SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - March 11, 2015 - 12:00am

Secessionist movements aren’t new in these islands. At the end of the 19th century, after rising superpower the United States had obliterated the Spanish armada in Manila Bay, the colonial government retreated south. Not all the way to Mindanao, where the Spaniards would have faced juramentados, but only as far as Iloilo, where the colonial government enjoyed local support.

Iloilo, which became a city by royal decree issued in 1889 by Spain’s Queen Regent Maria Cristina, had opposed the revolution in Luzon and declared independence, creating a “Republic of Negros” that retained its umbilical cord to Spain.

With the Americans under George Dewey settled in Manila, Iloilo became the last capital of Spain in the Philippines. The city sent a contingent of 500 volunteers to fight alongside Spain against the revolutionaries in Cavite. For this Iloilo was awarded the perpetual title of “La Muy Leal y Noble Ciudad” – The Most Loyal and Noble City – by Cristina, mother of future King Alfonso XIII. Iloilo came to be regarded as “the Queen’s favored city in the south” – later shortened to the “Queen city of the south.” The perpetual title is still inscribed in the city’s coat of arms.

A number of Ilonggos would later join the revolution against colonial rule, but the city’s original loyalty to Spain is what lingers in the mind of Spanish Ambassador Luis Calvo, who has visited Iloilo.

Shared history matters to Spain, which grants dual citizenship to Filipinos who have stayed in that country for two straight years. Today the Spaniards are back in Iloilo, exploring investment prospects. Ambassador Calvo says his compatriots want to produce biofuel from sugarcane, a crop that brought prosperity to Iloilo during the colonial period.

Spain may also be interested in reviving shipbuilding in Iloilo province. Records show that the first galleons for the Manila-Acapulco trade were built in the port of Oton, west of Iloilo City, before the operations were transferred to the shipyards of Cavite and Albay.

President Aquino can capitalize on such shared history to lure investors and visitors. The figures can add to annual tourist arrivals and foreign direct investments, and these could be the type of FDI we need, producing goods and generating jobs.

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Yesterday the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas reported that FDI climbed 66 percent last year to a “record high” $6.201 billion from the $3.737 billion in 2013. The BSP said the bulk of that FDI was in the form of placements in debt instruments or loans made by local units from parent firms.

For perspective, compare that with FDI in 2013 in the rest of the founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations: Malaysia got $12.297 billion; Thailand, $12.99 billion; Indonesia, $18.44 billion; and Singapore – the “Global City of the Future 2014/2015” – got a dizzying $60.6 billion.

Among the newer ASEAN members, Vietnam got $8.9 billion in FDI in 2013, and Myanmar is attracting a lot of investor attention. Two of the top 25 Global Cities of the Future in the emerging markets are in Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh (No. 12) and the capital Hanoi (No. 23). Kuala Lumpur ranked No. 2.

We need to pursue every opportunity and use any edge we might enjoy over our neighbors in getting FDI, especially with rising costs and (in the case of the Japanese) geopolitical disputes making companies leave China.

Today we have Spain’s apparel giants such as Zara and Desigual in the Philippines, but Ambassador Calvo noted that the companies are just selling here and manufacturing elsewhere in Asia. Those manufacturing jobs are what we need.

Mexico, from where Spain governed Manila at the start of the colonial period, also gives importance to our shared history. Last week Mexican Ambassador Julio Camarena told several of us from The STAR that the marriage of Spanish and US influences in Philippine culture reminded him so much of home.

Ambassador Camarena pointed out that his compatriots are now among the top investors in the Philippines, with cement giant Cemex and Coca-Cola FEMSA leading the way. FEMSA now employs thousands all over the Philippines and plans to continue expanding its operations.

With economic woes in Western Europe, Spain lost its traditional markets and has been looking elsewhere, notably Asia, for new opportunities.

Ambassador Calvo said 60 percent of Spanish investments used to be geared toward their domestic and traditional markets in Western Europe and Latin America, with other regions accounting for only 40 percent. Today the ratio is reversed, and Spaniards are seeing the massive economic potential in Asia.

The two ambassadors believe our countries would benefit from “rediscovering” each other.

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Rediscovery can start with the language. Bitter memories of the colonial era soured Filipinos to Spanish – a language now spoken by an estimated one billion people. Those bad memories, combined with our so-called 50 years of Hollywood under Uncle Sam, erased the Spanish era from Filipino consciousness.

My generation was the last to be required to learn Spanish from high school to college as part of the regular curriculum. Filipinos who go to Spain or Latin America (and parts of the United States) will understand many Spanish words that now form part of our official language, but that’s about it.

If Filipinos of the present day are only dimly aware of historical ties with Spain, however, we are even less aware of our shared history with Mexico, which intensified during the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade.

Ambassador Camarena noted that some words that we think were derived from Spanish are in fact Mexican or Aztec in origin, among them palengke, avocado and singkamas (jicama or turnip).

Like the Mexican envoy, Ambassador Calvo told us that while he has been assigned all over Latin America, “I’ve never felt more at home than in the Philippines… I think that’s because we’re almost cousins.”

“We have a past of common economic interests,” he told us. “We will have even more things in common in the future.”

His mission, he said, is “to make ourselves reciprocally better known again.”

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