The saga of the Premio Zobel
Posted: 6:08 PM (Manila Time) | June 17, 2001
By Marge C. Enriquez
Inquirer News Service

DOÑA Fermina Montojo

WHEN pax Americana came to the Philippines visionary businessman and philanthropist Enrique Zobel expressed his desire, "No quiero que el español muera en Filipinas. (I don’t want Spanish to die in the Philippines.)"

Perhaps because of his wish, Spanish is still alive. In 1929, the Premio Zobel was established to honor the best in Philippine letters in Spanish. It continues as the only prize in Asia that advocates Spanish language. Spanish continues to be assimilated to the vernacular: to date, there are some 2,000 words in Spanish that have been assimilated in the Filipino. Of course, this is a far cry from former times, especially in the first half of the 20th century, when this Romance language was the lingua franca of government and the elite.

Today the Premio Zobel is organized by the third generation, Georgina Padilla y Zobel and her brother Alejandro, and Nenuca Sinjuan, the secretary of Ricardo Padilla. The Padillas have been handling the Premio since 1985.

The history of modern Filipino literature in Spanish is practically told in the book, "Años del Premio Zobel (Premio Zobel Years)," written by Professor Lourdes Brillantes, a Hispanista and a Premio Zobel winner in 1998. The book was a project of the Spanish Embassy, initiated by then Ambassador Delfin Colomé, and the Fundacion Santiago for the Philippine Centennial.

The book chronicles winners of this prestigious literary award, the history of the Spanish language in the Philippines and the story of the Zobel family, which Georgina says has close links with our history. Georgina has been studying the family tree by researching in the archives. The Zobels originally came from Denmark and migrated to Hamburg, Germany. Contrary to perception, the Zobels were not Jewish. Records showed that the three generations of Zobels were baptized, married and buried in Protestant churches in Hamburg.

The Zobels have been in the Philippines for nine generations.

Illustrious background

Jacobo Zobel Zangroniz, the first Filipino Zobel, married Trinidad Ayala de Roxas. The book says the couple came from "dos familias de gran abolengo" or two illustrious families. Dona Trinidad’s family established Hacienda San Pedro and the Ayala group of companies.

The Ayalas came from Alavar, the Basque region in Spain. Juan Valentin de Ayala was the first to settle in the Philippines in 1795. Trinidad’s mother, Margarita Roxas de Ayala, was one of the founders of La Concordia College. Her forebear Domingo Roxas was a prominent businessman from Batangas.

Jacobo Zobel Zangroniz’s grandfather, Johann Andreas Zobel, opened the first chemical laboratory in the country and the first mining exploration company specializing in iron and copper in Bulacan and Baguio. Although his father Jacobo Zobel Hinsch was born in Hamburg, he became a Spanish citizen in Manila in 1849. He married Ana Zangroniz Arrieta, daughter of a Royal Audencia judge.

The son, Jacobo Zobel Zangroniz, was a man of many talents. He was a great businessman, a numismatic, an archaeologist, a writer and polyglot. He spoke 11 languages--Arabic, Etruscan, Chaldean, French, English, German, Italian, Swedish, Russian and naturally, Spanish. His brilliance was not unnoticed. He received medals and somebody wrote his biography. He was also mentioned in the Encyclopedia Espasa-Calpe in 1863. He also published his research and essays on ancient coins in Spanish and French.

Don Jacobo befriended writer Hans Christian Andersen and often wrote to him.

When he settled in Manila, he began his philanthropic work by nurturing local talents. His house became a meeting place for tertulias, intellectual and cultural gatherings.

Because he wanted to contribute the development of the city, he worked in the departments of health, agriculture, trade and industry.

Causes for the Filipinos

Don Jacobo became the Mayor of Manila and the most respected peninsular. He championed the causes of the Filipinos. He batted for Philippine representation in the Spanish Cortes. He convinced the Spanish government to institute school system in the Philippines and was instrumental in the establishment of the Education Decree of 1863 aimed to promulgate Spanish. He also founded the first library in Spanish with materials, on agriculture and industry translated in Tagalog.

Because of his zeal and assertiveness, the Spanish authorities sometimes felt threatened and put him in jail. He was even charged as one of the suspects of the Cavite Mutiny for his German origin and his collection of imported hunting rifles. He was jailed for six months and was released with the help of the German government.

It wasn’t that Don Jacobo was not loyal to Spain. He was impatient with vacuous personalities and derided authority figures and even governor generals who did not match his intelligence.

Don Jacobo co-founded the Banco Espanol Filipino. He was also a distributor of iron that was supplied by the makers of the Eiffel Tower. From that iron business, he built the first modern bridge, the Ayala bridge, across the Pasig River. He also introduced bicycles in Manila. He also introduced the caballero or fire tree in the Philippines and had them planted in the main streets and the first tranvia or cable car.

