UKAY-UKAY THEOLOGY: A Proposal
By Lizette Tapia-Raquel
“Ukay-ukay” – has yet to be defined in Webster’s Dictionary and the Filipino counterparts likewise fail to give it meaning. It is basically second-hand goods from Europe, Hongkong, and other parts of the world but its rootword is probably the Tagalog word “hukay” which means ‘to unearth.’ As early as the 1980s, it has been available in the Visayas, thus the use of the popular term ‘ukay’ which is the Cebuano word for “hukay.” It was made even more popular in the summer capital of the Philippines, Baguio, where it is more commonly referred to as ‘wagwagan’ and where it has become a tourist attraction. In some shops, people literally ‘dig out’ clothes but in others, they are hung in poles where they can easily be examined. Some people say that these are materials donated for charity while others say that they are the legacy of some dead people. Nowadays, it is regarded as a legitimate business and one can find an ukay-ukay shop almost anywhere in the Philippines.
I. INTRODUCTION: A ‘FASHIONISTA’S’ JOURNEY
I am an eldest child but I have older female cousins, four of them in fact, who gave me a steady supply of hand-me-downs, for what seemed to last for a lifetime. I would only get new clothes for my birthday or Christmas. Other than those special outfits, I practically grew up using other people’s clothes. My other sister, Leah Joy, who is eight years younger had more luck. Because of our age gap, by the time she was big enough to use my clothes, they were either too frayed or too far-behind in fashion. So she basically got new clothes. Lucky her!
Second-hand clothing is a part of our culture. It is a consequence of a more basic reality in Filipino ethos – that of extended families. While we can determine the degree of relationships, from the first to the sixth degree, there is no principle that dictates how close relatives can be to each other. In Philippine families, the ‘extendedness’ is not just manifested in the width or the inclusivity of the fellowship, its essence is in the commitment of one for the quality of life of another, and vice versa. It may be expressed in simple traditions such as passing on of baby clothes and diapers from an elder mother to a younger mother, or in the passing on of a family heirloom such as a wedding gown from one generation to another. The former may provide basic necessities and the latter may fulfill grander aspirations but in both, there is a connectedness in life that goes beyond affluence and generosity.
Affluence and purchasing power may very well afford one person to be generous towards another but Filipino “hand-me-downs” is a passing on of one’s treasures to someone who will treasure that which has been entrusted upon them. The recipient is not just a ‘donor’ but a ‘trustee.’ Furthermore, the act of giving does not end with the one who receives but continues and, like water, creates ripples that extends and affects lives and relationships.
When I began to work, “power dressing” became my fashion motto. In Makati, the business capital of the Philippines, one must look expensive and sophisticated to fit in. So despite the heat and humidity, I often went around in tailored suits. Much of my pay went into clothes and for the first time my life, I loved the way I looked. This became a standard for me in the years that followed and even today. I do not just dress to cover my body but what I wear is an expression of who I am and who I want to be. If you asked me to wear a skirt everyday or prohibited me from wearing sleeveless tops, you are asking me to deny a part of myself. In my own clothes, I can be simply me and I relish the freedom of being able to choose and wear them as I please.
When I was still working, rewarding myself meant a trip to the nearby mall to purchase a branded shirt or pants. Despite my limited income, I insisted on getting the best quality. After all, “clothes make a woman.” However, after two children and the responsibility of maintaining a household, I had very little dispensable income. I then settled for surplus shops which were locally made branded clothes which had minor defects. They were not bad at all. The clothes made me feel just as good about myself even if they were bought for a bargain. But with two growing children and the high cost of living, my trips to the stores became few and far between. “There are more important things,” I told myself. Looking back, although I would not call it a time of poverty, there was a dullness in the way I presented myself. In a way, I was limited.
About two years ago, I discovered the joy of ukay-ukay. When we were in Baguio, I remember spending two days of our five-day vacation searching for clothes. I cannot begin to tell you the absolute joy of seeing the rows and rows of pants, tops, skirts, shoes and bags, all priced between a hundred and fifty and eighty pesos. I had found fashion paradise! Today, about eighty percent of my clothes come from ukay-ukay. Furthermore, I have been able to share this joy with other women: my sister and sister-in-law, seminary and church friends.
