Roba cualta na cajón.
—Chabacano Caviteño Proverb—
In just a few months, it will be November. Aside from All Saints’ Day, November reminds me of that brief but wonderful trip that I made to the historic City of Cavite in the province of the same name nearly four years ago.
I was then a call-center guy. Me and two of my officemates, Khalil and Jordan, were invited by our Caviteña officemate, Marian. Her father’s a Spanish-speaking gentleman from Pampanga while her mom is a native of Cavite City.
We went to Cavite using Khalil’s convertible van. And since it was my first time to ride one, I spent most of the trip with my face against the wind!
Now entering Cavite City!
Like many places in the Philippines, Cavite City has a very interesting history to tell. It is, in fact, replete with history because many scholars and nationalists point to it as the birthplace of Philippine Nationalism: the infamous Cavite Mutiny (20 January 1872) happened at Fuerte de San Felipe leading to a series of events which culminated in the execution of Rizal and the Katipunan revolt years later.
Cavite City is the original Cavite, i.e., the whole province of Cavite was named after it back in the days when it was not even a city yet. The name Cavite is said to be a Spanish corruption of the Tagalog word cauit which means “hook” because the place is actually a hook-shaped peninsula. In old Tagalog, this kind of land formation is called tangwáy. As a matter of fact, the place was known as Tangwáy (in a letter to Emilio Jacinto, Andrés Bonifacio twice referred to the town as Tanwáy, another spelling for Tangwáy). But the change of name from Tangwáy to Cauit is unknown.
But why Cavite instead of Cauit then?
The Spanish alphabet, then as now, rarely uses the letter “W”. So instead of “Cawit”, the name of the town was spelled “Cauit”. However, since Spanish is a daughter of Latin, the letter V was used (“U” was a variant of “V”). The last letter, “E”, is a contraction of “eh“, a common but meaningless inflection in Southern Tagalog dialects (you’ll usually hear “ala eh” at the end of each sentence among Batangueños). Through the years, with the evolution of language and orthography, Filipinos gradually pronounced Cauit as Cavite (the letters V and B are both pronounced the same in Spanish: /biː/).
Ridiculously, however, due to the “Pilipinization” of many Tagalog words that began in the 1970s (Rizal’s obnoxious Nueva Ortografía del Lenguaje Tagalog was the inspiration, but I will expound on that in a future blogpost), many Filipinos began misspelling the names of places and even people. In the process, they started spelling Cavite as Kabite; Bulacán as Bulakán; Cauit as Kawit; Calivo as Kalibo; Cabugao as Kabugao; Caloocan as Kalookan. Puro na lang kalokohan. Thankfully, though, the spelling “Cavite” still persists despite the widespread orthographic nonsense.
Back row (from left to right): Marian, me, and Khalil. Front row: Samantha (Marian's daughter) and her cousins Julienne and Jasmine. The squatter-infested belfry ruins of Santa Mónica Church is right behind us.
Cavite City’s territorial history may confuse many, especially when the nearby municipality of Cauit/Kawit is mentioned. For a time during the Spanish regime, when Cavite was then a huge town and not yet a city, it comprised the municipalities of Cauit, Tierra Alta (now Noveleta), and Imus. The territory which we now call Cavite City was then known as Cavite La Punta since it was a point or tip of land jutting out towards Manila Bay. Actually, two elongated land masses of this small peninsula extend towards the bay and is connected by a narrow isthmus to mainland Luzón: to the northwest is San Antonio and Punta Sangley (Sangley Point). Jutting towards the northeast is the part where the district of San Roque (and the Philippine Naval Base/Fort San Felipe) is located. Cañacáo Bay is sheltered between the land masses of both San Antonio-Sangley Point, San Roque, and the aforementioned isthmus where the districts of Caridad, Santa Cruz, and Dalahican are located.
Cavite La Punta was also called Cavite El Puerto because of Fort San Felipe where the shipyard and arsenal for the Spanish navy were situated.
The ruins of Santa Mónica Church, destroyed during the last war. Only the bell tower remains. Locals call it samburio. Squatter families now live in and around it.
