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The Filipino royalettes

President Manuel L. Quezon, with the First Family and his staff, in Leesburg, Virginia, 1942. A light moment, the President hams it up for the camera with son Manuel “Nonong” Quezon Jr. Photo from the Presidential Museum and Library  

It’s no great surprise that Filipinos are hopelessly mesmerized by royalty. For some 300 years, they were very distant subjects of Spain’s Habsburg and Bourbon rulers. America’s pseudo-royal Roosevelts and Kennedys took turns binding them to Washington during the American colonial years and long after independence was granted in 1946. Manila arbiter Maurice Arcache calls the bluest of the non-blues “our royalettes,” a few embarrassing bars below royal.

Manila never boasted of any royal presence or even a royal visit. Until the now-disgraced King Juan Carlos was restored to Spain’s long-vacant throne in the 1970s, nobody in the direct line of succession bothered to come over to these desolate islands in the farthest corner of the world.

The ruined Ayuntamiento in Intramuros featured a grand throne room that never was occupied, even for a minute, by any monarch. Only faceless governor-generals, many serving just a year or so, presided over a ragtag court of fawning bureaucrats, merchants and planters from the provinces.

No incumbent US president bothered to drop by in 48 years of direct rule. In 1935, Manuel Quezon crept into the yawning royal vacuum and all but proclaimed himself uncrowned king. Never mind if as commonwealth head he exercised no sovereign powers, reported to Washington, DC, and merited only 19-, not 21-gun salutes.

Subjects of white rulers in faraway capitals, Manila high society always suffered a deep inferiority complex that has carried over into the republic period. Part of the reason was that not too many full-blooded Spaniards bothered to immigrate or, after the empire collapsed, sought refuge in these parts. Those who stayed and claimed precedence were mixed bloods or mestizos, hardly anybody with bragging rights of any passable aristocratic lineage.

By definition, they were mostly dregs or remnants of empire with no status in the Iberian Peninsula or South America to go back to and no prospects of advancement anywhere else. The mother country itself was ravaged by war, pestilence and hunger. In 1939, Francisco Franco seized power and turned Spain into an impoverished fascist state for 46 years. By these standards, Manila high society of the Quirino era was far wealthier in reparations deals and sugar quotas, although bereft of overrated titles of nobility. One Quirino granddaughter could only become Condesa de los Arcos, only to lose rank by being shortly divorced.

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Most of Manila’s Castilaloys, particularly the forebears of those who pass for democrats hovering around Noynoy Aquino, once deeply angered Quezon before his American patrons by staging noisy Falangist rallies, complete with fascist uniforms and salutes at the Colegio de San Juan Letran and San Beda. 

To be fair, a very limited number of mestizos were patriots who fought in the 1896 revolution on the side of their Filipino mothers. But they were invisible compared, for instance, to the high-profile Voluntarios de San Miguel who stuck by Spain to the bitter end and then wormed their way into the favor of the perfidious Yankees.

Just look over the mestizos who joined the Federalista Party demanding American annexation. Appointed as key justice officials or registers of deeds, they secured Torrens titles to former friar lands they either bought at fire-sale prices or just took over under various ruses. That explains why thousands of hectares of prime land in and around Manila fell into the hands of parties that were to become the core of today’s permanent elite based on ever-escalating real estate valuations.

Social inferiority complex could not but define Manila society from the day the Quezons ascended the grand staircase of Malacañang as the first Filipinos or locally-born colonials to occupy the seat of Spanish and American power. 

Manuel Quezon latched on to the brutal truth: there was no such thing as Manila high society apart from the incumbent governor-general who was the “fountain of all blessings.” When the man representing the crown decamped, the scramble for invitations to the Palace ball and the new pro-consul’s ear began all over again.

Such was Spain’s neglect and low regard for its lone Asiatic colony that no governor-general bothered to live permanently, post term of office, in the Philippines, much less set up a Manila dynasty. No such animal ever existed.

This explains why the peninsulares-only color line against the Chinese and Indios — and Spanish itself as the language of society — could not be sustained over the years. Too many came from mongrel stock and spoke pidgin Spanish. After the US conquest, English became the lingua franca, forever deflating the Castilaloy’s linguistic trump card.

Still, the pretense of Iberian superiority was maintained in rear-guard bastions like Casino Espanol, Polo Club and Jai Alai. These would be taken over by Visayan sugar money, immigrant Chinese wealth and politically generated fortunes. Go to Polo and Manila Golf and behold the Celestials and Brownies now ruling the roost.

Because Quezon had risen to the top of the crumbling colonial pyramid, it was he who assumed the power to extend and withdraw favors. Under the Jones Law of 1916, the bachelor Governor-General, Francis Burton Harrison, was in command, but Quezon always had his way. Harrison inexplicably obliged Quezon’s megalomania, subject only to distant Washington’s seldom-invoked veto power.

