‘Bienvenidos a Zamboanga’, proclaims the sign welcoming travellers into the arrivals hall at the Aeropuerto Internacional de Zamboanga. 

This is the gateway to the Zamboanga Peninsula in the southern reaches of Mindanao, but unlike other airports in the Philippines, the welcome in Zamboanga City isn’t in Tagalog, nor is it in Visayan. 

At first glance, it’s Spanish.

Except, it’s not exactly Spanish. It’s Chabacano, a language descended from archaic 17th century Spanish that has evolved into a unique Spanish-based creole (a single language that results from an often-rapid blend of two or more distinct tongues). In the case of Chabacano, it also features a simplified grammar and a mix of local words and phrases.

The Philippines is home to more than 100 million people spread across some 7,600 islands. Though the islands now have two official languages in English and standardised Tagalog, this vast archipelago has fostered diverse cultures speaking 19 officially recognised regional tongues. But that’s not even close to the full linguistic heritage of the Philippines and, in fact, the residents speak a total of about 180 languages at present, with even more now relegated to “dead” status with no native speakers left. 

A traditional Zamboanga vinta. Photo: Richard Collett

Despite more than three centuries of Spanish rule in the Philippines, a period that ended in 1898, the Spanish language never had a firm hold across the archipelago. Since the end of the colonial era, the language has been all but lost.

Zamboanga City is different though, and in the face of countervailing linguistic and cultural influences from across the Philippines, Zamboangueños, the residents of the city, have succeeded in preserving the Chabacano language. 

“Zamboanga is a melting pot of people”, explains Errold Lim Bayona, a tour guide from Zamboanga City who speaks Chabacano as his first language. “There are so many different people and tribes, so when people come here, they have to speak Chabacano”.

Estimates vary, but most studies put the number of Chabacano speakers somewhere in the region of 700,000 people among Zamboanga City’s population of 860,000. Of that figure, a significant number are native speakers, while many more speak it as a second, third, or even fourth language.

The Zamboanga coastline, Santa Cruz Island. Photo: Richard Collett

In this multicultural, multi-religious and multi-linguistic corner of the Philippines, Chabacano continues to play the important role it has for three centuries since the Spanish first arrived in the 1600s.

“Because there are so many different languages in Zamboanga, Chabacano is an important lingua franca”, Errold said. “It’s the language of business and commerce”.

From the coral-stone bastions of Fort Pilar in the centre of Zamboanga City, Basilan Island and the Sulu Archipelago can be seen stretching south towards Borneo. 

The Spanish colonisation of Zamboanga began in 1635 with the construction of Fort Pilar, where the Spanish language was first introduced to southern Mindanao. The Spanish would be forced to abandon Zamboanga in 1662, but they would return less than a century later to solidify their rule in Mindanao.  

“The Spaniards came back in 1718,” Errold explains. “The returning force was composed of 300 Spaniards and at least 1000 Visayans. Many of the ‘Spaniards’ were probably Mexican”. 

The entrance to Fort Pilar. Photo: Richard Collett
A shrine outside Fort Pilar. Photo: Richard Collett

The Spanish colonisation of Zamboanga began in 1635 with the construction of Fort Pilar, where the Spanish language was first introduced to southern Mindanao. Photos: Richard Collett

This time they were here to stay, and they set about restoring Fort Pilar and turning it into a Spanish stronghold in the south, a fort which Errold claims became “the second largest fort in the Philippines, after Intramuros [in Manila]”. The Spanish wouldn’t abandon Fort Pilar again until 1898 when their colonial rule over the Philippines came to an end.

“It was in 1734 that the Chabacano language really began to take hold, when the Spanish and Mexicans returned”, Errold says, delving into the history of his home city. “They would need local help to haul up the coral blocks from the sea that were used to repair the fort. A Mexican might be speaking Spanish, then someone else would reply in another Spanish dialect or in another language, and so Pidgin Spanish began”.

As a creole language, Chabacano is unmistakably Spanish in origin. But the more one listens, the more it becomes apparent that it’s remarkably far removed from modern Spanish. 

