A few days ago I attended the Asian premier of the doumentary “El Idioma español en Filipinas” at the Instituto Cervantes. The film was directed by Javier Ruescas and was produced by the Asociación Cultural Galeón de Manila and its partners. Local Spanish speakers were interviewed in the film; Gemma Cruz-Araneta, Manoling Morato, Fernando Zialcita, Maggie de la Riva, Georgina Padilla Zobel, Macario Ofilada Mina, Guillermo Gómez Rivera, Benito Legarda II and more. The film also touched on the history of the language during the three centuries of Spanish rule.
The documentary was enlightening and moving. I could identify with the sadness expressed by those who were interviewed for what happened to Spanish. I have descendants that spoke Spanish and I often wonder what would they make out of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren that doesn’t have the slightest of interest to learn it–me included for the most part up my life. My grandparents on my father side spoke the language (both murdered when San Carlos, Negros Occidental was ‘liberated’ from the Japanese by the US and those terroristic Filipino guerrillas). And so was my great grandfather on my mother side–he was the last person to do so in his family–all the wives, he had 3, and his children, none of them ever learned the language.
It was my adopted grandmother, Doña Amparo, a Filipino American, who taught me to respect and admire Spanish as a language–this, when I was attending public school where everything Spanish is taught to be evil. Whenever I listen to Julio Iglesia’s 1980’s hit ‘Hey’ I remember her singing–she love’s the song! And this was the first lyrics in Spanish I ever memorized–although I did not know what it was about then. It would be years later before I realize that her Spanish songs (not only Iglesias’ and the ‘besame mucho’ but really really old ones) was her way of introducing the beauty of the language to me. The last time we met, we spoke Spanish, but I spoke it so poorly that I got reprimanded!
I appreciate how the film went into an area of Philippine history rarely discussed by historians. And this is the topic of Spanish as a Philippine language. I would have been more satisfied if they presented the historical data that proves Spanish was not a monopoly of the elite in Philippine society. That there were the likes of Mabini, common people, who learned it because they had the fortitude to educate themselves.
Historical data of Spanish usage in the early 1900’s are often swept under the rag. This is the period where it made great progress because of the Spanish public school system that was put to work in the 1860’s. Spanish as the Philippine lengua franca during the late 19th and early 20th century is not some speculation but an undeniable fact. The figure propagandized by nationalist historians that there was only 1% that spoke Spanish is not only without basis–it’s a blatant disinformation to convince people that only the elite could speak it during the Spanish epoch. This argument gives them the platform to make their case that it never was a language spoken by Filipinos. They insist that this was the case even when you have all the broadsheets and other literature at that time–in Spanish–who was reading those newspapers? the ‘1%’? C’mon! I’ve never heard of newspapers printed to be enjoyed by such a minuscule percentage–these papers would’ve been out of business in no time but we had broadsheets in Spanish flourishing up until the pacific war broke out. The secret Ford report and several foreign accounts that describes communities that spoke Spanish are all irrefutable substantiation. You have Palanca and those Manileño Chinese of the 19th century, they spoke Spanish, too.
One of my favorite account of Spanish being spoken in Manila came from a Mexican pilot that fought alongside the Americans here in the country during WWII (the first and last time Mexico sent a military force outside their country). They went looking for a bar and could only found one frequented by Americans. To their surprised all of its employees spoke Spanish! A story told to me by my friend Pepe Alas was that of his wife’s grandfather, a simple farmer from a distant town in Mindoro island, not highly educated but spoke Spanish. Pepe have in his possession some of the letters of this man–written in Spanish. My adopted grandmother, whose father was an American officer learned the language because everybody around her spoke it, even her mother, a native of the province of Iloilo. Intramuros was exclusively for Spanish speaker, and the populated suburbs around it as well. Even the aguadores and the sorbeteros conversed in Spanish. Abuelita knows, she was born in Intramuros but spent her childhood in their Pasay home–and, yes, they had Spanish speaking neighbors(their house stood where Philippine Chung Hua School now stands, and those century old mangoes in the school compound was planted by her American father–this land and most of Cartimar belonged to them).
But how come Spanish lost grounds?
Here’s nationalist historian Constantino’s explaination:
“The first and perhaps the master stroke in the plan to use education as as an instrument of colonial policy was the declaration to using English as the medium of instruction. English became the wedge that separated the Filipinos from their past and later was to separate educated Filipino from the masses of their countrymen., English introduced the Filipinos to a strange new world. With American textbooks, Filipinos started learning not only a new language but also a new way of life, alien to their traditions and yet a caricature of their model. This was the beginning of their education, At the same time, it was the beginning of their miseducation, for they learned no nationalist goals because they had to become good colonials. The ideal colonial was the carbon copy of the conqueror, the conformist follower of the new dispensation, He had to forget his past and unlearn the nationalist virtues in order to leave peacefully, if not comfortably, under the colonial order. The new Filipino generation learned of the lives of American heroes, sang American songs, and dreamt of snow and Santa Claus. Nationalist resistance leaders like Macario Sakay were regarded as brigands and outlaws. The live of Philippine heroes were taught but their nationalist teaching were glossed over. Spain was the villain, America the savior.”
