Si no sabe mira donde a vine
No di yega donde quiere inda.
—Ternateño Chabacano Proverb—
When you say that the whole province of Cavite is purely a Tagalog-speaking region, think again.
To the northeast of the province, there’s Ciudad de Cavite with its senior citizens speaking Cavitén. And at the southwesternmost tip of Cavite province lies this quaint fishing town called Ternate. But this is no ordinary town; like Ciudad de Cavite up north, this town is frequented by linguists, polyglots, and Hispanists because of the townsfolk language: Chabacano.
But the Chabacano spoken in Ternate is different from its Cavitén counterpart. According to Dr. Evangelino Nigoza, the town’s historian and foremost defender of the language, Ternateños call their native tongue as “Bahra”. The linguistic structure of Bahra is “another world” of its own. And in my opinion, it is rather more difficult for a Spanish-speaker to understand because Bahra is somehow influenced by the Portuguese language aside from the fact that Ternateños tend to speak it so fast.
But why Portuguese?
It is because Ternateños are actually the descendants of Malays from Ternate Island in the Moluccas archipelago. These islands were formally possessions of Portugal. The first Ternateños were brought to the Philippines by the Spaniards in 1663. These Malay recruits were called Mardicas (“men of the sea”).
There were two reasons why the Mardicas chose to leave Ternate Island: the island was highly volcanic, and; to help defend Manila from Chinese pirate Koxinga. Fortunately for Governor-General Sabiniano Manrique de Lara (who ruled the Philippines during those panic-stricken times), Koxinga fell ill and died. But the Mardicas never returned to their native land due to the place’s severe volcanic activity. Instead, they were given a spot in Bagumbayan (now Rizal Park) in Ermita, Manila.
It is perhaps during their brief stay in Bagumbayan that their language was further developed, for the people surrounding their little barrio, the Ermiteños, spoke Chavacano Ermiteño, Spanish, and Tagalog. However, frequent squabbles with the Ermiteños forced the Spanish authorities to move the Mardicas people to another place. Bahra de Maragondón (now Maragondón) in Cavite was chosen for them since the place was frequently attacked by Moro pirates. Anyway, it was agreed earlier that they were to help fight Koxinga in Manila. But since that never materialized, it was decided that their military services should still be used, but somewhere else.
In Bahra de Maragondón, the Mardicas settled at the mouth of the Maragondón River. But it was a swampy area filled with mangrove trees. These were cleared through the years, prompting them to till the soil. So aside from fishing, the early Mardicas were also farmers. They also intermarried with the natives of neighboring villages. They also built a watchtower which they called Mira — maybe that’s how they call a watchtower because in Spanish, the word mira is the present indicative (third person) or present imperative (second person) of the verb mirar meaning “to watch”.
In due time, the spot which they cleared away mangove trees became the foundation of present-day Ternate. Also, they renamed their new home: from Bahra de Maragondón to Ternate, in memory of their former home in the faraway archipelago of Moluccas.
During the Spanish times, Ternate was just a barrio (equivalent to today’s barangáy) of Maragondón. But years went by, it became a separate town altogether. In 1904, however, during the American occupation, Ternate was attached to the town of Náic. It became a separate town again in 1914.
It is said that Ternate survived various turmoils in the history of Cavite: the Tagalog rebellion of the Katipuneros as well as the invasion of both Yankee and Jap. But it barely survived the American retaking of the Philippines, and that was during the closing days of World War II. Only seven homes survived. That is why when me, my wife, and our daughter Krystal visited Ternate last 21 August, we hardly saw ancestral homes. I think we saw only one.😦
Oh, those evil US WASPs…
Below are the original seven Mardicas families who transferred from Ternate Island, Moluccas, Indonesia to the Philippines:
1.) De la Cruz
2.) De León
Their descendants still live today. And surprisingly, they all know the history of their ancestors!
Flashback: on 1 February 2008, I attended the book launching of Dr. Evangelino Nigoza’s bilingual book BAHRA: Manga Historia, Alamat, Custumbre y Tradiciong Di Bahra (The History, Legends, Customs and Traditions of Ternate, Cavite) at the Instituto Cervantes de Manila. Dr. Nigoza is a member of the Cavite Historical Society and is the president of Cavite West Point College (also in Ternate).
During the program, there was a conversation in Chabacano featuring the three major variations of this Philippine Creole tongue: Dr. Nigoza represented Bahra; Dr. Enrique Escalante represented Cavitén, and; Mr. Ben Saavedra represented Chavacano Zamboangueño. The conversation was not only educational — it was also filled with humor due to some miscommunication among the three. And it was more hilarious for the Spanish-speakers who were in attendance, listening to the conversation and eager to grab a copy of Dr. Nigoza’s book.
After the program, I got myself a copy of his book, and got a chance to talk to him briefly. Unfortunately, he could not sign autographs because he could no longer write — his writing hand was paralyzed by a stroke.
But I got to see him again years later. This time with Yeyette and Krystal in tow. And there at his home (very near the town church) we discussed in length his book, the state of Bahra in Cavite, as well as future plans for the conservation of this Philippine Creole Language.
Dr. Nigoza revealed to me that he is preparing a second part for his book BAHRA. That would be his second book on the subject. Also, he is working closely with the local government and schools on how to propagate Bahra. When asked about the state of Bahra in Ternate, he told me that it’s in the “50/50” level. I could hardly believe it because me and my family were on the road the whole afternoon. We found so many Ternateños speaking Bahra. They were everywhere, especially in the Población and Barrio San José. We heard kids playing using Bahra. Street vendors and fishermen were talking to each other in Bahra. Compared to Ciudad de Cavite, Ternate has a higher chance of preserving its language.
But at the back of my mind, maybe I have to believe Dr. Nigoza. He’s been living in Ternate all his life; I just stayed there for a couple of hours. Dr. Nigoza’s efforts should be lauded, applauded, and supported. Like the late Nyora Puring Ballesteros of Cavitén, Dr. Nigoza stands as the lone Don Quijote of Ternate.
I pray that all Ternateños, especially the descendants of the seven original Mardicas families from the Moluccas, will all become Dr. Nigoza’s Sancho Panza when it comes to preserving and promoting Bahra.
¡Platica na Bahra!
Click here for more of our Ternate photos (and videos)!