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“Three Hundred Years in a Spanish Convent”

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“Three Hundred Years in a Spanish Convent (and Fifty Years in Hollywood)”

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by Greg Manne

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Here are excerpts from the chapter, “The Modern Philippines: How a Nation Raised by the Spanish Empire and the US Grew into Its Own” by Greg Manne, from the CALI Press-published book: Entrepreneurship and Economic Development in Asia. Greg received his Master’s in Higher Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As an American with a passion for Spain and its culture, Greg was intrigued by his journey in the Philippines during the 2015 Asia Leadership Trek. He shares his thoughts on how the Spanish colonization and US occupation have influenced the Philippines’ language, culture, and economy.

What’s in a name? I pondered over this question as I walked along with my fellow Trekkers, listening to a historical reenactment by Carlos Celdran a famous Filipino “tour guide, cultural activist, and performing artist” – and growing ever more aware of the linguistic and cultural connections between Spain and the Philippines. Before I arrived in Manila, our first stop on the Trek, I already knew that the original name, Islas Filipinas, had been given to the country by sixteenth-century Spanish conquistadors in homage to King Phillip II of Spain. However, Carlos offered me and my colleagues an entirely different perspective on this history during his “If These Walls Could Talk” performance in the old, historic center of Manila. The area, known as intramuros, translates from the Spanish to “between walls.”

If the walls in Manila could talk, their first language would be Spanish, for the walls did not exist prior to the arrival of the conquistadors. Over the centuries, innumerable “Western” terms and ideas from the Spanish language have infiltrated the local language of the Philippines, Tagalog. Carlos explained that while many of the words in Tagalog for organic things like happiness and love are rooted in the eastern Austronesian languages, dating back thousands of years, such Tagalog words as street (kalye), constitution (konstitusyon), republic (republika), and monarchy (monarkiya) are directly rooted in the Spanish language. Through my own research I found another important Tagalog word originating in Spanish: Ekonomiya is the Tagalog spelling of economia, the Spanish word for economy.

At every stage of our Trek we learned about the complex issues that arise from the concentration of financial power and resources into the hands of a few. This concentration is often faced by former Spanish colonies around the globe. Thus, in order to understand the modern Filipino economy, one must look back to the influence of the Spanish colonists, who brought their economic principles to the islands. Severe inequality is the most pressing economic issue in the Philippines today, and this inequality stems from the societal hierarchy introduced by the Spanish. For hundreds of years, the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country were direct descendants of the Spanish nobility; they had exclusive access to royal capital and were exempt from paying taxes to the crown. The Spanish system of colonization, as seen in much of Latin America, often involved a feudal system that chartered land to those with connections to the Spanish throne and the Church leadership (Francisco and Arriola, 1987). This system laid a foundation for future inequality because it stratified society into two groups: a small, landed oligarchy and the poor, peasant masses. According to US Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg, whom we met with on the first day of the Trek, today just thirty companies control thirty-five percent of the Filipino economy (Goldberg, 2015). The rampant inequality has also perpetuated widespread corruption, a major problem that emanates from the concentration of economic power in the hands of the elite.

Although Spanish colonialism clearly contributed to the present-day economic inequality in the Philippines, it also opened the door for modern economic success stories. During the Trek my colleagues and I met with Jamie Auguosto Ayala, CEO of the oldest Filipino company. The Ayala Group was an original benefactor of the colonial agricultural system and has been in existence for nearly two hundred years. In this time the Ayala Group has modernized and diversified, becoming a conglomerate that is now a national leader in the banking, property, construction, telecommunications, electronics, and utilities industries. According to The Economist, the current CEO, Mr. Ayala, a graduate of the Harvard Business School, has moved his nation in a new direction by looking for “fortunate at the bottom of the economic pyramid” and attempting to open up the economy to those with the fewest resources.

In recent years, the Ayala Group has entered into a number of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) with local and national governments, bringing clean, running water to more than eight million consumers who previously had none and building housing, schools, and churches in the growing manufacturing and call-center regions outside of Manila. The Ayala Group endeavors to deliver more than just modern products and benefits to its customers. It also recruits local talent into the company’s workforce, pays for domestic and international professional education for employees, and offers opportunities for members of the Filipino diaspora to return to the country for higher-paid managerial positions, opportunities that in previous decades did not exist. The Ayala Group, with its legacy as a member of the exclusionary establishment during the Spanish colonial era, is now working to increase economic access for Filipinos in the middle and working classes.

*Photo courtesy of Patrick Del Rosario via Flickr

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