A lopsided exchange

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Vice President Jejomar Binay yesterday led Filipino and Spanish dignitaries in the opening of the exhibit called “The Pacific: Spain and the Discovery of the South Sea” in the National Museum of the Philippines.

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In a bylined article sent to media outlets, Jorge Domecq, Spanish ambassador to the country, points out that on September 25, 1513, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, in command of a small two-masted ship, “caught sight of the new ocean from a summit on the Isthmus of Panama,” which he later called the South Sea.

The Spanish explorer had no way of knowing at the time that he had discovered a route to Asia—and to the Philippines.

Ferdinand Magellan eight years later charted the South Sea, which he renamed the Pacific Ocean because he found the waters placid, on the way to Cebu, where he planted a wooden cross and claimed it and all adjacent islands in the name of his sovereign.

The Spaniards subsequently initiated the Manila-Acapulco Galleon trade, which brought silk, porcelain, lacquer work, carpets, and spices to Acapulco in Mexico and hence to Spain.

For the return trip to Manila the ship loaded silver, fabrics, wine, and other luxuries to be sold locally.

The trade lasted for 250 years, from 1565 to 1815, and in that period the intellectual ferment of Spain and the whole of Europe made its way to the group of islands, which by then had been named Islas de las Filipinas.

During that time the Spanish colonial government and the Catholic Church, through the Jesuits and the Franciscans, built the oldest university in Asia, the University of Santo Tomas, and Ateneo the Manila.

Dr. Jose Rizal, who attended the Ateneo, drank from the Renaissance stream that flowed into the country through the 8,200-mile galleon trade route. He used the knowledge and ideals gained to enlighten his countrymen.

Even Andres Bonifacio, called the Great Plebian for his lack of university education, learned immensely from it.

The universities were only for the elite. That was why it took decades, even centuries for ideas to spread and change the way ordinary inhabitants thought and acted.

Not the trees and plants that the Spaniards brought in through the galleon trade. They had instantaneous—and pervasive—effects.

The country’s fruit selection was so meager until we got hold of the pineapple, caimito or star apple, avocado, guyabano, guava, papaya, cherimoya, and chico.

Our vegetable protein intake increased with the appearance of string beans (sitaw), frijoles, red and black beans on the table. Even that quintessential Ilocano ingredients for dinengdeng, okra and eggplant, are introduced vegetables. So are chili pepper (green and red), tomato, and squash.

In the old days we relied on cassava and the sweet potato to save us from starvation when the rice crop failed, which was often. Of course, there is corn or maize, which has become the staple in certain parts of the country.

For all the food crops we got from Mexico and the rest of Latin America we sent them only the mango in return. It was a lopsided exchange any way you look at it.

But it was from us that Spain and Mexico got the prized silk laces famous as the manton de Manila. The silks were from China of course but Filipino workmanship turned them into the coveted manton.

We must increase our trade and other forms of exchanges with Spain and Latin America.

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