MARCO Antonio Joven Romero is a native of Zaragoza, Spain. He spent three years in the Philippines as a lecturer of Spanish language at the University of Santo Tomás. Despite having a Ph.D. in philosophy, he decided to pursue a second Ph.D. in linguistics at UNED, Spain. The topic he chose for his doctoral dissertation was the toponymy of the streets of Manila, a city that, as he has declared many times, he loves so much. Given that I am not only his friend, but also the co-director of his dissertation, I take advantage of this circumstance to interview him for The Manila Times.
Marco, what did you know about the Philippines before coming to teach? And why did you choose this archipelago as your destination for three years?
Honestly, it was quite random. I was going through the worst time of my life: my father died in 2013, I could not — and in some way I still cannot — accept it, and I had never been comfortable in Zaragoza, the place where I was born. A good friend, Jesús, recommended that I go to Asia because of my personality, and there was an option as an AECID lecturer (Spanish Cooperation Agency). I took it. That was the best choice of my life.
You have told me several times that you love the city, that Manila is the best place to be. Why is that when so many people claim this city is unlivable? Is your love for the city what made you carry out research on its street names?
Manila is not an easy city, but it is the city that made me happy, and at the same time, it was the place where I could learn a lot of things about life. It was the city that made me a real adult. People of Manila always loved me, and I loved Manila people too — although sometimes I also hurt some people because of my lack of maturity. I am an active person, and I could not stop meeting people and covering every small alley of Metro Manila. When I arrived in Manila, I was an adventurer, and Manila is the best city for adventures. Before coming to Manila, I also carried out a study of Aragonese toponymy in A Fueba in the province of Huesca in western Spain. So, I had all the academic and personal ingredients to carry out a study of the Hispanic place names of Metro Manila.
How did you carry out your research? Could you tell us any curiosity that happened while doing fieldwork?
There are three main methodological steps in this work: more than 800 surveys of settlers of all the cities and districts of Metro Manila, a research on the previous studies and maps, and my personal fieldwork all over the area.
About curiosities, I covered Aroma and Happyland, two of the poorest slums in Metro Manila, for two days with my friend Alejandro Ernesto, a photo reporter. The first day he left his cellphone in his motorcycle and the second day he forgot the motorcycle keys. After entire days covering the dumps, no one took the cellphone or the keys! On another occasion, I was covering a cemetery where some people live, and I could hear a couple having sex — I suppose on a tomb. And when I went to Señorita Street and surroundings, I could not stop hearing the song “Señorita” by Camila Cabello, which the locals boasted about.
Could you tell us what are the three most remarkable findings of your research?
First, around 55 percent of toponyms from the Spanish period are preserved while around 45 percent are lost. Considering the new toponyms, around 75 percent are Hispanic. I think these figures are interesting when dealing with the recurrent debate on Hispanic place names in the Philippines.
Second, the preserved Hispanic place names of Manila reflect the society of the city during the Spanish period: a kernel in Intramuros, the rising bourgeoisie in Binondo — and to a lesser extent in Ermita — and the rest of the classes and activities further away. The furthest place names refer to farm and logistics activities.
Third, most of the recent place names in Metro Manila do not adhere to popular naming processes or to administrative-political norms, but to pure economic factors. Economic power is creating new cities and districts — e.g. BGC, Ortigas, some places in Makati, and so on — coining new place names according to markets.
What do you think of the habit of local politicians who in an attempt to immortalize their names, replace the previous names of the streets with their own? Do you think the Philippines needs some legislation regarding this topic?
I am sad every time a place name is changed or lost, in the Philippines and elsewhere in the world. Let me say that most of what we know about Celtic and Iberian peoples in Spain is because of preserved place names. And some of them seem to refer to local leaders, probably tyrants! Place names have crystallized, and they are preserved more than any other linguistic feature. And following the previous example, Celtic and Iberian languages disappeared in Spain millennia ago, but we still have these names. They are a treasure that allows us to partially know these languages too. The Spanish language is almost lost in the Philippines, but the Hispanic toponyms show the history, the identity and the geography of the country, and they also show some of the characteristics of the Filipino-Spanish language. About legislation, the Philippines and all the countries of the world must be conscious of the significance of place names.
Do you expect to carry out further research on the Philippines or do you want to move on to another thing already?
If possible, I would like to continue studying Hispanic place names in the Philippines. Even more, I would like to return to the Philippines and make a life in the country that has made me happy. However, due to the pandemic and my work, I do not find it easy. Furthermore, when I arrived in Manila, I was an adventurer. Now, I am looking forward to more stability, and I am not sure Manila is the best city for that. But finding such stability in the Philippines is my greatest desire. Let me add that the study of place names in the Philippines is not developed, and while the cities show social place names, the rest of the country presents a vast number of geographic place names to be studied.
Do you believe Metro Manileños should be proud of their city? Why?
Totally. Manila is an unknown city with many attractions. Reporters from several Spanish television networks agree with me: they were delighted when I showed them the “unknown” city. And contrary to what is sometimes stated, it is safe. Actually, Manila is not a city but a set of cities with different cultures and even language differences. Manilans are friendly and that compensates for the traffic and pollution problems. However, far from romanticizing the existent huge inequalities, the city must work to solve them. If there is something the people of Manila cannot be proud of, it is precisely the inequality in the city, which is translated into an extreme daily slavery that I hesitate to say existed any time before.