Rediscovering Spanish


                         Gemma Cruz Araneta

MEXICO, D. F. - When Latin Americans come to Asia, they look forward to feeling at home in the Philippines because they think we still speak Spanish. Most of them are shocked that we no longer speak the language, that we have our own plus dozens of dialects, and that we communicate with foreigners in English. Perhaps, it is not very accurate to say that we "still" or "no longer" speak Spanish because it was never widely spoken in the Philippines, even in the days of José Rizal. Mexican historians who have studied the colonial period of our country confirm that although the Spanish monarchs decreed that Spanish should be taught to all their subjects, the enforcement of those laws left a lot to be desired. In Mexico, the former virreinato de la Nueva España, Spanish became widespread only after Mexican independence in 1821, and that was because the local elite, who waged the anti-colonial revolution, spoke in that language and began to propagate it through the educational system. In our case, the friars who came with the conquistadores thought it expedient to learn the native dialects so they could position themselves as interpreters and liaisons between the native population and the colonial government. If the United States had not invaded the Philippines at the beginning of the XXth century, destroyed the First Republic to "pacify" and colonize us, we would probably be speaking Spanish today, like the Mexicans and other Latin Americans.

Do we have any use for the language? Is it too late to learn Spanish? Knowing a foreign language is always useful, especially if you work in the service sector like tourism. It is always enriching because learning another tongue stimulates parts of your brain that have probably remained dormant since school days. A geriatrics specialist will probably prescribe a foreign language course if you are not inclined to solving mathematical problems or reading aloud, usually by yourself. Business people consider it an asset, if not an advantage, to master the language of their most important associates. For us Filipinos, it is never too late to learn Spanish. There are already thousands of originally Spanish words in our vocabulary. Morever, Spanish seems easier to pronounce than any other foreign language, even English.

In my opinion, it is imperative that Filipinos should have at least a reading knowledge of Spanish, simply because most of the works of our heroes were written in that language. As we all know, a lot is lost in translation, so if we fail to read and understand these works in their original, we will never know how and why we are Filipinos, or what it really means to be a Filipino. It's like being born with amnesia.

Sometimes, knowing how to speak Spanish can be a stigma. A Filipina friend once revealed that she was careful not to speak the language at her work place for fear of antagonizing her superiors and provoking envy among her peers. They might think her snobbish and elitist. She did not want to be called "kastilaloy" or "kachila" behind her back. But, thanks to the Mexican telenovelas that have invaded the market, Filipinos are beginning to realize that Spain no longer has a monopoly of the language. If Spanish is spoken in TV soaps from Mexico, Venezuela, Peru and even Miami, then it must be all right to speak "español" (no longer "kastila").

Last year, at the Casa San Miguel in Zambales, Coke Bolipata, one of our most gifted and renowned violinists, presented the "La Naval de Manila" in commemoration of that historical and religious event. What a versatile mixture of song, dance, poetry and plastic arts! It was also most daring because Mr. Bolipata's presentation was in three languages - Filipino, English and Spanish. Not since "Lapu-Lapu," directed by Behn Cervantes, have I witnessed - and tremendously enjoyed - a tri-lingual production that truly expressed the Filipino soul.

DE: 01/23/2002 Manila Bulletin

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