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Filipinos and their Jeepneys

Filipinos and their Jeepneys

(An Essay in Honor of Valerio Nofuente)

“The western mind is so used to having everything planned and performing like clockwork while the Filipino, conditioned by survival instincts and desperate situations, can do things on-the-spot waiting for every development to guide the next big move. This is simply revolting to the Western mind… The jeepney is typically representative of the Filipino character. It evolved out of a need to survive, to earn a living, to augment an inadequate transport system. Western countries will have all the reasons not to have the jeepney as a means of public transport. Yet millions ride to work and school daily on it. Majority actually prefer it to the buses.”

From The Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 19, 20011


This essay offers no truth claims. It is a work of fiction. By fiction, I am following Clifford Geertz’ definition: “Something made, something fashioned—the original meaning of fictio—not that they are false, un-factual, or ‘as if’ thought experiments.”2 I present my own constructions of some fragmented realities representing what I believe are powerful symbols of the decolonizing Filipino. According to Gerald Arbuckle, “A people can communicate, transmit, and hand over their culture to the coming generations by means of symbols. And the whole gamut of their knowledge, values, beliefs, and outlook in life is thus transmitted.”3 Symbol, according to Geertz, has been used to refer to a great variety of things, often a number of them at the same time.4 Turner offers a similar broad definition: “Almost every article…every gesture…every song or prayer, every unit of space and time that stands for something other than itself. It is more than it seems, and often a good deal more.”5 One of Turner’s specific definitions is helpful for my argument: a symbol is a thing regarded as typifiying or representing something by analogous qualities or by association.6 And according to Geertz symbols as vehicles of culture should not be studied in and of themselves. They should be studied for what they can reveal to us about culture. Symbols are concrete embodiments of ideas, attitudes, judgments, longings, and beliefs.7 More importantly, people need symbols as sources of illumination to find their bearings in the world8 and they instigate social action and exert influences inclining persons and groups to action.9

Fernando Segovia defines the imperial-colonial framework as the structural reality practiced in terms of a primary dynamic: on the one hand, a political, economic, and cultural center, more often than not symbolized by a city or metropole, on the other hand, any number of margins, colonies, politically, economically, and culturally subordinated to the center. He continues: this primary dynamic entails and engenders in turn any number of secondary binomials: civilized/uncivilized; modern/primitive; cultured/barbarian. This reality should not be seen as uniform in every imperial context across time and culture but as maps or broad representations; and this reality is of such reach and such power that it affects and colors the entire artistic production of both center and margins, especially their literary production. Yet, in the wake of this reality lies the inverted, deconstructing, de-colonizing dynamic of resistance, where the margins actually take the initiative, while the center is forced into a reactive position.10

This work of fiction, focused on one particular symbol for the de-colonizing Filipino, attempts to make available what Geertz calls, “answers that others… have given, and thus to include them in the consultative record of what man [sic] has said.”11

Jeeps and Jeepneys

As has been noted earlier, on the shores of Mactan Island in the Visayas, central Philippines, people will find two monuments memorializing April 27, 1521. One reads: “On this spot Ferdinand Magellan died on April 27, 1521 wounded in an encounter with the soldiers of Lapulapu, chief of Mactan Island. One of Magellan's ships, the Victoria, under the command of Juan Sebastian Elcano,sailed from Cebu on May 1, 1521, and anchored at San Lucar de Barrameda on September 6, 1522, thus completing the first circumnavigation of the earth.” This monument was erected in 1941 when the Philippines was still a US Commonwealth. The other reads: “Here, on April 27 1521, Lapulapu and his warriors repulsed the Spanish invaders, killing their leader, Ferdinand Magellan. Thus, Lapulapu became the first Filipino to have repelled European aggression.” This second monument was built in 1951, six years after Independence.

In 1941, the same year the Magellan plaque was put up, the US War Department adopted the Willys model for its all terrain, go-anywhere, reconnaissance vehicle: the military jeep. In 1951, the same year the Lapu-Lapu plaque was put up, the jeepney was already on its way to becoming the most popular means of public transportation in the Philippines.

The US Army specifications for the jeep called for three bucket seats, and a mount for a 30-caliber machine gun. The first thing Filipinos did in their transformation of the military jeep was to get rid of the machine gun mount. They then transformed the vehicle into some sort of mini-bus that eventually could accommodate sixteen or more people. There are those who look at a jeepney and call it a Frankenstein’s monster. There are others who see it as a “Filipino home on wheels” complete with an altar. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s WWII liberation forces, after literally bombing Manila to smithereens, rode into the shell-shocked city in jeeps. Today, American Special Forces, stationed in the Philippines as part of Pres. Bush’ anti-terror war campaign, patrol the poverty-stricken streets of southern Mindanao riding jeeps. The military jeep was, and still is, a symbol of imperialism.12 A jeepney resists this symbol.

