Last 29 January 2011, I facilitated a tour around Manila organized by myself and some friends. There were 18 participants and the itinerary included the University of Santo Tomás, which celebrates its 400th Anniversary this year, the San Sebastián Church, the San Beda College Chapel or Our Lady of Montserrat Abbey, Casino Español and Instituto Cervantes, and lastly, the National Museum. We also went to Intramuros for a short while.
During the trip, I emphasized two important points. First was that in touring these important and beautiful spots, we are compelled to remember and take pride in our Hispanic heritage as a people, something we cannot afford to lose or forget. Today, we are actually experiencing the effects of this unfortunate, if not totally silly, disregard of our Spanish background. Secondly, as we toured Manila, we had to remember the ravages and brutal destruction the once genteel city went through due to Japanese cruelty and American “liberation” efforts. We had to remember all the structures, the people and an entire soul of a city that were all brutally damaged or totally massacred by the “Liberation of Manila” in February 1945. Indeed, this massacre of the city of Manila can still be felt and seen in a city quickly deteriorating and being forgotten by the middle class and the elite.
The first stop was at the Pontifical and Royal University of Sto. Tomás the Catholic University of the Philippines. Located at Sampaloc, Manila, UST recently celebrated its quadricentennial or 400th anniversary as an institution. Actually, the day before our visit, UST had a very lavish not to mention solemn ceremony celebrating the said blessed occasion. The fact that countless doctors, lawyers, businessmen, writers, politicians, bishops and priests, artists, teachers and pioneers have studied in its illustrious halls makes its 400th year meaningful. So many luminaries in our national history hail from this glorious university, a school that in spite of its age and triumphs, still humbly accepts that at the end of it all, it’s all from God’s unending grace.
UST, of course, is a gift from the Spanish Dominican friars. UST is still here, proudly standing as a noble testament to the work of the friars in the country. UST, which is a Royal University that happily enjoys the patronage of the Spanish crown, is a living symbol of how the friars didn’t really erase native cultures. In fact, a visit to their library, archives and museum would show to us how much the friars worked and labored to record and study the cultural heritage of our ancestors! Founded in 1611, UST holds a vast collection of books and artifacts from 400 years of Philippine history. Its incunabulae or books made before 1501 are very important national cultural treasures.
The group was greatly impressed by the buildings and graceful structures found in the campus. We admired the Arch of the Centuries, walked with excitement towards the Main Building, which is adorned by statues of humanists and saints made by former College of Fine Arts teacher, the Italian Francisco Monti. At the Plaza Mayor, the group took many pictures, impressed and surprised by what they were seeing right at the heart of congested Manila. When we entered the Main Building and made our way to the Paraninfo or great hall, which houses the UST Museum, the participants again marveled at the recently-restored Antonio Garcia Llamas murals and enthusiastically went about looking at UST Museum’s collection.
Then, after exploring the rest of Fray Roque Ruaño OP’s earthquake-resistant building, we made our way to the Art-Deco Fathers’ Residence, which houses the Dominican Friars’ quarters, the Ecclesiastical Faculties and the Parish Church of Nstra. Sra. Del Santissimo Rosario. Again, we were fortunate to have visited UST since it was only the Monday prior our visit when the Pope, through the Apostolic Penitentiary, made the UST Church a Jubilee Church, where visitors can obtain a Perpetual Indulgence according to the usual requirements!
As we left for our next destination, we had our photo taken under the statue of the founder of UST, Archbishop Miguel de Benavides, OP. Guests and friends commented that his finger points up to the cross of the Main Building. Although the statue was made even before UST moved to its present site, perhaps, the Dominicans really wanted to keep Christ at the center of their university.
Our next step stop was in Quiapo, Manila: the San Sebastián Church. San Sebastián Church is an important and unique church because it is the only steel church in the Philippines and in the rest of Asia. Designed in the Gothic revival style, San Sebastian’s soaring pillars, colorful stained glass windows and ornate retablos are some of the elements of the church, which really appeal to the many young visitors that pay this temple a visit. It’s a romantic spot in the heart of congested Manila.
Founded by the Augustinian Recollects as a retirement home for the elderly friars outside the walls of Intramuros, the San Sebastián church complex has been the site of several San Sebastians, the latest of which is the 1891 version. It was in the 1880s when the cura, Muy Reverendo Padre Fraile Estebán Martínez, OAR requested from the architect Don Genaro Palacios a design that would render an earthquake and fire resistant church of San Sebastián.In recent years, however, the friars have identified many problems concerning this unique architectural gem. Urban sprawl, air, water and land pollution and of course, age have threatened the integrity of the structure. One effect that visitors notice is that the paintings that used to vibrantly adore the walls of the church are now fading and being eaten away by rust.
Our 3rd destination was the San Beda College Chapel or the Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat. The chapel, which is owned by the Benedictine monks, is dedicated to the Holy Name of Jesus. When we visited, it was actually celebrating the grand feast of one San Beda’s patrons, the Sto. Niño de Praga. Built in 1926, the neo-Gothic abbey’s impressive interiors still behold any visitor. The ceilings, which feature 16 panels depicting Christian virtues and their opposite sins, were painted by a Spanish Benedictine monk.
The church is rather small as compared to the other churches of Manila but what it lacks in size, it compensates with its romantic beauty and preserved liturgical rites. When the group visited, a grand choir was actually preparing for the Fiesta Mass the following day.
For lunch, we headed to our next destination, which features a cafeteria. Café de las Letras is a small eatery located inside our fourth destination, Instituto Cervantes de Manila. There we had lunch.