Don Jacobo was passionate about his work. He was strong willed and resolute, he disliked the dolce far niente or lackadaisical attitude. He wanted to train the Filipinos in mechanics and he wanted them to advance their education so that they could be independent. He considered the Filipinas as astute women and the alma del hogar or the moving spirit in the family.

When Don Jacobo died of an intestinal disease at the age of 54, the Spanish ministry considered his passage a great loss.

His son Enrique was described as de tal palo, tal astilla or chip of the old block. Aside from expanding the Zobel de Ayala companies and supporting literature through the Premio Zobel, he was also a philanthropist.

Enrique studied at the Colegio de San Juan de Letran and obtained a bachelor of arts degree at the Real Colegio de Alfonso XII in Spain. He took up advanced studies in Paris. While studying mining and engineering in Sorbonne he also studied painting under Louise Glieze. When he returned to the Philippines, he worked for the family business, Casa Ayala y Cia, which had been established by his great grandfather, Johann Andreas Zobel, in 1834.

Enrique established the first porcelain company in 1903 and later founded a glass factory. He consolidated his father’s businesses and expanded to other businesses such as pharmacy, distillery and insurance. He was a director in many firms that covered insurance, construction, sugar and banking.

He developed a plain of ricefields into the country’s most progressive business center, Makati. Aside from business, Don Enrique also supported the arts. A patron of Fernando Amorsolo, he sent the talent to school in Spain. In return for the scholarship, Amorsolo gave his son Fernando painting lessons. Fernando Zobel later on became one of the country’s finest modernists.


The Americans started the English language in schools. Slowly Hollywood movies were coming in. Don Enrique had one obsession: to preserve the links between the Philippines and Spain through language and culture. He helped establish the National Museum and donated Spanish books to the University of the Philippines library.

He financed a school in Quiapo that offered Spanish language. He also completed the construction of the Metropolitan Theater, which was the home of operas and zarzuelas.

Don Enrique approved of Don Vicente Singson’s petition to establish a school in Ilocos that aimed to promote Spanish language and culture. When hero Diego Silang’s monument was erected, his inscription was dedicated in Spanish.

In 1920, the establishment of the Premio Zobel became the culmination of Don Enrique’s dream to promote Spanish language in the country.

"The illustrados such as Jose Rizal and famous poets such as Balmori, Bernabe and Zaragoza wrote in Spanish. If you read the words in another translation, even though it’s a good one, you lose the cadencia. My grandfather dreaded the fact that scholars wouldn’t read the original version. That’s why he founded the Premio," explains Georgina.

Don Enrique wrote columns and editorials in the business paper El Mercantil. Because of his insightful essays, he was given the Isabel la Catolica del Merito Civil.

In 1901, at the age of 24, Enrique married his cousin, Consuelo Roxas de Ayala. The marriage produced three children-Jacobo, Alfonso and Mercedes. Consuelo died of cholera in an epidemic.

At 33, the widower Fermina Montojo de Torrontegui, the niece of the Spanish admiral who lost the Philippines to the Americans. The union produced Matilde, Consuelo, Gloria and Fernando. Fermina was loved even by her stepchildren who considered her as their mother.

Mercedes married Col. Joseph McMicking, the chief intelligence officer of Gen. Douglas McArthur. McMicking developed Makati into the most affluent city in the country. Jacobo was a colonel and a hero in the Bataan Death March. He was the father of business leader Enrique Zobel (Enzo). Alfonso, a businessman, was the father of Jaime Zobel de Ayala, chair of the Ayala Corp.

Matilde died of cancer. Consuelo married Gen. James Alger, the youngest four-star general in the Pentagon and son of philanthropist Horatio. She established a foundation that supports indigent Filipinos in Hawaii. Painter Fernando Zobel established the Museum of Abstract Art in Spain. Georgina’s mother Gloria married Ricardo Padilla who was born in San Sebastian, Spain and was a director in Tabacalera.


Every year Georgina and Ricardo return from Spain to organize this event. This year was made more special with the book launch. Already there have been requests for an English translation.

To qualify for the awards, the candidate must be fluent in Spanish and the material must be set in the Philippines. The works are judged by members of the Academia Filipina, an organization that promotes Spanish in the country. The awarding ceremonies were originally held at the Casino Español and were later moved to the Ayala-owned Hotel Intercontinental. The criteria have widened it scope. One need not produce a body of literature in Spanish. The Premio also acknowledges Filipinos who have championed the Spanish language such as Blas Ople.

"Anybody can be a candidate. The requisite is that one should be a Filipino," Georgina says.

Guillermo Gomez of the Academia Filipina, the body that judges the literary works, and longtime master of ceremonies of the Premio Zobel, says the book gives a bird’s eye view of Spanish literature and language in the Philippines. "It contains materials that other books don’t offer," he says. He adds that the book gives the most objective explanation of the secularization of parishes and the Zobel’s involvement in the intellectual revolution.


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