According to Dianne Bergant, anthropologists when confronted with the particularities of social reality attempt to construct a “thick description” of behavior, a highly detailed ethnographic analysis that explicitly includes, as far as this is possible, the insider's perspective. The most common approach toward this end is through a process of radical empiricism known as participant observation. Concerned with the comparability of empirical data, it begins with a particular, microscopic life-situation, and moves toward a contextualized understanding of meaning with the hope that general principles or parameters might be formulated. The findings then are tested against data from other life situations. Conclusions are drawn by induction as well as by comparison. The key authenticating factor here is resonance.13

By resonance, I mean the power of a text, an object, or a song to reach out beyond its set boundaries to a larger world, to evoke or conjure up in readers, viewers, or hearers a variety of memories, feelings, or responses. In the Philippines, the invitation “Mangisda tayo” (Let’s go fishing) has at least two meanings in Tagalog (the language spoken by a third of the population). The literal is the summons to go catch fish. With over seven thousand islands, the Pacific Ocean to the West and China Sea to the East, many Filipinos are fisherfolk. The symbolic meaning, according to Leny Strobel, comes from Tagalogs of the 16th century who listened to friars’ sermons in Spanish, and fished out words and phrases out of the stream of the sermon and arbitrarily assigned them to their own imaginings. Out of a barrage of unreadable signs, the Tagalogs were struck by recognizable words then went on spinning out narratives that bore no relation to the logic and intent of the priests’ discourse.14 “To fish” is to conjure up unexpected meanings.

Valerio Nofuente’s essay,“Jeepney: King of the Road?,”15offers a thick description of a jeepney.16 As I go through his detailed description, I will interrupt the narrative flow, disrupt the interstices of structure, “fish” for meaning, with insights, particularly from Geertz and Turner, that I hope helps me prove my case: that the jeepney works as symbol of the decolonizing Filipino.

Jeepneys: A Thick Description

War-torn Philippines ceased to be a US colony on July 4, 1946. World War II had crippled the country’s economy, left almost all engine-driven vehicles wrecked, and transportation—or the lack thereof—loomed as a major recovery problem. The Americans, according to Nofuente, also had a problem: what to do with the surplus of jeeps rotting and rusting at various depots. A mutual solution was reached. The vehicles were sold to Filipinos, who turned these into mass transportation units. The jeepney, therefore, was supposed to be a temporary solution to a postwar problem, but the short-term turned permanent. This turn of events was unexpected for the Americans. Not only were their rejects sold at a profit but suddenly they had a growing market for spare parts.

Nofuente continues: “The first jeepneys, then, were hybrid vehicles. Engines and body frames came from the US, all the rest were Filipino add-ons and creations. The frame was stretched and an opening was made in the back to allow easier entry for passengers. The plain olive drab was removed and repainted with a rainbow of colors. Jeepneys have evolved from the early eight-passenger AC (Auto Calesa) to the long 16-plus-passenger PUJ (Public Utility Jeep). In 1970, Japan and Germany began supplying the engines.” I believe that Baguio City, 5,000 feet above sea level and established early during the US occupation as a summer retreat for American military officers and their families, is probably the only place in the country that still have ACs.

“Between 1945 and 1968,” according to Geertz, “sixty-six countries attained political independence from colonial rule… the great revolution against Western governance of Third World peoples is essentially over. Politically, morally, and sociologically, the results are mixed. But from the Congo to Guyana the wards of imperialism are, formally anyway, free.”17 The realities of postcolonial life, for Geertz, can be a deflating experience.18 Considering all that independence seemed to promise including popular rule, economic growth, equality, cultural regeneration, national greatness, there are those in the former colonies who, confronted with concrete demands and challenges of postcolonial life, thirst for anything that reminds them of their former lives.

Thus, as Nofuente points out, there are those who quite easily conclude that the jeepney is an ugly mutation of the jeep. Its extended frame looks out of proportion, it is narrow and crowded, and it almost always drags when full of passengers. Because a foreign-made car is a status symbol, there are jeepneys that use car parts—or copies of car parts—as decorations. It is not uncommon to see jeepneys with hoods that bear the Mercedes Benz star, or have Toyota hubcaps, or Volkswagen mudguard, or even a Benz radiator grill.

Geertz, in describing the impulses involved in decolonization, describes essentialism as a people’s need to look for mores, for traditions, for roots that will ground the basis of a new national identity. Epochalism, on the other hand, is to “look to the general outlines of the history of our time, and in particular to what one takes to be the overall direction and significance of that history.”19 The tension between these two contrasting impulses—to hold on to an inherited course or to move with the tide of the present—gives nationalism its peculiar air of being at once morally outraged at modernity and hell-bent toward adopting it.20

I agree with Matt Stevens21 who describes epochalist strains as those movements that espouse concrete steps that the nation, as one people, has to take before it can join the modern world, to stand on its own. These tendencies accuse the United States and its agencies of hamstringing local economic development and keeping the country in a perpetual state of dependence and poverty. I grew up under Ferdinand Marcos’ epochalist Bagong Lipunan (New Society) that promoted a “One Nation, One People, One Language” approach to industrialization. For Stevens, the essentialist strain, celebrates nationhood and independence as efforts to strengthen and restore indigenous culture and traditions. These tendencies argue that the West, particulary the United States, has done irreparable damage to Filipino culture. Essentialists condemn the cosmopolitanism' of the metropole, and sees separation from all things Western and American as the only way to preserve Filipino culture from extinction. I would classify historians and anthropologists who advocate a grand pre-colonial history dating back to 250,000 BC, and linguists who celebrate the country’s different languages and dialects as essentialists.