Legend has it that whosoever climbs this tower, somebody below will die. That is why me and my friends were not permitted to climb it.
The main industry of Caviteños from the abovementioned districts was fishing. But others did some small-scale farming as well as backyard poultry and hog raising. During the Spanish times, these districts were once barrios or towns. In 1614, Barrio San Roque was founded. Next were the barrios of Caridad and San Antonio. Sangley Point was already in existence since the 10th century, not really as a town but as a trading point between pre-Filipinos and Chinese merchants (the Tagalog word “sanglâ” meaning “to pawn” comes from the Cantonese word “sang-lei”, later Hispanized as Sangley, thus clearly showing here not only the origin of the name of Punta Sangley but also indicating the mercantilist attitude of the first Chinese in our archipelago) . There used to be a hospital in Sangley Point back in the 1870s built for sick and wounded soldiers. It became a naval station right after the Battle of Manila Bay (which just happened nearby). A few years later, in 1901, all the barrios in this hook-shaped peninsula were merged to form the Municipality of Cavite. It also became Cavite province’s capitolio (today, the capital is Trece Mártires). On 26 May 1940, Cavite became a chartered city.
And immediately right after the war, Cavite’s once pristine image gradually faded away due in part to rapid urbanization and poor city planning. Squatter families such as Badjáo tribesmen from Mindanáo migrated to create shanty communities. And the waters started to decay due to pollution.
And side from Santa Mónica Church, there was another casualty: the Chabacano language.
Khalil and Jordan in front of the Biblioteca y Museo del Ciudad de Cavite.
Chabacano is a Spanish-based creole language. There are five variants (or dialects?) of this hybrid Philippine tongue: Caviteño (Ciudad de Cavite), Cotabateño (spoken in parts of Ciudad de Cotabato, Maguindanáo), Davaoeño (spoken in parts of Daváo), Ternateño (Ternate, Cavite), and Zamboangueño (Ciudad de Zamboanga). There was another one in Manila called Ermiteño that was spoken in the arrabal (district of Ermita) but is now extinct (but rumors still pervade that some very elderly folk along the US East Coast speak the language; also, there was a report years ago that an old grandmother and her grandson somewhere in Las Piñas still speak it).
So what is Chabacano, really? A language, dialect, or merely a pidgin? Some may call it a pidgin for the mere fact that the Spanish term chabacano (from where Chabacano was derived) means gaudy, tasteless, coarse, and even vulgar. But Emmanuel Luis Romanillos, linguist, polyglot, translator, and scholar, has this to say:
Hay quienes quieren describir el chabacano como la filipinización lingüística del castellano. El chabacano de Mindanáo es el idioma español bisayizado, el caviteño la tagalización del castellano. Pero más correcto llamarlos como dialectos españolizados. Fue vehículo de comunicación y diálogo de unas comunidades que intentaban deshacer los obstáculos lingüísticos que les separaban los gobernantes españoles.
My translation: Some want to describe Chabacano as the linguistic Filipinizatión of Spanish: the Chabacano of Mindanáo is “Visayanized” Spanish while Caviteño is “Tagalized” Spanish. But it is more correct to call these as “Hispanized” dialects. It was a vehicle for communication and dialogue between communities that tried to break the language barriers which separated them from their Spanish rulers.
I agree with him. Using Spanish, I have spoken to many Chabacanos already: Zamboangueños, Caviteños (Marian’s family members and neighbors), and Ternateños. Although with some difficulty, we somehow understood each other. Indeed, Chabacano is, in the words of Romanillos (which I translate again), “basically Spanish despite the obvious differences in morphology, phonetics, syntax, and lexicon”.
