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Our Latin American connection

12:06 AM December 13, 2016

León, Nicaragua—Here in Central America, my Philippine passport raises eyebrows whenever I cross borders. While traveling overland from Panama to Costa Rica, for instance, I was invited by the Costa Rican immigration officer to his office so he could ask me some questions. In my broken Spanish, I tried to explain that I, a doctor from the Philippines, wanted to travel and learn about this part of the world.

Border encounters can turn into nightmares, but from the look on his face as he pored over my travel documents, I knew that the officer won’t give me a hard time. As he stamped my passport, he declared: “Mayweather fights like a coward. Pacquiao should have won!”

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I like the fact that the boxer Manny Pacquiao is well known in Latin America, the land of many of his storied opponents: Juan Manuel Marquez, Erik Morales and Antonio Margarito hail from Mexico, and Miguel Cotto from Puerto Rico. But it’s a shame that most of the people I’ve met here don’t know much else about the Philippines. We were, after all, part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, governed from Mexico City for over 250 years, after which the Philippines became a province of Spain itself.

You don’t have to know this history to get that vague sense of being at home. As in the Philippine towns, each poblacion features, at its centro, the church and the town hall. Words like basura and parada de bus may confuse the many Westerners who come here in search of adventure, but the Filipino traveler can get by in the cities and towns with the Spanish (we often don’t realize) we actually know.

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The similarities are particularly stark in Central America, where even the climate is similar—and the familiar tropical landscape of coconut trees, banana plantations, and rainforests is marked by active volcanoes, some approaching the majesty of our Mayon. Not surprisingly, the food, too, is similar: Rice and bananas, which originated from Asia, are now local staples here, just as yuca (kamote), which actually originated here, is common in the Philippines.

I can go on and mention the various chicharron I have sampled from Bolivia to Guatemala, but underneath these common features is a shared history of struggle, first against the Spanish empire, then against American interventionism and imperialism, and finally, the ongoing challenge of coming to terms with the “unequal connectedness” of global capitalism.

Aside from introducing the Catholic faith, the Spanish displaced the local populations and created a new social and economic hierarchy in which, as in the Philippines, it is the mestizos that are economically and socially well-off, while the indigenous peoples continue to struggle. The United States replaced Spain as the overlord of the region in the late 19th century, and if not outright imperialism (i.e., Cuba and Puerto Rico), they engaged in interventions that saw, among many others, Panama seceding from Colombia and Colombian workers working for a US banana company being massacred (an event immortalized in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Hundred Years of Solitude”).

Today, the people I meet have mostly forgiven Spain and, to a lesser degree, America; they acknowledge that realistically, their economies are heavily dependent on the United States, which plays host to their respective diasporas. And like us Filipinos, they are warm-hearted and cheerful; their resilience is fortified by strong family ties. But when I see the logos of telcos (i.e., Tigo) and sodas (i.e., Pepsi and Coca-Cola) dominating the streets—even as many people live on less than a dollar a day—I cannot help but reflect on the enduring inequities, both here and at home, that make clear that the struggles of Simon Bolivar and Jose Rizal remain unfinished.

I hope we find a way to rediscover our Latin American connection. This part of the world is beautiful, and the music, like the people, is upbeat and hopeful. We may not need each other’s rice and bananas, but we can trade something more valuable: friendship and solidarity borne out of our shared past, conflicted present, and hopefully, a closer future.

Gideon Lasco (www.gideonlasco.com) is a medical doctor and anthropologist.

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TAGS: Commentary, Heritage, Latin America, opinion, South America, Spanish
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