Christian Velásquez Pañganiban (tisoi) wrote in linguaphiles,
Christian Velásquez Pañganiban

Small discoveries

This article appeared in last Thursday's edition of the Spanish newspaper, El País. In it the writer talks about the discovery she's made concerning Tagalog words of Nahuatl origin.

The original Spanish is in that link, but I took the liberty of translating it into English, which I hope is somewhat understandable - I was stuck sometimes, especially with the run-on sentences that Sra. García seems to be really fond of. ;-)


MARITZA GARCÍA © Diario EL PAÍS - May 3, 2007

What's surprising about Barcelona is that you can make small discoveries thanks to the first generation immigrants who keep their language and customs in one piece. Read on... I was walking along Ferlandina Street and I decided to enter a Filipino store to buy vegetables. There they were neatly arranged - oranges, bananas, tomatoes, zucchini...

And all of a sudden, my eyes widened when I recognized chayote, a Mexican vegetable almost impossible to get in Europe, sitting on the shelf. With lots of luck, you can sometimes get it at a Latin American booth in La Boqueria and for about a decade it can be found in the Barbès district in Paris, due to the Afro-Antillean immigrants who brought it over.

What left me amazed, other than having discovered this vegetable in Catalan country, was that this young Filipino knew its original name in the Nahuatl language, the language of the Aztec empire and one of the 52 indigenous languages that are still spoken in Mexico.

"Is this chayote?" I asked.

"Yes, sayote," he answered with a smooth "S," whose sound is more Nahuatl than the "CH" that we Mexicans have "Hispanicized" the pronunciation with.

The Filipino vendor wasn't familiar with the origin of the vegetable and I didn't know that this formed a part of his gastronomy and thus of the Tagalog lexicon. Certainly our common history goes far back over 400 years, when the Spanish conquistadors created a navigation route between the Philippines and Mexico to make commerce between Europe and Asia a reality; this was used as a bridge to New Spain.

From 1565 to 1815, cargo ships, known as the Manila Galleon, carrying products and treasures arrived at either Manila or Acapulco. This exchange permitted the borrowings of various words between the two cultures (Mexican and Filipino). But it in particular it was the work of the friars who, upon evangelizing the Philippines after having remained in New Spain, introduced various Nahuatlisms in the Asian colony, and they also created dictionaries which listed those Mexicanisms.

Products originating from the Americas that preserve their derivation from Nahuatl are well-known in the world and international gastronomy would be inconceivable without them. They are the avocados (Spanish: aguacate, Nahuatl: ahuácatl), the tomatoes (tomatl), cocoa (cacaoalt), chocolate (xocolatl), and turkies (Spanish: guajolote, pavo; Nahuatl: heuxolotl), which are among the most common ones.

However, there are many Nahuatlisms that are used in the Pacific Islands and that are unknown in Spain, most likely because fruits like the chayote didn't satisfy the palate of the conquistadors and weren't brought to the Old World. It's true that the chayote didn't come first; its original name, hitzayotli, means "spiny pumpkin." It's green, has thorns and its taste is indescribable, a mix between melon and potato. By mere curiosity, I looked in the friars' chronicles and in some published works by linguists and historians about other Nahuatlisms identified in Tagalog vocabulary. I went to the streets and randomly asked around so I could get an idea if Filipino immigrants living in Barcelona still are familiar with them: tianguis ('market'), achuete ('achiote'), camote ('yam'), atole, zacate ('grass'), zapote ('sapodilla'), and calachuche ('plumeria'), among others. When I named them, they'd laugh, repeat the word, and nod in agreement.

Sometimes there were minor variants, but i nall cases they knew them, even the youngest generations, whose parents continued to speak to them in Tagalog.


"How do you know 'achuete?'" they would ask.


"You say 'camote,' too?" asked another.

And there we were, two strangers discovering our common history thanks to a casual encounter that wouldn't have been possible had we not cross paths in a city like Barcelona.

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