New America Media, Commentary, By Rene P. Ciria-Cruz

New America Media

Dec 27, 2008

Just when you think the buzz over the Pacquiao-De La Hoya fight is so yesterday, and we’re all already blogged out on it, now comes the historical perspective. Historical perspective? On uppercuts and left hooks? Just read on.

What most people don’t realize is that Manny Pacquiao may well have Mexican blood flowing through his veins, and Oscar De La Hoya just might have Filipino juice in his. They could be long-lost cousins, as a matter of fact.

It’s not common knowledge that Mexico and the Philippines had 250 years of close political and cultural ties before the 20th century and the advent of Pax Americana in the Pacific. The results are little noticed today, but enduring.

Consider the following words: tocayo (namesake), tiangui (street stall), zacate (sweet grass). They’re of Nahuatl (Aztec) origin, but they’re also Tagalog or Filipino words with the same meaning. The Filipino word for open market is “palengke,” which is derived from Palenque, a Maya ruin near Chiapas, Mexico.

A town two hours away north of Manila is called Mexico, the Hispanization of its native original, Masicu. Another town nearby is called Guagua, which means “wagon” in old Central America, or “passenger bus” today. Mexicans call a beach hut “palapa,” which is palm frond in Filipino. The coconut palm and knowledge of its many uses were reportedly brought from the Philippines in the 16th century.

The Mexican drink “tuba,” made from fermented coconut sap, is also called “tuba” by its Filipino rural aficionados. In Mexico, I first encountered it at the central town plaza in Puerto Vallarta. Filipino sailors introduced the liquor to Mexico’s Pacific coast in the distant past. They also may have popularized a Southeast Asian way of serving raw fish, which is called ceviche today in Latin America.

Some food items are called by the same names by both Mexicans and Filipinos, with slight variations in spelling: achuete, caimito, jicamas, zapote, camachile, maiz, avocado, chayote, camote, cassava. These produce were brought to the Philippines from Mexico. Filipinos also have tamales, although they’re made from sticky rice instead of corn, and wrapped in banana leaf, not cornhusk. They have their own take on adobo and menudo.

An early version of globalization bore these fruits of a cultural communion between two peoples living at opposite ends of the Pacific Ocean. The process began in 1565, when Spanish colonization of the Philippines began in earnest. Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, who had been a functionary in Mexico for 20 years, sailed into the archipelago that year with 300 Mexican soldiers to begin subjugating the natives.

After Legazpi, all colonial governors of the Philippines would be Mexican-born Spaniards. Spain, in fact, didn’t rule the Philippines directly, but through its viceroyalty in Mexico, or Nueva Espana. The first Filipinos to arrive in Mexico were a handful of exiles, deported for hatching plots against the Spanish. Among them was Pedro Balingit, the chieftain of a Muslim village that became my old neighborhood in Manila.

From 1570 to 1815, the Galleon Trade brought luxury goods from China and the Philippines to Acapulco. Each year, two ships made the crossings, also bringing Filipino sailors and runaways to Acapulco. They returned with Mexican reinforcements for the Spanish garrisons in the islands, as well as Spanish and Creole prelates for the churches (Like the secular king, the Pope ruled the natives’ souls through Mexico).

In the early years of Spanish colonization, every galleon brought roughly 200 Mexican soldiers, both volunteers and conscripted ne’er-do-wells, on each voyage from Acapulco. Mexican reinforcements grew larger during Muslim uprisings in the southern Philippines. A Mexican scholar found that 1,311 Mexicans were living in the trading center of Manila in 1778, and scores more lived in outlying towns.

By most accounts, the Mexicans intermarried with natives, losing their ethnic distinction over the years and influencing local cuisine and manners. The Virgin of Guadalupe commands intense devotion among Filipinos to this day.

Meanwhile, Mexico’s legendary “China Poblana,” venerated for her charitable ways, arrived in Puebla in the early 1600s. Like the ubiquitous mango, she came to Mexico from India, by way of a galleon from Manila, where she had been sold as a slave by Portuguese privateers.

“Chinos” may have been Mexicans’ generic term for the native Filipino sailors who laid over for three months between galleons, or jumped ship to settle down with natives. Before the mid-19th century, “Filipinos” only applied to Spaniards born in the Philippines. The Spanish in the Philippines used the term “Americanos” for the Mexicans and Mexican-born Spaniards.

Hundreds of Filipino crewmen struck roots in the Costa Grande, north of Acapulco, and in towns like Coyuca or Colima. San Blas was a secondary port for the galleons, where Filipino sail makers and carpenters repaired or serviced the galleons. A Mexican scholar estimated that as many as 200,000 descendants of Filipinos live in southern Mexico today.

Many descendants of Filipinos figured in Mexico’s political struggles. In 1810 Father Miguel Hidalgo is said to have recruited 200 Filipino-Mexicans in the Mexican War of Independence. One of his lieutenants, Ramon Fabie, belonged to a wealthy clan in Manila. Upon Hidalgo’s defeat, the Spanish loyalists hanged Fabie and several other rebel officers.

A year after the declaration of Mexican independence in 1821, Criollos or Mexican-born Spanish troops–or Americanos–mutinied in Manila, taking over the governor-general’s residence, government offices and forts in various parts of the archipelago. They were subsequently crushed. However, to natives who had already staged dozens of ill-fated rebellions in many parts of the Philippines, the Mexicans’ brief victory showed that the Spanish weren’t militarily invincible.

From this episode, the government of newly independent Mexico predicted trouble for the Spanish in the Philippines. One of my former history professors at the University of the Philippines wrote about a secret Mexican government memorandum for the deployment of “secret agents” to Manila to help foment a Filipino revolution. This move, however, did not lead to immediate results; the Filipino revolution against Spain wouldn’t take place and succeed until 48 years later.

In 1951, Alejandro Gomez Maganda became governor of the state of Guerrero, where Acapulco is located. “Maganda” is the Tagalog/Filipino word for “beautiful.” Mexican fighter pilots of El Escuadron 201, or Aztec Eagles, fought alongside the Allies against the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II.

A few years ago, on a sojourn in Mexico, my former history professor serendipitously met descendants of an intrepid Filipino sailor, Lorenzo Paulo, a stowaway from Manila. Paulo arrived in 1854 and worked for the British railway builders Pearson and Co. before marrying a Mexican and settling in Salina Cruz, a port city in Oaxaca. He quickly made his mark. Then-governor Benito Juarez, who would become Mexico’s first Indian president, appointed Paulo chief of Salina Cruz port security.

By the time Lorenzo Paulo died in 1902, his original 12 offspring had produced numerous descendants. More than a hundred of them hold a reunion each year to honor their ancestor. This event reportedly began as a protest by Paulo’s clan against the local government’s initial refusal to recognize him as a founder of the city. His name is now immortalized in a monument to the city fathers.

This story is personally intriguing to me. Paulo is not a commonplace name in the Philippines; unlike Santoses or Garcias, all Paulos are most likely related to one another. I, therefore, probably have long-lost cousins in Salina Cruz, Oaxaca, on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, because my mother’s maiden name was Augusta Paulo—what my middle initial “P” stands for.


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