Chavacano Proverbs, Riddles, Metaphors Chavacano Proverbs, Riddles, Metaphors
Chavacano Proverbs, Riddles, Metaphors


by: Prof. Emmanuel Luis Romanillos Faculty Center 1071; College of Arts and Letters University of the Philippines Diliman

Quezon City, Philippines e-mail: 0919-8526900

Local Hispanophones are quick to ridicule it as rag Spanish [español de trapo], castila-castilahan and español del Parián. A historian from Cavite refers to it as the patois of Cavite. But patois—the Cassell’s English dictionary will tell you—means “a dialect spoken by the illiterate people of a district.”[2] Writers and scholars termed the Spanish dialect of Ternate and Cavite City as caló de Cavite, castellano de Cavite or simply caviteño.[3] Dr. José Rizal himself spoke of it as lengua de tienda, language of the marketplace. For the propagandist, Kawit-born Evaristo Aguirre, it was lengua carihán, eatery language. Not without a holier-than-thou demeanor and self-righteous airs, some Filipinos derisively smirk at the creole tongue’s syntactical faults and morphological aberrations. The not so uneducated of them even poke fun at its phonetic flaws. Yet, Norberto Romuáldez (1875-1941), renowned academician and Hispanist, declared decades ago that in our Philippine creole Spanish and “underneath the coarse characteristics of its form, the Filipino soul embraces the Spanish soul, and in the process both are fused together as one.” Philologist Dr. Antonio Quilis fondly calls this autochthonous tongue “cherished Philippine creole Spanish.” Indeed, the Chabacano language is a precious legacy from Spain.

This native tongue is up to this day an active vehicle of communication in the intimacy of Filipino homes in provinces, so geographically far-off from one other, yet firmly bonded by their common Hispanic-Filipino heritage. It bears the popular name of Chabacano/Chavacano. It is basically Spanish in spite of evident alterations in morphology, phonetics, syntax and lexicon.

What follows are two sets statistics of speakers of Chabacano as mother tongue which were taken from various published reports of the National Statistics Office. The first set deals with the number of speakers in Cavite City and Ternate and the second with those of Cavite and Zamboanga del Sur provinces:

                                       1970      1990            1995


Cavite City ……..           3,350      3,405            3,316

                                                                   (3.59% of 92,391 inhabitants)

Ternate   ……...            2,024      3,072            3,194

                                                                   (22.47% of 14,215 inhabitants)

Population Cavite Province         1,115,103     1,602,932


                                   1970        1990          1995         

Cavite Province …        5,421       6.841           23,082   (1.44% Caviteño)

                                                                       3,366    (0.21%  Ternateño)

Zamboanga del Sur...  154,813    228,255       285,161 (10.27%  Zamboangueño)

                                                                      (214,774  Zamboanga City alone)


In 1990 the total of Filipinos who spoke Chabacano as mother tongue reached only 292,630. The 1990 census did not specify the five variants or dialects. Below are very interesting figures covering the entire archipelago. These statistics were culled from the 1995 national census published in 1997 and certainly they presaged a bright future of Chabacano:


Cavite City Chabacano                    …………..        34,215  (0.05%)

Ternate Chabacano                         …………..        6,843   (0.01%)

Cotabato Chavacano                       …….…….        20,529  (0.03%)

Davao Chavacano                           …………..        54,744  (0.08%)

Zamboanga Chavacano                   ….……….        307,940 (0.45%)
Total Filipino Population  (1995)  …………..        68,431,213
Chabacano-Speaking Population (1995) ..………  424,273

Chabacano Proverbs

Proverbs [salawikaín, kasabihan] or folk wisdom are “part of the cultural heritage that Filipinos must look back to, the better to understand who they are and to gain insights that may guide them in charting their future.”[4] Spanish friars were quick to observe our ancestors’ natural penchant for proverbial sayings and axioms. Such proclivity is found among Filipinos of all religious and political persuasions, in all regions. The Augustinian Recollect friar curate who served the parishes of Imus, Rosario, Silang and Kawit in Cavite, Fray Toribio Minguella de la Merced (1836-1920), declared in his Ensayo de Gramática Hispano-Tagalog (1878) that “a great deal more could be expressed by using maxims with them [the Filipinos] than a long speech.”[5] Proverbs serve as beacon and guideline for the moral and spiritual progress of the people. In the Caviteño and Zamboangueño contexts, proverbs are additional proof that their Chabacano is another way for showcasing the Filipino psyche. Chabacano is equally a perfect vehicle for manifesting what they feel, what they think, what they are.

