October 1, 2004

By Perry Diaz

Philippine history books have rarely mentioned our colonial relations with Mexico. Nueva Espana, as Mexico was named then, was seen as another colony of Spain. True. Both colonies were "discovered" in 1521 by Spanish conquistadors. Ferdinand Magellan -- who "discovered" the Philippines -- was killed in the island of Mactan by the local chieftain Lapu-Lapu. In 1542, the Spanish explorer Ruy Lopez de Villalobos named the archipelago Las Islas Filipinas after Philip II, the future king of Spain. However, Spain wasn't too enthused in colonizing the far-flung archipelago. Villalobos did not stay too long and left. He probably was too scared to stay and get killed by Lapu-Lapu or the other natives.

Things were different in the "New World." Hernan Cortez and his Spanish armada conquered the Aztec empire and did not waste any time colonizing it. They brought with them the "white man's disease" which killed almost all of the natives. Thousands of Spaniards were encouraged to settle in Mexico with promises of land and wealth. In 1565, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, a Spaniard turned Mexican functionary, led an expedition to Filipinas to subjugate the natives. He succeeded. At first he established his capital in Cebu. However, it was too close to Mactan where Magellan was killed and that made him uneasy.

In 1571, using the Cebu natives, known as Pintados for their tattoos on their bodies, he attacked Maynilad in Luzon, a thriving native settlement frequented by Chinese traders. He captured the settlement, renamed it Manila, and made it the capital of Filipinas. Thus, the colonization of the Philippines started. Legazpi served as the governor-general of the new colony. For 250 years -- from 1565 to 1815 -- Filipinas was ruled by the Viceroy of Nueva Espana for the Spanish Crown. Those who succeeded Legazpi as governor-general were all Mexicans until 1815 when Spain took direct control of the Philippines.

What made our history unusual was that the Philippine archipelago was claimed by Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese, in the name of the the King of Spain in 1521. However, had Magellan followed the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, the Philippine archipelago should have been claimed for the King of Portugal. The treaty which was brokered by the Vatican, had divided the "undiscovered" lands in the world between Spain and Portugal. The Philippines happened to be within Portugal’s territorial boundary.

After Legazpi started colonizing the Philippines, Portugal disputed the claim of the Spanish Crown and threatened to attack the Philippines. However, in 1580, the Spanish king, Philip II, for whom Las Islas Filipinas was named after, became king of Portugal which in essence united the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal under one authority. Spain became the undisputed master of the world. As a result, Portugal's claim was abandoned.

Due to the long distance between Spain and the Philippines, the Viceroy of Mexico was given a carte blanche authority in governing the Philippines. It took one year to travel from Spain to Manila. There was no direct route -- from Spain to Vera Cruz in Mexico by ship, from Vera Cruz to Acapulco by land, and from Acapulco to Manila by ship.

In 1815, Spain took over direct control of the Philippines when the Mexicans started fighting for independence. The 250 years that Mexico governed the Philippines has given rise to the claim that the Philippines was indeed a colony of Mexico. Why not? All of the governor-generals -- except Legazpi -- during the Mexican administration of the Philippines were born in Mexico. Most of the soldiers, colonists, missionaries, and traders who went to the Philippines were born in Mexico. Mexicans were encouraged to migrate to the Philippines. They were promised land and wealth.

The 250 years under direct Mexican authority has created a strong cultural link between the two colonies of Spain. The Galleon Trade thrived. It was the only trade route linking the Philippines and the other colonies of Spain. Each year, two galleons crossed the vast Pacific Ocean from Manila to Acapulco. It took one year for each galleon to complete a round trip.

With the continuous flow of Mexican colonists to the Philippines, immigration of Filipinos to Mexico also flourished. However, the circumstances were different. The Mexican colonists, with promises of land and wealth, were lured to settle in the Philippines. Filipinos ended up in Mexico for different reasons. The first Filipinos who "settled" in Mexico were four followers of Magat Salamat, the son of Lakandula who was the chieftain of Tondo at that time. These four men were exiled to Mexico in 1588 after revolting against Spain.

In ensuing years, hundreds of Filipino crewmembers -- due to harsh working conditions -- deserted their ships upon arrival in Acapulco. Some of them went as far as Louisiana where they founded a few villages. Others went to California. Those who remained in Mexico intermarried with Mexicans and settled in villages near Acapulco -- Espinalillo, Costa Grande, San Blas, and Puerto Vallarta, to name a few.

The Mexicans brought their native Nahuatl language to the Philippines. The Tagalog word "palenke" originated from the Nahuatl word "palenque." Other Nahuatl words added to the Tagalog vocabulary included avocado, achuete, caimito, nanay, tatay, tocayo, and zapote. They also brought Mexican fruit trees and propagated them in the Philippines. Likewise, the Filipinos brought Mango and other exotic fruits to Mexico.

When I visited the Philippines last year, I noticed that Mexican telenovelas, dubbed in Tagalog, were extremely popular. The Filipinos seem to relate to the present-day Mexican culture as depicted in Mexican "soap operas." Why not? After all, they were like brothers and sisters to Filipinos during the Spanish era.