The hand-me-downs from my cousins and the bargains from the ukay-ukay store, while they are both second-hand goods are quite different in value to me. With the latter, I am able to choose, and while I can only ‘own’ them after I have paid the necessary amount there is an empowering on two levels. First, I choose what I perceive will benefit me and second, I pay the price so that what I acquire has a literal value which gives it more worth. On the other, those given by my cousins may provide benefits and may even have real value but I am just a recipient of discarded goods which they have chosen to give me. What is very evident is I was a recipient of an act of charity. There is nothing wrong with charity but if it cultivates unequal relationships then it can also be oppressive.
The phenomenon of second hand clothing stores in the Philippines, more popularly known as “ukay-ukay,” appears to have expanded this “hand-me-down” practice. While it manifests the consumerism and covetousness of modern societies which are wasteful and decadent, ironically, it has provided resources to persons and communities who are otherwise deprived of a basic need – clothing. In a world where limited resources are being systematically depleted and where there is a growing population of people who have very little or no purchasing power, ukay-ukay is a solution to clothe the deprived. Unexpectedly, ukay-ukay has affected not just the lives of the poor but those of the middle class and the affluent, as well. To the moneyed, ukay-ukay is a treasure trove for their search for vintage clothing; to the middleclass, it provides power to achieve more distinction and class; to the poor, it answers the basic need for clothing. Ukay-ukay has ‘clothed’ peoples as diverse as the clothing you can find in an ‘Ukay’ shop and has been a middleground where different people meet and share a common experience. Because of its availability and empowering effect on people, I would like to put forward, Ukay-ukay as a paradigm in doing theology.1
II. HOLINESS AND NAKEDNESS
Before I discuss the issue of power and control in dressing and undressing in the Bible, I will first look into how humanity, both in the Genesis account and in early Philippine history, moved from nakedness to being covered.
In the Creation Story in Genesis, when God entrusted Adam with the Garden of Eden, humanity required only two things: food and companionship. After God was satisfied that they had both and had given them the conditions and blessedness of their existence, the text reads, “The man and the woman were both naked, but they were not embarassed.”2
Like infants, according to this account, humanity came into the world naked. This puts forward a belief that nakedness was associated with innocence and purity. The earliest state of humanity, the nakedness and natural existence, represented a kind of innocence that was pleasing to God. Au naturel, humanity had not yet acquired the power of ‘understanding’ and was unaffected by the dilemma of choosing good over evil.
Similarly, in many ‘primitive’ cultures, clothing was at the minimum, if there was any at all. Particularly in the Philippines, many ethnic groups traditionally wore lower garments only while the upper body was left bare. Aeta women, to this day, go topless in their own locality. Perhaps it can be said that they have indeed remained pure: they continue to cultivate a culture where ownership is communal, relationships are equal and all of creation must be given integrity. Furthermore, women are not objectified or measured in worth according to their breasts, buttocks or navels. Their sensuality and sexuality is not separated from their character and therefore, are able to experience for themselves and in relation with others a more holistic consciousness.
However, according to the account, Adam and Eve disobeyed God and upon eating the forbidden fruit, became aware and ashamed of their nakedness -“As soon as they had eaten it; they were given understanding and realized that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves and covered themselves.”3
When I was reading the text and tried to picture Adam and Eve naked in the Garden of Eden, what came to my mind was the movie, “the Blue Lagoon,” which had for its lead female, the then very young and very beautiful, Brooke Shields. I was too young to watch it but the trailer is enough, even now, to remember the breathtaking beauty of a young woman and man in a paradise-like island. The similarity of the movie and the text begins and ends with the nakedness of both characters and the paradise they were in. The movie celebrated the sensual nature of human beings, while the text emphasizes the negative emotions of a woman and man who discover their nakedness – shame.
The self-consciousness suffered by adult human beings over bare bodies is not universal. The sense of modesty differs from culture to culture, from person to person. In Europe and America, there are nude beaches, nude clubs and, even, nude protests. While nudity may be deemed inappropriate in conventional circles, there is a higher tolerance and acceptance for people who choose to wear clothes scantily. When I went to Sweden, along with five other students from UTS, I was a bit shocked over their manner of dressing. We arrived at the beginning of spring and the young people and quite a few adults seemed keen on displaying more skin. In fact, they took advantage of every opportunity to lay down on the grass to sunbathe in the flimsiest bikinis, and I have seen at least two persons, dive into a lake beside a frequently used path, stark naked.