Instituto Cervantes is the Spanish cultural institute in the Philippines. Currently directed by Sr. Don José Rodriguez, Instituto Cervantes is an important Spanish-run center that promotes the Spanish language and heritage in many countries around the world. In the Philippines, unlike in other Asian countries where it can be found, however, Instituto Cervantes de Manila has a unique mission and that is the preservation and propagation of the Philippines’ Hispanic culture.
Besides the usual Spanish classes, which actually cater to different kinds of Filipinos, Instituto Cervantes also holds many dynamic cultural events. Every Saturday, there are free film viewings in its Salon de Actos of Spanish and Latin American films. Usually, entire months are dedicated to a single theme or film director. It also holds the largest Spanish and Latin American Film Fest in Asia every year entitled “Pelicula Pelikula”. It also facilitates the DELE or the Spanish Government’s sanctioned Spanish language accreditation exam.
For many commuters, however, Instituto Cervantes would ring a bell because of the poetry campaign it launched with the MRT and LRT. On some train coaches, commuters can read Spanish poems by Spanish, Latin American AND Filipino Spanish writers beside of which are English or Filipino translations. Cervantes holds many other fun and educational affairs, from conferences, to flamenco and guitar concerts to contests.
In Cervantes, the group was toured by the Chief Librarian, Carlos Balmaceda. We were also treated to a 30-minute video on Madrid, capital of Spain.
The next destination of our trip was just actually next door Cervantes, the Casino Español de Manila. Casino Español is a leisure club presently open to everyone. Think Manila Polo Club or Quezon City Sports Club. But in the old days, it used to be exclusive only to… you guessed it, Spaniards! After the revolution against Spain, Casino Español became the nucleus of activity for Spaniards in Manila or in the cities where it was located. Imagine being the bosses of the country before then after the Revolution Poof! They were considered foreigners! Today, the Casino Español in Cebu is the more active and influential one among the Casinos in the Philippines. . Actually, today, as the General Manager of Casino Español de Manila, Mr. Adolfo Manatad Jr. told us, majority of the Casino Español de Manila members are Chinoys, evidence of the changing social tides.
In the Casino, the tour was met by Mr. Manatad and a lively Spanish historian, Sr. Isaac Donoso. Here, the group was able to listen to the two men regarding the history of the Casino and the important role it played and continues to play to protect the rights of Spaniards in Manila, and also, to foster the long cultural ties between Spain and the Philippines. Mr. Donoso further talked to the young group, compelling them to study Spanish as a foreign language not only for us to access our history but also, to access a highly-globalized and competitive world. Indeed, the Spanish language would serve as a two bridge for us: one that connects us to the past, and also to the future.
The second to the last trip was the National Museum. Here, we got a glimpse of the architectural style of the American colonial government, the impressive neo-classical tradition. The National Musuem, which now occupies what used to be the Legislative House, is in a sorry condition.
Anyway, inside the museum, the group toured the exhibition halls where at display were different works by Filipino masters Luna and Amorsolo, and other painters of bygone eras.
There were also works of new and upcoming artists. The group’s favorites, were, of course, the massive works of Felix Resurrecion Hidalgo: the Assassination of Gov. General Bustamante and the Spoilarium. The group also spent a considerable amount of time in the Luna exhibit.
Luckily, when we got lost, we ended up opening a door that showed us the former Legislative Hall. It was a grand room but unfortunately, unused and deteriorated. We couldn’t figure out if it’s under renovation or simply left to decay.
Our last stop was Intramuros, heart of the Spanish conquest of the Philippines, and even in some moments of our history, that of the entire Southeast Asia. Here, majestic palaces and churches once stood, boasting of Western-inspired architecture and art but also local ornamentations and aesthetics. The first schools also used to be located within its hallowed halls. In fact, a lot of firsts took place in Intramuros. The first hospital was run there, and the first weather bureau, the most advanced in the Far East, was founded there by none other than a Jesuit. In Intramuros, the Philippines was introduced not only to Spanish culture but to many other influences as well. From the cloisters that used to be found inside, Latin hymns were heard and learned by Filipinos. From its colleges, Filipinos got to read about their ancestors from manuscripts and records kept by the missionaries. From its walls, Filipinos learned to unite and fight under one banner.
All in all, the tour group learned that Manila was an important city that was once proud but genteel, cosmopolitan but classy. Before there was Singapore or Hong Kong, there was Manila, a busy melting pot of cultures and a glamorous city once fabled for her clean, majestic bay and elegant houses and courteous people.
People I tour always ask me: What happened? Well, I could go on blaming the Japanese and Americans for what they did not only to the structures but also to our people but I could only do that as much. Because at the end of the day, we, we who call ourselves Manileños, should start nurturing and acting out our duty and responsibility. We must visit Manila, study Manila and rehabilitate Manila. There are so many things that have to be done but also a lot that COULD be done. From opting to take public transport, to patronizing our museums and local products, Manila could be revitalized if well take a good look at her despite her present ugly, not to mention pungent, form. We could and we should all work together to bring back the pearl of the orient.
When people these days acknowledge the threats of globalization, and the disappearance of culture and heritage, entire countries wage national campaigns to promote and preserve their identities to “market” themselves to a world that seemingly wants to be like Hollywood.
Filipinos, let us please see to it that we don’t end up as victims of this Hollywood fad, and instead, emulate the proud countries that preserve and live by their unique cultures. We should open ourselves to the world but without compromising our heritage and culture. With the creativity of us young people, we should take the inspiration of the past and integrate today’s movement to create an authentic AND living heritage. In getting to know other cultures, all the more should we get to know ourselves.
Photos are from: Eric Ramos, Carmen del Prádo and Kid Centeno.