This point was later validated when Quezon, still Senate president, bitterly fought the imperious Leonard Wood, who sought to undo Harrison’s concessions, only to suddenly expire of cancer and leave de facto power in Quezon’s hands for good.

Every landlord and politician worth the name danced to Quezon’s music. They secured Philippine National Bank loans when PNB was the only bank worth the name, sugar quotas, cabinet posts and seats in the legislature for their conspicuous fealty and indispensable talent for sip-sipsip or flattery. Those who fell out of line like Aurelio Montinola and Juan Sumulong sank to genteel oblivion. But of course, the elite took care of its kind and some of the latter’s descendants survived and flourished, two at last count ascending to Quezon’s throne by another family name.

Indeed, there was no salvation or great fortune outside of Quezon’s incestuous circles. The Castilaloy cronies — Soriano, Elizalde, Madrigal,  Roces, Ayala — plus the Chinese mestizos — Jorge Araneta and Jose Yulo — formed a jealous aristocracy that endures in the 21st century as a pale but still potent shadow of itself.

Post-war tycoons created by succeeding presidents came up, among them Jacinto, Toda, Lopez, and Cojuangco. But only the last two and their heirs survived the Marcos Reshuffle of the 1970s and 1980s. Monosyllabic Celestials, many unlettered and born in Amoy, rose to prominence and mega-billions after the 1970s, thanks to instant naturalization granted by the crony-creating dictator.

With hardly any exception, none of these plutocrats can date ascendance before the Quezon era; although, to be sure, a couple had been in possession of extensive landholdings and traded in sugar by the late 19th century.

It was once said of Manila high society that the snootiest of them all were “no more than one or two generations removed from the plow or the bedroom of some lecherous friar.” A good number descended from penniless vagabonds conveniently wed to Chinese women who sold fish in the market or struck it rich operating pawnshops of Dickensian horrors. 

Except for a handful of favorites Quezon turned into senators or speakers, the rest wielded no real power in any government and had been kept at arm’s length by previous colonial overlords. Those who claimed pre-Quezon stature held no more than glorified counselor or ersatz advisory positions that depended on the whims of forgotten governor-generals or rabid influence peddling at the Ayumtamiento.

For instance, the originally-Chinese mestizo Tuasons (long since Castilaloyed) were awarded vast landholdings extending to Marikina, all but worthless until the commonwealth and republic eras turned the cogonal mayorazgo into a gold mine.

The first Tuason was supposedly “knighted” and some descendants imagined that this was a title of nobility or something grander. Take note that any tourist in Madrid may purchase a coat of arms in souvenir shops off the Puerta del Sol.

The more savvy Mexicans knew this was all pure fantasy. The Spanish kings were wary of setting up any rival nobility in the colonies but trafficked in debased titles (nothing beyond count or marques) to filthy-rich colonials willing and able to pay the price. The conquistador Hernan Cortes was grudgingly declared Marques de Valle de Oaxaca but quickly fell out of favor in court. He died disgraced.

Miguel Lopez de Legaspi was named Adelantado de Filipinas, which only meant he was governor of an unsettled region. This title was subsumed to the Counts of Calimaya and was extinguished, like all Mexican titles, by the 1812 revolution.

Indeed, whatever can be regarded as titles or prominence in the Philippines date no earlier than the Quezon period, the zero-hour of nationhood when Manila’s social pecking order was supposedly cast for all eternity.

Sergio Osmeña Sr. and Manuel Roxas once thought they could defy El Jefe over the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Law (1933). They had to beat a hasty retreat and crept back to favor. After Quezon died in exile in 1944, the Os-Rox team turned on each other in a vicious fight for the vacated presidency, which Roxas narrowly won. However, he died too soon and his would-be dynasty never took wing.

After Quezon and Roxas, presidents came and went but with no lasting social impact until Ferdinand Marcos, Quezonian in every sense, came along in 1966.

The Marcoses provided another dizzying whiff of splendor that tamed the entrenched order and, for some 14 years and beyond, all but remade it in the Marcosian image. The new copycat royals loved to pose in Ruritanian regalia seated in gilded thrones. But they stopped short of donning crowns that would have completed a scene straight out of comic opera. Not for want of trying, Marcos’ five déclassé successors just couldn’t pull off the defining tricks of the trade.

What’s really behind the social order or precedence that Quezon installed and which Marcos brought into the modern period with equal gall and ruthlessness?

First, today’s Manila aristocracy drew its fictitious origins from the Spanish period when it was non-existent or brushed aside for being of unacceptable racial antecedents, many with Chinese and a few of Jewish blood.

