by Nicole Anne A. Zapanta

“To convey in a language that is not one’s own
the spirit that is one’s own” –Raja Rao  

       Spanish has Don Quijote de la Mancha, English has the writings of Shakespeare, German would not be German if it was not for Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible. As for Filipino, well, it has Noli Me Tangere – the title is in Latin and the content is in Spanish. Now you might ask: isn’t it ironic that the greatest Filipino novel was written in a language not spoken by many of this brown race? This short essay will try to shed light on this irony by discussing the role of Spanish in the Filipino national consciousness.

      Rizal, the bastion of Filipino national consciousness, wrote the literature that strengthened the Filipino’s quest for self-identity. Before the Noli, there was his poem A la Juventud Filipina (To the Filipino Youth, 1879) in which the term “Filipino” developed a new and uncommon meaning. It meant the Philippine-born Spanish insulares, mestizos, and of course the native indios – an all-inclusive grouping into one people, the Filipino. Rizal, though shaped to some degree by European culture, did not write primarily for the European but for his fellow Filipinos. Rizal reveals in his poem that Philippines, not Spain, is the true motherland.

Dia, dia felice,
Filipinas gentil, para tu suelo!
Al Potente bendice
Que con amante anhelo
La ventura te envía y el consuelo.

Day, oh happy day,
Philippines genteel, for your soil!
Bless the Almighty,
Who with loving desire
Sends you fortune and consolation.

(English translation by Alfred Veloso)

      The first Filipino novel is Pedro Paterno’s Ninay (1885) – a costumbrista novel in Spanish which showcased the Filipino customs during the Spanish colonial period. More than narrating the hackneyed love story of Ninay and Carlos, Paterno aimed to disprove the Spaniards’ notion that the natives of Las Islas Filipinas had no culture. The novel was to reveal to the foreigners the Filipino’s unique customs and traditions hence the many footnotes stating the meanings of the many native words weaved in the story.
      The use of the language in the Filipino nationalist discourse has always been the paradox and confusion to many Filipinos. It should be understood that the Spanish of the Filhispanic writers was not and is no longer the Spanish of Spain but of Filipino for the use and construct of a language reveals a nation’s culture since it presents a unique identity and definition of its people. Bill Aschroft in the book The Empire Writes Back explains that “language becomes a tool with which a world can be textually constructed” (Aschroft 44).

      The sad reality in Filipino society is that Spanish is “maligned as the colonizer’s language. The discourse would then be principally expressed in English, it being another colonizer’s language conveniently forgotten” (De la Peña 14). We were and are able to embrace English, but as for Spanish, most of us pay no heed to it primarily because it has never been a language of the majority. Little do we know that our history, most especially our pre-colonial past, can be discovered in that language. Doctrina Cristiana published in 1593 proves that long before the coming of the Spaniards in 1521, Filipinos had their own language and system of writings , others like Rizal’s annotation of Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas (1890) and the Exposicion de Filipinas: Collecion de Articulos Publicados en El Globo Diario Ilustrado Politico, Cientifico y Literario (1887), accounts that reveal to the West the Philippine Island’s uniquely diverse culture – from language to food to weaponry to customs etc. many more are still waiting to be discovered about our lost past and we are missing out on something because of our inability to read and comprehend Spanish. The National Archives of the Philippines alone keeps 30 million documents in Spanish – most of them untranslated. Rizal’s “Mi Ultimo Adios”, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, were all orginally written in Spanish. The Philippine national anthem’s lyrics are the verses of Jose Palma’s Spanish poem Filipinas (1899). The first constitution of the Philippines was written in Spanish – Constitucion Politica (La Constitucion de Malolos). The battles against the invaders and the oppressors during the colonial Philippines were not only marked by the revolts but were also manifested in the writings of the Filipinos in Spanish – the writings of the propagandists like Marcelo H. Del Pilar, e.g. his La Soberania Monacal en Filipinas which exposed the friar’s control over the archipelago. As for the American occupation, the most famous literary protest was the generally unstudied Filipino poetry in Spanish. Prolific writers like, Fernando Ma. Guerrero, Claro M. Recto and Cecilio Apostol fought for the preservation of the Filhispanic culture, exalted what is Filipino, and most of all condemned the American influence for this new colonial power would rob them of their desired liberty. Nora T. Jolipa in her paper Lost Paradise: American Colonialism and the Filipino Writer in Spanish explains,

      As regards the cultural aspect of American rule, these writers’s reaction is no less strong, in “Tue res la Gloria” (1906), Guerrero refers to the Americanization of the youth as the “prostitution” of the soul of the race (“ese exostismo/que prostituye el alma de la raza”)…Recto points out “we have strewn our native soil with American manure” (“hemos preparado con guano de norteamericano el suleo de nuestra patria”), thus making it impossible for the spirit to grow and flower (Jolipa 26-27).

      This anti-American literature of the Filhispanic writers was rooted in the narrative that “[it] campaigned for the use of Spanish as the official language of the Philippines, not because it wanted to perpetuate a sad past…but because it did not approve of the implantation of American sovereignty in the islands” (Jesus Z. Valenzuela cited in De la Peña 12).

      Whether we accept it or not, Spanish is a crucial part of the Filipino identity. Arsenio Luz explains “it is in this language that we commune with Rizal and our greatest heroes; because in this language the glorious pages of our history are written; because in this language we expressed in the past and we express in the present our longings and our ideals; because in its vibrant syllables we utter our indignation and our protest against any menace to the self-assertion of the Filipino soul” (Luz cited in De la Peña 13). Spanish is not the enemy, it’s the absence of a common language thus “ESPAÑOL BAHAGI NG ATING KULTURA” is not just a tagline but a fact.


Ashcroft, Bill et al. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

De la Peña, Wystan. The Spanish-English Language “War”. Linguae et Litterae, IV-V: 6-28. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Diliman, 2000.

Jolipa, Nora T. Lost Paradise: American Colonialism and the Filipino Writer in Spanish. Nationalist Literature A Centennial Forum. Elmer A. Ordoñez, ed. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1996.

Veloso, Alfredo S. Anguish, Fulness, Nirvana: A Collection of famous poems in Spanish written by Filipino writers and corresponding translations in English. Quezon City: Asvel Publishing Co., 1960.