THE SPANISH-SPEAKING OLD CHINESE
Pío Andrade, Jr.
Don José Juico, one of the early mayors of Pórac, Pampanga early this century, was pure Chinese. But he was very fluent in Spanish, the only language he spoke at home. This prompted her granddaughter, Sylvia Ordóñez, to ask me why her dear Chinese lolo spoke only Spanish. I told Sylvia that during her grandfather’s time, Spanish was the language of the aristocracy in the Philippines. As her grandfather belonged to the aristocracy by virtue of wealth and government position, he spoke Spanish. Sylvia was satisfied with my explanation. My historical readings and oral history interviews showed that I was incorrect.
One of my best sources of oral history on life in prewar Manila is Lita de los Reyes, Governor Margarita “Tingting” Cojuangco’s mother.
Over lunch one day, Lita related that before the war, when she was a little girl, her father used to bring her to Chinatown every Friday to buy caramelo for dessert. There she would see Chinese workers still wearing queues –which meant they were not long established in Manila– talking and transacting business in Spanish.
“But they were speaking Spanish of the hele-hele bago quiere type, weren’t they?” I asked.
“No. No. Pío, they spoke excellent Spanish,” Lita replied.
She was very emphatic. She knew; she speaks Spanish herself.
Then I remembered the first time I dined in a restaurant in Chinatown in 1969. I was startled when I read the menu. It was not in English but in impeccable Spanish.
A month later, I related the above conversation to Dr. Luciano Santiago, a well-known psychiatrist who dabbles in history. Dr. Santiago told me that old Binondo Chinese still speak Spanish at home. He mentioned the Yutivos, the Palancas, and the Teehankees.
In Silang, Cavite, I was introduced to a Binondo Chinese whose parents and the eldest child speak Spanish at home.
Last year in Ateneo, I met a former chemistry student at the College of the Holy Spirit where I taught in the 70s. As I know that she resides in Binondo, I asked her if her grandfather speaks Spanish and she answered yes. That did not surprise me. What surprised me was when she revealed that her grandfather migrated to the Philippines only in the 20s.
I am writing the history of Paracale, my hometown. In my research, I interviewed many old Paracale folks about the past. A lady in her 80s told me that her father, a poor barrio lieutenant, conversed in Spanish with a Chinese friend who tended the store of a wealthy Chinese merchant.
My conclusion: many Chinese, rich and poor, during the first two decades of the American period and even before that, spoke Spanish because it was the language of commerce and government during those times. Spanish was then more widely spoken than Filipinos realized.
(Originally published in Tulay, Vol. IX No. 4