The Spaniards were frankly racist and, even among themselves, boorishly tribal and regionalistic. As heirs to Ferdinand and Isabella who merged warring kingdoms into the Spanish empire, the Castilians thought of themselves as the master race and looked down on, among others, the mercenary Basques and separatist-prone Catalans. In 1492, they expelled “impure” Jews and Muslims.

In the presence of more despised Indios and Chinese, however, Spanish pride dictated denial or muting of historic and petty differences. But it was clear that the Basques, not Castilians, predominated, by as many as 90 percent, in the dying days of empire in the Philippines. Most would trace roots, according to an irreverent heiress of one of the oldest families, to four obscure peasant villages west of Bilbao along the stormy Gulf of Biscay. A few came out of the rocky foothills of the Pyrenees and one family would grandly insist it came out of still-rural Alava in southern Vizcaya, close enough to the Castilian border.  

The much-reviled Chinese mestizos, destined to supplant the Castilaloys through sheer numbers, were also 90 percent drawn from five dirt-poor villages outside Amoy (now Xiamen) in Fujian province. The rest came from equally turbulent and hard-scrabble Guangdong province (the Boxer rebellion and all that), which was nearer to Manila across the South China Sea. 

Grinding poverty and endless civil wars drove the bulk of Basques and Fujianese to Philippines shores in the closing decades of the 19th century. They crossed over just as the sugar trade was transforming the colony from stagnation created by the long-vanished galleon trade monopoly and being integrated into the global export economy. As planters, traders or loan sharks in the surging sugar, abaca and coconut industries, they were bound to constitute the two biggest groups, if not the dominant sector of the leftover elite of the Spanish conquest.

Second, and not to over-emphasize the obvious, the bizarre consolidation of this parvenu elite only jelled as late as 1935-41 during the Commonwealth period.

Quezon and his ilk were there on Day One of the emerging Philippine state and, as the saying goes, “Present at the Creation.” This separates self-proclaimed “old wealth” from the hordes of social alpinists and gold diggers down the years.

Taking a leaf from the Boston Brahmins or the White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPs), “Old” (a few decades or less) Filipino wealth simply could not resist creating its own founding myths and noble order of precedence.

Contradictions and inconvenient truths would come in the way of consistency, respectability and honor. Quezon, to begin with, was no conqueror or monarch ruling over territory he conquered by force of arms. He was a clever lawyer, an American creation chosen under laws and procedures dictated by Washington.

The bigger problem was that Quezon’s crowd, for the most part, did not fight in the revolution (nor against Japan in World War II) and, in fact, collaborated with the people’s enemies. They were being rewarded, like Quezon himself, for playing along and sucking up to the new colonial masters who took the place of Spain.

Unlike the Boston Brahmins and WASPs, for whom patriotism against the British crown was the price of admission to the aristocracy, the Filipino Brahmins were bred by proximity to Quezon and sheer opportunism. At best, they paid nothing but lip service to the nationalism they never practiced in the battlefields or in daily life.

In the Quezon years, nationalism involved dancing the Rigodon de Honor in Malacañang attired in exquisitely embroidered ternos and barong Tagalog as well as staging “Barrio Fiestas” glamorizing peasant life. Until 1970, the glitziest balls were staged by the sugar bloc’s Kahirup Club. The ladies came dripping in diamonds and precious gems, their patronage turning lowly seamstresses into “haute couture” designers who, with the breathless purple prose of media arbiters of manners, defined how Manila high society now behaves.    

The Quezons evoked the House of Windsor, the uncrowned couple acting as George VI and Elizabeth with the two princesses plus the little prince in sailor suit to complete the regal portrait. They sailed on the sleek Casiana around the islands and even made a six-month world tour that notably brought them to Mexico. There the Quezons found themselves in the bosom of Hispanic delusions of grandeur. The Marcoses simply could not resist emulating the Quezons in just 30 years.

On a more perplexing note, there was the annual extravaganza of Quezon’s master showman, Arsenio Luz of the Manila Carnival, the most glittering event of the American years. In the name of charity, the carnival queen and her court were chosen through the rather uncouth method of selling votes to the highest bidders. This was how fair-haired heiresses achieved glory in faux coronations and got addressed as “Her Majesty Queen Pacita I” for a magical week or so in December. 

The first beauty queens could not but be drawn from sharp-elbowed land-owning families in the provinces. Brown pulchritude of more humble pedigree would come after World War II. Thus begun the enduring Filipino mania for beauty queens who, along with lower-class boxers, and in the absence of Nobel Prize winners, have become the very symbols of national pride and unity.

Time and nostalgia would prove kind and indulgent to Manuel Luis Quezon and the grasping elite he ennobled in his wake. The charade continues. Only the harsh facts of history get in the way of fantasy and the grand life that the Filipino royalettes assume belong to them forever in this bemused but unfortunate nation.

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E-mail the author at noslen794@gmail.com.

 

 

 

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