Some years ago, Zamboanga City declared itself the “Latin City” of the country amid objections from some sectors. They argued that historically, it was the seat of government of the “Moro Province” that encompassed the entire Sulu Archipelago, Basilan, the Zamboanga Peninsula and mainland Mindanao. It was therefore “Moroland,” and through no stretch of the imagination could it ever be a “Latin City.”
On this issue I did write in this column that it was the city of Zamboangueños and they had the right to label it or rename it as they wished, which they did through a city ordinance.
Having spent part of my early childhood in that place (it was not a city then, it was known officially only as Zamboanga, which included Basilan and the two provinces of the Zamboanga Peninsula), I remember very well that its population, Christians and Muslims, spoke a “lingua franca” that sounded Spanish. It was called Chabacano and described as pidgin Spanish.
But the Chabacano that was then spoken among Zamboangueños in the upper social bracket was really more Spanish than pidgin. Court trials were argued in Spanish, and many of the official documents like birth certificates and land titles were in Spanish. The songs sang during social gatherings and even during drinking sprees in tuba joints were Spanish serenatas and, best of all, the dialogue in movies shown (usually from Mexico) was in Spanish.
Also, the food served during family gatherings and celebrations was usually Iberian/Mexican: paella, lengua estofado, caldereta, morcon, callos, etc. So was the daily fare. And sarciado, endulsao, sopas, tamal or tamales, arroz caldo, leche flan, polvoron, yema, pastillas, empanaditas, and many other Spanish foods were ordinary fare. Processed fish of Mexican origin, like bacalao and salmuera (salted fish) were common, too.
And the men (including calesa drivers, vendors, etc.) were all addressed as “Ñor” (short for “señor”) and the women, of course, were “Ñora” (short for “señora”) and either term was prefixed to their names accordingly.
The wonder of it was that while Chabacano/Spanish was the lingua franca, the different ethnic tribes that made up Zamboanga’s population kept and spoke among themselves their own language: Samal Bangingi, Yakan, Bahasa Sug, Hiligaynon, Sugbuanon, Subanen, Tagalog, etc. It was, beautifully, a multiethnic, multilingual society.
And then came the predominantly Bisayan refugees of the Mindanao conflict. Before the influx, such ill-thought-out government policies and laws in the name of “nationalism” had been instituted. Both developments combined to sound the death knell for the Spanish language.
But then Spanish seems to be emerging as a “universal” language these days. This I first noticed on the bilingual labels of food and beauty items sent to me by my daughter who is working as a nurse in Los Angeles, California, where Latinos are becoming the dominant population because of California’s proximity to Mexico and other South American countries. Of course California and Texas (remember the Alamo?) were just land-grabbed from Mexico by the Europeans.
In Zamboanga, the good news is that there are now efforts to make the much-“mongrelized” Chabacano sound more like it was before. At least one Zamboangueño (of Bangingi descent), veteran journalist Felino Santos, has just published an updated Chabacano-English dictionary; a Zamboangueño Tau Sug is working on another one.
And the best news is that Maria Isabelle (Beng) Climaco has been elected mayor of Zamboanga City. A niece of the famous Cesar Climaco, several times over the mayor of the city, it is expected that Beng will turn the vision of a “Latin City” into a beautiful reality, not just a meaningless mantra. With her qualifications and her characteristic verve and enthusiasm, it will not be difficult for her to conceptualize policies and programs for Zamboanga City’s total rebirth.
If it has not done so yet, the city could arrange a “sister city” agreement with Mexico, make Spanish subjects mandatory in all academic levels, restore the original names of “Americanized” streets like those formerly known as Guardia Nacional, Calle Pilar, etc., show Mexican movies regularly, and introduce Spanish literature—like the works of Miguel de Cervantes (“Don Quixote”), Isabel
Allende (“La Casa de los Espiritus”), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (“Amor en los Tiempos de Colera”), Paolo Coelho (“El Alquemista”), the epic “El Cid,” the poetry of Pablo Neruda, and, of course, Jose Rizal (“Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo”) in their original Spanish versions, as standard and supplementary reading in the collegiate level.
During celebrations like the “Dia de Zamboanga” and the week-long “Fiesta Pilar,” the city could hold various contests—featuring Spanish songs (singing), Spanish essays (writing), Spanish/Mexican cuisine (cooking), even stage plays in the Spanish language.
My son and daughter now speak the language well enough to qualify as bilingual employees, the highest paid in the BPO industry. It is my hope that enough young Zamboangueños will study the language as seriously to attract a bilingual BPO agency into establishing at least a branch in the city.
And maybe it’s about time we brought back “Ñor” and “Ñora” to Zamboanga’s everyday life. Maybe this could turn those ill-mannered and opportunistic tricycle drivers there into civilized human beings.
Better still, why not revive the calesa and have them ply the city streets, especially within the commercial center and Fort Pilar?
And that, perdoname (pardon me), my dearest compoblanos (townmates), is how you turn a city into a “Ciudad de Latino en las Islas Filipinas.”
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