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Opinion: Why Philippines Is a Multi-Faceted Society

Guest Opinion Writer

This article is available in Spanish.

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The Philippines is a multicultural country.

It is diverse in the sense that culture means a set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group.

There are a multitude of ethnic and cultural groups in the Philippines. There are traces of Hindu, Muslim and Chinese influences. The native languages belong to the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian family, but Spanish words entered for items were introduced from Europe. The mainstream culture of the Philippines, encompassing the overall defining way-of-life of the majority population, has engrained Hispanic traces and traditions. Spain must be recognized for its contributions to Philippine architecture, dance, film, literature, music, theater and the arts. Since the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, the subsequent unification and colonization of the islands was accomplished by the Spaniards who influenced and changed the native culture into what it is today.

The Filipino Spanish Language

While it is true that Spanish is not spoken by the majority of Philippine population, it can be said that the Spanish language has penetrated the native vernacular with many words. Spanish influence is seen in the names of many towns, cities and natural topography. Many people have Spanish-origin last names, although this does not necessarily denote European ancestry as many of the names were assigned.

The major languages of the Philippines belong to the Malayo-Polynesian subgroup of the Austronesian family. Although the basic structure of the language remains Malayo-Polynesian, Tagalog, Ilocano and the Visayan languages all have Spanish vocabulary infusion in the names of articles and objects introduced by the Spaniards. Verbs and action words were altered to conform with the native grammar, thus rendering them unrecognizable except for the root-words. The use of the mixed-Spanish-and-native language Chavacano dialects that were widely spoken during the Spanish era are declining in some areas, but showing an increase in speakers in the Mindanao region. Chavacano, which started as a pidgin language, has come into its own and is recognized linguistically as the Philippine-Spanish creole. It has the same relationship to Spanish as Haitian Creole has to French.

Spanish Mestizos (Mixed Ancestry)

At any given time up until the end of the Spanish regime, Spanish soldiers were in the Philippines, having first arrived in 1521. By late 1897, there were approximately 46,000 personnel in the Spanish Army throughout the islands for the total population of over 6 million. Most of them did not bring spouses but took up native wives and girlfriends. Spanish practice historically allowed more mixing and intermarriage with the native population (as occurred in Latin America, i.e. Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, etc.) as opposed to the English language culture’s experience of mainly marrying only among themselves (Canada, USA, Australia, South Africa, India, etc.).  It is a consequence of the geographical fact that the Philippine Islands (“Las Islas Filipinas”) being so far from Spain was not the first choice of a Spanish settler seeking to emigrate to start a new life in a new world. They looked to the Americas due to proximity. But for those Spanish “conquistadores” and adventurers that colonized the Philippines along with the businessmen, tradesmen and skilled craftsmen that mixed in, their descendants do exist.

People get annoyed when Filipinos that don’t look Spanish “claim” to have Spanish ancestry. The reason that many Filipinos that claim Spanish ancestry do not look European or Spanish is that many have only one-sixteenth or one-thirtysecondth bloodline or even less due to the lack of Spaniards to re-mix into their line.

The British descendants from Captain Fletcher Christian’s ship crew of the HMS Bounty that remained in Polynesia in 1789 look completely Polynesian and not British at all (Mutiny on the Bounty). However, they have English last names! U.S. President Thomas Jefferson’s African-American descendants from his mistress Sally (mid to late 1700’s) do not look Caucasian. In Filipino families, it is possible to have some siblings that look Hispanic and the other brothers or sisters that do not. The answer is in the study of genetics. If the great-great-great grandfather was a Spaniard — but from thence on the bloodline was exclusively native — the descendant would not appear to be mixed at all. However, the DNA would still be there for a one-sixteenth or one-thirtysecondth part ancestry, or even less!

Does everyone really have to take a blood test? Some mixing occurred from non-conformist clergy and unmarried unions, but the existence of these liaisons were traditionally socially and legally denied and are thus difficult to trace.

One can say then, who cares, why even claim it? Well, on the converse, why deny it? The ancestor really did come from Spain!

A version of this article originally appeared in Hispanic Philippine Culture.

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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