These two strains according to Geertz22 are present in just about nationalist movements, but they are not equally present in every movement. For Stevens, the strength of one strain or another depends on the severity of the 'nation's' problems, and the extent to which they can be blamed with any credibility on the former colonial power. If poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment are chronic problems, and there are no signs that the current state is willing or capable of dealing with them, then the 'epochal' strain will be fairly strong. On the other hand, the 'essentialist' strain will be emphasized if the local culture seems in danger of being supplanted by that of the metropole. These two strains may also appeal to different groups within the separatist movement. Epochalist nationalism may hold a greater appeal for the poor, the unemployed and the financially insecure. Essentialist nationalism, on the other hand, will probably have a somewhat different constituency: The devout, who see local pieties undermined by metropolitan heresies; intellectuals, who feel more comfortable speaking in their own idiom but who feel forced to use the symbols of an alien culture; bureaucrats and businessmen, who have to learn the language of the metropole if they want to keep their jobs. To simplify, one could say that epochalist separatism appeals more to the poor, and essentialist nationalism appeals more to the well to do, as a general rule.23

Nofuente’s description shows both these impulses at work in a jeepney. Right on top of the jeepney, dead center is a plastic headdress that looks like a crown, and, since crowns are symbols of king (of the road or a pre-colonial past?) names like JEEPNEY KING, QUEEN LEAH, SUPER-STAR or simply the kings of jeepney body makers, SARAO MOTORS, INC., are written on it. By night, this area is filled with blinking lights, almost like vigil lights around a saint's statue. Sometimes there is a dark-colored sun visor below the headdress, perhaps with a pair of outspread eagle's or chicken's wings, also surrounded by lights. Usually, between the visor and the windshield, is a plastic strip with the jeepney’s destination, route, or main road plied such as "Dasmarinas-Silang," or "UP Diliman-Quezon Boulevard." On the windshield are plastered the last few years’ accumulation of Land Transportation Commission stickers, stickers from colleges and universities, or from pilgrimages to Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage at Antipolo, and colored pieces of reflectorized paper that serve as a patterned border around the happy windshield. Between the hood and the windshield is a bit of space dedicated to the "name" of the jeep: the name of a child, grandchild, or the owner, like "Nanay Cely," "Gingging-Nene," in big, bold letters.

The hood, as Nofuente observes, is about a meter square, is a repository of the creativity of the jeepney decorator. Almost required here is the chrome horse bolted upright on the hood, which may signify homage of some sort to the horse drawn calesa. However, what does it mean when an operator has many as 10 such horses on the hood? Along with the horses is a forest of other decorations, mostly roosters and other animal forms, bolted on the hood. I would characterize these, like the headdress, as essentialist tendencies. There are also straight and U-shaped stainless steel bars; antennas not connected to any radios, but wrapped in plastic strips; perhaps 10 side mirrors creatively placed; and parking lights in the combinations of red, green, blue, and orange. One wonders how the driver sees his or her destination through such exaltation of ornaments.

I would like to point out that not much has been written about the Filipinos’ relationship with the animal kingdom. As Daniel Patte, in his teaching stints in the Philippines, has experienced first-hand: there are churches in the country where even dogs, cats, and birds congregate. Cockfighting and horseracing are two of the most popular past-times in the archipelago. E. Arsenio Manuel, in Treasury of Stories: Filipino myths and folktales, argues that in many indigenous Filipino myths, first there were plants, birds, and animals. Then came humans.24 Manuel’s arguments resonate with Howard Harrod’s who, in his The Animals Came Dancing, says that Native American traditions made the point that being human meant fundamentally being intertwined with a relationship with particular places and specific animals.25 It is no wonder then that in Mindanao, home of the endangered Philippine Eagle, jeepneys are called “Agila” (eagle).

Nofuento sees the grill as another fertile area for Filipino artistry, since it may be copied from Ford, Toyota or Mercedes Benz or made of red steel bars arrange side-by-side in some welding shop. Here one can see hanging as many as 19 blinking parking lights. The bumper serves, not just to ward off bumps, but to hold more artwork. Here are fastened the license plate, the trademark of the jeepney’s body builder, and strips of reflectorized sheets. A skirt-like rubber sheet may hang from it decorated with a sun motif, or five stars surrounding the title of a popular or sentimental song, usually foreign ditties like " Love Me Tender," "No Other Love," or "You're My Everything."

The jeepney’s sides are a painter's canvas. In between the chrome strips again echoing the car, and the steel bars, painters insert different colors, lines, pictures, mini-landscapes, decorative motifs. One often sees rocket ships in wild chase, as in Star Wars or Buck Rogers; jet formations, like those of the Philippine Air Force's Blue Diamonds; planets in orbit; bursts of flame; "realistic" landscapes, and girls’ names. Are these epochalist tendencies? The extra-wide jeepney windows take on a homey look, what with the red and yellow cloth, or crocheted curtains, the jalousies, and, when it rains the plastic awnings go down. Below the window is usually screwed the signboard of the destination or route of the jeepney, like the one in front. Right beside the driver is the ever-present spare tire, as smooth and bald as the four tires in use. There is a hubcap which, don't believe if you can't, has whirling lights rigged up on it so that at night it seems like a mini-Ferris wheel or the fireworks made in Bocaue, Bulacan, for New Years’.

Nofuente observes that the back of the jeepney has been through over half a century of evolution too. This opening, meant to let passengers through, used to be covered by a canvas curtain. Now, however, a dome structure has evolved, suggesting perhaps a door, even a church door through which pass royalty and nobility. On each side of this entrance are steel bars to hold onto, as one pulls oneself up and into the jeepney. Here, too, can hang the passenger for whom there is no longer room inside. Here, too, one will find hooks on which to hang market baskets, bushel baskets, shopping bags, puto (rice cake) containers, and taho (soft tofu drink) cans.

