Back when I was little, I remember dreading visiting the house of a grand-aunt who was a strict disciplinarian. My grand-aunt, Rosario Mendoza Valdes, was chief of the Philippine National Red Cross in Bacolod City at that time and since she had no children and grandchildren of her own, she treated us as her own apos. My earliest childhood memories were of visits to her sprawling old house near Lacson Street in Bacolod City for Sunday lunches. Weekend lunches with her were splendid, leisurely affairs complete with fine chinaware, linen, silverware and muchachas shooing pesky flies with a kind of paypay (a stick with shredded newspapers on one end).
Despite all that, I loathed going to her house because she was very strict about table manners. I also hated it when she would come to stay at our house for a couple of days. Lunch with her was like eating at the Philippine Military Academy: do not put your feet up your chair, do not put your elbows on the table, do not slouch, chew your food slowly, etc. I still remember how angry she looked when I appeared at the table without a shirt on. One time, I accidentally banged the door making a loud noise while entering her room. She punished me by making me go in and out of the door repeatedly until I learned to shut the door quietly. She loved to correct everything; from my posture, manner of speaking to my style of dressing. She also caused a lot of consternation to my other relatives because she loved to correct and “meddle” in how they ran their households. Looking back, it is only now that I understand what my departed grand-aunt was trying to do, which was to teach her apo and relatives “urbanidad.”
Urbanidad is basically an unwritten code for proper decorum, sort of like a “good manners and right conduct for city-dwellers." For example, if you hang your laundry (panties and all) in your front lawn, that’s “walang urbanidad” because you cause an eyesore in your community. If you turn on your stereo full-blast at 11:00 pm waking up all your neighbors, that’s “walang urbanidad.” If you don’t take care of your personal hygiene and have body odor causing discomfort to anyone near you, that’s “walang urbanidad.”
Standards of urbanidad change thru the years. For example, wearing a ‘spaghetti’ dress during mass is now acceptable while a century ago it would cause a girl to be excommunicated by the Church. And as the “Filipino eating habit” controversy in Canada has shown, standards vary depending on the country and the culture. Eating with a spoon and fork is considered normal practice here but apparently not in Canada. But regardless of time and place, one rule is constant: urbanidad demands that you respect yourself (i.e. the way you carry and take care of yourself) and respect others (i.e. being considerate of other people's feelings and sensibilities). It means being sophisticated in your outlook and tolerant of people who look different than you.
Our Ilonggo forefathers practiced urbanidad to lessen the aggravation and misunderstandings that tend to happen when so many people live in one small area, like in a city. Try to examine all the petty neighborhood spats in your locality and you will discover that it is most likely due to the lack of urbanidad by one or both quarreling parties. If only everyone practice urbanidad, then our city would be a pleasant place to live in.
Ilonggos in the past consciously observed urbanidad. Urbanidad was viewed then not as snobbery but a sign of good breeding and it was practiced by rich and poor alike. In those days, Negros hacienderos would send their children to Iloilo City not only to obtain an education but also to acquire urbanidad. According to my lola, you can tell just by looking at a person if he has urbanidad by the way he dressed, carried himself and dealt with others. It used to be that one of the greatest insults you can hurl someone is by telling him “wala ka urbanidad.” Today, it is seldom you hear people use the phrase. The term commonly used nowadays is, “daw taga-uma ka.”