Spain and our forgotten heritage
In his final masterpiece, “Mi Ultimo Adiós,” Jose Rizal described his beloved country as “Perla del Mar de Oriente, nuestro perdido Edén,” the “Pearl of the Orient seas” and a “lost Paradise.”
The haunting poem is a wrenching love letter, an elegy drenched in melancholy-sweet reminiscence and indomitable patriotic fervor.
It’s often a struggle to read through his poem without heartfelt sympathy and soulful admiration for Rizal. When read especially in Spanish, one can’t resist tearful lamentations while confronting the absolute sincerity carved into each and every word—and the gaps in between.
Rizal reminisces, with joyful defiance, about the “fragrance, light, rainbow, murmur, song, groaning,” which “constantly repeat the essence of my faith.” Gripped by “grief of my griefs,” the young revolutionary calls on his “beloved Philippines” to “hear now my last farewell” ahead of his imminent execution.
Beyond Rizal’s martyrdom, what makes the poem thoroughly tragic, however, is its virtual inaccessibility to a contemporary Filipino. Today’s Filipinos, including the intelligentsia, hardly speak the language of their revolutionary forefathers. Instead, we speak the lingua franca of the very empire that betrayed our independence movement after falsely presenting itself as an honest ally against a crumbling Spanish imperium.
Thus, we have been haplessly cut off from the rich and brave logos that animated the lives of the first Filipinos, the very men and women who once imagined a free and independent Philippines.
This linguistic gap may be at the heart of our lingering sense of collective loss. Yet, Spain is etched into the fabric of our very identities and memories.
I remember my late grandfather who casually spoke in Spanish, often telling me how I reminded him of his mestizo ancestors. Or my dad’s fond stories about my maternal great-grandmother, ever-gentle and pious, with her green eyes and pale skin, who could have easily passed as my father’s aunt.
I often quip during my overseas lectures that I feel more at home in Mexico than Malaysia, often being mistaken as Latin American whenever in the West.
Perhaps the Philippines, a Catholic-majority nation surrounded by Muslim and Buddhist societies, is perched on the wrong continent, hopelessly separated from its Latin American cousins.
This is not to romanticize the past. The Spanish empire was, as any colonial endeavor, filled with long stretches of barbaric oppression and mindless prejudice. Yet, Spain was also responsible for the Philippines’ rich history of educational institutions and ahead-of-the-curve modernization in the region.
By the end of the 20th century, Filipinos enjoyed one of the highest literacy rates in Asia, while boasting among the best and oldest modern universities in the non-Western world.
At various intervals, when Spain was temporarily ruled by more liberal elements, we inherited modern values of freedom, individual autonomy and reason. As Nick Joaquin notes, Spanish liberals and the creoles (Philippine-born Spanish) “imported to the [Philippine] islands the ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.”
One can think of Luis Rodríguez Varela, the “Conde Filipino,” or the liberal Governor-General Carlos María de la Torre, who gave us our first taste of modern freedom.
How I wish we could have read Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s and Mario Vargas Llosa’s ecstatic novels and eerily familiar elegiac lamentations on Latin America in their original Spanish. After all, as historians such as Benedict Anderson had observed, our independence movement was, in many ways, a continuation of the Bolivarian, postcolonial revolts in the New World.
Alas, in mainstream imagination, our Spanish history is often treated with both willful ignorance and, especially among progressives, involuntary derision. In our collective imagination, Spain evokes a long gone past, a fading memory well beyond our reach. Most of us bear Hispanic names (my middle name is “Foronda”), yet we have been alienated from its civilizational roots.
Intramuros, for instance, should be treated as an organic core of Manila, rather than an open museum. The Spanish tongue should have perhaps remained part of our rich tapestry of national “languages,” just as Singapore and Switzerland embrace their beautifully diverse heritage with casual efficiency.
To understand Spanish is to understand a lost part of us. To truly appreciate our Hispanic heritage is a bridge to reintegrating our collective roots and identity.
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