The steps are another obvious place for more slogans since one has to look at them as one gets in. There are the welcoming sign: "WATCH YOUR STEP," "HALINA BABY(Let's go, Baby)", "WELCOME CHICKS;" or the teasing ones - "WOW LEGS," "CHICKS LOADER," "CHICK MECHANIC." The bravado and bluster of the jeepney driver is never missing, so sometimes the rubber skirt (there is one here too) has still more information like "DRIVER, WALANG SABIT (The driver is unattached);" "WANTED WIFE; 35-25-35;" or it may boastfully warn: "DISTANCIA AMIGO (Keep your distance, friend)." The mudguards may bear Toyota, Volkswagen or Mitsubishi Galant imprints, or may be bits of rubber improvised by some auto shop with "Passing side" written on the left and "Suicide" on the right.

The slogans that appear sexist and not “welcoming” to women are exactly that, sexist and not “welcoming” to women. Those slogans serve as reminders of the West’s worst contributions to the country: the objectification of women. What is ironic is that once one gets past those steps one discovers that the majority of jeepney riders are women. Actually, women make up the majority of the population.

It is a fact of history that Spain introduced patriarchy in the Philippines. Sr. Mary John Mananzan, one of the foremost Filipino feminists, using Spanish sources argues that “when the Spaniards came in 1521, they were shocked by the freedom manifested by the mujer indigena, which did not fit into their concept of how women should be and behave since the women in the Iberian peninsula at that time lived like contemplative nuns. Although the missionaries were forced to acknowledge the superior quality of the indigenous woman, they set out to remold her according to the image and likeness of the perfect woman of the Iberian society… The Spaniards introduced the cult of the Virgin Mary that was focused on the obedient Mary of the Annunciation. They took great efforts to convince the indigenous woman that she had a pearl of great price, her virginity to protect, yet as the documents of the Archivo General de Nacion show, the Spaniards both lay and religious were guilty of robbing her of this very same treasure.” 26 They also introduced prostitution in the service of Spanish soldiers.27 Mananzan points out the unfortunate reality that in the predominantly Christian country, women are still discriminated against and subordinated in the home, in church, and in society.28 For many women, a jeepney ride with mostly women is probably the best respite, though fleeting, from the established structures of patriarchy.

Nofuente observes that there are three entrances by which one enters a jeepney. One is only for the driver, or anyone he or she allows to squeeze into the tiny space between spare tire and driver’s seat. The second one is for the two passengers who can be accommodated beside the driver. The third is the most important, the one at the back that leads to the passenger compartment. When one enters the jeep, one senses an atmosphere different from that of most motor vehicles, since he seems to be in a Filipino home rather than in a conveyance. First of all, one notices the altar, with its image of the Sto. Nino, or the Suffering Christ. It seems to be a ritual, the faithfulness and regularity with which the driver hangs a garland of sampaguita, the national flower, or everlasting flowers near this altar (sometimes on the rearview mirror.

Fr. Jaime Belita, in And God Said:Hala!, argues that Filipinos’ dedication to the Sto. Nino, or the Suffering Christ is an example of “relating to deity with a vengeance.” He continues: “It is similar to nationalist Jose Rizal’s description about ‘colonized Filipinos’ fishing out for meaning—that is, deriving a meaning that is different from the one intended. These devotions were forms of vengeance against a rationale introduced to perpetuate white domination. Instead of simply accepting the lordship of Christ, a fitting model for the dominant Christian colonizer, Filipinos accepted him as Lord Infant Jesus, but more infant and crucified than Lord, with all the weakness and vulnerability that these images suggested.”29

Nofuente observes that just below the altar, within easy reach, is the moneybox that must be filled before the jeepney is returned to the operator. To the right, with a miniature bottle of San Miguel beer or Coca-Cola glued on top, is an 8-track cassette recorder-player lustily blaring a Yoyoy Villame song in the vernacular. Notice that the ammeter and the gas and oil gauges are not working. This is ironical, since the dashboard is equipped with, aside from the 8-track, a crocheted doily on top of the recorder, a tiny electric fan, and eight small blinking lights. Ornamentation is complete, but the gauges are inoperative. Stuck to the windshield beside the 8-track are stickers and printed inscriptions that give the "house rules" as if to say "You’re in my house so you follow my rules." One reads, "Magbayad ng maaga nang di maabala (Pay early so as not to cause delays);" "Barya po lamang sa umaga (Only change please, in the morning);" To remind passengers that discounts are only given to students with proper identification, there is "Barok, Dabiana, ID mo'y ipakita (Barok and Dabiana, show your ID's)." Fares are paid in the jeepney according to the "honor system," since there are no tickets or collectors; thus the sticker "God knows Hudas not pay" which can be interpreted at least two ways: “Hudas” can be read as “who does” so “God knows who does not pay.” The sticker is an appeal to conscience. “Hudas” can also be read “Judas.” The sticker then has more bite: “God knows Judases don’t pay.”

Between the driver and the passenger is a board on which are usually found pin-up posters of famous Filipino movie stars, singing idols, or "bold" stars (stars of soft-porn films). Up on the ceiling are hung the two perpetually blaring stereo speakers. There are two parallel bars for passengers to hold onto so they don't fall off or over each other during sudden stops (which are frequent, especially in Manila). The ceiling serves as canvas for assorted designs, names and titles. On it one might find the names of the jeepney operator's whole clan, or the titles of his or her favorite songs, or six local comic strips.

