Zamboangueño Chavacanos: Preserving a Language and Identity

  • December 12, 2011      George Molina

Zamboanga – The vigorous original Zamboangueño Chavacanos, also referred to as simply Chavacanos, are composed of families that are native to the old Zamboanga. Their language is called Zamboangueño, which is a one of six Chavacano dialects found in the Philippines. The other five are Cotabateño (CotabatoCity) and Davaoeño (Davao) in Mindanao; and Caviteño (CaviteCity), Ternateño (Ternate, Cavite) and Ermiteño (Ermita) in Luzon. Ermiteño is no longer spoken.

The Zamboangueño Chavacanos mostly live in Zamboanga City, but many others dwell in the central area and southernmost tip of the Zamboanga peninsula, Basilan, and parts of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi in Western Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. There is also a significant number of Zamboangueño Chavacanos abroad — part of the Filipino Diaspora; in Semporna-Sabah, Malaysia, Zamboangueño is recognized as an official language alongside Malay. The Zamboangueño Chavacanos are predominantly Roman Catholic, although the group comprises a significant Muslim segment, as well as a growing Protestant population.

In 1635, Zamboanga was known as San José Fort and was under Spanish control. Spanish Friars, hoping to spread Christianity in Islamic Mindanao and defend the fort against Muslim pirates, petitioned the military for support. Thus, during this period, laborers from Luzon and the Visayas; Spanish soldiers; masons from Cavite (the largest number of newcomers to the area); sacadas from Cebu, Iloilo, and Dapitan; and Samals and Subanons (local tribes) were all thrown together. The vast variety of languages, the presence of the Spanish military, and the establishment of religious and educational institutions engendered a pidgin, which eventually developed into a Spanish Creole that has survived for over 400 years.

Many academics have predicted the demise of Zamboangueño, but today, it still boasts a large, solid base of speakers and does not appear to be anywhere near extinction. On the contrary, in the last few decades, Zamboangueño Chavacanos have endeavored to preserve their language and culture. Until very recently, Chavacano, which is derived from “vulgar” or “poor taste” in Spanish, has been ridiculed by many as a bastardized or watered down version of the Spanish language. Nevertheless, champions of the local language have taken important steps to preserve it and crack the negative stereotypes that have historically imprisoned it. Some signs of hope have started to show up.

In 1999, the University of Ateneo de Zamboanga held a conference focusing on the endangerment of Chavacano. Several important issues were raised, spanning the origins and orthography of Zamboangueño lexicon, its preservation, and the influence of Tagalog on Zamboangueño. To this day, Zamboangueño Chavacano continues to evolve. One of the goals of the conference was to draw attention to the language and to prevent its extinction — a good sign that Zamboangueño Chavacanos are not ready to see a part of their identity perish.

Other institutions, such as the University of the Philippines-Diliman and Instituto Cervantes of Manila have also held forums to highlight the importance of the Chavacano languages and cultures and have helped teach people about them.

Another positive sign is the rise of interest in the Chavacano language and culture by academics, both locally and abroad. There are websites that feature and promote Zamboangueño Chavacano literature and poetry, with hopes to drum up interest among its people.

Today, the future of the Zamboangueño Chavacano language and culture looks bright, riding on the back of all the efforts to preserve it. Zamboangueño Chavacanos are beginning to realize the value of their language and identity. It would be a real shame if these treasures were allowed to disappear.