Before he was a tour guide, Errold worked on a US military base in Okinawa, the far-flung southern prefecture of Japan, where he regularly conversed with native Spanish speakers. 

“When I spoke Chabacano, we could understand each other,” Errold said, “But the Puerto Ricans would say that I spoke Spanish like I was from the mountains.”

Chabacano is a language that evolved to be easy to speak, a common bridge between people of very different cultural histories … it lacks tenses and no conjugations are needed in order to be understood

Errold, outside Fort Pilar. Photo: Richard Collett

“Native Spanish speakers might call Chabacano a Broken Language,” he continues, explaining how Chabacano is sometimes perceived negatively amongst the international Spanish speaking community. Chabacano is a language that evolved to be easy to speak, a common bridge between people of very different cultural histories. As such, it lacks tenses and no conjugations are needed in order to be understood. 

Errold gives an example of some antiquated differences. 

“In Spanish, you would ask, ‘Donde vas? Where are you going?’ But in Chabacano, I would ask, ‘Donde tu anda?’” A direct translation gives a peculiar result, rephrasing the question as a very literal “Where do you walk?”

For a Spanish speaker, Chabacano has many unusual phrases. But for a Spanish language scholar, Chabacano is a lexical treasure trove of words and structures which departed long ago from modern usage. 

A Spanish language newspaper from 1935 in Zamboanga Museum. Photo: Richard Collett

Claribel Concepcion, dean of the Linguistics Department at Ateneo de Zamboanga University, sees this digression as the natural evolution of the language. 

“All languages evolve. Languages are dynamic and productive so they are always changing,” she said. “We have seen the departure from mainstream Spanish and this is natural.”

For Concepcion and the Zamboangueños, Chabacano isn’t broken Spanish, it’s a language in its own right.

“Spanish speakers might say that Chabacano is vulgar or bastardised,” she said. “But that’s a misconception. Anyone can be vulgar if they want, our language is a different language.”

Amongst Chabacano speakers, this is a common sentiment. Professor Roberto Torres, head of the Zamboanga Chabacano Language Society, echoes Claribel’s opinion. 

“To be clear, Chabacano is not Spanish. We want Spanish language societies to redefine how they describe Chabacano. The language spoken in the Philippines is Chabacano. Yes, it was once a dialect, but now it is a creole, mixing native words with the new language”.

Professor Torres. Photo: Richard Collett

In Cavite, the Chabacano language is almost extinct … Young people don’t speak it in the household. There is too much of a Tagalog influence there now

The Chabacano of today has managed to keep its Spanish foundation while adapting to its island setting. However, as migration from Cebu and Luzon adds to the ever-changing mix of Zamboanga City, the evolution of the language itself has done the same through a growing blend of English, Tagalog and Visayan.

That phrase from earlier, “Donde tu anda”, is now frequently turned into “Donde ka anda”, with the addition of ka being a Tagalog influence. Torres calls this new evolution “Chagalog”, and for a language purist, it can be a potential problem.

Worse still for Torres is the tendency of some new arrivals to stick to the language of their origin, rather than learning the local parlance.

“If you come to Zamboanga then you should have to speak Chabacano,” he said. “I know Tausug because I grew up in Jolo, but I won’t speak this in Zamboanga, because this is not the language here.”

Torres’ fear for his beloved Chabacano is not without warrant. 

In his 1987 study of Filipino Spanish creole, Linguist John M. Lipski writes: “Philippine Creole Spanish, known locally as Chabacano, was once spoken in several geographically distinct regions of the Philippines, including the now moribund dialects of Cavite and Ternate on Manila Bay, the defunct Ermita dialect of Manila, the virtually extinct dialect of Davao, and the vestigial Chabacano of Cotabato.”

That means that, aside from Zamboanga, Chabacano has been all but lost in areas where it was formerly spoken – including its very birthplace.

“If we trace the history of our language, it started in Cavite, and spread to Malate,” Torres explains.