The images, metaphors, and rhetorical devices that build nationalist ideologies are, according to Geertz, cultural devices designed to render the broad processes of collective self-definition and self-redefinition into a practical force.30 In my opinion, there is nothing more powerful than the jeepney as a transformative cultural device. To be more specific, then and now, only a nationwide jeepney strike can paralyze the whole Philippine economy.31 I have heard foreigners describe their experience with jeepneys as a cultural event.

God Bless our Way

By Emmanuel Garibay

Jeepneys and Loob

I agree with Nofuente’s comment that the seemingly elastic capacity of the jeepney mirrors the Filipino's power to adjust to situations. Six passengers fit, but one can make that seven, and even crowd in eight. If there isn't enough sitting space, someone can hang on at the steps—see--it can be done. It is something like the Filipino home. If one arrives while the family is at table, an extra place is immediately laid, and the rice and fish somehow are enough for all, for everyone adjust his intake for the guest. But more than creating more space, elasticity mirrors the Filipino’s loob.

I have argued32 elsewhere that in the Philippines, the criterion of ethical value is in interpersonal relationships and communal interaction. This value system resonates with Geertz’ observations about Balinese notions of personhood that is focused toward achieving smoothness in interpersonal relations, quite different from the European autonomous ego.33 Among most Filipinos, it is the other tao (human), the equal tao, kapwa (neighbor, fellow human), that is the foundational objective and external reality that tests the humaneness of humanity. The ideal of loob is kabuuan (wholeness, integrity, harmony) or kapwa/kapatiran (the collective body of loob). In the New Testament, the church has often been described as the body of Christ.34 In Filipino thought, this identification is most important because the body and body parts have always been used to symbolize the Filipino.35 For example, the English “You worthless ingrate” is Walang hiya (shameless) or Makapal ang mukha (thick faced). Both translations are about “face.” A man without honor is walang bayag (no balls) in Filipino.

Melanio Aoanan argues that the most vital part of the Filipino human body is the loob. The center, the core of one’s loob, is his or her lamanloob or bituka ( the intestines--roughly the equivalent of the Greek splagxnon which literally means “guts” or “entrails”). The most concrete example of its use as a term for connectedness, for the community of loob is the word kapatid (brother/sister/sibling). The word is a contraction of the Tagalog patid ng bituka (cut off from one intestine). The word in Visayan is igsoon (igsumpay sa tinai) and kabsat (kapugsat iti bagis) in Ilocano. Therefore siblings come from one and the same intestine!36 To children who get bruised or who are bleeding from minor cuts their elders say in a soothing tone: Huwag kang mabahala, malayo sa bituka (No need to worry, the wound is far from your intestine). But more than being body-related concepts, these terms do not just describe individual parts but communal body parts.37 Thus a small wound is not just far from the center of one's loob but also peripheral and insignificant as far as the center of the community of loob is concerned. The community inside a jeepney is an example of this communion of mga loob. Those soothing words from elders simply mean: "Children, we (meaning the community and its collective experience) know about little cuts like these and we do not worry about them so you do not have to worry about them too."

This is the reason why most Filipinos greet each other with “Kumain ka na ba?” (Have you eaten?)38 instead of the Western form “How are you?” And this is not just a perfunctory greeting. Filipinos are renowned for their hospitality. Closely linked to this “relational” practice is the padigo or patikim where neighbors share with neighbors what they have cooked.

When my brother, sister and I were children we could not understand why Nanay (Mom) had to share food with our neighbors. We also had to leave some food on our plates for our pet dogs and cats. She used to tell us that food shared fills up more than one's stomach. When I was a teenager working with urban poor communities in the garbage dumps of Tondo, Manila, I met a girl, a young scavenger. She was probably around twelve. I offered her the remaining half of the Coke I had on that hot, humid morning. She drank a third of it. Realizing that she might not be accustomed to having a softdrink all to herself, I told her, "Drink all of it. It's all yours." She smiled back and asked (and I remember this scene as if it were yesterday), "Can I bring this home? I have two little brothers who would love to have a taste of Coca-Cola."

According to Virgilio Enriquez: “Relationship or pakikipagkapwa is evidently the most important aspect of Filipino life. As codified in the language, eight levels of interaction have been identified: (a) pakikitungo (transaction/civility with); (b) pakikisalamuha (interaction with); (c) pakikilahok (joining/participating with); (d) pakikibagay (in-conformity with/in-accord with); (e) pakikisama (being along with); (f) pakikipagpalagayan/pakikipagpalagayang-loob (being in rapport with/understanding/acceptance with); (h) pakikiisa (being one with). These levels of conceptual and behavioral differences are most concretely manifested in Filipino food-sharing, in the context of meals.”39 It is not uncommon to see jeepney passengers, literally strangers, sharing food.

Nofuente argues that each jeepney ride seems part of a communal experience. The passenger who sits directly behind the driver helps collect fares, as a matter of course, be reaching for the money of those sitting farther. The money is often passed from hand to hand. If someone asks the driver to stop (and the jeepney can stop almost anywhere), everyone echoes the request, just in case the driver has not heard. If a child is in the jeep and an adult gets in, he or she is offered a lap (not necessarily a relative's) to sit on in order to make space. If a woman laden with a market basket and a chicken gets in, hands reach out for her basket, and feet are moved aside to find a place for it. The passengers seem to be performing a ritual. They are, as a matter of fact, not facing the direction of their destination, but each other.