Of course Constantino, a hardcore nationalist historian, does not believe that Spanish deserves to be revered but his words gives us a clear picture how the American education removed Spanish–not by force, no, but by changing the educational landscape. I’m sure some people would ask what’s wrong with English–you’re speaking English now! Yes, language is a skill and that we should always be keen to learn a new language when there’s an opportunity to do so–but Filipino tradition is not rooted in American tradition, our tradition is rooted in our Spanish past–so why insist on a “English” only policy? So let me return the question, what’s wrong with bringing Spanish back in our schools? Is it not right to study it because more than three centuries of our history was recorded using it? Is it not right to study it so we would have better appreciation of our local languages that borrowed numerous words from it? Is it not right that we reclaim the language that our grandparents spoke? Is it not right that we study it so we could understand our great heroes without the need of having their poems, novels, plays and writings translated to English?
If we refuse Spanish in our schools then I believe we deserve to be separated from our past. Let’s continue then with this amnesia, because without memory we’re fair game for all those carpetbagging desgraciados who steals our wealth and devalue our identity, and you know, I feel there’s so many among us that are conditioned to accept these abuses happily. I’ve always believed that reviving Spanish is speaking on behalf of our ancestors, because they “never meant revolution to mean turning our backs on a rich culture and embracing a foreigner who wasn’t even interested in marrying into our race and spending the rest of their lives in our homeland,” as that compleat historian from Chile, Liz Medina puts it.
An interesting incident happened in the Q&A portion after the film concluded. Guillermo Gómez Rivera who was seating among the audience volunteered to answer a question posed by a student. Being the scholar and expert on the subject, he provided a lengthy but very informative answer. Trouble with history is that it will always be long and knowing Gómez, he’ll go the extra mile to ensure his answer is clear. But when he started talking about the US and its policy against the Spanish language and Rizal, the Institute’s director asked one of his staff to cut him off. Then I saw Georgina Padilla, the grand daughter of the founder of Premio Zobel, sitting near the front row turn to the director and say ‘decía es historia filipina’, referring to what Gómez was trying to explain. To this the director said that it’s not anymore connected with the film. But around this time the mic had already been taken from Gómez. This reminds me that we still live in an world where such historical topics are proscribed–and this in a place where our Spanish past is supposed to be promoted and celebrated.
It’s ironic that the people responsible for the resurgence of interest in Spanish here are the Latin Americans. Their presence in America gave rise in demand for Filipino Spanish call center agents. No one ever saw this coming. But the study of Spanish here in our country must go along with historical learning. Otherwise, once the demand is gone, then interest goes with it (Instituto Cervantes has been getting a 50% increase in enrolment for the past few years). But what do I mean by historical learning? When I was studying in Instituto Cervantes, I approached then the director of the Institute, Mr. Pepe Rodriguez. It was a brief and informal discussion (chanced upon him chatting with some students near the stairs). I told him that while our class had instructors sharing are Spanish and Latin culture (in pictures and stories of their time in these countries) in between the language studies, it felt like they’re introducing something new to the students–why not show the students local traditions that came from Spanish culture? This would have more impact. He smiled and said it was a good idea but these are up to the teachers as the main goal remains the teaching of Spanish lessons which the students paid for. My point was that if we could make our young people understand how the Filipino identity is intrinsically connected with our Spanish past then we would have better success in waking them up from this deep slumber of ignorance.
For all the nasty accusations against Pres. Arroyo (she has yet to be convicted from any charges) I laud her for her insistence that Spanish be brought back in Philippine schools–no one bothered (or should I say dared) to do this but her. She’s the only President since her father to speak Spanish. She knows the significance of the language. But I heard that the implementation hit a snag because of the lack of Spanish teachers. The news is that the Instituto is helping address this concern. Now, let’s hope we get the needle moving to the right direction as soon as possible!
Going back to the film, I was particularly delighted by the questions the young people (mostly students in the Institute) posed to the head of Asociación Cultural Galeón de Manila. One question, which I felt was really important was this question about why this language have the reputation of belonging to the elite? Why is it that it appears so un-Filipino to speak it? Why is that if you’re someone speaking it you’re referred to as “coño” (colloq. for social climber or belonging to a rich family in Tagalog).
If I was asked this question I would tell the history of how Spanish language was maligned, demonized and all that but that’s not what these people wanted to hear–listening to these questions, I find myself asking questions, too, like, how can we bring Spanish back to the people? How can we make Spanish less ‘coño’ and more Filipino to these Filipinos?