The colonial era Zamboanga Town Hall. Photo: Richard Collett

Located on Manila Bay near the capital, Cavite was a bustling trade hub in the colonial era. As noted by the tour guide Errold, when locals from across the Philippines and colonists from across the Spanish Empire met for business, they needed a lingua franca to communicate. Chabacano was the resulting language.

Despite those vital roots, the number of native Chabacano speakers in Cavite is minimal. In this old port town, the language is on the verge of being lost forever. 

“In Cavite, the Chabacano language is almost extinct,” Torres said. “Young people don’t speak it in the household. There is too much of a Tagalog influence there now.”

Back at the university, Concepcion explains the Spanish departure from Cavite opened the door to the eventual “overpowering” replacement of their language by the local Tagalog. Chabacano first became diffuse in the area and, as the density of speakers declined, it became scarce.

In Zamboanga, it’s a different story. Geographically, the city is a long way from the Tagalog influences of Luzon and, culturally, Zamboanga styles itself as “Asia’s Latin City”, where residents promote their Hispanic roots rather than embracing distant Tagalog or Visayan cultures. Most importantly, Chabacano remains a language that’s spoken prolifically in local households. 

Errold describes the local Spanish creole as a “living language”, and the academic Concepcion feels a “kind of pride” in using it.

“For me, it’s very much a home language,” she said. “My husband and son refuse to speak English with me at home, we speak Chabacano.”

In the Muslim majority Barangay of Taluksangay, just a few kilometres from Zamboanga City, things couldn’t be less Hispanic.

This is where Islam first arrived on the Zamboanga Peninsula in 1885, with Taluksangay a microcosm of the convoluted diversity evident on there. Local languages include Tausug and Sama. Arabic script adorns the walls of the Madrassah while a nearby Badjao community resides on stilt houses on the water’s edge. 

Arabic script adorns the walls of the Madrassah while a nearby Badjao community resides on stilt houses on the water’s edge. Photo: Richard Collett

Chabacano isn’t the first language in Taluksangay as it is in the city, but it’s still an important one to know for practical and economic reasons.

Former Congresswomen Lillia M. Nuno recently attended a wedding in Taluksangay. Her husband hails from the Barangay. She sees Chabacano as an important uniter of local identity in a part of the Philippines known for its volatility.

“When I was in office, I tried to push through ordinances promoting Chabacano,” Nuno said. “If you are living in our city, then you should learn our dialect. If I go to Cebu, I have to learn Cebuano, but here it can be more difficult because there are many more Cebuano speakers in Zamboanga now”. 

Santa Cruz Island Zamboanga. Photo: Richard Collett

Are there negative connotations when it comes to Chabacano? It’s not an elite language, people on the streets speak it. We are proud to say Buenos dias and hola!

Professor Torres

While its usefulness as a lingua franca can be seen in Barangays such as Taluksangay, the reality is that there is no practical reason why in the long term this lingua franca wouldn’t change to Visayan or Tagalog, as it has elsewhere in the Philippines. 

What’s stopping that is the formation of a strong identity based around Chabacano, not as an archaic colonial language, but as a thriving language and culture in its own right. For native speakers, Chabacano isn’t just the remnant of a bygone colonial era, it’s a language which allows Zamboanga City to challenge political and cultural influences encroaching from Luzon and the Visayas. 

For Torres, the Spanish heritage is something to be proud of, even in a post-colonial Philippines. 

Taluksangay mosque. Photo: Richard Collett

“Are there negative connotations when it comes to Chabacano? It’s not an elite language, people on the streets speak it. We are proud to say buenos dias and hola!”

Concepcion notes that while Chabacano is taught in schools, and an increasing number of television and radio stations broadcast in Chabacano, there’s a lot more that could be done. 

“While public schools have to teach in Chabacano, the University of Ateneo is private, so even we don’t use the language for day to day teaching,” she pointed out. 

She’s currently looking for funds to establish a Chabacano cultural centre to push back against the tide and promote the language. Her fellow academic Torres is also clear about the future of Chabacano in Zamboanga.

“We cannot simply remove our culture,” he said. It’s part of our way of life now. How can you remove almost one million people speaking Chabacano? It started in the 1600s, and it’s still strong!”

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