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The Philippines and the Pacific world: Past connections, modern ties

Ferdinand Magellan discovered the Philippines in 1521. Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492.

These are the facts we learned in school.

But in more enlightened times, people have realized that looking at world history from a purely European perspective is inaccurate and even wrong. These explorers didn’t really discover these islands, or that continent. There were already tribes and ethnic groups living there before the Europeans came along.

So modern research and theses have elected to rephrase these historical events. Instead of “discovering” these places, these persons are now lauded for being the first Europeans to make contact with them.

This perspective respects the fact that what the Europeans were really discovering was not a new land, but a realization that there exist civilizations and cultures beyond the castles and courts of their monarchies.

At a recent conference by Instituto Cervantes, yet another perspective is offered: when the conquistadors arrived, there began an exchange of culture and ideas, thus marking the beginning of globalization.

Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, explorer of the Pacific Ocean

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Vasco Nuñez de Balboa’s voyage to the Pacific Ocean. It was in 1513 when he became the first European to reach the Pacific from the New World. To celebrate this historic occasion, Instituto Cervantes' head office in Madrid decided to hold a conference in Manila.

“The 500th Anniversary of the Discovery of the Pacific: In Search of the ‘Other’ Sea” was a series of lectures organized by Instituto Cervantes and the Spanish Embassy, and held in the Ortigas Foundation Library.

According to Nicole Clarisse Villamor of Instituto Cervantes, “The European ‘discovery’ of the Pacific is regarded as a significant event for Europe and Spain in particular, as it created a space for exchange in terms of culture and trade.”

Dr. Fernando Zialcita speaks about the Philippines' relations with its Pacific neighbors.
Speaking at the conference were Dr. Fernando Zialcita of Ateneo de Manila University, Dr. Javier Galván Guijo of the Asociación Española de Estudios del Pacífico, Miguel Luque Talaván of Universidad de Cordoba and Antonio García-Abásolo González of Universidad Complutense, Madrid.

Speakers often switched between English and Spanish, and participants could tune in to the live English translation on the headphones provided in the conference room.

The Pacific: The Philippines’ forgotten neighborhood

While many of our Asian neighbors eat with chopsticks and stage the Ramayana on a regular basis, we use forks and spoons, and few of us are familiar with the Indian epic. Many scholars and intellectuals have pointed out these and more differences between us and our Southeast Asian brothers and sisters.

But rather than focusing on this deficit of Asian character, Dr. Zialcita suggests we look at what we have in common with our other neighbors: those of the Pacific islands.

Our pre-Hispanic history tells of trade with neighboring islands, of extensive travel and exploration aboard outriggers with v-shaped sails, of a diet rich in taro and coconut. A glance at Micronesian culture will show you the same things, as well as many other commonalities.

Dr. Zialcita presented a table featuring similar, almost identical words from Tagalog, Malay, Fijian and Samoan—mostly words for numbers. He explained how Philippine languages are related to Austronesian languages, and how the similarities do not end with words for numbers, but also for food (“tuba”, “palapa”, “almusal”), structures (“pader”), and other household items (“balutan”).

With Guam, the Marianas and the Caroline Islands being governed by the Governor General in the Philippines, it was inevitable that the Spanish culture adopted by Filipinos would also spread to these particular Micronesian islands. Contact and cultural exchange increased with colonization. Filipino revolutionaries were exiled to the Marianas, namely Maximo Paterno and Apolinario Mabini.

The administration of Guam and Marianas was separated from the Philippines after 1898, but the cultural exchange did not stop there. To this day, Micronesians feel more at home in the Philippines than in any other country in Asia. They have been coming to Manila to consult in our hospitals, to shop in our stores, and to study in our schools.

Dr. Zialcita showed the audience a photo of a woman from Guam in the 1960s, and she was dressed like Maria Clara, in a terno and saya. Only the panuelo was missing.

And they have made their mark on our country too. Did you know that the Pacific Star building is Micronesian property? This office building, found on the corner of Buendia and Makati Avenue, is actually owned by the Republic of Nauru, a small island country in Micronesia.

Look back to move forward

Who would have thought that events occurring half a millennium ago would still be new and insightful to Filipinos today?

When asked why Filipinos should even care about what happened 500 years ago and what bearing they could possibly have on our current situation, Dr. Zialcita replied, "The Pacific world has become an important arena because of intensifying trade and because of organizations such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation [APEC], of which the Philippines is a member.

"The Philippines plays a unique role in the formation of the Pacific world. On the one hand, its culture cannot be understood without the Pacific. On the other hand the cultures of many of our neighbors along the Pacific cannot be understood without the Philippines.

"We contributed to the making of their cultures. This fact creates a fund of goodwill which has been and can continue to be tapped to secure economic, political and diplomatic advantages for us.

"In the global village, nations that can articulate their multiple connections to other nations become more popular than those with only limited ones. It is just like making friends. To make people at home with us, we find ways to show what common interests we have, or even what common ancestors we share."

Different perspectives

John Silva, executive director of the Ortigas Foundation Library, notes that many Filipinos today don’t know their own past, and that much of the history taught to us has been written from the colonizers’ point of view.

Rafa Ortigas, the founder of the Ortigas Foundation, felt that “nobody has been writing from a Filipino point of view. So we should study everything that has been written about us… all for the purpose of rewriting history on our grounds,” Silva said.

Beyond looking at what Balboa, Magellan and other conquistadores wrote about our islands, we can look at what our Pacific neighbors adapted from us, and what we have in common with other lands and cultures occupied by the Spaniards. We may have much yet to learn. — BM, GMA News

Photo courtesy of the Ortigas Foundation Library