The Philippines faces their Spanish heritage, and for some it is paying off

There is an old saying about the Philippines that says they spent over 300 years in a Spanish convent and 50 years in Hollywood to get to where they are today.

From the late 1500s until 1898, Spain controlled the archipelago, instituting a fierce Catholicism and Hispanic culture in the Southeast Asian nation.

But Marlon James Sales, a Philippines-born translator and linguist at the University of Michigan, told the ABC that much of the country’s Spanish influence is often overlooked.


“Even the idea that the Philippines is one state is a Spanish invention.”

This is mainly due to the further development of the English language domination across the islands as a lingua franca throughout the 20th century.

After the Philippines, as well as Cuba, Guam, and Puerto Rico fell under United States rule following the United States’ victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898, English was established as the language education throughout the Greater American Empire.

The Cervantes Institute – the Spanish linguistic and cultural agency – estimated that at the start of the 20th century, around 60% of Filipinos spoke Spanish as a second language.

But in 1987, Spanish in the Philippines was removed from the list of co-official languages, along with English and Filipino.

Currently, only about 0.5% of the Philippines’ 100 million people speak Spanish; however, it is still home to the largest number of Spanish speakers in Asia.

Linguistically, however, the roots of Spanish have not entirely left the Philippines, as a third of the Filipino language is derived from Spanish words, constituting some 4,000 “loanwords”.

This heritage is evident from the start, like “hello” (kumusta) is derived from the Spanish “how are you?” “(Como está).

Today, as the status of Spanish in the country recovers from its American defeat in the 19th century, the 21st century points to a new role for a language traditionally associated with colonial subjugation.

The bilingual economic imperative

The Philippines has overtaken India as the world’s largest source of call center workers.(Flickr: International Labor Organization)

Over the past decade, the Philippines has emerged as the global call center hub, with over 1.2 million employees generating around 9% of the country’s GDP.


The minimum daily wage in the Philippines is 537 pesos ($ 15.33) – about 16,500 pesos per month ($ 470.90).

The Guardian reported that the average salary of call center workers fluctuates between 13,000 and 15,000 pesos per month.

This has seen Australian companies such as Telstra, Optus and Jetstar outsource their helplines – also known as business process outsourcing (BPO) – to the Philippines.

In recent years, BPO has been used by global technology companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, who have hired Filipino entrepreneurs to moderate the content posted on these platforms.

Being bilingual in Spanish and English also presents great economic opportunities.

“I once heard a colleague brag about his friend – who is a Spanish-speaking accountant – that his salary was three to four times higher. [greater than] what we earn, ”said Cede Bersabe, an accountant based in the Philippines.

“I looked for job opportunities for Spanish speaking accountants and [did] indeed see many job postings with salaries similar to what my colleague said. It was a turning point. ”

Mr Bersabe told the ABC that since learning Spanish, BPO companies have contacted him “all year round” for a possible job.

Currently, he works for Australian mining company Orica, which had quadrupled his salary compared to a previous job at Canadian multinational Manulife.

Stories, ancestry and restoration of imperial prestige

Looking towards a corner neoclassical building at dusk, which has two statues of women on either side of its wrought iron gate.
The Cervantes Institute has seen significant growth in the number of Spanish language students in the Philippines.(Wikimedia Commons: Amat Orta)

While contemporary efforts to revitalize the teaching of Spanish in the Philippines might offer Madrid a chance to reestablish its relationship with its former colony, it also presents a chance to reframe its post-imperial heritage, according to María del Rocío Ortuño Casanova. , postdoctoral researcher on cultural and literary relations in the Philippines and Spain at the University of Antwerp.

Spain had never achieved a post-imperial bloc like the British Commonwealth or La Francophonie (a similar French equivalent), despite attempts to do so in the early 20th century, which spoke of a pan-Hispanic identity connecting America. Latin, Spain and the Philippines – known as La Hispanidad,

Dr Casanova noted that there had been “attempts to create post-colonial contact with Spanish speaking countries like La Francophonie or the Commonwealth”, which involved creating a community under the cultural and economic leadership of Spain. .

Former Philippine President Benigno S Aquino III with Mariano Rajoy, Prime Minister of Spain
Spain sought to reinvigorate cultural and economic ties with its former colony.(Flickr: Malacañang Photo Office)

She also cited the Real Instituto Elcano, a Spanish association which, in the early 2000s, published articles proposing that Spain act as an economic “gateway” between Latin America and Asia.

For Dr Casanova, Madrid’s recognition of the Philippines in the Spanish-speaking world was a relatively new step. phenomenon, given the increased business opportunities with one of Southeast Asia’s fastest growing economies.

A scanned image from a physical photo album shows a black and white image of a school class that is then framed in red.
The Philippines has often been overlooked in the histories of the Hispanic world.(Provided: National Library of Spain)

This perceived invisibility of the Philippines in the Hispanic world has had significant impacts on the self-perception of Filipinos.

While a significant number of Filipinos have Spanish surnames as a result of an 1849 decree that Hispanized Filipino surnames, there is a good chance that most people have little or no connection. with Spanish ancestry.


This notion was also identified by Dr Casanova, who said that Spanish had “classic” value despite Spain’s turbulent history in the Philippines.

“On the one hand, if you open a shop or a restaurant with a Spanish name, it makes it look classy, ​​but on the other hand there is this perception of the Spaniards as murderers. [national hero] José Rizal, “she said.

For Dr Sales, historically negative perceptions of Spain affected the origin stories of the Philippines, which suffered from ideological translation errors.

He said one example was a 1960s translation of Dr Rizal’s book Noli Me Tángere (Latin for Touch Me Not), a famous work of Filipino fiction that described the inequalities of Spanish colonial rule at the end of the century. XIXth century.

Leon Maria Guerrero’s translation carried anti-Spanish biases that “added layers of meaning that weren’t there,” Dr Sales said.

But with greater interest in Spanish, Dr Sales said it could spark greater consideration for Hispanic-Filipino literature, which flourished in the first half of the 20th century in retaliation for American colonial rule. .

A scanned page from a 19th century album showing the calligraphy work of a young student with a portrait of a child to the left.
Sections of Philippine history are still contained in the Spanish language archives.(Provided: National Library of Spain)

Oddly enough, this process must start in Antwerp in collaboration with Filipino institutions, as Dr Casanova is leading a project to digitize early 20th century Spanish-Filipino newspapers and periodicals, which will eventually see them translated into the different languages ​​and dialects of the Philippines. . .

While the project will make the historical record accessible, it will also open a large archive of Hispanic-Filipino literature, as publication with newspapers and periodicals at the time was cheaper and more popular.

Over time, Dr Casanova hopes the project will make available a large archive of Filipino history that has been overlooked, or simply abandoned, in Philippine libraries and archives.


Edward K. Thompson