Understandably, some Cavite Chabacano adages possess direct or indirect Tagalog equivalents. Or they might have been translations of Tagalog proverbs themselves.

Si cosa el tata, aquel el hijo.[6]

(Like father, like son.)

Analogous to it is the Zamboangueño: Conforme el tata, ansina el anak. In another sense, it is akin to the Tagalog Kung ano’ng puno, siyang bunga, A tree is known by its fruit. In Zamboanga, people say: El pono del cahel hende ta prutá guayabas, translated into Tagalog as Ang puno ng suha ay hindi magbubunga ng bayabas.[7] El dalaga guapa, demonio na bolsa.

(A beautiful maiden is a devil’s pocket.) Grande, cubalde; chiquito, maldito.

(Big but coward, small but terrible or brave.)

Grande cabeza, nuay laman.

(Huge but empty head.)

Grande el árbol, nuay sombra.

(Big tree but no shade. Its Tagalog equivalent is Malaking punò, ngunit waláng lilim.)

Con el genti no ta seguru,

como golóng di calesa,

anda riba anda baju.

(People’s life is like a wheel: it goes up, it goes down.) The Chavacano speakers of Zamboanga express it this way:

El vida del gente igual rueda,

Ahora abajo, mañana arriba.

(Ang buhay ng tao ay para gulóng, magulungan at makagulóng.)

People are never sure of anything. They may step on something soft, or on something hard. Health and wealth today, penury and malady tomorrow. It is what the versified Chabacano adage insinuates: El genti no seguro, ta pisá blando, ta pisá duro. The Zamboanga variant is: Na mundo redondo, pisa duro, pisa blando, In a round world, it’s sure step; misstep.[8] Masqui quilaya de largo el procesion,

ta volví siempre na iglesia.[9]

(However long the procession, it always returns to the church. Zamboangueños would rather say: Maskin pakichura de largo el procesión, /ta volvé siempre na iglesia.)

A self-criticism of sort, the next proverb uniquely underlies the typical Caviteño’s unrestrained hospitality is this: Caviteño fanfarrón,

Roba cualta na cajón.

(The Caviteño, it is said, is a show-off and steals money from the cash box. During the fiesta in November, he resorts to loans or stealing if only to celebrate the festive occasion in a pompous way and please his guests.)[10]

Today’s senior citizens of Cavite City—brimming with wisdom and insight that came with the years—give the younger generations more proverbs pregnant with meaning to guide them in life: Boda o mortaja, del cielo baja.

(Getting married or wrapped in a shroud, i.e. death, is in accordance with God’s will.)[11] El qui ta comé y ta cantá,

loco ta livantá.

(One, who simultaneously eats and sings, rises up a fool.)

Spanish refranes had been part of Chabacano sayings and maxims of both Cavite and Zamboanga. Here are some of them:

El niño que no llora, no mama.

(The baby, who does not cry, does not get fed.)

Habla el milagro, pero no menta el santo.

(Speak of the miracle, but don’t mention the saint. It is akin to the Spanish adage: Haz bien y no mires a quien.) Al que madruga, Dios le ayuda.

(God helps him who starts early.)

Quien mucho aprieta, poco abarca.

(He who grasps too much, gathers too little.)

Cada loco tiene su tema.

(Every fool has his tale.)

Hay gustos que merecen palos.

(There are appetites that deserve punishment.)

El perro que no anda no encuentra hueso.

(The dog that does not go around finds no bone.)

Cada padre alaba su convento.

(Every priest praises his convent.)

Elderly folks of Zamboanga have the following dictum that brings to mind the age-old golden rule:

Si ta hablá vos malo con otros, malo también vos el oí.

(If you speak evil of others, you shall hear evil in return.)[12]

A variant: El malo para con vos, no dale con otros. (Ang masamá sa inyo, huwag mong gawin sa kapwa mo.)

