Learning Spanish as a Filipino in the 21st Century

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It’s a Monday night at a friend’s house in Manila, a city which still has a strong Hispanic influence thanks to the three centuries of Spanish occupation. The night is warm and restless. And it’s one of those perfect nights to catch up with friends you haven’t seen in a while. Over a hot meal of quintessential Filipino dishes and American pop ballads, a friend suddenly said in jest: “I remember that you are so into music and pop culture. What kinds of songs are you into now?”

To which I answered, with pride and ardor: “I’m into Latinx music now. I’m listening to a lot of songs in Spanish.”

It might have been the bitter tuyo she’s munching that made her grimace, but my frenzied reply prompted her to comment about how I do not give a damn about OPM. That since I’m a Filipino, I should be patronizing and glorifying music from my own country.

I was sitting there mortified with my own preference in music and arts. That my not listening to Filipino music makes me not proud of my identity. That by my listening to Spanish songs makes me unpatriotic. While there’s nothing wrong with her statement, I think that she was heavily alienated by a culture that is so much our own—Hispanic culture. That the only culture she wants to embrace is “purely” Filipino. Is there such a thing? Over the Filipino favorite adobo, I thought about it for a moment and my jaw dropped with a sudden realization. It occured to me that she might be a victim of miseducation. That she and most millennials are victims of miseducation about history and their heritage.

¡Qué horror!

Despite the countless history lessons drilled into them at school, most millennials seem at disconnect with their own inherited culture. More than three hundred years of Spanish colonization and yet they are so much into everything American—music, TV series, books, films, language, and white culture. While the American way of life is also of our own, it can’t just wipe 333 years of influence with just over four decades of propaganda. However, it seems unfortunate that most millennials have already forgotten their Hispanic heritage. Needless to say, the Spaniards left imprints that even survived in the modern society. Think of the way we count (uno, dos, tres, etc.), the way we talk about months (Enero, Pebrero, Marso, etc.), the various loan words in our very own Filipino language and in regional ones (kutsara, tinidor, baso, kutsilyo, etc.), the various festivities and traditions we celebrate (fiesta, siesta, etc.), the localized names of countries (Estados Unidos, Hapon, Tsina, etc.), some names of MRT and LRT stations (Libertad and Buendia), our last names (Cruz, Diaz, Espejo, etc.), and the major religion in the country (Roman Catholic). Everything is very Hispanic.

Language is a reflection of culture, and they are very connected to each other. So why aren’t we, Filipinos, using the Spanish language today as much as English? Why didn’t Spanish survive up to this generation? What happened? Does it even matter now?

Learning about our Hispanic heritage does not mean relinquishing our nationality as Filipino. After all, part of our culture, customs, and traditions is based upon it. It does not mean that we have to abolish the Filipino language just because we have Hispanic roots. It’s just a way of us paying homage to a lost language and embracing our heritage. As I have written in my previous post, I have been religiously studying Spanish. The language that played a huge part in the independence of this country from colonizers. I dedicate roughly three hours of my time every day studying the grammar and conversing with our hermanos from the Latin America. But before I tell you why it means so much to me, let me walk you through a brief history of the Philippines under three colonizers.

A Walk Down the Memory Lane

Many historians claim that the Spaniards did not teach Filipinos the Spanish language. They insist that the Spaniards did not want Filipinos to learn it for the fear of retaliation. Various accounts, however, are in contrary to that statement. Despite their cruelty, the Spaniards made efforts to educate the Indios. One of their contributions is the introduction of the public education in the Philippines. They taught ordinary Filipinos the Spanish language with the help of the friars. It was even required by the Spanish Royal Decree to teach the language to the natives. In his speech for the Philippine Assembly at the US Congress in October 1914, former president Manuel L. Quezon acknowledged the influence of the Spaniards to the literacy of Filipinos. He even said that he was educated in one of the schools built by them.

Digging deeper, the use of the Spanish language by the Filipinos goes further than the 19th century. In 1610, Filipino printer, writer, and publisher Tomas Pinpin wrote his famous book Librong Pagaaralan nang manga Tagalog nang Uicang Castilla, that was meant to help Filipinos learn the Spanish language. I have a digital copy of the said book but the Tagalog used was very challenging.

Tomas Pinpin’s efforts must have been worth it. When the Filipinos were made aware of the atrocities of the Spaniards with the help of the Illustrados, it seems that they were already speaking Spanish. Freed from the clutch of the Spaniards, the revolutionists and Illustrados wrote ¡Viva la Republica Filipina, Viva! on our flag to finally proclaim the independence in 1898. Then, they penned the short-lived Constitución Política de Malolos (Malolos Constitution), the basic law of the First Philippine Republic, in Spanish.

Even when the Americans came in the early 1900s, the use of Spanish language even became more prevalent.

The infamous betrayal from both Spain and America made the usage of Spanish fluctuate in the early 20th century. The massive propaganda of America to wipe out the Spanish influence in us became successful. They exceeded what the Spaniards did in terms of education by bringing native English speakers to teach us a new language. The extent of the American influence was almost genocidal as it painted a bad image of the Spain. Eventually, the use of Spanish diminished over the years. Add that to the Philippine-American war that killed hundreds of thousands of Filipinos. In the end, the Americans were very successful in bastardization of our inherited culture.