In Philippine context today, there is a contradiction in attitude towards dressing and ‘undressing.’ Because of western influence in mass media, Filipinos have become more liberal in their attitudes in dressing, among other things. However, there are also remnants of Spanish religiosity which continue to censure and restrict the manner of dressing, especially of women. But going back in history, it has not always been like this. Before the Spanish colonialists came, Filipino women wore no undergarments and dressed only in thin clothing because of the tropical climate. In some tribes, women had no top garments and only wore skirts. Then, with the advent of Roman Catholicism which imposed a cult of virginity and purity upon women, a standard of decency in dressing was forced upon the natives, the women in particular. The sensuality of the female natives were demonized and the model for female behavior and decent attire became the Spanish nuns. The long, flowing hair of women were placed in a bun to imitate the short hair of nuns which were tucked under a wimple and the thin clothing was replaced with layers of garments that constricted movement and completely shrouded the female form. This code of dressing was an imposition upon the natives and they did not give in without resistance. The colonialists responded with more determination and the accounts in the Spanish chronicles report that female Igorots who came to the towns without upper garments were given as many as fifty lashes on their backs.4
Perhaps, it can be said that religion has been the primary motivation in the creation of standards of decency in dressing. The Spanish, in their chronicles on the Philippines, characterized the native women as ‘unchaste,’ ‘indecent,’ and ‘lewd,’ among others.5 To the Spanish priest, who was accustomed to the layered clothing of European women and venerated the figurative and physical ‘image’ of the Virgin Mary who was ensconced in rich and ceremonial robes, the native woman in lightweight and loose clothing, which was suitable for the tropical climate of the islands, exhibited a raw sensuality that was sinful.
To this day, there are contentions over naked bodies and the matter of decency in dressing. But really, does nakedness separate us from God? Is it indecent to pray to God when we do not have any clothes on? Does our sexuality hurt our spirituality? Marcella Althaus-Reid, an Argentinian woman theologian, at the beginning of her book, relates how women in her country sell lemon on the streets without their underwear. The police and missionaries, apprehend and insult them for their supposed immoral behavior, squatting on the streets when they need to urinate. But does it really matter whether you wear undergarments beneath your clothes, while you are selling lemons? Or for that matter, does it matter if you do theology without your clothes on? She puts forward ‘indecent theology’ as a method that does not and must not deny the sexuality of persons. It is a commitment to pronounce the realities of our sexuality in dealing with economic, political and ecclesiological issues in relation to theology. It is an attitude of honesty that is intent on unraveling appearances and standards as prescribed by society, to reveal realities that may need to be challenged.
At the end of the passage, God acquiesces to Adam and Eve’s self-imposed inhibitions – “And the Lord God made clothes out of animal skins for Adam and his wife, and he clothed them.”6
This passage unwittingly provides a template in the “development” of communities. The “Fall of Creation,” while it is believed to have brought sin and punishment upon creation, also endowed humanity with “knowledge.” In this model, the introduction and elaboration of clothing was a necessary component in the growth of communities and societies. As communities and societies moved towards urbanity, following the impositions of more sophisticated cultures, apparels grew more elaborate, decorative and even excessive. What began as an inhibition became another manifestation of the disparity of peoples in economic standing, social status, and even races.
III. THE POLITICS OF UNDRESSING
“There was once a rich man who dressed in the most expensive clothes and lived in great luxury everyday. There was also a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores…”7
This passage provides a vivid image of the disparity between the rich and the poor. The former is not simply clothed. He is clothed with the ‘most expensive’ clothing. There is no mention of Lazarus’ garb, but to be covered wih sores may be a consequence of exposure to the elements and gross neglect. However, it is ironic that in the text the rich man is nameless while the poor man does have a name. In the real world, the Lazaruses of society are the ones who are nameless. As a matter of fact, they are invisible and negligible in the eyes of many. Often, their appearance and odor can be startling and offensive that it is easier to turn away and pretend that they do not exist.
In the award winning song of Ryan Cayabyab, “Paraiso,” which is written from the perspective of a youth living in the dumpsite Smokey Mountain, a line reads “I learned to be free in paraiso. Free to claim anything I see. Matching rags for my clothes, plastic bags for the cold…” These lines are an assault on our perception of freedom and paradise. To many of us, freedom is about the availability of choices and opportunities. But in the song, freedom is the liberty to choose from the garbage and refuse of society. To many of us, paradise is a place where everything is perfect. And yet in the song, a dumpsite can still be a paradise if only people can care enough to make things better. The chorus reads,
“Help me make a stand. Take me by the hand.