Major Filipino languages likewise have their own renderings of the adage. In Hiligaynon, it is Con ano ang guinbuhat mo,/ Amo man ang buhaton sa imo. In Cebuano, you hear the admonition: Dili mo pagbuhaton ngadto sa uban, /ang alang kanimo dautan.[13]

Below are two Zamboanga proverbs:

No mete na camisa de once varas.

(Don’t get into anything beyond your capability to handle.) Para qué el compay si muerto ya el caballo?

(What good is the hay if the horse is dead? Aanhin pa ang damó kung patáy na ang kabayo?)

 Ternateños who are already advanced in years offer this piece of advice for young people who rashly decide to marry after only a brief and hasty courtship:

Ta casá rugaruga, ta viví agora badju-badju,

Another variant: Ta casá tuti-tuti, ta viví agora badju-badju.

(He who marries in haste will live in distress.)[14]


Riddles [bugtong] are enigmatic and puzzling questions. Like myths, fables, folk, tales and proverbs, they are the earliest and most widespread types of formulated thought. UP Folklorist par excellence Damiana Eugenio tells us that Filipino riddles are “characterized by brevity, wit and felicitous phrasing, and as such are effective ways of transmitting folk wisdom to succeeding generations in capsule form.” [15] A riddle describes a person, flora, fauna or object but suggests entirely different. Like most of the riddles from other regions in the country, Caviteño riddles abound in rich metaphors. They often come in verse form. We are provided with “valuable insights into the psyche of the Filipino folk” through the images of comparison employed in metaphorical riddles.” [16] My mother-in-law Nena de la Torre Oliva who lived in San Roque for half a century told me four riddles she had learned from her Spanish father as well as from her Cavite-born and Chabacano-speaking mother:

El hombre parado

El tripa colgado.

(The man standing with his entrails hanging.)

Plátano (banana)

Dos puerta de vidrio

abre cierra sin ruido.

(Two glass doors shut and open without noise.)

Ojos (eyes)

Un pono de mostasa

Lleno entero casa.

(A mustard plant that fills the entire house.)

Lámpara (lamp)

Alboroto si bajo

Calma si hondo.

(It’s noisy when shallow; it’s quiet when deep.) Río (river)

A Chabacano-speaking priest, Father Emil Quilatan OAR, contributed the following riddle he recalled having heard from his old folks in Cavite City:

Taqui ya, taqui ya,

Pero no ta mirá.

It’s already here, it’s already here. But you can’t see it.   Aire o viento [Air or wind]          

From the old folk of Ternate, Cavite, we have five interesting riddles collected by De La Salle University Professor Magdalena C. Sayas who did a research on Chabacano Ternateño: [17]

Cual pono na monte, tiene ramas, nuay ojas?

What’s that tree in the mountain which has branches but no leaves? Venao (deer)

De día ta butá, di noche ta recogé.

(By day you throw it open, by night you take it in.)  

Ventana (window)

Un pedaso de culpa, vida ay kapalit.

(A piece of fault, a lifetime in exchange.)

Chinchi (bed-bug)

Hacé jalo el atolí, corre el asado.

(Mix the hot maize drink, and the roast moves.)  


Quel pono ya quedá pruta, quel pruta quedá pono.

(What tree became fruit, what fruit became tree?)

Caña dulce (sugar cane)

Some Caviteño riddles—not unlike their proverbs—have equivalents in other Filipino languages. Here are some: Una mujer ta sentao na pilong.

(There’s a woman seated on a rice mortar.) Kasuy (cashew nut)

The Tagalog riddles are Isang unggóy, nakaupô sa lusóng (There’s a monkey sitting on a mortar) and Isang senyora, nakaupô sa tasa (There’s a lady seated on a cup).  Comé uno, butá dos.

(You eat one, you throw away two.)

Almeja (Clam)

Si ta sacá una, pok! pok! pok!

Si ta cosé, tring! tring! tring!

Si ta comé, trok! trok! trok!

Sacá una, volví dos![18]

(When you take it, pok! pok! pok!

When you cook it, tring! tring! tring!

