(Ambassador Arias says of Filipinos: “You’re very nice. You adapt well [to a country]. There are many immigrants in Spain but the Filipinos are the most loved.”)
I LOVE most things Spanish. I savor paella with gusto, wear Zara and Mango, use espadrilles especially during summer, and will marry Javier Bardem as soon as I get him to divorce Penélope Cruz.
So it was such a pleasure to meet Spain’s Ambassador to Manila Luis Arias y Romero, and talk about all things Spanish, and how his country’s relationship with the Philippines has evolved through the years. At first, the good ambassador seemed very serious and uncomfortable, but my shout of “Viva España!” must have loosened him a bit. (He probably thought I was loca.) He soon became more relaxed and even managed a humorous quip or two. But ever the diplomat course, he would visibly steel himself back, comporting himself.
There are about 300,000 Filipinos in Spain who are already Spanish citizens. This is on top of the 7,000 legally working or studying there. About 15 percent work as domestic helps but there are also many who are professionals such as accountants, health workers, and one even serves at the elite Royal Guard of Spain.
Unlike other immigrants, the ambassador said, “Filipinos can acquire [Spanish] citizenship after only two years of legal residence. You are especially mentioned along with Latin Americans in the Spanish Civil Code; you are assimilated. There are funds in the government budget earmarked to facilitate the integration of immigrants, which may be in the form of education and housing subsidies. Also, remember that they are all entitled to use the public-health service.”
In May, Spain also announced that Filipinos with a valid LTO driver’s license could get a Spanish driver’s license “no questions asked. All you have to show is your Philippine driver’s license and you will get [a Spanish license]. It’s automatic,” Ambassador Arias said.
(As I listened to the ambassador narrate all these benefits for Filipino immigrants, I wondered why most of us still kill ourselves going TNT for years in the US without a great job and a green card to actually look forward to.) “You’re very nice. You adapt well [to a country]. There are many immigrants in Spain but the Filipinos are the most loved,” he stressed.
Ambassador Arias hails from Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, a charming principality located in the northern coast of Spain, described as the “greenest” part of the country with its lush mountains, rambling rivers and lovely beaches. His father is a lawyer and was a professor at the local university, where his mother was also a faculty member.
The ambassador said he had wanted to be a professor like his father, but after he finished his studies, the “political circumstances were not very nice during that time [of Generalisimo Francisco Franco]. The intellectual landscape was not so very good, so I entered diplomatic school.” His previous postings include Costa Rica, Washington, D.C., Poland, Montreal and Brussels.
Of all the countries he has been assigned to, the ambassador said it is the Philippines where he feels most at home. “A lot of things remind me of Spain—the landscape, the names—the sounds are very familiar, also the churches and the character of the people. From the very first time we arrived, it’s already a familiar country. That’s why we are so happy here.” With the ambassador in Manila is his wife Soledad, also a lawyer by profession. They have one son Javier, an executive in Unilever in Madrid.
Spain’s devotion to the Philippines is unmistakable. The embassy has increased its staff in the Philippines, with Spanish expats now numbering 130. “We now have three offices here [in Metro Manila], as well as Instituto Cervantes, and another two cooperation offices in Legazpi, Albay, and in Caraga,” the ambassador added.
As of 2009, bilateral aid alone had reached P3 billion, a large chunk of which supported disaster-relief efforts in Bicol and the peace-building projects in Mindanao. More aid from Spain is channeled through joint programs with other European Union countries and the United Nations.
The ambassador relishes his visits to the project areas supported by Spanish aid. He has been to Cotabato and the Caraga region, as well as in the Visayas, Bicol and up north in Pangasinan.
“In my visits outside of Manila, I have gotten good reception. I am treated like a king!” he joked, remembering the children lined up on the streets waving flags of Spain and the Philippines. He is also deeply touched every time he visits Baler, Aurora, to commemorate the Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day every June 30. As the story goes, for close to a year beginning in June 1898, some 50 Spanish soldiers bravely held out at a small church, while Filipino revolucionarios tried to persuade them to surrender. June 30 was the day Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo as president of the first Philippine Republic, issued an order allowing the surrendering soldiers holed up in the Baler Church to return to Spain. “It is very moving. The people of Baler celebrate with us. My gratitude cannot be expressed adequately,” the envoy said.
What thrills Ambassador Arias is the resurgence in the study of the Spanish language. Instituto Cervantes in Manila has the most number of students compared with the other branches in the world. At present, he says, it has 7,000 students, with São Paolo in Brazil coming in second at only 3,000 students.
“Spanish is the second language in the world. There has been increasing demand for Spanish speakers in the United States, for instance, where there are already 80 million Spanish-speakers. Here in the Philippines, for people who want to work in the United States, you are required to know Spanish. Call centers here pay 60 percent to 70 percent more for those who speak Spanish. Because of the vocabulary, it’s easy for Filipinos to learn it.” He points out that the Filipino language, in fact, contains 22,000 Spanish words, while the Chavacano dialect spoken in Cavite and Zamboanga “is 80-percent Spanish.”
Ambassador Arias said Spain and the Philippines now have the “best of relations, but there is always room for improvement. We will continue to give more content to our relations. We will continue to improve our economic relations and cooperate in development projects. The potential for Spain and the Philippines’ friendship is enormous, so I have to work hard every day at it.”
First on his to-do list should be to deliver Bardem to me, pronto!
(My column Something Like Life is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. Photo courtesy of the Spanish Embassy in Manila.)