Ironically, Filipino literature during the American occupation flourished. Writers like Teodoro Kalaw, Claro M. Recto, and Francisco Liongson wrote heavily in Spanish. Newspapers such as the Philippine Free Press were also written in both English and Spanish.

However, there came a movement in the late 1930s. To foster identity among the Filipinos and to unite the country, Filipino was declared the official language in 1937. Local languages such as Cebuano and Tagalog were also strengthened. Then-president Manuel L. Quezon didn’t want either Spanish or English to be the national language. This was yet another major blow for Spanish.

Nearing the middle of the century, the Philippines suffered a huge loss of its peoples. Imperial Japan came in the 1940s and slaughtered a million Filipinos including the remaining Spanish speakers in Manila. The survivors then migrated to the US or Latin American countries.

After the three periods of colonization, the Spanish language became irrelevant over the next few decades. As a matter of fact, the 1987 Constitution put the final nail in the coffin by dropping Spanish as one of the country’s official languages.

Resurgence of Spanish

The turn of the century brought a lot of changes in the way of Filipino life. One of them is the cultural awareness. The next 20 years made some Filipinos interested in their lost language—there was an interest to revive Spanish. Language schools such as the Instituto Cervantes de Manila and Berlitz were established. The Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day is also being celebrated every 30th of June to commemorate the cultural and historical ties between the Philippines and Spain.

In terms of arts and culture, various Latin American telenovelas also captured the hearts of Filipinos. Shows like Marimar, Betty La Fea, and Rosalinda were such massive hits in the Philippines that local TV networks even franchised them. Now, you’re wondering why Filipinos are so into them? That’s because Philippines and the Hispanic countries share the same culture being all children of Spain.

Don’t forget the anthem of the traditional Filipino line dance during fiestas in the barrio: Todo todo todo by Mexican singer Daniela Romo. “Esos bellos momentos, todo todo. Tus lindos ojos verdes, todo todo. El fuego de tu cuerpo, todo todo todo todo . . .” Filipinos in this generation don’t understand the lyrics but they still love the tune of the song.

In spite of these initiatives, activities, and traditions, most are still not aware of their own heritage.

I’ve written before that I am embracing my cultural identity as a Hispanic-influenced Filipino. I am studying the Spanish language because my cultural identity is very important for me. I don’t know about you but hearing Spanish being spoken by anyone makes my ears prick up. It feels natural to hear the words. I felt connected whenever I hear a Spanish song or hear someone speak it.

I’m also studying Spanish to get to know more about the rich history of the Philippines. You may be wondering why learning a foreign language makes me know more about the country. If you’ve been doing a lot of reading, Spanish was the official language in the Philipines during the Spanish régime. Our ancestors spoke it along with their native tongue. Filipino, as we speak it in this generation, was only spoken by inhabitants of Manila, Rizal, Cavite, Bulacan, and Batangas. Parts of the archipelago didn’t know Filipino/Tagalog yet, and Spanish served as a link to communicate with one another.

The Hispanic influence is both apparent and underlying. Despite hating the Spaniards, Illustrados such as Jose Rizal, Marcelo H. Del Pilar, and Graciano Lopez Jaena spoke and wrote in Spanish. In fact, Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo were written in Spanish. Our national anthem was originally written in Spanish—Marcha Nacional Filipina/Tierra Adorada.

These are all very fascinating. These are the things I want to delve myself into: the lost connections to our Hispanic culture.

Knowing the country’s rich Hispanic history, it made me appreciate the beauty of the Spanish language. However, the same cannot be said for most Filipinos who would rather not go overboard. Learning Spanish for most Filipinos is not practical and is only a waste of time in this English-speaking country. Let’s face the reality. Most will not study for historical and cultural purposes.

Good thing that Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry acts as a bait for Filipinos. Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world. No wonder BPO companies are answering the demand to employ Spanish-speaking agents. Few key strokes and Google searches show that BPO companies in the Philippines pay PHP60,000 to PHP90,000 for foreign language accounts. That’s twice or even thrice the amount English-speaking call center agents earn in a month. Learning a foreign language such as Spanish won’t be a waste of time for Filipinos after all.

The Future of Spanish in the Philippines

Despite the movement to reintroduce Spanish in the Philippines, its future to be one of the national languages seems far-fetched. The loss was so deep that it will require reworking of an entire nation.

First of all, a widespdead cultural awakening among Filipinos is needed for them to be interested in it. It would be a great deal of an education reform for this to happen. Moreover, this can only be possible if the 1987 Philippine Constitution will be ammended to reinclude Spanish as one of the official languages.

In this day and age, it’s very important to know and embrace our cultural identity and heritage. Looking back and delving deeper into our rich history and inherited culture makes us feel secure of our own place in the world.

Learning Spanish and the Hispanic culture does not make us less Filipino. In fact, it makes us otherwise. It enables us to feel connected to our ancestors who fought for our freedom. It makes us appreciate what we are and what we have become. It gives us a sense of interconnectedness of all things. Lastly, knowing our history makes us prepared for the worse things we might still face in the future.

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