Make the world understand
that if I could see a single bird, what a joy!
This tired and hungry land could expect some truth
and hope and respect from the rest of the world.”
Indeed, while we endure the ‘sores,’ ‘rags’ and ‘plastic bags,’ we are complicit in the dehumanization of the poor. Jesus posed a strong challenge in telling the story of Lazarus and the rich man. He pronounced a judgement of death upon the rich man. Similarly, while the song is a hopeful statement, it likewise propounds a demand to respond and give hope to a “tired and hungry land.”
Does this mean that we give them clothes so that they will no longer dress in rags and plastic bags? Does this mean that we rummage through our closets to see which clothes we can discard and give away? That is precisely the problem. We want to cover their nakedness but we are not concerned for their wholeness? Ultimately, their want for clothing is just an outward manifestation of a deeper need. In donating used clothing to the needy, they may be provided clothing but they are still limited in their choices. Anumang hiram, kung hindi masikip ay maluwang. The difference between the rich man and Lazarus, in Jesus’ story is the availability of choices. The rich man could have chosen to wear sensible clothes and not the ‘most expensive’ ones but Lazarus had no choice but to bear the sores that covered his body. The challenge therefore is not just to clothe the unclothed but to give dignity to those who are deemed worthless by society.
Ukay ukay allows the poor to make choices. In a world where some people measure the worth of another according to how they look, the poor are denied respect and dignity at every turn. Being able to choose what you will wear consequently provides a person choices in opportunities and privileges. Furthermore, it is a manifestation of a person’s liberation and empowerment.
A lack of clothing or ‘proper’ clothing does not merely reveal a person’s deprivation, it labels a person and alienates others from her or him. In Luke 8:26-39, Jesus tells the story of a man possessed by demons. What defined him as possessed is found in v. 27, “For a long time this man had gone without clothes and would not stay at home, but spent his time in the burial caves.” This was a man who was self-destructive. He would rather live among the dead and he exhibited his self-deprecation by exposing and wounding his own body. After the demons had departed from the man, he was found “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were all afraid.”
Naked in a society that measures purity based on appearances and modesty, the ‘man possessed by demons’ was condemned in his state of nakedness. While nakedness may manifest that a person is a victim, it is also perceived as a danger that is a threat to the community. In a culture that pronounced bodily discharges as unclean,8 the naked man was a pollutant that must be removed. In the text, the man threw himself down at Jesus’ feet and begged Jesus not to punish him. If the man had been demon-possessed, he would have stayed away from Jesus. But instead, he seeks mercy from Jesus. Indeed, his move towards Jesus was an act of desperation for help.
The text describes the man as one who isolated himself. He says that the demon possessing him was named ‘Legion.’ Could it be that the ‘legion’ that he mentioned was his community that had rejected and denied him communion? Why did he separate himself from others? Did he distance himself or was he denied by the political and social order that ruled the people?
After Jesus had freed the man, the people were afraid and asked Jesus to go away. This reveals the character of the people in the community. They had allowed the alienation of the man and at his restoration, the status quo they wanted to protect was threatened. There was no rejoicing in the community over the restoration of the demon-possessed man. The restored man, on the other hand, wanted to go with Jesus. After his recovery, the man did not seek to be reconciled to his own family and people. He instead sought to be with Jesus even if he would be apart from those who were more familiar to him. But Jesus does not accede to his request. Jesus orders the man to return to his people and to tell of God’s healing in his life.
This account provides a template in the restoration or redemption of a human being. First, it was the troubled man who sought Jesus. Second, the man was able to identify the name of his ‘demon.’ Third, Jesus confronted the demons. Fourth, the man is restored and is able to ‘clothe’ himself and find the company of Jesus. Finally, while the man wanted to be with Jesus, he was told to stay with his people.
In the act of liberation and salvation, we seek the Christ with the understanding that the one who seeks to save us has always awaited the moment when we ourselves want to be saved. Salvation and liberation cannot be imposed upon any person or people. When one is able to name one’s ‘demon,’ then one can begin to confront and resist the evil, whether it be a physical or spiritual. Genuine wholeness or restoration is not bestowed, rather it is process that is undertaken by persons and peoples. Ultimately, God’s restoration is not another form of external control. It is an empowerment that enables one to return, encounter, and overcome evil, whatever its form may be.
