the “colored man” (i.e., non-Europeans) to much “inexhaustible and indulgent love”, but that this was still “a manifestation of the madness for greatness of the European race”, because of their supposition that “all the other nations and races of the world are either savages, primitive men, or at least men whom the providence of Supreme Being endowed with a childish and limited intelligence.” [emphasis mine]. This show of “kindness” was still racism for it was anchored in the belief that first, the “colored man” was inherently like a poor, dim-witted child, and that second, their deliverance relied upon the magnanimity of their European superiors.
The parallels with Catamco’s actions are clear. She at first expresses pity and says she wishes to help the lumad bakwits, then summarily decides that the bakwits need to be “rescued” from whatever conjured menace she imagines there to be, and finally decrees that she herself is that rescuer – her bringing of riot police, government vehicles, and Alamara paramilitary goons and her wreaking of a very public havoc sending the plain message that the lumad themselves have no choice in the matter.
With her weepy displays and spontaneous marathons down Fr. Selga St., she has only revealed what she really thinks of the lumad: that they are no better than children whose minds need to be made up for them, whose own will could, and should, be ignored to make way for that of their “betters”. It is discrimination disguised as compassion, it is insult and injury in benevolent clothing, it is the worst way one can treat the lumad or any minoritized group, even worse than if one had simply been outrightly prejudiced with no pretensions of munificence.
But how can she be prejudiced when she is a lumad herself? Some may ask. And that brings us to her nose.
Some of the more impish activists, in their annoyance, have taken naughty potshots at what they allege to be her surgically modified nose to look more matangos (sharper/taller, to approximate Caucasian features).
I for one certainly hope that this is not true. Though some may say that cosmetic surgery is solely a matter of personal choice, anthropologists and sociologists will tell you that choices in bodily modification, enhancements, and aesthetics have rarely been, if at all, unattached to the social and political milieu in which they are situated. Restrictive clothing for women – from corsets to burqas – reflect patriarchy’s “putting women in their place” in more ways than one. Fiercely proud African-American women from the 70s onward keep their hair texture au naturel with the afro, rejecting hair straightening and lightening as part of “white” mainstreaming. Caitlyn Jenner’s physical transition from man to woman has been touted to exemplify the latest arena in the civil rights struggle in the US, namely, the rights and status of transgender persons.
In the Philippines there is the obsession with skin whitening creams and lotions and, for those who are financially able, to surgical enhancements like a nose-lift – all of which subscribe to standards of European beauty that have been placed at a premium and normalized through the centuries since we were a colony. By contrast, anything that is the opposite of this is seen as aesthetically displeasing, even revolting (how many times have you heard: ang pangit, maitim! or ang pa ngit, pango ang ilong!), and often, it is members of indigenous groups who suffer the brunt of this prejudice. Choices in body modification can hardly hide behind “it’s a personal choice” as it is used to reinforce unrealistic, colonial, and discriminatory standards, and to (even if indirectly) denigrate persons who don’t measure up to said standards.
In this light, Catamco’s speculated surgery takes on a different significance. An alleged nose-lift is no longer simply an alleged nose-lift; it is, quite literally, the embodiment of the break from, or rejection of, our autochthonous conditions as Filipinos, of which the lumad are commonly seen to represent.
Catamco is said to fancy herself as a “lumad goddess”, and she sits as the Chair of the House of Representatives Committee on Indigenous Peoples. No doubt she has already capitalized upon the prestige of her hailing from Mindanao and having lumad blood, but these by themselves do not validate her as a genuine representative of the sector to which she claims membership. Her actions, and perhaps even her very body, resoundingly belie these self-stylings. And that is precisely what is wrong with Nancy Catamco.