When you eat it, trok! trok! trok!

You eat one; you throw away two!)

Almejas (Caviteño halán, bútil; clams)

From three major Filipino tongues, we cite three variants of the clam riddle: “When I ate it, it was one, when I threw it away it was two.” Tagalog: Nang kinain ko ay isa, nang itapon ay dalawa. Tulya. Bikol: Quinowa ko na saro, tinapoc co na dua. Punao.

Ibanag: Kanam mu y tadday, Itabbo mu y dua. Kabibi.[19]

Ta miedu con una, ta imbistí con muchu.

A variant: Ta miedu kung una, ta imbistí kung muchu.

(Takót ako sa isá, matapang ako sa dalawá.

I am afraid to fight one, but not against many.)

Puente de bambú (bamboo bridge)

The Chavacano-speaking people of Zamboanga and Basilan have a wide array of interesting riddles on the flora and fauna, foodstuff or objects: [20]

Tiene un pono,

Ta comé de suyo mismo cuerpo.

(There’s tree that eats up its own trunk.) Candela (candle)

De negro si vivo

De colorao si muerto.

(Black when alive, colorful when dead.)

Alimango (crab)

Ya parí ya

Pero no hay pa salé el anak.

(He’s been born, but the child has not come out yet.) Huevos (eggs)

Tiene lang un diente mi lola.

Ta oí todo el gente, si ele ta gritá.

(My grandma has but one tooth. Yet everyone hears her when she shouts.)

Campana (church bell)

Cielo arriba, cielo abajo

agua entremedio.

Coco (coconut)

The Visayan Cebuano riddle is Langit sa taas /Langit sa ilawom / Tubig sa katungâ. Lubi. In Bikol, it is Lagñit sa itaas / Lagñit sa ibaba / Tubig sa tugña. Lubi.[21]


The Chabacano of both Ternate and Cavite City has four impressive metaphors referring to foodstuff and day-to-day scenes in life. The picturesque phrases originated from the Caviteños’ long contact with Hispanic Christianity which had taken deep roots in our country:[22] Ta salí ya el prusisyón (literally, the religious procession is going out of the church) alludes to the rice in a pot at the moment of boiling.

Dominus vobiscum (Latin for The Lord be with you) refers to the alimango (crab) with twisted claws, looking like a Mass celebrant greeting the congregation.

Haligui del campanario (belfry pillar) is the local delicacy called tira-tira, the pulled sugar confection.

Cara de Viernes Santo (Good-Friday-looking face).

Three other metaphors refer to foodstuff or instrument for cooking. First is uno tras otro (Spanish for one after another) is the literal depiction of and allusion to sausage or longaniza.

In Ternate, tulay de viento (bridge of wind) is the term for blower (hihip). They further employ the term labá na mano (washing by hand) to refer to bagoong (anchovies) or patis (fish sauce).


The legends, proverbs and riddles of Chavacano from Zamboanga have been compiled and studied by Teresita Perez Semorlan in her UP MA thesis in 1980. We have three master’s theses on Cavite Chabacano but they deal solely with its phonology, morphology and basic structures.[23] Alfredo German’s 1932 thesis had an anthology of essays, poems, songs and stories in Caviteño Chabacano as well as in the now-extinct Ermitaño or Ermitense variant. Nonetheless, it had none of the subject matter that interests us in this research.

Definitely, Caviteño proverbs and riddles are truly a virgin field of research. Our present investigatory effort on Caviteño folk wisdom does not claim to be extensive or exhaustive. For all we know, the adages and riddles enumerated mentioned earlier constitute a mere drop in the bucket. Certainly, something has to be done and very quickly done before that bucket full proverbs and riddles drifts away and in the end sinks deep into the ocean of oblivion. A few decades from now, the old folk of Cavite City will fade away into the sunset. It is our ardent hope that the riddles and proverbs of that cherished Philippine creole Spanish, the Spanish dialect of Cavite, will not go down with them to the grave. ¡Manos a la obra!



Chabacano de Zamboanga Handbook. Zamboanga City 19(_ _).

Damiana L. Eugenio [ed.]. Philippine Folk Literature: The Proverbs. Quezon City 1992.