Furthermore, the nakedness of the demon possessed man comes not solely from an internal or spiritual conflict. He cannot be blamed entirely for his predicament. No personal penance can liberate him. The image of Jesus confronting the demons confirms that the demon is not just ‘internal’ but ‘external’ as well. The man had to be delivered from relationships that oppressed and possessed him. Relationships and systems even ‘pigs’ cannot endure.
Clothing the naked is not a simple one act task, it is an act of liberation upon those who are dispossessed and whose lives have been possessed by others. It is a restoration and an enabling that allows the victim to reconnect the disconnected. It may be to one’s self, and it may be with others. Most important of all, it is not achieved with a prescriptive stance but in a commitment to be in solidarity with them.
“They stripped off his clothes and and put a scarlet robe on him…When they had finished making fun of him, they took the robe off and put his own clothes back on him.”9
After Jesus had been whipped in the presence of Pilate and an unruly crowd, he was brought to the governor’s palace where the soldiers gathered around him and ridiculed him. The movie, “The Passion of Christ,” presents the gruesome and pitiful humiliation of Jesus’ during the flogging. Yet, the Roman soldiers were not content with his suffering. They stripped Jesus’ clothes and put a scarlet robe on him. With his flesh torn and bleeding, every touch of the cloth upon Jesus’ back was a torture to him. But the objective of these movements were no longer to inflict pain but to degrade him even more. In many places and in many cultures, women are stripped of their own clothes and furnished with more elaborate and becoming attire. While they appear more pleasing, their very appearance is a denial of their personhood and freedom.
Despite the intense pain that Jesus was suffering, he no longer resisted. His attitude can be described as passive and distant. Perhaps, the only way he could continue to function was to detach himself from the body that was in agony. Human beings who undergo intense suffering sometimes seek a different realm, separate from the physical, to sustain and survive. It is a defense mechanism, as if to say, you cannot hurt me. Because those who inflict pain seem to find more satisfaction when they see the victim suffer. I have seen the look on women’s faces, as they dance in the dingy nightclubs in Quezon City. While dance is an art form that exhibits energy, passion, and life, what I have witnessed in bars was the self-denial, powerlessness and lifelessness of prostituted women.
To clothe a naked body or to embellish someone’s form may be perceived as an act of benevolence or generosity but it is not always so. It can also be an act of domination. Under Spanish colonial rule, the native women and their bodies were demonized. The colonialists created a new model for the native women. She is personified in Maria Clara, Rizal’s lead female character in the novel “Noli Me Tangere.”. She was fully covered with layers upon layers of clothing, in the mode of European women. Concurrently, the pre-colonial woman who had a more celebrative view of womanhood was buried and denied. Maria Clara personified the vanquished Filipina and held no trace of the native women’s female warriors, goddesses and ‘babaylans,’ who stood shoulder to shoulder with the men in their own contexts.10
The covering and uncovering of a human body exhibits empowerment or disempowerment. Jacob bestowed upon Joseph “a long robe with full sleeves” to express his special love.11 The father of the prodigal son expressed his forgiveness and joy over the return of his son by clothing him with the best robe.12 On the other hand, the veiling of a body may be an expression of scorn as with Jesus when he was cloaked with a scarlet robe before his crucifixion. The scarlet robe placed on his back is believed to be the common cloak and uniform of a Roman soldier. It did not intend to honor Jesus but being enveloped by a Roman soldier’s cloak symbolized Jesus’ being overpowered by the Empire.
Queen Vashti was the wife of the powerful King Xerxes. His palace and banquets displayed splendor, majesty, indulgence and debauchery. On the third year of his reign, he gave a banquet in Susa which lasted for a week and where “…the king was generous with the royal wine. There were no limits on the drinks; the king had given orders to the palace servants that everyone could have as much as they wanted.”13 This was the scenario to which Queen Vashti was commanded to appear. This was a crowd of wild, drunken men and women who were boisterous and perhaps, lascivious. The air was thick with sex and violence. Eric Fromm put a name to this kind of behavior – ‘lustful aggression.’ The most common known example of ‘lustful aggression’ is called sadism.
