Teaching history in Spain Inquirer Opinion
There is a recurring banter among my friends whenever they’d get to know that I’m an assistant English teacher in Spain. They’d say something along the lines of, “If you teach a past colonizer’s language to past colonizers in the past colonizer’s land, maybe we didn’t liberate ourselves from their colonialism.”
Sometimes they’d also refer to me as “kastila”—a borrowed Spanish word that means Spaniard—in a betrayed tone.
Even though the job title is assistant English teacher, I don’t exclusively teach English. Instead, I help teach school subjects that are in English. Among those subjects are history, science, and English. I am especially fond of the contrast between how we tell history.
Let me take you on a day in my fifth-grade history class.
Adella, a student, comes to me and asks, “When did Fernando and Isabella’s reign end?”
I don’t know. You’re from Spain! You should know!”
“How are you THE teacher?”
She sleeps back to her seat.
In truth, I should’ve at least had an idea. Not because I’m a teacher, but because the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella can somehow be traced to my personal history. After all, I studied elementary in a Catholic school named Saint Ferdinand College, and I was born in Isabela province, named after Queen Isabella II; granted, those two figures are different from whom she was asking.
The exchange between Adella and me is not unusual. On other days, she is suspicious, and calls me out that I’m only feigning my Spanish language ignorance. However, I must keep reminding her that I understand some Spanish words since I’ve been in Spain a while now, and there are a lot of borrowed Spanish words in the Tagalog vocabulary.
“Today’s discussion is on the voyages of Elcano and Magallanes.” Luis, the teacher I’m assisting, announces to the class.
It took me a while to connect the dots that Magallanes is Magellan, a prominent figure in Filipino history. As my early textbooks would claim, he discovered the Philippines. As if the Philippines wasn’t a place inhabited by people then.
The Yoyoy Villame song “Magellan” plays in my head, a song that tells the story of Magellan’s voyage to the Philippines. In my days on the other end of the blackboard, when I was a student, we didn’t have digital interactive books made by well-known universities. In my day, we had Filipino parody songs downloaded from YouTube, burned those into CDs, then played them in class.
Yoyoy Villame, whom I’d equate to Weird Al, sings in an uppity and gay beat just enough to varnish the imperialistic voyage to a glossy manic song that leaves out all the grotesqueness of the battles which happen when you reject religion—but I guess including gory details of death and war would be too metal for his taste. The song’s ending sequence is Yoyoy doing a tiny dance while he sings these final words. Then, as the music fades, he shows us his big toothless smile for the last time.
Aside from the Yoyoy song, the Spanish occupation dominated my fifth-grade history literature. Moreover, I’d know important Spanish people’s names from the names of the streets, cities, provinces, and in the first or last names of friends. I feel a certain disconnect when I open a Spanish history book, and the part where the Philippines comes in, we barely take a quarter of a page. The kids I teach have better knowledge of Filipinos, the candy bar, than Filipinos, inhabitants of the Philippines.
Back in class, Luis goes on with the lesson. He’s almost finished explaining Elcano and Magellan’s voyage. Then we get to the why of it all. The reason being Magellan and Elcano is on an expedition to find spices for the king. Spices.
After reading the unit, Luis tries to explain the atrocities of the colonial period since the book did not mention those. Luis enumerates the countries Spain invaded, saving the Philippines for last, so he can prompt me to offer my insights. Luis gives me the floor for a moment while he gathers himself over a cup of coffee by the teacher’s table. “Philippines is Conrad’s country. Would you mind sharing more about this?” Luis prompts me.
Like Yoyoy, I saved them from the gory details of the Spanish Occupation and gave them a quick rundown. Next, I go on about how we call Magallanes Magellan in English and have an infamously congested road after his Spanish name. Finally, I explain the meaning of the word traffic through a game of Pictionary.
The bell rings, and Luis thanks me for my help as we go our separate ways to our next classes.
Conrad delos Reyes, 27, was born in Isabela but is an adopted child of Baguio. He plays video games or reads a book in a no-frills cafe somewhere in his idle time. Instagram: @potstronaut
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