Spanish is alive and well in the Philippines, and those who say otherwise haven’t had the chance to learn a new language and seek people to practice with. In fact, there’s a Meetup group in the Philippines aptly called the Spanish Language Meetup of the Philippines that organizes monthly — sometimes, weekly — get-togethers for Filipinos who want to practice their conversational Spanish. “I felt very strongly about Spanish in the Philippines … and I wanted to be able to speak Spanish with the locals,” said the group leader, Eduardo Alzona, who is currently based in Miami. Driven by the need to make friends and socialize, Alzona took the initiative in establishing the group. “I contacted a Meetup group which was there online and … I didn’t get any answer. So I thought, well, you know, I can create my own,” he said. So he flew to the country in 2017 to put this all together, and the rest is history.
His Meetup group has been arranging language exchange events for quite some time now, and they have already held successful meetups in various places around Metro Manila and Luzon. The group’s purpose is fairly straightforward, really — to invite as many people as possible and practice Spanish with them. As the founder, Alzona himself speaks Spanish well. This is not surprising since Miami is a Hispanic stronghold. In fact, he learned it from his mom’s side, solidifying his language skills by studying it formally in school and traveling to a lot of Spanish-speaking countries. Growing up bilingual, he has been speaking Spanish his whole life; he even learned Tagalog and other European languages. As a multilingual now, he knows the challenges of learning a language on your own. “Many people take courses in the Philippines, but they don’t have anyone to practice with. And this is what we furnish. This is what we afford to the people — the ability to practice and not just practice but to make friends and to socialize,” he said.
It was after arranging several meetups on his own that he and Jemuel Pilapil, now a co-organizer of the Meetup group, crossed path with each other in 2017 and eventually collaborated. Prior to collaborating with Alzona, Pilapil was working for his own group — Sociedad Hispano-Filipina — that has branches in Muntinlupa and Quezon City. He is an active participant in many Instituto Cervantes-led events by promoting Spanish and the country’s Hispanic heritage. While his own group takes part in cultural activities, Alzona’s group remains a platform for everyone to meet up.
Pilapil first joined a now-defunct Spanish speaking group organized by the Instituto Cervantes de Manila. “That’s where I saw the benefit of [joining] the groups … because I was new that time [and] I’m not good in Spanish [yet] back in 2007. And then when it [was] disbanded … in 2009, another group was organized by the new librarian of the Instituto Cervantes … This is a different level where you have to read the stories and discuss it within the group … After that ended … we formed the group [Sociedad Hispano-Filipina] … We [used to] meet after the movie because … before there is a free movie at Instituto Cervantes every Saturday,” shared Pilapil.
Alzona and Pilapil’s collaboration was a rocky start as nobody came in the first few meetups they held. But then, people started attending eventually, partly because the events are more than just meetups. “We’re not just there to practice in a boring situation,” said Alzona. True to his word, the administrators — his other co-organizer, Robert Harrison, and eight assistants — and members of the Meetup group hold meetings and picnics, celebrate “happy hours” and organize dinners whenever they meet.
During the earliest stages of their work, Alzona was surprised by the general sentiment against Spanish. “The average Filipino, you know, they studied it, but all they studied was that Spain was bad … And that’s all they teach in the history books … And you see it in the movies. You see it repeated that any time there’s Spaniards, [they think] they’re villains, they’re bad, they abuse the Filipinos … and they never talk about the contributions of Spain.” Despite this grim outlook, the group, which was originally called Spanish Language Meetup of Manila, wants to push back against all odds. In fact, they have plans to expand and bring the meetups to other parts of the Philippines. In the online space, it looks like that has already happened.
Alzona inherited a Yahoo! group of the same name that started back in the early 2000s in which he grew the member count to over 250 members. That was when Facebook has not taken off yet. As for the Meetup group, it now boasts over 2,300 members — and majority of them are local Spanish speakers. Although there aren’t any updated and accurate statistics, it’s safe to say that there are a lot of Filipino Spanish speakers out there. In the Meetup group alone, the members have various relationships with Spanish. Some studied it in school, while others learned it in childhood.
In the physical space, the group’s plans to expand needs to wait a little bit further, though. Like other organizations, they are faced with challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. “It is a bit challenging now because most of us are busy with our daily lives and work. But we started picking up again a few weeks a few weeks ago, and we started with a group of organizers and some other friends,” Pilapil said. Turning it around, they soon adapted and found a way to make the dire situation advantageous to them. Pilapil shared that the virtual meetups eliminate the need for food and transportation, and that they are helpful in brainstorming topics for future, physical meetups.
When Alzona left the Philippines, he put a system in place to make sure that the Meetup group would continue what it has been doing. “It’s a lifelong advocacy of mine to see Spanish regain its proper position in Philippine society,” he said.
It looks like his life’s work somewhat paid off. A few years ago, they were approached by the language learning platform Duolingo to collaborate with them. Duolingo is, by far, the most well-known app in terms of learning languages. The Meetup group’s schedules were once only being posted in the Meetup website, but now Duolingo syndicates them to its heavily-visited platform as well. Alzona was also conferred as a language ambassador.
Even then, there’s so much work to be done for Alzona’s group to increase the number of Spanish-speaking Filipinos. Still, the group’s mere existence proves that Spanish is alive and well in the Philippines after all.
“Spanish offers many advantages — for travel, for making friends from all over the world, for tourism [and] also for getting a job … Spanish is very important … Spanish is a Filipino language; it is not a foreign language … It is our past, our heritage [and] our patrimony,” Alzona said.
Editor’s notes: The interview was conducted in both Spanish and English, but some of the interviewees’ answers were translated into English and edited for length and clarity. To read the article in Spanish, visit La Jornada Filipina en español.
The previous version of the story wrongly stated that the member count of the Yahoo! group grew to over 2,000 members; that has already been corrected.
The article has also been updated on December 5, 2020 to add more information.
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