When King Xerxes ordered his personal servants “to bring in Queen Vashti wearing her royal crown,” it did not mean that she be presented to the people in her most majestic regalia. It meant that she be paraded naked, with only her crown on. I come to this conclusion because the writer of the account would have given a lengthy description of the clothing she had been asked to wear for her appearance, but there was no reference to this. In the earlier verses, the writer vividly and lengthily described curtains, cords and even the cups. There was no reference to the clothing the king intended her to parade in because she was asked to parade in the nude. Furthermore, Xerxes summoned Vashti not to glorify her for her beauty but to exhibit his absolute and complete control over her. The King who ruled 127 provinces wanted to demonstrate his power by forcing a woman to do what he wanted even if it would be to her own detriment.
Queen Vashti denied King Xerxes’ command and her response threatened the ideology of male supremacy. The book of Esther shows two women and their responses to male control. Vashti denied control over her body and sexuality while Esther used her sexuality to protect her people. The former is an assertion of woman’s right to decide for herself and the latter has been one of the models of women’s submission in the churches and society today.
At the end of the first chapter, a decree was given as a result of Vashti’s rebellion — “that every husband must be the master of his home and speak with final authority.” The underlying issue was male authority. In many marriages today, husbands still dictate how women dress, among other things. Standards in decency in dressing may appear to protect a woman but it only inhibits her from expressing herself as a human being. On the other hand, some men ‘display’ women like objects, to exhibit their ‘prize.’ Women are seen as trophies which boost male pride and honor. In the protection and glorification of women’s bodies, women are denied free will and individuality.
Queen Vashti denied the order of a king to display her body but in the 1970s, the indigenous women of the Cordillera region in the Philippines took off their upper garments, of their own free will, to express their resistance against the government. The Chico-Dam River was a project of the Marcos government and was to be funded by the World Bank. However, about six villages or communities would be submerged. Along with the land, culture, identity, and the very spirit of the people would be lost. On the day when the tractors, engineers, and military were at the site to begin work on the project, the women – grandmothers and mothers of the indigenous tribes, formed a human barricade to prevent their access to the area. In the final act of defense, they took off their tops and their nakedness shamed the group who were pre-dominantly men. The women spoke about being no different from the mothers who nursed them at their breasts and that they would defend their land with their lives. To this day, the Chico Dam River remains in the blueprint but it will never become a reality, all because of the Cordillera women who used their nakedness to protect their land.
The choice to dress or undress our bodies may be the ultimate measure of one’s freedom and integrity. Our own body is evidently the one material thing that we truly own. When we are denied the right to present our bodies the way we want to be perceived by people around us, because of poverty, domination or controlling relationships, then we are denied the ability to express our innate sacred worth and ability to be co-creators with God. We are reduced as extensions of our male or female counterparts, sex objects on display, reproductions of models prescribed by the dominant in society and proofs of societies’ neglect of the powerless. In the final analysis, people like the prostitutes and beggars do not dress the way they do to express their visions and aspirations. They present themselves as victims not because their life’s ambition is to be such. They dress the way they do because they have no choice.
The politics of dressing is a manifestation of society and culture’s view of human life. While we allow the nakedness or disheveled appearance of another human being and while we cultivate a culture that imposes or denies clothing on peoples, we deny the wholeness and self-determination of a human being. Going back to the Creation Story, even God respected and accepted the will of Adam and Eve. “And the Lord God made clothes out of animal skins for Adam and his wife, and he clothed them.”14
IV: UKAY-UKAY – A THEOLOGICAL PARADIGM
If you, at one time or another, experienced the feeling of powerlessness inside a retail store then you can begin to understand why people go to an Ukay-ukay store. In a mall store, while you may appear decent and even well-off, the numbers in the price tags render you speechless and inadequate. You dare not comment on the expensive merchandise because to do so is to reveal your indigence and powerlessness. In your silence, you can salvage your dignity and remain respectable in an arena where money means power. But deep inside, there is a shame because you feel that you do not belong there.
But there are those who cannot disguise their poverty. The color and coarseness of their skin exhibits their hard labor, their clothes reveal their destitution. Their behavior, while appropriate, reveals the feeling of being out of place. But every now and then, they endure the awkwardness to assert that they too can “afford,” that they too have “power.”
Retail giants like SM, Robinsons, Rustans and Class A establishments like the Rockwell and the EDSA Shangrila Malls project a luxuriousness that may be threatening to some people. But an ukay-ukay store, is ordinary and familiar. While the dust and the heat may be uncomfortable, people can go into one without care for their appearance. There are no security guards nor alarms at the door and the merchandise can be handled without fear. Furthermore, one can purchase goods a great deal lesser than their actual value. The customer is not powerless. The customer is affirmed because the hard-earned money she/he worked hard to obtain allows her/him to acquire goods that may otherwise be unaffordable.
