OpinionArts and Culture

Are Filipinos Hispanic?

Is language the main qualifier in identity?

This is a controversial topic among those who want to engage in verbal sparring on the Internet — with poorly-researched comments purported as facts, sentiments hotly debated, personal experiences related, family trees touted, poseurs exposed and insults tossed in every direction. It is a global question, with interest from around the world.

Considering Philippines’ colonial past, are non-Spanish-speaking Filipinos Hispanic?

European Colonization

The island archipelago of the Republic of the Philippines dates its Spanish days from the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, sailing under the Spanish Crown in search of the Spice Islands. Before this historic event, the 7,000 islands and islets were not unified as a single political entity, did not have a homogenous ethnic group and spoke many different tribal languages of the Malayo-Polynesian language family of Austronesian, numbering over 150 presently.

Hispanization occurred throughout the centuries with the introduction of Christianity, European customs and modern infrastructure. Thus, the Philippines possessed the most Westernized of cultures in the East.

Spanish acculturation was historically different than the English, Dutch, French, German or other European powers that occupied colonial territory but did not assimilate the local populace or dramatically change its way of life. The Spaniards in the Americas assimilated and intermarried with the natives, resulting in the Hispanic nations of today.

The Philippine experience differs in that the Spanish infusion was much more limited than that of the Americas. This influx was mainly in government, military, commerce, religion and education, but Hispanization of the natives definitely occurred.

Language, Culture and Identity

Spanish was the language used between the different linguistic groups to communicate with each other, inter-island and inter-group. It was a unifying factor in the common identity as Filipino, which evolved from a terminology originally referred to the island-born issue of peninsular Spaniards. Christianized, Hispanized Filipinos adopted European customs and were educated in Spanish tradition. Spanish music, drama, arts, foods, clothes and practices were assimilated, but still recognizably Hispanic.

On June 12, 1898, the first Philippine Republic, Republica de Filipinas, declared independence from Spain in Kawit, Cavite. The declaration was written in Spanish. The Malolos Constitution was written in Spanish as well, and Spanish was declared as the official language. The national anthem, “Filipinas,” was originally written in Spanish by Jose Palma and was fused with the “Marcha Nacional Filipina” by Julian Felipe. Later, it was translated into English and into its present-day Filipino version.

The leaders of the independence movement, along with many other revered Filipino heroes such as Emilio Aguinaldo, Marcelo H. del Pilar, Apolinario Mabini, Antonio and Juan Luna, Emilio Jacinto and Jose Rizal were Spanish-speaking Filipinos. Were they Hispanic? Are their descendants Hispanic?

The Upshot: So are Filipinos Hispanic?

It seems that there is no simple answer to this. It is not a yes or a no. The answer is graded from black to white and in shades of gray.

That’s because the Philippines is a multi-cultural nation, with people from different ethnic and linguistic heritages gathered under one national identity. Different historical events shaped the nation into what it is today. Separate islands and cultural groups were unified under one banner, when in actuality, it was not a nation before unification. It did not have a singular identity as separate islands and linguistic groups. Those that say that the diverse separate islands would have been better off left alone; its people, independently on their own, would develop into modernity without the influences that it had; or they would be absorbed by other powers in another historical fashion are terribly misguided.

Aside from language, are there other factors taken into consideration in forming an identity? Can you identify culturally but not linguistically, or linguistically and culturally to a limited extent and still be entitled to the nominal qualifier? Can it be considered pseudo or partial? Can it be partial and still hold the adjective as a descriptor? It is not all or nothing. It is all entangling. It’s all confusing. One thing is certain — there is no single answer that will satisfy everyone.


A version of this article originally appeared in Spanish Philippines.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of La Jornada Filipina.


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Eduardo Alzona
Eduardo Alzona is a U.S.-based Filipino-American Hispanista who has been coming and going to the Philippines for many years to support Hispanic Philippine projects, causes and beyond.

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