No longer ‘terra incognita’

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Mexico and the Philippines: An Unwritten Story, edited by Ricardo Suarez Soler (Philippine Center of International PEN and Richard Suarez Soler Asia House, 2015), 144 pp.

With this book Ricardo Suarez Soler has led us to that “undiscovered country” of Mexican-Philippine relations tracked through the centuries in perilous seas through the fabled galleon trade.

Not that we were totally in the dark about the subject but through his indefatigable research, Soler has shown us in much more detail the contours of that heretofore terra incognita, that uncharted territory that has intrigued us until now.

Soler, psychiatrist and writer, has mustered all the information available from various sources—books, articles, documents, interviews and his personal travels, and put together in a very readable book—an embarrassment of riches about the centuries old cultural encounter between two countries.


Any student of history has known about how Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan and his crew stumbled upon some islands in the Pacific which the Iberian explorers initially called the lsles of ladrones because of some petty thefts that occurred when natives boarded their ships.

Drawn to local politics of rajahs and chieftains, Magellan was killed in a battle with one of them in an island (Mactan) off Cebu controlled by Lapu Lapu. Not much proselytizing for Christianity was done by the accompanying friars because the survivors had to leave pronto.

It was left to another later conquistador, Miguel de Legaspi, this time coming from Mexico, to stake the Spanish claim to the archipelago named after the Spanish king Felipe II, hence Filipinas.

Conversion of the natives began in earnest after being subdued in bloody battles. Intriguing was the discovery by Legaspi’s men of the Santo Niño in a hut in Cebu. The image was of Mexican provenance.

By the last quarter of the 16th century the galleon plied between Manila and Acapulco where the ruling viceroy of Filipinas resided. The Spanish administration of Filipinas through Mexico continued until the early 19th century when Mexico gained its independence from Spain. The galleon trips became untenable and ended in 1820.

Manila too perforce had to lift restrictions to foreign trade though well before the Spanish rule trade with China and other Southeast Asian countries already existed and English country trade had already begun during the British Occupation in the 18th century. The opening of the Suez canal hastened the commerce between Filipinas and Europe and enabled direct governance from Spain.

From these galleon trips to and from the hazardous Pacific Ocean emerged in time the rich exchange of goods and people that forged economic, cultural and political ties between the Philippines and Mexico that lasted almost three centuries.

Thus we also glimpsed the beginning of the Filipino diaspora when crew members with some women jumped ship and settled in the New World. Hence the presence of Filipino genes in the Mexican people including prominent politicians and revolutionaries. The reverse is also true about Mexican, criollo, and Aztec genes in many a Filipino.

While Soler acknowledged at least four seminal books (William Lyttle Schurz’s The Manila Galleon, Rafael Bernal’s Prologue to Philippine History, Floro Mercene’s Manila Men in the New World, and Maria Cristina Barron’s A Comparative Study of the Spanish Language in the Philippines and Mexico during the Colonial Period, as well as her El Galeon de Manila, un mar de historias.

His treatise was bolstered by articles by Tomas Calvillo on historical documents, Edgardo J. Angara on Philippine-Mexican partnership, Benito Legarda on the Phiippine economy inthe time of the galleons, Jaime Veneracion on crucial political events during the galleon trade, Gemma Cruz Araneta on the Mexican antecedents (los cristosnegros) of the Black Nazarene of Quiapo, Charlson Ongon linguistic derivatives from Nahuatl (Aztec) and Spanish. No less than National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose wrote the introduction providing a useful context for the genesis of Soler’s book.

The author/editor himself wrote a lengthy piece “How it All Began” in 14 chapters—a monograph in itself. Integrating it with the rest has provided a fully rounded salutary work.

SoIer’s book has made it a pleasure to realize that many aspects of Filipino religious practices (iconography, fiestas, church architecture, etc.) food and eating habits, clothing, linguistic expressions, flora and fauna and so forth are inextricably intertwined with those in Mexico.

Indeed, Mexican-Philippine relations, as Soler concludes, “is a story that should have been told long, long ago.”

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1 Comment

  1. maximo p fabella on

    There were two students from UP who were sent to Mexico archives. I wish
    their research would be published. We have Spanish speakers who can do
    the job. At one time,Phil beauty Gemma Cruz Araneta lived in Mexico city,