The commercialization of goods has denied so many people of life and rights. Profit has sacrificed the value of the work of the laborer, the health and protection of communities have been disregarded to secure the limited resources of the earth, and the value of money and goods have been manipulated to benefit the already powerful and affluent. The marketplace has cultivated a culture that continues to marginalize the powerless and validates the greed and exploitation of the rich and those at the ‘center.’ A critique of the marketplace can be paradigm to critique theology.
Theology should not instill fear, inadequacy and deprivation. It should not alienate the ‘buyer’ but allow choices, movement and honesty. It should allow people to be ‘real’ about their aspirations and limitations. People can admit that they are poor and yet they are not deprived of the ability to use whatever resource they have to assert their right to find their own ‘truths’ and ‘meanings.’ No one has a monopoly of the truth or discernment. More importantly, theology should not render anyone powerless or poor. If there is one discipline that enables one to speak as equals with others and to express oneself with honesty and without fear, it should be theology.
Ukay-ukay as a paradigm for theology recognizes the need of all to be clothed and to make choices. The variety and affordability of the merchandise can provide for everyone’s needs, if only they take the time to search for what is ‘right’ for them. Ukay-ukay, like theology, cannot be approached with hesitation or slothfulness. It must be engaged with energy and an eagerness to find treasure or meaning in what people may have already discarded as useless and trash. Too often, people want neat presentations, “world-class” brand names, and uncomplicated details. Fashion, like theology, can be a product of the dominant culture, which may neglect the individuality and diversity of peoples. Just as there are ‘fashionvictims’ there can also be ‘theology-victims’ They both mimic the dominant culture but neglect the reality of their standing in relation to their own culture and society. For theology to be meaningful and empowering, it must reflect the struggles and aspirations of those in the margins. Similarly, clothing, to be able to define a person and be appropriate for her/his context, must consider the body, the environment, and the essence of the person.
The difference between mall stores and ukay-ukay is not just in its merchandise or the marketplace, it is also very evident in the relationship between the buyer and the seller. In the former, there is an unequal relationship between the seller and the buyer. The seller commands a price that may choose to serve only the moneyed and ensure the denial of the common person. Some products are overpriced and while they ensure more profit and provide an added-value of status and exclusivity, there is really no material benefit other than its ‘perceived value.’ The seller puts one over the buyer by selling a product for much more than it is worth and the irony is, the buyer is fulfilled with the exchange. Furthermore, it does nothing for the laborer but continues to enrich the capitalists. These luxury goods also require the pampering of the consumer and it necessitates the servitude of the salespeople in the marketplaces.
In ukay-ukay, buyer and seller have a more equal relationship. While the seller may command the price, the buyer understands that as the weeks or days pass by, the merchandise will decrease in price. Most goods begin at a hundred and fifty and they go as low as twenty pesos each. The buyer then can decide if she/he really wants the item or if she/he is willing to forego the item and wait until it is lower in price. That means the buyer takes the risk of having the desired item bought by another prospective customer. Furthermore, the prices are not fixed. The act of bargaining between buyer and seller is a normal practice and both end up satisfied. The salesperson does not need to take on a subservient attitude and can be relied on to give honest opinions on how the clothes look on the buyer.
The reality of unequal relationships is not just evident in the marketplace but also in the use of theology. For many third-world countries and ethnic peoples, imperialists have used theology to impose on and colonize a people. Carolyn Brewer, in her study of religion, gender and sexuality in the Philippines during the Spanish occupation aptly calls the conversion of the early natives by the priests as ‘holy confrontation.’ Their conversion was not a persuasion but an imposition which denounced the natives’ history, community and spirit. In some churches today, theology continues to lay the foundation for injustice. Not only is there a monopoly in the task of theology, where church leaders deny the common people’s search for meaning and impose a ‘universal theology’ that falls short in responding to the needs and aspirations of the people, some clergy also continue to cultivate patriarchy which is “the basic principle underlying not only the subordination of women to men but of one race to another, of colonies to master nations, of believers to clergy. In other words, patriarchy is the nerve of racism, ageism, classism, colonialism, and clericalism.”15 In believing and teaching that there will always be rich and poor, powerful and weak, separation of the sexes and classes, church people are complicit in human rights violations.
