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Opinion: What Did Spain Contribute to the Philippines?

Guest Opinion Writer

This article originally appeared in La Jornada Filipina en español.

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Now that we are celebrating 500 years of an encounter that changed the lives of our two lands, rare is the day when I do not read some comments on social media networks like Facebook in which some Filipinos abhor such an encounter and consider that Spain did not contribute anything to the Philippines. At this point in my life I understand quite a few things, and I understand that someone has reasons to feel that way about such an important part of their history. I accept it, and I try not to argue with them. Entering into those kinds of debate is a sterile task: Some repeat over and over again ideas already learned, others give the silence for an answer when you give them arguments and finally, most show a very deep hatred for Spain. Who knows for what reason.  

The fact is that on this occasion, reading a comment that says “Beyond the ‘true’ religion, what did Spain bring us?” ended up prompting me to write this, perhaps influenced by reading Julio Palacios’ book “Filipinas, orgullo de España.” I try to reflect on what the Spanish period of Philippine history meant:

First, it is clear that Spain brought to the Philippines a recognizable unity as a state. Some will argue, not without reason, that it was not achieved since there were and still places in Mindanao that continue not to accept the authority of Manila. But what is unquestionable is that the Philippines, to this day, maintains the political unity that Spanish colonization brought it. Political unity (or territorial unity, if you prefer this term) was achieved without eliminating the languages of the archipelago, just as Spain did not eliminate the different ethnic groups that populated it. In fact, the missionaries wrote grammars of those languages; what they wanted above all was to evangelize.

The language that Spain did not impose but was contributed by the colonizers (which is partly why it was not consolidated) was considered by many Filipino writers — who expressed themselves through it and reached great literary heights beyond “Noli Me Tangere” — as the “most beautiful of treasures.” It was in that language that the first Philippine Constitution was drafted and the national anthem was written.

Spain built cities: Some as beautiful as Vigan, a World Heritage site, or old Manila, now lost forever, as well as countless churches that are the amazement of all who visit your country. Some sites are also recognized by the UNESCO as World Heritage sites; in the United States, they only exist in those areas where Spain had its influence.

Spain also developed infrastructures and created educational centers — with the University of Santo Tomas at the head, in which Spaniards and natives studied — agricultural schools, pharmacies, as well as the Conservatory or the School of Arts and Crafts of Manila. Artists such as Juan Luna y Novicio or Félix Resurrección Hidalgo, for example, won first places in the National Painting Contest of Madrid. Jesús Balmori, Antonio M. Abad or Adelina Gurrea were on a par with the great writers of their time in Spanish. Many of the greatest figures in Philippine history were educated in Spanish, and all forms of art flourished when the Philippines was still part of this old nation. It is probable that almost no talent was lost, and if that happened, it would be to the same extent that it happened in Spain: Suffice it to cite the case of Nicanor Abelardo, who began playing the bandurria in his lost hometown and became a distinguished composer.

We could also speak of political and legislative unity. The Philippine Civil Code still shows an undeniable influence of ours, which is why an exchange has been established between the University of Malaga and the Ateneo de Manila within the Erasmus program that contributes to strengthening the link between the two countries. Some of the most important companies such as Tabacalera or San Miguel were established with Spanish capital. These companies, in Philippine or foreign hands, continue to be of enormous commercial importance.

Spain left a religion, customs and traditions that were mixed with yours; as a result of the encounter and crossing of cultures, a nation and a culture unique in the world emerged. Spain left a gastronomy, which was enriched with the autochthonous, giving rise to a unique gastronomy. It introduced animal species, forms of cultivation and vegetable species. It gave you many of the current names and surnames, the name of the National Bank and the currency that is still in use.

I believe that Spain knew how to integrate the different cultures and not eliminate them, nor impose the same standard that nowadays the United States imposes on the whole world thanks to cinema and television. Spain was quite respectful of that diversity. In fact, it was the first to compile the different languages in writing, following the model of Nebrija’s Grammar. Moreover, the linguistic diversity of the Philippine language belies by itself any accusation of an alleged imposition of Spanish (although this does not matter — Spain is also accused of not having wanted to teach it, so as to be able to dominate the people).

Spain did not exploit the country’s riches either. Mining was not exploited until the Americans arrived, who taught “bad Spanish, good American” from minute zero. In fact, the Philippines did not have a trade surplus but only sporadically: what it generated were rather losses for the crown.

It is worth remembering that when the Americans arrived, they were surprised by the degree of civilization they found since they thought that the early inhabitants were living in the stone age.

Spain promoted a development that at the end of the 19th century was the envy of all Asia for being at the head of that great continent. I do not know what the distribution of wealth would be like. Most likely it was, as it is now, not very equitable. But it is certain that there was a greater development than in the metropolis where most of the population went hungry and would continue to do so until almost the middle of the twentieth century.

Spain did not systematically massacre the population, when it barely had a few hundred soldiers to defend the whole country, as Antonio M. Molina claims. Nor did it enslave the population, while other peoples who in contrast are so extolled were dedicated to the sale of slaves that they “recruited” in the islands (again I am quoting Antonio M. Molina).

Those who label us as imperialists ignore that Spain was conquered in a long war by the Romans almost 2000 years ago. Do they know that some cities, such as Numancia, were completely razed to the ground because they did not want to surrender? Do they know that the gold they took from Las Médulas caused the highest inflation known worldwide in history, and that none of it was left in Spain? But you will never hear a Spaniard or Portuguese complain about having been conquered by the Romans. They founded a civil society, which is the same thing that Spain did in the Philippines — with the difference that there were more Filipino elements preserved in the Philippines than Iberians in Spain.

It was also conquered by the Visigoths, the Arabs and the French. The former, who were not many, ended up assimilating with the Hispano-Roman population. Until the reconquest of the homeland, it took 800 years to recover, inch by inch, what had been Hispania. There were immense extensions, like this plateau of the Duero from which I write, that were for a long century a no man’s land in which no one dared to live. The last ones who conquered us, the French, took many treasures and destroyed many others.

I could go on quoting contributions made by Spain to the world through the Philippines. That many things were done wrong, logically. That they could have been done differently, to me is unlikely, because both Spain and other nations have continued to do things with the same clumsiness until yesterday. It is time to turn the page: We cannot be remembering the martyrs of one side or the other, as it happens in our civil war (and for many the Philippine Revolution was to a large extent just that, a war between brothers, with reprehensible deeds on both sides).

What happened so that relations, that until the 60s of the last century were fraternal and developed in the same language, have given way to this anomaly in which in order to relate with a country so closely related to ours we have to resort to English?

It was probably a mistake to corner and eliminate Spanish as just another of the country’s languages, as it was for Spain to forget about that land. But that has already happened. And it is time to think about the future because there is still time to change that situation, as long as there is the will to do so. As long as we keep on repeating the same old songs we learned one day, we will not change things.

Relations between peoples can be fostered by governments, but undoubtedly, perhaps they are built by the people, the populace. We have lived too many years with our backs to each other. It is high time that we begin to recognize each other as members of the same family. It will do us all good, no doubt.

Álvaro Rubén García Arroyo
Alvaro Ruben Garcia Arroyo is a teacher. His teaching career is divided between music in secondary education, English in high school or language school and the piano as well as other related subjects in conservatory. Passionate about languages and literature since he was a child, he has been attracted to the subject of the Spanish heritage of the Philippines, a topic he has gradually been delving into, especially in recent years.

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