A jeepney ride, fleeting and communal, is a liminal experience. By liminal, I’m using Arnold Van Gennep’s definition: all rites of transition are marked by three phases—separation, margin (limen or “threshold”), and reintegration. “The first phase of separation comprises behavior signifying the detachment of the individual or group from an earlier fixed point in the social structure, from a set of cultural conditions, or both. During the intervening liminal period, the characteristics of the ritual subject, the passenger, are ambigious; he[sic]passes through a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state. In the third phase, re-aggregation or reincorporation, the passage is consummated.”40 For most jeepney riders, that ride could run from minutes to hours depending on location. Jeepney rides early Monday mornings in the Silang-Dasmarinas route in Cavite are usually liminal moments between home and work, home and school, or home and marketplace.

For Turner, liminal personae, “threshold people,”or liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between. They are represented as possessing nothing; their behavior is humble or passive obeying leaders or instructors completely; they develop intense comradeship and egalitarianism.41 Turner calls these fleeting relationships of lowliness, homogeneity, and comradeship, involving liminal personae, communitas.42 The passengers in one of those jeepneys plying the Silang-Dasmarinas route is a communion of equal individuals who submit to the authority of the jeepney driver, their lives are in his or her hands. Race, rank, education, possessions do not matter. What matters are the two pesos each person needs to get to his or her destination. Van Gennep argues that people are released from structure into communitas only to return to structure revitalized by their experience of communitas.43 People need a break. And for majority of Filipinos who have to face the daily grind of work, school, church, and other structured communities, the jeepney ride is the only non-structured break they can get, yes, even from home. And many look forward to it. A jeepney ride is an example of spontaneous communitas, a “winged moment as it flies,” or what hippies might call “a happening,”44 moments that disrupt the interstices of structure.

Recently, the multi-nationals Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen and Chrysler decided to cash in on the popularity of the jeepney and created similar small passenger vehicles. However, since these are mass-produced, they are plain, and without the art and the baroque designs. They come in plain colors. A few drivers of the Tamaraw (Toyota) tried painting in designs - a pink heart, some flowers - but it just didn't have the jeepney magic. The structural lines of the mass-produced jeepney are too straight, and do not tally with the curves and twists of Pinoy sensibility. A “jeepney” mass-produced by multi-nationals, agents of globalization, which is what imperialism calls itself these days, cannot, by definition, be a jeepney.

Nofuente concludes: compared to the bus, a jeepney is more wasteful, since it sits fewer people, uses up almost as much gasoline per day, and spends almost as much on tires and spare parts. It crowds the streets. Research shows that some 27,000 ply the major routes of Metro Manila, a figure equivalent to 4,050 buses in passenger capacity. There have been many attempts to eliminate the jeepney from the transportation scheme, but these have never succeeded because the jeepney is part of the sociological situation. The Philippines has an unemployment problem, and the jeepney provides employment not only for the drivers, but for the body-makers, painters, accessory makers, repairmen, “sampaquita” and cigarette vendors, and even “call” boys—children, mostly boys, barkers who call out to passengers at jeepney depots. Philippine streets are narrow and dimly lit; most of them cannot take large busses. It is in these tight and crowded streets, a network of capillaries that criss-cross the country, where the jeepney lives and breathes. And so it will still be around, this bastard vehicle that is literature, pop art object, ambulant home, statement of belief and personality, center for transient and communality and, at the moment, King of the Road.

The history of decolonization, for Geertz, has four phases: that in which the nationalist movements formed and crystallized; that in which they triumphed; that in which they organized themselves into states; and that (present one) in which, organized into states, they find themselves defining and stabilizing their relationships both to other states and to the societies from which they arouse.45 I would like to argue that these phases fall into that liminal stage between and betwixt colonial rule and that point in the future Geertz has defined as “when the desire to become a people rather than a population, a recognized and respected somebody in the world who counts and is attended to” is realized.46

The jeepney’s evolution, from the time that 30-caliber machine gun mount was removed, to the time the first 8-seater ACs roamed postwar Philippine streets, to the advent of the colorful 16-plus-seater PUJs, to its present position as eye-sore to the elite yet favorite of the masses, can serve as a gauge of the Filipino people’s unfolding process of decolonization. The jeepney is in transition: caught between and betwixt the military jeep and that uncertain future version dictated by powers-that-be beholden to multinationals whose development plans don’t include the jeepney. The people the jeepney reflects is almost in the same position: caught between and betwixt a painful colonial past and a future quite far off from Geertz’ stage of “worldwide recognition and respect.”

Eleazar Fernandez, in Exodus-toward-Egypt, notes that majority of Filipinos remain willing subjects of the United States’ “mental colony.” Migrant Filipina domestic workers, numbering over 7 million, are the global servants of late capitalism.47 Tens of millions find themselves squatters in their own homeland. Those who have opted for “The Promise Land,” the United States, find themselves treated as second-class citizens.48 Yet, there is hope for both the jeepney and the Filipino people.

