SPANISH writer Juan Manuel de Prada was in Manila last week. It was his first visit and a short one but he has immersed himself enough in Philippine History to write a novel of historical fiction, Morir Bajo Su Cielo. The title comes from a phrase of Rizal in his Ultimo Adios.
Mr. Prada is a novelist and a daily columnist for ABC, a leading Spanish broadsheet of Rightist persuasion (de derechas) in Madrid. He is also a prize-winning novelist, having won a Premio Planeta, a notable writing prize in Spain.
Morir Bajo Su Cielo is a work of historical fiction that tackles the Spanish and Philippine colonial relationship, a long association that was buried deep in the Spanish psyche and ignored from the time of the loss of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. Probably from the inability of the Spanish public to process the pain of losing a colony considered dear and precious as well as to educate its younger generations about the historical ties between the Mother Country and its far-flung Asian colony.
Mr. Prada aims to review and renew the relationship, bringing to the fore the deep bonds that lie buried and in need of airing in order to be revitalized under the modern dispensation. He means it not just for the Philippines but for all former Spanish colonies that like the Philippines had hudreds of years of close connection with their colonizer. Spanish is the lingua franca in all of them except for the Philippines, that has lost the Spanish language.
Hispanidad is the term that Mr. Prada and other intellectuals in Spain use to define the collective experience of the past between Spain and its colonies, the places and the people that Spaniards left part of themselves. He quotes Salvador de Madariaga, the renowned Spanish philosopher/writer as saying that a Spaniard to be complete must know Hispanidad. It is part of Spanish history, a past that must be remembered and confronted.
Mr. Prada says that Spanish Imperialism meant well. Queen Isabella, she who sent Columbus to discover America and who in her long rule had to deal with colonies in South America and the Philippines in Asia, decreed that the people of Spain’s colonies must be treated well. They were citizens of Spain just like the Spaniards that were their colonizers. By laws enacted, natives of the colonies had juridical identity. They had souls. They were not to be exploited or abused. In practice this may not have been followed to the letter, but the letter was there to be followed.
In the Philippines the Spaniards promoted education. The University of Sto. Tomas was an early 17th century establishment, the first in Asia for the education of the natives of the country to higher learning. Mixed marriages between Spaniards and Filipinos were allowed. Racial segregation was not a rule or established practice. Commercial exploitation did not reach the magnitude that other colonies under other colonizers experienced.
Interestingly, Mr. Prada attributes this difference between Spain and the other imperial powers, i.e. England, the Netherlands, France, to the fact that Spain was in effect anti-European, more attuned to its place and environment in the Iberian Peninsula together with Portugal, always a rugged individualist of history.
He considers the Philippine-Spanish War brought on by the Philippine Revolution as a war between brothers, a civil war that in effect did not really resolve the issues when faced with the sudden intrusion of the United States. Also, that it had much fewer casualties than the Philippine-American War.
In the competition between the two countries for the Philippines, Spain lost the propaganda war that came along with it. The Americans were better at propaganda, having already conquered Cuba by exploiting in their media the sinking of an American ship in Havana as the sneaky attack of Spain bringing on American public opinion that Spain had to be punished, Cuba had to be free, etc. As historical hindsight now shows, the ship accidentally blew up because of the ammunition it carried. And from then on propaganda became a US weapon creating what Spaniards call “La Leyenda Negra,” [the Black Legend]a depiction of Spanish treatment of its colonies as cruel, unreasonable, evil, burying all its good deeds in exaggerated if not completely untrue tales of its colonial sins.
Spanish evangelism through the Catholic Faith and the civilizing and progressive ways of doing things like farming, building, medicine, education were in effect canceled out by the “Leyenda Negra.” It is not that errors and mistakes were not committed or that some officials did not abuse their charges. That is the balanced picture that was completely unbalanced by the “Leyenda Negra.”
Thus, Mr. Prada wants Hispanidad to be revived, reborn and resuscitated, the fraternity among Spain and its former colonies recognized and respected, ultimately resulting in the acceptance of a shared past that had its ups and downs but also has its permanent effects and traces that are as a whole, a balanced lot. A vital exercise in identity and truth for both.
Mr. Prada remarked that Rizal loved Spain and considered Spain part of himself. Yet he censured its faults, denounced the Spanish authorities of the time who veered far from Queen Isabella’s Laws of the Indies. He condemned them but never advocated a total severance of the Philippine-Spanish relationship. In a sense, Rizal too advocated Hispanidad.
I will review Morir Bajo Su Cielo after reading it. Mr. Prada relied on history to come up with this novel through the writings of persons of the time in the Philippines like the memoirs of members of the clergy and soldiers assigned to the Philippines as well as Filipinos writing of the times, very grassroots experiences that gave him the imagination and the impetus to write his novel.
Mr. Prada’s visit to the Philippines was through the efforts of Instituto Cervantes in whose auditorium on T.M. Kalaw Street, Mr. Prada gave his lecture in Spanish. There were many responses from the audience which showed an interest in history and its truth.