When I first read about how my maternal great-grandfather courted my great-grandmother in Nick Joaquin’s historical book, “The Aquinos of Tarlac,” I was amazed at the vast gulf between Philippine courtship practices in the mid-19th century (1850s) and those of today. This does not even take into account the already evolved ways of dating and courting in the 1950s, which I personally experienced.
According to National Artist for Literature Joaquin’s book, it took seven years for Pablo Quiambao, my mother’s grandfather, to finally win the hand of Lorenza Tañedo of the old Tañedo clan of Tarlac.
Believe it or not, in those seven years, Pablo was able to speak with Lorenza only four times! And he was able to see her only when she looked out a window or went to church. It was Lorenza’s mother who made sure that the smitten young man proved himself worthy by doing acts of service for his beloved’s family, called paninilbihan (practiced in various regions under different names).
The mother would call out, “Who is that Macabebe (Pablo was from Macabebe, Pampanga) loitering out there? Does he see those coconut trees? Tomorrow I want to see all the fruit picked and heaped in the yard.” And it was done.
This and many other paninilbihan chores, along with the suitor ingratiating himself with all members of the girl’s family, were apparently indispensable features of traditional courtship customs of 19th-century Philippines. I couldn’t help thinking that if Pablo had not shown such great perseverance for seven years, our huge clan (Quiambao, Aquino, Estrada, Liwanag) wouldn’t be around today.
A romantic courting practice which persisted for a long time (before karaoke) was the harana, or serenading the girl at night beneath her window, expected or unexpected, with plaintive love songs accompanied by guitar and strings. Favored swains and their friends would be invited in for a late-night snack. Otherwise, the serenaders would just disappear into the night after at least a glimpse of the sought-after lass.
Fast-forward a century later, to the 1950s and ’60s, when our generation were teenagers.
Before the age of discos and today’s bars, the best way for boys and girls to meet was in weekend dance parties or “jam sessions,” usually held in private homes to celebrate birthdays, hold school parties and the like. A boy’s best opportunity for a quick conversation to get the girl’s home phone number or ask to visit her at home was while dancing to soft romantic music called the “slow drag” (sadly gone from today’s party scene).
What followed was the bisita, where the boy visited the girl in her house, usually with his pals at the beginning, and later alone if the chemistry was right. In turn, the girl would receive visitors on appointed days, also giving her a chance to make a choice from the available field. Going out in mixed groups or chaperoned dates was also common.
Before long, the girl would choose the lucky suitor and the two would “go steady.” All the while, the parents would be passive or active observers, giving advice to their daughter when they noticed that someone had already become special to her (“may napupusuan na”).
If the romance became serious, the couple got engaged, with the blessings of the parents on both sides. For the wedding, the parents of the prospective groom would formally ask the girl’s parents for her hand in marriage in behalf of their son in the pamanhikan.
Dating in those days usually included a chaperone, a sister, brother or a close friend of the girl or even a trusted house helper. I remember dating a girl who had two chaperones who had to sit at a separate table in the restaurant so we could talk privately.
I also remember inviting a girl to our school parties, and she always arrived in a car with a driver and a chaperone, both of whom stayed in the car all evening. Months later, I noticed that she arrived at our parties with a different driver and chaperone. When I asked what happened to the original chaperone, she answered, “Oh, the driver got her pregnant.” Talk about irony.
But courting in the 19th- up to the mid-20th-century still had one common element. The boy invariably made the “first move” and it was not considered proper for the girl to take the initiative, at least not overtly. There were exceptions, of course.
But the advent and widespread use of the internet and digital communication in recent decades has brought a paradigm shift in the way people relate to one another, especially in romantic relationships—identifying a possible mate, dating, courting and marrying.
Today, both men and women can (and do) search actively for a suitable partner on the various social media and dating apps created for this purpose—from the explicitly tawdry to the highly dignified. These numerous apps come very specialized for specific targets, i.e. different religious affiliations, age classification (young people, adults, seniors), lifestyles, interests, choices of various nationalities, gender preferences and much more.
The search for life partners has become international as well as local. The internet has liberated people from the social barriers of gender, economic status, culture, religious constraints and nationality. For example, many Filipino women are choosing to marry foreigners, for whom Filipinas seem to have a special attraction.
Even our Filipino traditions are constantly evolving to accommodate today’s realities. For example, although Filipino men often still take the initiative, the women have become more independent and articulate in their choice of partners, and less subject to parental influence, while still showing respect.
Sometime in the 1980s, I attended a party at the home of friends, an older couple. At the end of the evening, one of their daughters, a young woman who by then lived on her own, said to her mother, “Mom, I asked Gil to take me home.”
The mother looked at me and asked in mock seriousness, “Gil, are you sure you can take care of yourself?”