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Race Mixing and Westernization in Latin America and the Philippines

Monday, August 23th, 2002

In his book Race and Ethnicity, Belgian sociologist Pierre van den Berghe compares the impact of European colonization on Africa and the Americas. While the former largely retained its original character despite being under European rule, the latter ended up with a predominantly Western culture. As well, race mixing was widespread in the New World but occurred on a much smaller scale in Africa, with the exception of South Africa’s Cape Province. The amount of acculturation and miscegenation moreover did not depend on whether the European power in question took an “assimilationist” approach, as France, Spain and Portugal did, or a “racialist” one, as did Britain and the Netherlands. At the end of the day, the Americas are a “cultural extension of Europe,” whereas Africa is not.

The same observation can be made of Latin America [1] and the Philippines. Though both were under Spain’s control for roughly three centuries, Latin America essentially adopted a Western (Iberian) culture as a result of colonization while the Philippines remained more or less as it had been before the conquest. Similarly, miscegenation between the conquered and conquerors took place extensively in the former region but was fairly negligible in the latter. To paraphrase van den Berghe, Latin America is a cultural extension of Spain; the Philippines is not.

This is not to say that the Philippines was not influenced by three hundred years of Spanish rule. Among Spain’s legacies to the islands were Castilian [2] loan words to the local languages, Spanish personal names of the inhabitants, and perhaps most importantly, Roman Catholicism, today the religion of over 80% of Filipinos. (When it comes to being good Catholics, the Filipinos may have beaten their former colonial masters and the latter’s overseas descendants at their own game. Several years ago the international newswires reported on Father Ener Glotario, a priest in Barranquilla, Colombia who refused to give communion to scantily clad female parishioners. I couldn’t help thinking how much easier Father Glotario’s life would have been if he were stationed in the Philippines, where the women, unlike their Western sisters, generally eschew miniskirts, midriff-baring tops and short shorts.) Yet the Philippines’ status as an Asian country is undisputed not only geographically but also culturally.

In fact, the example of the Philippines provides a powerful counterweight to claims by left- and right-wing ideologues alike that Latin America is not Western and that its “soul” is Indian rather than European. If such were the case, the counter argument might go, why did the region not end up like the Philippines, whose people were conquered by Spain but nonetheless kept their own languages and cultural traditions?

One of the most striking differences between Latin America and the Philippines today lies in the racial composition of their inhabitants. Mestizos [3] form the bulk of Latin America’s population. By contrast, most Filipinos are of indigenous Malay stock, and individuals of mixed Spanish-Malay descent are relatively rare.

What accounted for the low rate of miscegenation between Spaniards and natives in the Philippines? Certainly not a lack of desire by either party. Even clerics succumbed. Spanish chronicler Sinibaldo de Mas attempted to explain why so many Spanish priests in the Philippines broke their vows of celibacy: “The offense is most excusable, especially in young and healthy men placed in the torrid zone... The garb of the native women is very seductive; and the girls, far from being unattainable, consider themselves lucky to attract the attention of the curate, and their mother, father, and relatives share in that sentiment. What virtue and stoicism does not the friar need to possess!” (The good de Mas is perhaps a little too quick to blame the “girls” and their attire for his compatriots’ lust. More likely, the women’s eagerness to couple with curates stemmed from the higher social status that mixed race children in colonial — and according to some sources, modern — Philippines enjoyed compared to their unmixed native counterparts. In addition, I suspect Spanish priests’ fall into temptation was due less to the native women’s “garb” than to the fact that, as Pierre van den Berghe writes in his book Human Family Systems: An Evolutionary View, “celibacy, however saintly, goes against most people’s grain.”)

The main reason for the dearth of Spanish-Filipino mestizos was that few Spaniards ventured to the Philippines. The voyage from Spain to the islands was considerably long. Before the construction of the Panama Canal, it involved going around the southern tip of Africa and across the Indian Ocean. The Philippines in addition lacked natural resources like gold and silver that the Americas had and that might have convinced large numbers of Spaniards to migrate there (indeed, at one point the scarcity of potential riches led Spain to consider abandoning the islands). According to de Mas, in some Philippine villages the friar and/or the mayor were the only white residents.

Whatever the cause, the low incidence of race mixing in the Philippines effectively stopped that country from going down the path of Hispanicization. The offspring of Spanish men and Filipino women [4] may have adopted the culture of their fathers — some mixed race families in the Philippines still speak Spanish among themselves, for instance — but ultimately there were simply not enough Spanish mestizos in the country to have much of an effect on Philippine culture as a whole. Mestizos in Latin America conversely came to constitute the largest racial category in the region, so as a group they managed to maintain and promote the Spanish language and culture.

One giveaway to Latin America’s “Westernness” is the fact that the majority of the population speaks Spanish, not an indigenous language or even a Creole, as their mother tongue. On the other hand, it has been estimated that even at the height of Spanish domination only 10% of Filipinos were able to speak the language of their masters, and undoubtedly fewer still learned it as a mother tongue. And while the Americans who took over the islands in 1898 were much more successful in teaching their Filipino subjects English than the Spaniards were in teaching their language, the reality is that English in the Philippines is a lingua franca and an administrative medium rather than a mother tongue. Neither the Americans nor the Spaniards managed to eradicate the islands’ Asian character.

Going back to van den Berghe’s argument, the example of the Philippines and Latin America shows that regions colonized by the same power may nevertheless turn out quite differently. It also shows how miscegenation can change the course of history. Despite Spain’s assimilationist approach and occasional “successes” in the Philippines (such as religious conversion), the Spaniards failed to acculturate the islands to any significant degree. Spain’s conquest of Latin America on the other hand transformed that region into a part of the Western world. As van den Berghe explains with regard to Africa and the Americas, differences in the Philippines and Latin America themselves rather than racial attitudes on the part of the colonizer were responsible for the different outcomes of European rule in the two regions.

(1) For the purpose of this essay, Latin America will refer only to the Spanish-speaking part of the region.

(2) The term “Castilian” refers to the official language of Spain (as opposed to regional dialects and languages like Galician and Catalan).

(3) Though the term “mestizo” literally means “mixed” in Spanish, for the purpose of this essay the term will refer to individuals of mixed Spanish and Native American descent in the Latin American context and to those of mixed Spanish and Filipino Malay origin in the Philippines.

(4) The opposite combination was virtually non-existent, as even fewer Spanish women than men traveled to the islands.

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