Opinion: Learning Spanish as a Filipino in the 21st Century

This article is available in Spanish.

It’s a Monday night at a friend’s house in Manila. 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 a playlist of American pop ballads, a friend suddenly asked in jest: “What kinds of songs do you listen to now?” With pride and ardor, I answered: “I’m into Latinx music now. I’m listening to a lot of songs in Spanish.” It might have been the bitter “tuyo” she was eating that made her grimace, but my frenzied reply prompted her to comment about how I do not support Filipino music. That since I’m a Filipino, I should be supporting homegrown music.

The Sorry State of Spanish Language in the Philippines

I was sitting there mortified by my own music preference — that by not listening to Filipino music makes me ashamed of my identity. That by listening to Spanish songs makes me unpatriotic. While she meant well, I think that she was heavily alienated by a culture that is so much our own. That the only culture she wants to embrace is “purely” Filipino. Is there such a thing, though?

Over the Filipino favorite adobo, I thought about it for a moment and then the sudden realization hit me. She might have been a victim of miseducation about history and our Hispanic heritage.

“¡Qué horror!”

Despite countless history lessons drilled into Filipinos at school, most seem at disconnect with their own inherited culture. More than three hundred years of Spanish colonization and yet, they are so into everything American — music, TV series, books, films and culture.

Needless to say, the Spaniards left imprints that even survived in the modern Filipino society. Think of the way we count numbers (“uno,” “dos,” “tres,” etc.), the way we count 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. But why aren’t we using the Spanish language today as much as English? Does it even matter now?

A Walk Down the Memory Lane

Many textbooks purport the idea that the Spaniards did not teach Filipinos their language. Various accounts, however, are in contrary to this claim. Despite their cruelty, the Spaniards made efforts to educate the “Indios.” In fact, one of their contributions is the introduction of the public education system. Spanish was “taught to those who wished to learn the language,” as required by the Spanish Royal Decree.

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 Spanish by 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 Spanish.

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,” the basic law of the First Philippine Republic, in Spanish.

However, the infamous betrayal from both Spain and the United States made the usage of Spanish fluctuate in the early 20th century. The Americans, determined to wipe Spain’s legacies in the Philippines, brought native English speakers to teach us a new language. The extent of the American influence — propaganda — was almost genocidal as it painted a bad image of Spain. Eventually, the use of Spanish diminished over the years. The ensuing Philippine-American War also killed thousands of Filipinos.

Ironically though, Filipino literature in Spanish 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.

Then came the movement in the late 1930s to foster identity among Filipinos and to unite the country. In 1937, Filipino was declared as the official language, removing Spanish out of the picture.

Furthermore, the Philippines suffered a huge loss of its population in the middle of the century. Imperial Japan came in the 1940s and slaughtered Filipino civilians, probably killing the remaining Spanish speakers in Manila.

After so many blows, Spanish became irrelevant over the next few decades. In fact, the 1987 Constitution put the final nail in the coffin by removing it as one of the country’s official languages.

Resurgence of Spanish

The turn of the century brought a lot of changes, and one of them is cultural awareness. The next 20 years brought hope as there was an interest for Filipinos to revive Spanish. Language schools such as the Instituto Cervantes de Manila and Berlitz were established. The Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day, which is being observed every 30th of June, was also signed in 2003 to commemorate the cultural and historical ties between the Philippines and Spain.

In terms of art 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.

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.

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 books “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” were written in Spanish. Our national anthem was also originally written in Spanish — “Tierra Adorada.”

Regardless of these initiatives, activities and traditions, most Filipinos are still not aware of their own heritage. For most of them, Spanish is a thing of the past and learning it is only a waste of time. Let’s face the reality. Most will not study for historical and cultural purposes.

Good thing that Business Process Outsourcing 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 PH₱60,000 to PH₱90,000 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.

Despite the movement to promote Spanish in the Philippines, reinstating it as one of the official languages seems far-fetched. The loss was so deep that it will require reworking of an entire nation.

A widespread cultural awakening among Filipinos is needed for them to be interested in it, and it would be a great deal of an education reform for this to happen. Moreover, this could only be possible if the 1987 Philippine Constitution would be amended to re-include 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. Delving deeper into our rich history and culture makes us feel secure of our own place in the world.

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.

Learning Spanish does not make us less Filipino. In fact, it does the opposite. 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. Knowing our history makes us prepared for the worse things we might still face in the future.

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 arvyncerezo.com and @ArvynCerezo on Twitter.

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