Jeepneys and Revolutions

The quote from the Philippine Daily Inquirer at the beginning of this essay attempts to explain to the Western mind the recent People Power uprising, popularly called EDSA II, which ousted Joseph “Erap” Estrada from power. Jeepneys, according to the article, best represents the Filipinos’ on-the-spot survival instincts conditioned by centuries of desperate situations. The “people” in People Power are the millions who face the violence of hunger everyday, those who barely get the minimum wage. They are the “bakya” (wooden clogs) crowd, the “masa,” Mark’s ochlos. The late Luis Beltran, popular radio political commentator, called them “bubwit” (mice). These are the millions who are underpaid, who are overworked, and who will never get a bank loan approved for a house or even a second-hand car. These are the ones who ride jeepneys everyday. Yet, these are the ones who overthrew Marcos and “Erap.” According to nationalist historians Teodoro Agoncillo, Renato Constantino, and Reynaldo Ileto, the “Revolt of the Masses” that overthrew Spain was exactly that—a revolt of the masses!49

“No uprising fails. Each one is a step in the right direction.” Ileto memorializes this famous saying of peasant leader Salud Algabre in his Pasyon and Revolution.50 Algabre was one of the leaders of the anti-American Sakdal uprising in 1935. The quote is from an interview she gave in 1968. Ileto comments that her words may seem perfectly clear to us. The first thing that comes to mind is the notion that each resistance movement, in whatever form it is mounted against the empire, learns from the experience, particularly the mistakes, of its predecessors. Though an uprising leads to failure, it paves the way,it becomes part of that “archival power” that eventually leads to victory. But Ileto thinks that Algabre’s meaning was more than this. He argues that she privileges the resistance movements that we actually never read or hear about, the “pocket revolts of the masses.” This “Little Tradition,” distinct from the “Great Tradition” that glorify the Ilustrados led by Jose Rizal and Emilio Aguinaldo, was and still is muffled to preserve the image of elite-led national unity against colonial and, now, neocolonial rule.

For me, what Salud Algabre ultimately does with that short yet profound statement is memorialize all those unnamed legions of freedom fighters that have been victimized by the violence of institutionalized forgetting. These include the indigenous communities of Igorots and Lumads, forcibly driven out of their ancestral domain, in the name of development that now find themselves squatters in their own homeland. These include rural “messiahs,” like Hermano Pule and Macario Sakay, who led anti-colonial movements against Spain and America yet are marked as tulisanes (bandits) and thieves in Filipino and American history books. And these would also include people, like the women of cause-oriented organization GABRIELA, and communities, like peasant cooperatives in Tarlac and teachers’ cooperatives in Davao, struggling to dismantle structures of exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and systemic violence in all its forms.

Since the late 40s, the jeepneys have been integral to the lives of many Filipinos who are not full participants in the economic system. Albert Ravenholt’s case study notes that jeepneys “relate so intimately to the daily life of Filipinos throughout the archipelago” yet government and financial institutions do not provide support of any kind to their manufacture and/or sale.51 Without establishment support, manufacturers, which are usually family operations, work on the kumpadre/kumadre (ritual kinfolk)52 and seal deals with a handshake and palabra de honor (word of honor). Young people who learn how to drive on jeepneys see jeepney driving as the best option for livelihood, given their very limited opportunities to find work elsewhere. With no credit schemes available from banks, these young Filipinos have no choice but to approach private money lenders who eventually, because of exorbitant interest rates, get to own the jeepneys themselves.

Yet despite all these difficulties the jeepney population in Manila alone managed to grow 60 percent in 36 years.53 There is no accurate account of the number of jeepneys operating in the rest of the country. It is not uncommon to see Jeepneys carry passengers and cargo to and from festive occasions such as baptisms and fiestas. Also, the vehicle’s four-wheel drive enables it to cross dry rice fields with their low dikes and carry off the harvest. Jeepney drivers are the new “kwentong kutseros” (driver storytellers) who passed news and gossip to passengers riding to and from work, school, or marketplace.54

Ravenholt notes: “Jeepney drivers are so influential as molders of public opinion that successive city mayors seeking to bar them from Manila’s main streets have been thwarted.”55 In the twenty years or so that I have been involved in social activism in the Philippines, I have observed that the only thing that can paralyze the country’s business and government infrastructure, literally bringing everything to a halt is a jeepney strike. No. Actually, there are two: a jeepney strike and a “People Power” uprising from the masses that ride jeepneys.

Recall the description of the jeepney with all its lights. No other public vehicle is better equipped to navigate the Philippines’ narrow and dimly lit streets at night. No other person is better equipped to drive a jeepney at night than a Filipino. The people’s revolt that overthrew the US-supported Marcos dictatorship in 1986 began and ended at night. I was there, with about two million other folks who ride jeepneys. “Some of the greatest revolutions occur in the dark.”56

1 The quote is from the column “Observations of What We Are,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 19 April 2001, available at, which discusses the recent EDSA II uprising against Joseph Estrada. The Western media has described it as mob rule. The author uses the jeepney to argue that it was not. The missing portion of the quote follows: “…It [the Western mind] cannot fathom why a nation must reject the constitutional options even if and when there are clear signs that these have already been prostituted as in the case of the sham impeachment trial and the now historic Tuesday, January 16, 2001 vote. Then go viva voce in replacing a crooked president…”

2 Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (Basic Books, 1973), 15.

3 Gerald Arbuckle, quoted in Eduardo Domingo, “Opium or Catalyst: The Ambivalence of Religious Symbols in Social Change,” And God said: Hala, Jaime Belita, ed. (Manila: De La Salle University Press, 1991).

4 Geertz, 91.

5 Victor Turner, The Ritual Process (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1969), 15.

6 Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1967), 19.

7 Geertz, 91.

8 Geertz, 45.

9 Turner, 36.

10 Fernando Segovia, “Pedagogical Discourse and Practices in Cultural Studies,” Teaching the Bible: The Discourses and Politics of Biblical Pedagogy, Segovia and Tolbert, eds. (New York: Orbis, 1998), 158-159.

