The Oddity of the Spanish-language Dialogues in ‘Maria Clara at Ibarra’

GMA Entertainment

This article is available in Spanish.

Imagine waking up in a Spanish colonial-style house in pre-war Intramuros, hearing distinción-pronounced Spanish spoken by the mestizos, without having the faintest idea how you got there. That’s the premise of a fantasy period drama that instantly became a word-of-mouth hit on Philippine television.

Less than a month ago, local TV network GMA Network premiered “Maria Clara at Ibarra,” a TV series set in the world of Jose Rizal’s satirical novel “Noli Me Tángere.” Many viewers, including the ones who had said they’ve sworn off from watching local shows, praised its vivid cinematography and elaborate production work. Who wouldn’t? A present-day Gen Z character is transported to 19th century Manila in which women using Spain-originated abanikos and men donning traditional suits are an everyday affair, the modesty the zeitgeist of the time. Anything could happen to the classic tale Filipinos likely already know about. It sparks an intrigue, the magic system a mystery.

Maria Clara Infantes aka Klay, played by Barbie Forteza, is asked by her professor to write a book review of “Noli.” But since she lacks time to read the book, much less write about it, she plagiarizes a former student’s work. Her professor immediately finds out and asks her to redo it, lest she fails his class. To make Klay get immersed in the story, she is given a rare copy by her professor, one that would take her to the world of “Noli” in media res — straight to María Clara de los Santos’s (Julie Anne San Jose) room. “¡Dime! ¿Quién eres? ¿Y qué estás haciendo aquí?” asks the titular character to a freshly-risen and baffled Klay. This is where Klay catches on that she might have been swept right into the book’s setting, upsetting the familiar worldbuilding.

The fantasy series truly fascinates as it makes a familiar literary trope feel new again. It’s a bold and refreshing take of a chef-d’oeuvre. But as I get to watch more episodes of it, there appears a wrinkle: I barely understand its sparse Spanish-language dialogues.

Now let me preface it by saying that it’s not the accent, but rather the delivery. New accents take time to develop, especially if it’s the first time a language learner speaks a new tongue. As often as not, it doesn’t happen by attending a beginner Spanish class, receiving a 15-minute language coaching, or taking the first Duolingo lesson. It took me years to acquire a comprehensible accent by continuously speaking with “hispanohablantes” and consuming Spanish-language media. But in my early days of learning Spanish, my accent sounded “unnatural.” If a native speaker ever heard of it, they won’t have understood what I was saying.

To be fair, the Spanish accent in “Maria Clara at Ibarra” is something of a rarity; it even has some traces of the accent older folks who grew up speaking Spanish had. But whenever an actor utters some Spanish phrase in between singsongy Old Tagalog dialogues, the word stress often gets misplaced. Some actors get it right the first time around, even putting the word stress in place. The others, not so much. Most of the time, the delivery sounds unnatural, and it can only be done well if one has a solid grasp of the language — its rhythm, the cadence, its capriciousness. In the TV series, the Spanish-language dialogues can be hit-or-miss.

By the same token, the actors speak Spanish ever so slowly, which sounds off-kilter since Spanish is generally spoken fast, or a little bit faster than how they should speak it. If you understand Spanish, you would probably do a double take whenever you hear the actors speak it. Sometimes, you won’t probably even understand what they’re trying to say.

Then again, I belong to a minority of this TV show’s audience; my observations won’t likely matter to the general viewers, unless, of course, speaking Spanish is part of their repertoire.

“Maria Clara at Ibarra” is inventive, a notch above the rest of the run-of-the-mill shows in the Philippine TV landscape. The story has many opportunities to engross its audience with a series of what-if scenarios and surprising twist and turns. Though its strength doesn’t really lie in the odd Spanish-language dialogues, abating literary verisimilitude, the reimagined work is reportedly encouraging students to be acquainted with Rizal’s works.

That’s the best setup and payoff ever crafted.

Arvyn Cerézo
Arvyn Cerézo is an arts and culture writer/reporter with bylines in Book Riot, Publishers Weekly, South China Morning Post, PhilSTAR Life, the Asian Review of Books, and other publications. You can find him on and @ArvynCerezo on Twitter.

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