I am very honored and happy to teach this strange thing called “Philippine Literature in Spanish” at the University of Santo Tomas. It is also my main area of research, but not the only one; The fields of the humanities are deeply interconnected and driven by simple curiosity, it is easy to move from colonial studies or Latin American literature to ethnography or literary history. But that’s what I teach and what I’m more inclined to research right now. During the colonial period, we saw the introduction of western ways of interpreting texts, mainly – but not only – by Spaniards. The representations of Filipinos in colonial texts interest me a lot.
From the second half of the 19th century, we witness the emergence of a constellation of Filipino authors. Rizal is the brightest star but, as I have already pointed out in this column, not the only one. Pedro Paterno, Gregorio Sanciangco, Isabelo de los Reyes and Pardo de Tavera were also notable. Few know that the most flourishing moment in literary production in Spanish did not occur during the Spanish period, but during American colonial rule. Filipino intellectuals and patriots have totally rejected the American tutelage of Philippine politics and economics. Spanish-language newspapers were, at least until the 1930s, the majority and the most important, and every day, every day Filipino writers, politicians and journalists demanded the right to self-government. The loss of the Spanish language in the Philippines made the Filipinos forget that, even if they did not use a revolutionary means to free themselves from the United States, the demands for independence were then as strong as at the end of the XIXth century. These Filipino newspapers, which unfortunately very few people can read now, are living proof that patriotism and the desire for independence did not abate during the American era.
The Spanish language was then understood as a tool of cultural and political resistance. Cultural Americanization was completely rejected, as we saw in my article last week on Rafael Corpus’s travel diary, because it went against traditional Filipino values and also because she was too pragmatic, too money-oriented.
During this period, the Philippines produced excellent novelists like Antonio Abad, exceptional storytellers like Jesús Balmori or Enrique Laygo, great writers like María Paz Zamora Mascuñana, renowned poets like Fernando María Guerrero or Cecilio Apóstol, remarkable essayists like Teodoro M. Kalaw and Ricardo Palma, and even honest playwrights like Claro Mayo Recto.
At some point in my class, a student often asks the same question.
Raised: But, professor, how good was the Spanish of these Filipino writers?
Raised: (Expressing one of the many surprised faces in the class) How perfect is that?
Professor: When I say “perfect” I mean absolutely perfect. So perfect that from today, if I show their writings to readers in Spain, Mexico or Argentina, no one will identify these authors as Filipinos until I inform them. They had a perfect command of the language. Unless you see references to Filipino surnames, Filipino geographic terms, or Filipino things like sampaguita, no one can tell the difference.
In addition, they used the Spanish language in a very colorful way, playing with convoluted sentences, two-way terms and a very refined use of irony.
There are many reasons to learn Spanish: to double your salary in a call center, to work in an international organization, to move to the United States and get a high-level job, or to travel to Spain and Latin America. . But if you really love literature, a very good reason to learn Spanish would be to appreciate these Filipino authors in their native language. People forget that these were Filipino authors, who wrote primarily for a Filipino readership. They did not know what would be the fate of the Spanish in the Philippines. And one of the saddest things is that today they’re actually more popular overseas than in the Philippines.
Since the eradication of Filipino Spanish is almost complete, and the idea of restoring Spanish in the curriculum as a compulsory language is unrealistic, the only solution is to get translations, as much as possible, so that future generations can access these texts: create a collection of books aimed at recovering this precious literary heritage of the Philippines. It will certainly not be the most profitable business commercially, but it will be a good cause for the preservation of an essential part of Filipino culture.