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‘Binay: Kulay-mahirap, asal-mahirap’—Trillanes

There’s nothing like a man’s huge ego pricked for him to reveal his true colors. Trillanes was so livid he blurted out his repressed world-view. He was mad waiting outside the gates of an agro-tourism park he was insisting was Vice President Jejomar Binay’s, and barked: “Kulay-mahirap si Binay, asal-mahirap.”

Those terms are really a bit difficult to translate in its nuances, and the best I could do would be: “He’s got not only a poor-man’s skin color, but a poor-man’s behavior.”

Translated, that’s certainly shocking. If Trillanes were in some other nation and said a similar thing, he’d be booted out of office in a week’s time for a racist, bigoted remark.

Trillanes expectedly got slammed in social media:

From left clockwise: Barreto, “Kutis-mayaman”, Binay, “ kulay-mahirap”, Trillanes, the brown-skinned accuser, Roxas in an “asal-mahirap” role.

“Being poor is nothing to be ashamed of. However, Sen. Trillanes’ comment re kulay mahirap suddenly seemed so offensive.,” one posted in Twitter. Another netizen asked: “Pag maitim ba mahirap na agad? [Does being dark mean being poor?] Respeto naman Senator Trillanes.” “Just because you have brown-skin kulay mahirap na? Hiyang-hiya naman sayo ang mga pinoy, Sen. Trillanes!” a Tweeter said.

A blogger also asked: “Asal mahirap, kulay mahirap, hiyang hiya naman ako sa sinabi ni Trillanes. Siya kaya? Asal mayaman? At kulay mayaman?”

Although I haven’t heard nor read the “kulay-mahirap” term used publicly, it undoubtedly represents a common notion in Philippine society. One’s skin color is perceived, with exceptions of course, as an indelible marker which socio-economic class one belongs to. There is even a gradation: the elite have pinkish-white skin color, the middle class (using that term loosely) “Malay” brown, and the darkest brown for the poorest.

Trillanes is right, though, to some extent. Color tone in our country is the result of our colonial history, as it is in most countries colonized by Spain. The white-skinned Spanish colonizers conquered the brown-skinned Malays six centuries ago, and their progeny, more accurately the descendants of the conquistadores’ business-minded hangers-on, became the Ayalas, Sorianos and Aboitizes of today. A few—many actually from the friars—intermarried with the Malay native population and with the Chinese trading class (or forcibly sired children in the case of the clerics) to produce the mestizos of today, such as the Cojuangcos, Romualdezes and Aranetas.

This is the reason why more people are mestizos in provinces where the Spaniards and the Chinese had their colonial agricultural businesses, mainly sugar—for instance in Central Luzon and the Negros provinces—compared for instance to the northern provinces such as Isabela where Binay’s mother comes from and the Marcoses’ Ilocos provinces that were nearly inaccessible frontiers in the 19th century.

Dark-skinned became to be entrenched in our minds as being poor, since the poorest in our country are farmers and fishermen who spend most of their days under the sun that further tans their skin. (A noticeable rise in fair-skinned Filipinos among the lower-class, one observer noted, could be the result of out-of-wedlock children by rich mestizos and lower-class Filipinas.)

The closest that Trillanes’ term “kulay-mahirap” had been used publicly, but in reverse, was a skin-whitening cream’s commercial that had socialite Gretchen Barreto as a model, with the ad copy “kutis mayaman” (complexion of the rich). Its huge billboards along SLEX always had me irritated, with my socialist predilections, to no end.

Barreto’s ad represents the sad evolution of our world-view: Fair-skinned not just means the rich; it means beauty. Rather than due to women’s striving to be identified as rich, the booming skin-whitener industry here (and also in India and Southeast Asia) is based on the notion deeply entrenched now that beauty means fair-skinned.

It has become such a craze here that probably a third of media advertising now is for those skin-whiteners. It has become a billion-dollar industry after multinationals rushed only in the past decade to formulate and sell these mostly glutathione-based medications that before had been used solely to treat abnormal skin conditions. Several aisles in drug stores and supermarkets are now devoted to skin-whitening brands. In a Mercury Drug store in the town I live in, I’ve seen obviously poor young women buy skin-whitening products, in sachets which they can afford at a time.

There seems to be a regression in our notions of beauty. In the 1970s, getting some traction was the view of the beautiful brown-skinned Filipina morena, with such icons as singer/actress Nora Aunor and beauty queen Gloria Diaz. There are no counterparts of Aunor and Diaz today. Or was that merely our aping of the Black-is-Beautiful craze in the US in that period?

I haven’t heard nor read anybody though using Trillanes’ term “asal-mahirap” (poor-man’s behavior), and I’m puzzled what he was referring to. One interpretation would be that he thinks Binay is acting like a poor man, which I disagree with. It is rather Mar Roxas’ photo-ops as a tricycle driver, as a cargador and as a carpenter which I think are gimmickry to behave like a poor man, a desperate attempt to shed his indelible haciendero label.

Binay may indeed, as one columnist claimed, be “playing the class card.” But was there ever an election in our impoverished country where the poor make up 80 percent of voters, in which candidates didn’t use the “class card,” even if they really couldn’t and really wouldn’t deal it?

If that’s what Binay is doing, he is doing the right thing, politically, and Trillanes is even helping him.