But whence did Chabacano come? And how did it materialize? Nobody knows for sure. Several cultural anthropologists and linguists have theorized and postulated: Charles O. Frake, Señor Guillermo Gómez Rivera, John Holm John Lipski, Patrick Steinkrüger, Keith Whinnom, and Romanillos to name a few. Although there could never be a direct answer, there seems to be a consensus that all Chabacano dialects —with the exception of Ternateño/Bahra— originated from Ciudad de Cavite, and that it particularly started among non-Spanish-speaking indios (natives) working at the Cavite shipyard. The workers naturally had to communicate with their Spanish army superiors. In the process, this communication developed over the years into something different: not Spanish, not Tagalog, but Chabacano. And gradually, these workers also started to speak this hybrid thing in their respective households in particular and in their communities in general.
I could just imagine the humor among the Spanish army superiors laughing merrily at the coarse Spanish of the laborers in the shipyard. Perhaps it was they, the army officers, who first termed this creole tongue as “chabacano”. But eventually, these army officers who were obviously outnumbered by the natives, had to speak Chabacano as well in order to be well understood by their subjects. Nahawa na rin silá.😀
Years later, when this hybrid language was fully developed, some of its speakers, both army officers and laborers, were sent to Zamboanga to help man Fuerte del Pilar. And so these first speakers of Chabacano were immersed in a new linguistic environment: in the milieu of the Bisayà (Hiligaynón and Cebuano). Hence, Chabacano Zamboangueño was born. And gradually, this new Hispanized dialect spread to other parts of Mindanáo. The rest is history.
Iglesia de San Roque. This church (which was under renovation when I took its photo) houses the oldest known painting of the Virgin Mary in the Philippines: Nuestra Señora de la Soledad de Porta Vaga.
Ironically, Chabacano Caviteño (locals there call it “Cavitén”) is now a dying language while its offshoot, the Chabacano dialects of Mindanáo (particularly Zamboangueño) are alive and kicking. I read somewhere that only less than a thousand Caviteños speak it, and most of them are senior citizens. When I went there in 2007, Marian took all the trouble bringing me to places where there are Chabacano speakers. We even had to persuade those we found (not excluding her mom) to speak their native tongue.
The trouble is that the seniors failed to teach the new generation of Caviteños on how to speak the language. Another problem is heavy migration of non-Chabacanos from nearby towns and provinces. They are getting outnumbered yearly. There is a public school for locals (right in front of the Biblioteca y Museo del Ciudad de Cavite) who want to learn the language. And there are special masses in Chabacano held inside San Roque Church. But I am not sure if these are still under operation.
Nuestra Señora de la Soledad de Porta Vaga
Speaking of San Roque Church, this House of God is also the home of the country’s oldest known Marian painting called Nuestra Señora de la Soledad de Porta Vaga, or Our Lady of Solitude of Vaga Gate in English. At the back of this painting is an inscription in Spanish: “A doze de Abril 1692 años Juan Oliba puso esta Stma. Ymagen Haqui“. In English, it means: This most holy image was placed here by Juan Oliba on 12 April 1692.
Our Lady of Solitude of Porta Vaga was Canonically Crowned on 17 November 1978. Her feast days are held every 2nd and 3rd Sundays of November. Like many ancient Christian icons in the Philippines, this painting is believed by many devotees to be miraculous.
Nuestra Señora de la Soledad de Porta Vaga.
My souvenir poster distributed by the Cavite City Hall. It's now posted on a door in our cramped apartment unit.
For a first-hand information about Chabacano Caviteño, you may want to follow Josie Valentín del Rosario’s Habla Chabacano blog. First-hand, because she is a native speaker of this Hispanized dialect. And she tries her very best to preserve and conserve her city’s beloved language via the internet.
To conclude this blogpost, I share to you a Caviteño Chabacano song from the 1700s sung and recorded by Señor Gómez (accompanied by Roberto Buena’s rondalla) for posterity. This was recorded in the LP Nostalgia Filipina released in the 1960s and rereleased a few years ago.
Click here for more photos and videos of my 2007 journey!
¡Hasta la vista, Cavite! From left to right: Mrs. Catacutan, her daughter Marian, and me. Jordan's behind us. And why was I wearing that freaking ID?!
In memory of Purificación “Nyora Puring” Ballesteros y Nicolás (18 May 1927 — 22 December 2010), the Mother of Chabacano Caviteño.