Every now and then, I would see Facebook friends sharing a photo of a group of jejemons on my newsfeed, accompanied with the usual caption of ridicule and mockery. Jejemons are people who speak (30WwzZ mxzta n4 p0h,,,?) and dress (stereotypically in a bandana or a colorful cap, oversized shirts, and baggy shorts) a certain way. Personally, I think jejemons have undeservingly and unfairly carried the brunt of jokes and abhorrence from people who know no better and have nothing else to do with their lives.
At first glance, one thinks of jejemons as those who belong in the #facepalm interweb wonder of things, but perhaps on a second look, it isn’t hard to realize that these are people too, perhaps a group of friends who just wanted to get their picture taken for safekeeping. The vitriol was anticipated, of course. It’s what I’ve noticed with Filipinos in general; we have this knack for making fun of people who are different, and by different, I mean people who are jeje, jologs, baduy, or bakya.
Nora Aunor, in all her glory and immeasurable talent, still gets tagged as a jologs and bakya actress. She is considered cheap and tacky, and often called negra—when it is what she is, what we are, Filipinos. As much as we are suckers for underdog stories, we can also be the most criticizing and hateful towards each other—something I deem as one of our biggest weaknesses as a collective people. It’s a reason, I also think, why we’ve never reached the better version of ourselves.
I remember staying with my host family in Navotas a couple of years ago; their house was a little ways past the main fish port, in the barung–barongs above the waters that have been solidified by mounds of trash, waste, and excreta. Their entire house was as big as my bathroom, and it reminded me more of ghettofied jengga blocks than it did a house. Pots and pans were stacked on top of each other, where they slept was where they ate and bathed, and at the corner of the room was a hole on the wooden floor where they released and threw their wastes which easily fell down to the waters below. I had to crawl on my knees every time I entered the house, but it was in that house where I met Ann and Ivy, who were my age.
Upon making their acquaintance, I was told that they did not go to school. What they did everyday instead was peddle plastic and scraps of metal—something they did to help their fisherfolk parents—and from this junk, they earned enough coins to buy food and, just as importantly, log in on Facebook. In their community, they have a system called PisoNet; almost like a computer shop, but every “session” only lasts for seven minutes and costs P1. Every day they would go on Facebook, chat with their friends, and upload their photos. Photos I’d call—if I didn’t know better then—very much jeje, to say the least.
When Ann showed me her collection of photos that she designed herself. I noticed that these were tacky, heavily filtered photos adorned with ma-borloloy, neon fonts. She called herself a jejemon, but she didn’t say it with shame or embarrassment, more of just an aesthetic that she identified with. Her sister, Ivy, is the same. They seem to do this regularly on Facebook, and in this little act, they find such simplistic happiness.
It has been four years since then, and from time to time, I would get a message on Facebook from Ann and Ivy asking me how I am. They speak in jejenese—something that I find endearing now—and sometimes they would send me flip top videos and pinoy rap songs to listen to, something I’d wager, what others would call, the epitome of jejemon.
I am in no way hand washing. These were people I used to laugh at with my friends from the confines of my computer screen. Jejemons, apparently, are something we have equated with cheapness and low IQ. But in making fun of jejemons, are we not making fun of their poorness as well? Let’s say that they are poor. So what, then? These kids we call jejemon—Ann and Ivy—are kids who cannot afford an education because they were born in a system that automatically slapped them with a ball and chain the moment they took their first breath, and that the only difference between me and them, why I’m here and why they’re there, is luck by birthright—nothing more.
I thought it so hypocritical and so inauthentic of us, to say we are with the poor and for the grassroots movement, and at the same time, hate all the complexities and “uglies” that come with poorness. Because it’s much, much easier to laugh at them, than to criticize ourselves.
To call a specific group of people—jejemon or otherwise—stupid or as having low IQ is a moral debasement. We have no license to underestimate these people, people who never had the best of life, but are still trying to make sense of the things around them and create meaning for themselves. We think we are so clever and they should follow what we deem as true, right, and acceptable, because we are “educated”.
But our lack of belief in their ability to think and know—and our pigheaded certainty to think that we can’t ever learn anything from people like them—is nothing short of pathetic. And so they remain in the periphery of things, because what is right and true and acceptable are concentrated in centers of power.
For the longest time, I’ve been struggling with the true, or right, definition of “cultured”. What does it mean to be cultured? If I’ve read Dostoevsky and Akhmatova and Szymborska and Sontag, does that make me cultured? It’s so difficult to define culture when culture—and much of what is derived from it (art and identity, for example)—has been gentrified and controlled by elite hegemony.
And so, this jeje phenomenon we so gamely spit on, this piteous, but not futile attempt in trying to create meaning and sense with the things around us, can be some sort of decolonizing gesture. Quite an inventive and creative act, actually—and shameless, too—jejefiying things. These are people who, I think, are trying to experiment and explore what is within and beyond themselves. Perhaps, also, they’re fighting a battle they have been trying to win for as long they can remember.
Jejemons are unapologetic in their loudness and kitsch. Most times, it is you who feel embarrassed for them, but accept them the way you are trying and learning to accept yourself and this broken country. Perhaps accept them the way pinoy karaoke sessions go on until 4 am: loud and infuriating, but with no pretension. And, my god, they will continue to sing! And they will continue to be themselves—real—because what they have is authentic. The rest of us are playing authenticity.