11 Geertz, 30.

12 For the most comprehensive account of the US’ colonial and neocolonial “presence” in the Philippines, please read Daniel Schirmer and Stephen Rosskamm Shalom’s The Philippines Reader: A History of Colonialism, Neocolonialism, Dictatorship, and Resistance (Boston: South End Press, 1987) and Resistance in Paradise: Rethinking 100 Years of US Involvement in the Caribbean and the Pacific (Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee and Office of Curriculum Support, 1998).

13 Based on Dianne Bergant's "An Anthropological Approach to Biblical Interpretation: The Passover Supper in Exodus 12:1-20 as a Case Study," Semeia 67.

14 Leny Strobel, Coming Full Circle: The Process of Decolonization among Post-1965 Filipino Americans (Quezon City, Philippines: Giraffe Books, 2001).

15 Valerio Nofuente, “Jeepney: King of the Road?” in Rogelio Santos’ Onli In Da Pilipins, c1998 (available at

16 A jeepney is a mass transport system (blink). It is a symbol of the decolonizing Filipino (wink). The former is a “thin” description, the latter a “thick” one. Geertz uses an example from Gilbert Ryle to shows the difference between a "blink" and a "wink." A blink is an involuntary twitch (the thin description). A wink is a conspiratorial signal to a friend (the thick description). Although the physical movements involved in each are identical, each has a distinct meaning "as anyone unfortunate enough to have had the first taken for the second knows" (Geertz, 6). A wink is a special form of communication which is: deliberate; to someone in particular; to impart a particular message; according to a socially established code; and without the knowledge of the other members (if any) of the group of which the winker and winkee are a part. In addition, the wink can be a parody of someone else's wink or an attempt to lead others to believe that a conspiracy of sorts is afoot. Each type of wink can be considered to be a separate cultural category (Geertz, 6-7)

17 Geertz, 234.

18 Geertz, 235.

19 Geertz, 240.

20 Geertz, 243.

21 Essentialist and Epochalist definitions adopted from Matt Steven’s dissertation, The Class Basis of Nationalism, available at

22 Geertz, 240.

23 Stevens,

24 E. Arsenio Manuel, et al, Treasury of Stories: Filipino Myths and Folktales (Manila: Anvil Publishing, 1995).

25 Howard Harrod, The Animals Came Dancing (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2000), 43.

26 Sr. Mary John Mananzan, The Woman Question in the Philippines (Manila: Institute of Women’s Studies, 1997), 4.

27 Mananzan, 5.

28 Mananzan, 11.

29 Jaime Belita, “The Nono and the Nino,” And God Said: Hala, ed. Jaime Belita (Manila: De La Salle University Press, 1991) , 160-161.

30 Geertz, 252.

31 Albert Ravenholt reports of such strikes in “Jeepneys by Sarao: A Case Study of a Self-Made Young Philippine Industrialist,” Southeast Asia Series, Vol X, No. 10, American Universities Field Staff, Inc., 1962.

32 Revelation Enriquez Velunta, "Ek Pisteos Es Pistin and the Filipinos' Sense of Indebtedness" in Kent Richards, ed., Seminar Papers of the Society of Biblical Literature, 1998 (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1998), pp.33-59.

33 George Marcus and Michael Fisher, Anthropology as Cultural Critique (Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 47.

34This portion is based on Melanio Aoanan's "Teolohiya ng Bituka at Pagkain: Tungo sa Teolohiyang Pumipiglas," Explorations in Theology, Journal of Union Theological Seminary, Vol. 1 No. 1, November 1996, 23-44.

35Fr. Leonardo Mercado discusses this in his Elements of Filipino Philosophy (Tacloban Divine Word Publications, 1974).

36Aoanan, "Teolohiya ng Bituka," 35.

37Daniel Patte in his Discipleship According to the Sermon on the Mount (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1996), 386, comments: "While conversing with students and colleagues at Union Theological Seminary (Dasmarinas, Philippines), who cannot think of themselves apart from the community to which they belong, it became clear to me that I was looking in the wrong direction. The word of God is never 'for me' by myself; it is always 'for us.'"

38In its most literal sense, the greeting means, "How are your intestines?," because it is a question prompted by a situation of kumakalam ang bituka (hunger pangs).

39See Virgilio Enriquez, “Kapwa: A Core Concept in Filipino Social Psychology, “ Sikolohiyang Pilipino, Aganon and Ma. Assumpta, eds. (Manila: National Bookstore, 1985).

40 Arnold Van Gennep, Les Rites de Passage, 1909, quoted in Turner, Ritual Process, 94-95.

41 Turner, Ritual Process, 95.

42 Turner, 96.

43 Turner, 129.

44 Turner, 132.

45 Geertz, 239.

46 Geertz, 237.

47 From Rhacel Salazar-Parreñas, Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration, and Domestic Work (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001).

48 Eleazar Fernandez, “Exodus-toward-Egypt,” A Dream Unfinished, Segovia and Fernandez, eds. (New York: Orbis, 2001), 167-184.

49 Reynaldo Ileto, Pasyon and Revolution (Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1979), 4-5.

50 Ileto, 7.

51 Ravenholt, 10.

52 Ravenholt, 9.

53 Ravenholt has Manila figures at 17,000 in 1962 (3), while Nofuente has 27,000 in 1998.

54 Ravenholt, 3.

55 Ravenholt, 3.

56 Geertz, 238.


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