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Rethinking Juan de la Cruz as our brand character

Nick Tayag

Just a few days ago, my friend PT and I had a lively discussion about our branding stereotype “Juan de la Cruz.” After taking a mighty gulp of his coffee, and putting down his empty cup roughly back on the table, he declared that it’s about time we junked that character because it has outlived its usefulness and more importantly because it never reflected our true values and aspirations.

Juan de la Cruz, he continued, projects a lowly character that is easy to bully and scorn. After all, he went on, it is the creation of a white foreigner imposed on our collective national mind. Dismayingly, we never raised a vehement outcry over the years.

PT, the incorrigible iconoclast. That’s my coffee drinking buddy for you.

Iconoclastic or not, PT’s discourse started me thinking. I thought he had a point. If we were able to recast “Fall of Bataan Day”(celebration of a defeat) into “Araw ng Kagitingan” (Day of Valor), why can’t we now rethink other concoctions and conceptions that form part of the composite that defines our national identity, or what contemporary marketing gurus call “country branding.”

“Country branding” as columnist, economist and social analyst Andrew Masigan so clearly explained in one of his articles, “involves defining and promoting our culture and what makes us distinct from the rest of Asia” (and the world if I may add).

Country branding is now given greater value because it can help smaller nations get a bigger slice of the billion-dollar tourism pie. But more than just to attract visitors and tourists, the strength or weakness of a nation’s brand, says Masigan, influences the world’s decision to invest in it, as supported by studies of institutional think tanks.

Usually expressed in the succinct form of images, to me, the ideal country brand possesses characteristics and elements that have instant internal as well as external appeal. More significantly, it elicits a sense of pride and has the power to galvanize or inspire the locals around a distinctive national identity. As someone puts it, “first, win within and then win without will follow.”

Does our “Juan de la Cruz” icon meet these criteria?  Let’s take a close look.

How did we come up with Juan de la Cruz anyway?

It was coined by Robert McCulloch Dick, a Scottish journalist who was then a reporter for Manila Times, and later became the editor and publisher of Philippines Free Press, founded in 1908.

Juan is usually the first name of Filipino Christians, predominantly used during the Spanish colonial period. It is also the name of the most famous patron saint —San Juan Bautista.

On the other hand, “de la Cruz” was chosen randomly by McCulloch Dick because it was the most commonly seen on police blotters. Even now, census records show that no less than 625,640 Filipinos bear that surname. It is also the 834th most common surname in the world.

As one can see, there was no deep thinking behind the Juan de la Cruz character, casually created at random but it caught on because McCulloch Dick often wrote small verses about Juan de la Cruz in Free Press (probably a localized “John Doe”) and later on widened his idea until he made Juan de la Cruz a character representative of a typical Filipino.

It was Jorge Pineda, resident cartoonist of Free Press then, who first drew the Juan de la Cruz image in 1946. Since then it became indelibly etched in the Pinoy mind.

For the longest time, Juan has been portrayed as a naïve-looking man wearing a traditional camisa or barong Tagalog, long trousers, native tsinelas or bakya (slippers or wooden clogs) and his trademark gear, the salakot (head cover).

This is the Juan de la Cruz who has come to represent the mind or way of thinking of the common Filipino.

It is a tired, worn out image and although there are attempts to update his look, it does not resonate with our youth. It no longer speaks for the Filipino in the digital age. Truth be told, even our baby boom generation found it laughable. It is not an image that has the power to inspire our people in the modern world.

Ironically, there was a native named Juan de la Cruz who showed extraordinary courage and bravery. Also known as “Palaris,” this heroic Juan led a revolt in Pangasinan during the Spanish colonization of the Philippines (1765). Dubbed the “giant’s son,” he was extraordinarily big, agile and strong. He raced with horses and played tug-of-war with carabaos. He was intelligent and read many books. Brawn, brain and bravery—he had it all. Perhaps, this is the type of character that should have inspired the Filipino artist who first gave us the naïve image of Juan de la Cruz we are now embarrassed about.

Going back to Andrew Masigan, I agree with him when he said that we need to define a national identity that reminds us about the traits that make us extraordinary, and values that serve us well. Something designed to boost self-worth, national self-esteem and patriotism.

Bathala? Lam-ang? Apolaki? Handiong? Bernardo Carpio? Eagle of the forest? Corky Trinidad’s Filippo? I don’t know. But I’m very sure we can come up with better brand icons than Juan de la Cruz if we would just fuse our thinking together and arrive at a “group genius” moment.

After all, isn’t creative agility one of the traits we take pride in? “Likot ng utak”—let’s put it to work, then.

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