Ethnic struggle: How being a ‘Bisaya’ in Manila works two ways

This is a photo my boyfriend took when we were in Phuket, Thailand.

I was born into a family of mixed ethnicity and languages. My mother was from northern Mindanao and my father from central Luzon. They eventually crossed roads in Mindanao (but I wouldn’t tell their story because it’s not what this is about). I can’t even call myself an authentic Bisaya (because I don’t even understand some of the Bisaya words). Still, it’s the language I naturally use.

If you’ve never been to the Philippines before, here’s a map of what the country looks like.

As a kid, my grandparents taught me to speak in Tagalog, but it wasn’t something that stuck with me as English did. I have to admit I’m more confident to use the latter than the former. I’ve got no problem using both languages when writing stuff. Still, when you ask me to speak using those languages, my preference looks like this: (Priority 1) English, and (Priority 2) Tagalog. Yes, I am multilingual, but it’s not unusual for most of us living outside the Metropolitan.

People (I’ve met from the Philippines and abroad) told me I’ve got a distinctly American accent that they can mistake me for being one. But my English is far from perfect. However, I have to admit that I’ve been mistaken for a lot of nationalities since high school. Most are of Asian descent like Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. You’d be surprised I got into a school in Cebu and helped them with their feeding program one morning. I pretended that I was a visiting American student for the summer from Iowa, together with my cousins, who were really visiting from Iowa. No one questioned my authenticity.

But that’s just a preview of my story.

The ethnic struggle began when I stayed in Manila, the Philippines’ capital city, the one I referred to earlier as the Metropolitan. I’ve been in Manila for three years now, but the primary reason I got here was taking graduate studies. It wasn’t an easy plight. I was so used to hearing Bisaya all day long for 23 years that being surrounded by a different language (and with that I mean, Tagalog) every day was overwhelming. It took some time for me to adjust. To be honest, I never missed speaking Bisaya as I do now. When I was in Mindanao, and if we’re friends, I usually talk in Bisaya or English. That’s just the way it is with me. But being in Manila, I’ve wanted to use Bisaya 24/7.

So being a Bisaya in Manila worked two ways for me. And if you’re a Bisaya like me, living in the Metro, maybe you agree with me (or perhaps not).

Being a Bisaya is disreputable.

I don’t know why. I thought we’re all Pinoy. But I have experienced prejudice being a Bisaya while living in Manila. No, I don’t use conyo-Tagalog. Even when I was in Mindanao, people make fun of my Tagalog because they said it was way too Tagalog. But when I came to Manila, my friends considered it the right Tagalog kind. But my accent was too bad for a Tagalog. There’s always a hint of Bisaya in every word I speak.

When I speak in English, no one will question my authenticity. But when I try to talk in Tagalog, that’s where my Bisaya-accent creeps in.

And when people notice, they look at me differently. When people start telling me, “Oh, you’re from Mindanao, Bisaya ka pala,” people begin to question my capacity, measuring me up by the way they look at me. Have you ever felt prejudice just by the way people look at you? I don’t know why some people belittle those who have a Bisaya descent. It felt like people who have never been outside of Manila tended to look down upon people who were not born and raised in the Metro.

Whether you’re educated, rich, or someone respectable, it seemed that being a Bisaya has a connotation of being uneducated, poor, and without class.

I’ve met Bisaya professionals who have lived in Manila for so many years. They are very well-known and successful in their respective careers. They told me that Bisaya people were often underestimated in Manila just because they’re Bisaya. But they also said to me that I shouldn’t be overwhelmed by it. They told me that I just need to stick my ground because I know who I am, and I will learn that being a Bisaya is advantageous.

I’d like to think that they (all Bisaya people who made themselves reputable) have prepared the grounds for every Bisaya who planned to build their careers in Manila. Even if I often experience prejudice from other people just because I am a Bisaya, I believe that the earlier ones who came here had it worse.

Being a Bisaya is charming.

But it’s not all bad. I’ve quickly made friends here in Manila just because I’m Bisaya. I realized that there are a lot of Bisaya people here in Manila! It’s such a joy whenever I hear someone speak in Bisaya. I’ve made friends with either Bisaya or the ones who had traveled around the country (who I call the open-minded ones). I’ve read a book which explained why I’ve never experienced prejudice from travelers, and it goes like this:

Travel improves the mind wonderfully, and does away with all one’s prejudices.

The Happy Prince and Other Tales

Just because I am Bisaya, I never felt judged when I’m with them. Maybe I remind them of all the travels they had, the friends they made, and the relationships they fostered.

(Maybe we should recommend those who are quick to judge the Bisaya people to go outside of Manila.)

I also learned that when you’re a Bisaya working here in a Manila, it’s a plus. Why? Because when you’re Bisaya, it’s not that difficult for you to communicate with people coming from Visayas and Mindanao. And employers like that. It makes inter-island transactions easy for them when they have someone who can speak Bisaya.

As I said, it’s not all bad.


So that’s how being a Bisaya in Manila works two ways. Maybe you agree with me, perhaps not. What I just want to accomplish here is to share an awareness that Bisaya people are just like you. Even if we don’t speak like you, you’re not entitled to look down on us and step on our integrity.

I hope you treat us with respect as you would a family.

We are human just like you, born and raised by kind and reputable families.


That’s my rant.

Thanks for your time and see you again.


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