Ukay-ukay theology provides a paradigm for relationships between the theologian and the common people. The theologian as the seller and the common person as the buyer, in the ukay-ukay model, have a symbiotic relationship. There is a mutual need and benefit, unlike in the relationships in the commercial stores where benefit is unequal. However, there is still a limitation to this ukay-ukay model. While there is a dialogue between the seller and the buyer, it is still a one-direction relationship. The buyer is still the ‘recipient’ and the seller is still the ‘source.’ Theology must go beyond this relationship. God’s revelation does not come from one direction only but must be a result of a community’s genuine search for meaning and truth based on earthly experiences that affect life and survival.
In the book “Island of Tears, Island of Hope: Living the Gospel in a Revolutionary Situation,” Fr. Niall O’Brien challenges Christians to learn from the poor. He says that as we seek to help the poor, we must discipline ourselves to learn from them, to allow them to teach us. But they do not teach us human wisdom but life itself. As we seek solutions not “for” them but “with” them, we experience the presence and redeeming work of God. As we seek to change their situation, we too grow as human beings. We grow with them in fellowship, in self-reliance, in self-worth that will hopefully lead to their transformation and ours. He writes, “God is the God of life. Where people are crying out for life, God is there. And if we are there, we will encounter God in ways beyond our comprehension.”16
The success of ukay-ukay in the Philippines authenticates the poverty of so many people. It is also a product of globalization which allows the entrance of second hand goods at very low tariff rates which allows them to be sold even more cheaply than new products manufactured locally. Ukay-ukay as a paradigm for relationships in a community and for doing theology does not provide a perfect model. It comes from a need to make sense of human experiences, particularly of the deprived. It engages reality right where it is and where the people are. It seeks to find God’s acts in the ‘here and now.’ But with an awareness that it is not encompassing or timeless. Furthermore, like the products of the ukay-ukay, its deconstruction brings no fear as long as it creates more genuine articulations of faith and hope. Finally, it is a form of resistance to Western theologies which fall short in expressing the aspirations, pains and hopes of the Filipino people. “Anumang hiram, kung hindi masikip ay maluwang.” The irony is ‘ukay-ukay’ is not really our own and more often than not, they are either too tight or too loose. But how we have used them to benefit persons, families and communities provides us a new theology for the masses. The powerful and the empowering effect of ukay-ukay, especially to the poor in the Philippines is unknown anywhere else in the world. For this reason alone, we can call it our own.
1 Ukay-ukay may benefit some people but it has also been detrimental to the local textile and clothing industry. With the influx of second hand items which have low-tariff rates due to golobalization, the phenomenon has caused the unemployment of skilled sewers and has caused the ruin of small and medium scale entrepreneurs of the industry. There have also been reports of child labor and unfair labor practices. Undeniably, the abundance of ukay-ukay goods is a manifestation of a greedy and materialistic society which never seems to have enough and continues to waste the earth’s limited resources in a vicious cycle of acquiring and disposing of non-essential goods.
2 Genesis 2.25
3 Genesis 3:7
4 Carolyn Brewer, ‘Holy Confrontation:Religion, Gender and Sexuality in the Philippines, 1521-1685, Institute of Women’s Studies, St. Scholastica’s College, 2001, pp. 268-270
5 Ibid, p. 36.
6 Genesis 3:21
7 Luke 16:19-20
8 Leviticus 15
9 Matthew 27:28, 31
10 The pre-colonial Filipina, according to the construction of early Filipino myths, had creative power, could assert her desire for authority and self-determination, was equally capable as their male counterparts and had individual and distinct personalities. In Philippine epics, the warrior and the priestess were the gender icons. The male warrior and the female priestess practiced mutuality and interdependence in fulfilling their roles. Their contribution to the community were considered to be equally valuable. Finally, in pre-colonial history, the datu (political leader), the panday (economist and technologist) and the babaylan (priestess) were held in equal regard and were considered vital in community life.
11 Genesis 37
12 Luke 15:11-31
13 Esther 1
14 Genesis 3:21
15 Sandra Schneiders, ‘Women and the Word,’ Paulist Press, 1986, p.13.
16 Niall O’ Brien, ‘Island of Tears, Island of Hope: Living the Gospel in a Revolutionary Situation,’ Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 1994.