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Undas, Undras and the Filipino-Mexican Connection

Bless Kuya Kim and the snippets of information he frequently gives us to go along with the next day’s weather forecast. Last night, one such snippet settled a little argument that I had been having with myself for about a week regarding the term undas, which we Filipinos generally use to refer to All Saints’ Day every first of November.

Those who have been following the news programs on television will know that in the past few days, there have been plenty of news clips on preparations being made by various sectors for the coming national holiday. Each and everyone of these programs refer to the holiday as undas.

I am reasonably certain – although, naturally, memory becomes hazy with the passing of the years – that my Mom used to say undras, with an “r.” The argument with myself was, therefore, about which of these two versions was correct.

According to Kuya Kim, both are. The practice of celebrating a day to honour the dead, he said, is something inherited from Mexico. I am way too lazy to Google his statements for veracity, so we will all take his word for it. The word undas, on the other hand, is from the Spanish word honra (prounounced on-rah), meaning respect. In the current context, respect for the dead.

From honra, the word was subsequently Filipinized into undras, which I suppose is the plural form, as I used to hear from my Mom. Undas is just the more contemporary term; and not that it really makes a hell of a difference because either way will be understood by any Filipino.

This bit of trivia brought to mind a conversation with my former boss about mainstream Tagalog words that are generally thought of and said to have originated from Spanish. What is not generally known is that these words were from the context of Mexican Spanish rather than the original version spoken in Spain.

One such word is casillas, or its Tagalog version kasilyas. I seem to recall but could not be sure that my boss said the word in Spain was informal for castles or castillas. I went online, anyway, and the translator said pigeon-holes or any square in a backgammon table or chess board. Each one of us, of course, will think toilet; and this is apparently from Mexican Spanish.

There was this word that I used to hear spoken by my tisoy teammates in college that always sounded as though it was a swearword: cabron. Everyone learned in those days from Spanish I classes that the word meant no more than “goat.” Cabron as a swearword – and it can mean anything from the fairly innocuous “bastard” to “somebody who consents to his wife committing adultery” – apparently also falls under the category “Imported from Mexico.”

A whole book can probably be devoted to words from Mexican Spanish that found their way to Filipino and these islands’ countless dialects. Apparently, it was not only in language that the Mexicans left a lasting legacy in this country.

In the late nineties, we had guests in school who were administrators from other schools around the world operated by the Christian Brothers. One of these guests, a middle-aged American who had spent three decades in a school in Mexico, told me bits of trivia that I personally had no way of knowing before I talked to her.

What struck her most about her visit to the Philippines, she told me, was how remarkably similar the country was to Mexico. And not just in how we are named as well as the occasional Spanish word that pops up when we speak Filipino or Tagalog. More, she said, in the architecture of our houses; the way these houses are built so tightly close to each other; and how we seemed to like so much to build right next to the main highways.

When you come to think about it, although our History books all taught us that we were under Spanish colonial rule for almost four centuries, and that our culture and traditions still carry with them apparent evidences of Spanish influence, what is often unstated is that these probably arrived in the Philippines via Mexico.

Indeed, we were all taught that a galleon sailed once or twice each year beginning in the sixteenth century across the whole wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean in what came to be known as the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade. The trade went on until the early nineteenth century, when Mexico won independence from Spanish colonial rule and the galleon trade came to an end as one of the consequences.

At the height of the galleon trade, products from the Far East – spices, porcelain, silk, etc. – were brought by the large ships to the western coast of Mexico. These were then painstakenly carried over land to the Atlantic side, where the goods were finally laden onto boats that would sail for the ports of Spain.

Acapulco, we were taught, was the main link between Spain and colonial Philippines. As everyone may well know, there used to be an alternative route from the Iberian peninsula to the Far East via the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of continental Africa. This route, however, was a monopoly of the Portuguese – and subsequently the Dutch – whose sailors zealously protected the log books with directions to get there. This was why Ferdinand Magellan was commissioned by the King of Spain to find an alternative route.

Getting back to the galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco, on the reverse route to Manila, the galleons apparently brought with them not only products from Europe and the Americas but also the Kastilas who were actually Spaniards of Mexican descent. This, I suppose, explains the relative proximity of our culture – albeit often unstated – to that of Mexico.

The galleons also brought with them news about what was going on in the Americas as well as the Old World; along with liberal new ideas that fuelled revolts across the New World by the colonies against their European colonial masters. These were the very same ideas that our forefathers talked about in secret cliques as they dreamed about nationhood and clandestinely plotted the revolution that would transform that dream into reality.

More than a century later, many of us remember and recognize our historical affinity to Spain; but how many really know that we are, in fact, culturally closer to Mexico? I mean, boxing and cockfighting aside. How a bit of trivia from Kuya Kim could turn into this lengthy History lecture, your guess is as good as mine. Bet you learned quite a few things, though.

Reference: Manila Galleon on Wikipedia

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