“Lerrick, client on the line. She only speaks Spanish.”
Our receptionist hands me the phone. My heart starts to beat a little faster, because I know that I have a 50 percent chance of carrying a meaningful conversation. Over the phone, bereft of gestures and facial expressions, Spanish is Greek to me.
Learning to speak Spanish was not a conscious choice. During college in the Philippines, I was required to study it for two years, just enough time to ask someone the way to Pepe's house, the beach, or the library. I did come in with a handicap: My great aunts and uncles were mestizos (a fancy term for people of mixed race) and spoke Spanish at home whenever they wanted to say something about me behind my back, even if they were right in front of me. I’ve learned a few choice Spanish curse words and phrases from Great Aunt Belen, which I have had the chance to put to good use just last weekend. Sadly, by my generation, Spanish had largely disappeared from the family lexicon, supplanted by a patois of Tagalog and English.
Modern Filipinos typically speak in sentences that reflect our country’s cultural quilt. Years ago, during a game of mahjong, a friend with a winning hand suddenly burst out: “Bisaklat! Before the fifth! Todo chow!” That statement, comprehensible immediately to any Filipino mahjong player, is a string of Tagalog, English, Spanish and Chinese words, all shouted in a row.
After 300 years of Spanish rule, the Philippines became a quasi-Latino archipelago floating in the Pacific. This historical fact seems to surprise nearly every Latino I have told it to. We may share a common Spanish culture, but not a common Spanish language. Today, there are over 120 different language groups in the Philippines, a veritable Tower of Babel. Factoid: The Spanish colonial government decided to officially forego teaching Spanish to Filipinos, probably to prevent revolts. It’s harder to rebel if you can't understand each other. Experts say over 4,000 Spanish loan words have leaked into the Filipino language. Some of them are so mispronounced their Iberian origins are practically undetectable. The words for hat, window, and chair are sambalilo, bintana, and silya to Filipinos.
At Flic Spa, I’ve learned to memorize a few spa-relevant Spanish phrases, like:
“Good afternoon, Señora. Welcome to Flic Spa! Let us start your treatment.”
“Here is the bath for the feet. For favor, enjoy it! Here is the tea. For favor, enjoy it, too!”
“Please put the robe here, and if you wish, maintain your panty. Let us begin, mouth up.”
One afternoon, an Ecuadorian woman came in for a massage. She apologized for her halting English. We figured out that my terrible Spanish was slightly better than her English, which resulted in this conversation, which I have translated badly:
"For favor, you me tell if have you dolorous in the muscles, and which,” I said.
"I have a wire in my leg.”
“I no know why. But one day, there it is, a wire in my leg.”
“Have you a surgery for to put in a wire? And why?”
“No, no had I surgery. I have a wire in my leg. Why do you think this I have? And can you it
remove? It me makes so dolorous!”
“I no you understand, that I feel. But is against the law for me to remove a wire in your leg.”
"But are you not a massagist?”
"That I feel, but for to remove the wire necessitates a surgery, Señora. That I feel.”
To end this mystery: Her leg did not have a wire (alambre), but a cramp (calambre).
Years ago, a friend of mine was teaching English as a second language in Madrid. Such a twist of irony -- she was teaching English to the descendants of the very conquistadors who had refused to teach us Spanish. During a lesson, she had made a mistake explaining the meaning of an English sentence. She apologized by saying in Spanish, “I’m sorry. I’m very embarrassed.”
The following day, her students surprised her with balloons and a cake shaped like a baby rattle. She had told her class “Yo estoy muy embarazada” which did not mean “I am very embarrassed”, but “I am very pregnant.”
As you can tell, speaking Spanish is fraught with danger. For safety’s sake, I avoid complex conjugations altogether, choosing to speak exclusively in the present tense. I only eat; I never ate, nor will I eat. Wacky tenses like conditional or subjunctive means never would I eat, even if I were to eat.
Worse, Spanish nouns can be male or female. It’s frustrating trying to guess the gender of words, and I feel like I’m peeking up a noun’s skirt to check if it’s a boy or a girl. Good luck trying to figure it out for yourself, since Spanish grammar rules are a ruse, in my opinion. For heaven’s sake, the Spanish vulgar word for penis is feminine! I avoid putting “el” or “la” in front of verbs, since using the wrong ones is a dead giveaway to my terrible grasp of Spanish. I solve this by saying a vague “ella”, which effectively turns all my Spanish nouns into hermaphrodites.
Even worse, Spanish speakers drop pronouns. You become a detective, uncovering who is doing what. Who is eating? She? They? By the time I figure out the subject is a third-person-plural-female, I am two or three sentences behind in the conversation. By then, not only have the girls already eaten all the food, they’ve split the dessert and asked for the bill.
I must admit that I am grateful to have learned English early, making my assimilation into American life easier than others. I am a product of the Philippine nationwide school system, created by American colonists. When my mother was alive, I asked her what it was like to live under American rule, when everybody was transitioning from the Spanish system.
“I hated all the National Anthems,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“When I was a kid, we learned the National Anthem in Spanish. We sang, Tierra adorada, hija del sol Oriente. Then the Americans came up with new words: Land of the morning, child of the sun returning.
“Then the war broke out and the Japanese took over. So I learned the song 'Cherry Blossom'. Sakura, sakura, yayoi no sora wa.
“Then the Americans win the war, so again it was back to “Land of the morning, child of the sun returning.
“And then we were granted independence, so the exact same song had new Tagalog words. Bayang magiliw, perlas ng silanganan.”
“Which song did you like best?” I asked.
“Anything by Frank Sinatra.”