_____. Philippine Folk Literature: The Riddles. Quezon City 1994.

Alfredo B. German, The Spanish Dialect of Cavite, UP Manila 1932.

Librada C. Llamado, An Analysis of the Basic Structures of Cavite Chabacano, PNC Manila 1969.

____. El Chabacano de Cavite. A lecture delivered before members, officers and guests of Friends of Cavite City Library and Museum, Inc., Cavite City, 11 December 1996.

Isagani Medina. Cavite before the Revolution,1571-1896. Quezon City 1994.

Interview with Mrs. Nena de la Torre Oliva, 17 September 1999, Quezon City.

Antonio Quilis. La lengua española en cuatro mundos. Madrid 1992.

Felicidad G. Ramos, A Constrastive Analysis of the Sound System of the Cavite Chavacano and the English Language. Abad Santos Educational Institution, Manila 1963.

Emmanuel Luis A. Romanillos. El Chabacano de Filipinas. A lecture delivered in the International Symposium on Latin Humanism in Asia-Pacific: Heritage and Reminiscence, sponsored by Unión Latina, Department of Foreign Affairs and Fondazione Cassamarca, on 1-3 March 1999, at the Philippine International Convention Center, Manila.

Magdalena C. Sayas. La desaparición del castellano en Filpinas, los léxicos hispánicos en el filipino moderno, y el idioma chabacano: una reacción. A lecture delivered in the International Symposium on Latin Humanism in Asia-Pacific: Heritage and Reminiscence, 1-3 March 1999, Manila.

Teresita P. Semorlan. Oral na Literatura ng Chavacano. M.A. Thesis UP 1980.


[1] A paper read at the Chavacano Lectures and Zarzuela held at the Claro M. Recto Conference Hall, Bulwagang Rizal, College of Arts and Letters, UP-Diliman, QC, on 18 September 1999.

[2] Cassell’s English Dictionary, London 1974, 834. [3] Emmanuel Luis A. Romanillos, El chabacano de Cavite, ¿Crepúsculo del criollo hispanofilipino?, in Linguae et Litterae 1 (1992) 9.

[4] Damiana L. Eugenio [ed.], Philippine Folk Literature: The Proverbs, Quezon City 1992, iii.

[5] Ibid., vii.

[6] Medina erroneously writes Si cosa el tata, no aquel el hijo. See Isagani Medina, Cavite before the Revolution, 1571-1896, Quezon City 1994, 179.

[7] Teresita P. Semorlan, Oral na Literatura ng Chavacano, M.A. Thesis UP 1980, 136-137.

[8] Chabacano de Zamboanga Handbook, 29.

[9] Telephone interview with Mrs. Nena de la Torre Oliva, 17 September 1999.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid..

[12] Eugenio, Philippine Folk Literature: The Proverbs, 460.

[13] Semorlan, 148, 145.

[14] Medina, 182.

[15] Damiana L. Eugenio [ed.], Philippine Folk Literature: The Riddles, Quezon City 1994, xiii.

[16] Ibid., x.

[17] Magdalena C. Sayas, La desaparición del castellano en Filpinas, los léxicos hispánicos en el filipino moderno, y el idioma chabacano: una reacción. A lecture delivered in the International Symposium on Latin Humanism in Asia-Pacific: Heritage and Reminiscence, sponsored by Unión Latina, Department of Foreign Affairs and Fondazione Cassamarca, on 1-3 March 1999, at the Philippine International Convention Center, Manila. Cf. p. 6.

[18] Medina, 180-181.

[19] Eugenio, Philippine Folk Literature: The Riddles, 193.

[20] Teresita Perez Semorlan lists down one hundred ten riddles in her 1980 master’s thesis. [21] Eugenio, Philippine Folk Literature: The Riddles, 44-45.

[22] The first three are culled from Medina, 179.

[23] Alfredo B. German, The Spanish Dialect of Cavite, UP Manila 1932; Felicidad G. Ramos, A Constrastive Analysis of the Sound System of the Cavite Chavacano and the English Language (Abad Santos Educational Institution, Manila 1963; Librada C. Llamado, An Analysis of the Basic Structures of Cavite Chabacano, PNC Manila 1969.


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