Sunday Lifestyle

Intramuros of broken dreams

WHY AND WHY NOT - Nelson A. navarro - The Philippine Star

Intramuros was rough squatter territory when I first saw it in the early 1950s. My favorite aunt had some bad debts to collect there and I tagged along as her loyal mascot. I must have been four years old and I remember going into a cave-like dwelling that occupied a section of the old walls in front of Letran College.

Manila’s medieval walled city or what remained of it after World War II seemed forbidding and dangerous. Small mountains of rubble overgrown with wild grass dotted the whole place as far as my eyes could see.            

Poking out of ruined churches and buildings were ugly clusters of barong-barongs or squalid huts teeming with poor and desperate-looking people.

My aunt must have desperately needed the money to risk venturing into that no man’s land with only little innocent me in tow. We could have been swallowed up by the menacing rubble or struck dead by poisoned arrows the squatters were reputed to shoot at intruders, even policemen seeking to impose some kind of order or discipline.

It would take some 10 years more for a no-nonsense Manila Mayor, Tony Villegas, to drive out most of the squatters to godforsaken Sapang-Palay in rural Bulacan province.

My dim first encounter with Intramuros would in subsequent years be mitigated by my mother’s vivid and compelling recollections of the Walled City when it was still largely intact after 300 years of Spanish and American rule.

Mom endowed that Intramuros with a patina of romance and pride that no doubt led me in my college years to appreciate Nick Joaquin’s haunting paeans to the vanished “Noble and Ever City.” His best work, the critically acclaimed play Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, was, of course, set in Intramuros.

Born in Taal, Batangas, another proud bastion of Hispano-Tagalog culture, Mom came to the capital in the 1930s to pursue high school and college studies. There she met Dad, started a family and later they settled in Bukidnon.

 â€œIt was like a bigger Taal,” Mom said of the Intramuros she came to love and know very well. “You felt you were in another country, a place where history was in every corner. It reminded me of Jose Rizal and our fight for freedom.”

 In my coming years of travel, I would be reminded of Mom’s stories and associate Intramuros with Havana, Lima, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Outspoken nationalists, my parents saw no contradiction in Intramuros being a symbol of Spanish domination and at the same time a primary focus of Filipino pride and sense of destiny.

Much as they abhorred Spanish colonialism, they saw nothing wrong with Roman Catholicism and the Christian way of life. The Spaniards had brought a culture of grace and refinement that, after three centuries, the Filipinos had adopted or modified as their very own. The only caveat was that Filipinos would have to be accepted as equals and their sovereign rights held supreme over all foreigners.

My parents also had a lingering fascination for the Spanish language, which they understood but could not speak. They belonged to the generation that was completely educated in English to the detriment of Spanish and the country’s vernacular languages.

There were, however, some steps I made on my own to complete Mom’s idealization of Intramuros. As a UP student and a loner, I viewed the place as a spiritual retreat of sorts. On weekends, my favorite spot was high up in the riverside walls of Fort Santiago, from where I could view the Pasig and imagine what it must have been like when the Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legaspi defeated Rajah Soliman and proceeded to build a medieval city of stone over the bamboo palisades of the Tagalogs.

Fort Santiago and Puerta Isabel were in the innocent days of the 1960s, the only rebuilt sections of the square-mile walled city. There was a reconstruction of the building within the fort where Rizal was jailed before his execution, which sparked the Revolution of 1896. A small museum displayed his tiny clothes (he was a rather small man) and the gas lamp in which he concealed Mi Ultima Adios, the valedictory of his heroic life that we all memorized in grade school.

Of the 10 or so ancient churches within the walls, only San Agustin survived the war. It was there that I would go after the fort, not to attend Mass but to quietly meditate in one corner. The much-altered Manila Cathedral nearby was never my favorite. Casa Manila, the tourist showplace, would be brought to life only during the martial law period.

More restorations especially along the western wall close to the old Ateneo Municipal would be done after 2001 with generous grants from the Spanish government. On weekends, the tourism department used to hold trade fairs and exhibitions that celebrated Spanish Manila and turned Intramuros into a wholesome family destination. It was like teaching history to the people in painless`lessons that had to do with crafts, cuisine and fiesta culture rather than ponderous lectures on patriotism and sacrifice.

Sad to say, this step in the right direction did not last more than two years. It seemed that the tourist moguls copped out and decided instead to promote beach destinations and adventure travel.

Given government disinterest and neglect in the place, the remnants of the old squatter colony mushroomed back into a social menace unseen since Villegas ordered the move to Sapang Palay almost 50 years before.

This retrogression could not but revive the long-muted debate about why Intramuros was never rebuilt after the war in the first place. This contrasted sharply with Warsaw, Dresden and other war-ravaged cities in Europe, which were painstakingly and at much expense rebuilt stone by stone. National pride required nothing less.

In the case of Manila, the case for restoration never gained ground. The short-sighted Filipino elite and the middle classes wrote off Intramuros as an embarrassing vestige of the past or simply deemed it not worth the great expense to rebuild.

Some writers have laid the blame specifically on the religious orders, then foreign-dominated, whose churches, convents, hospitals and rental buildings accounted for some 80 percent of the Walled City’s territory. The US government gave them back millions of pesos in war damage claims. Apart from what they made selling off the valuable urban lots, these payments could have kicked off restoration and additional funds could have been raised the way the Europeans did.

Nobody knows where the religious orders took the bulk of the money. Their foreign superiors faced demands for nationalization and, it was bruited about, there were hardly any incentives to sink most of their assets into real estate they would have to turn over to the Filipinos. Perhaps a huge part of the money was repatriated to the Vatican or to their mother houses in Spain

The Dominicans took part of their reparations money to Quezon City where a modernistic Santo Domingo Church was built in the 1950s to replace the gutted Intramuros property. Its new location was incongruous to the famous La Naval procession that celebrates Spain’s miraculous 17th century victories over the Dutch naval invaders. Without the backdrop of the storied walls and architecture that resisted Dutch bombardment, the La Naval seemed pointless in the drab and antiseptic suburbs.

The Franciscans, Recollects and Jesuits and the various orders of nuns followed the Dominicans’ misguided example and frittered away their resources in nondescript constructions all over what was to become Metro Manila.

With the churches in retreat and government too focused on political wars, the rich Filipinos followed suit and rebuilt their mansions away from Manila and farther out to gated enclaves that were once cogonal wastelands of Makati.

The aspiring middle classes would take the hint and, with government encouragement and assistance, move out to Quezon City and elsewhere beyond Manila city limits.

What was the unwritten message of Manila’s terrible fate? That it would be abandoned to the poor majority and latter-day economic refugees from far-flung impoverished islands. Intramuros, as the oldest seat of power and wealth, was to suffer the most pathetic punishment of all. It would be left to the tender mercies of government incompetence and social anarchy.

It was no wonder that Nick Joaquin’s celebrated play would be staged in the 1950s in the very locale that was its fictional and real-life setting in Intramuros. The play’s premise was that Intramuros was dying, if not dead, long before American bombs and artillery reduced it to rubble to flush out suicidal Japanese stragglers who refused to surrender.

At the heart of the drama are the two Marasigan spinsters who refuse to sell their old family mansion or turn it, like all their neighbors, into lowly boarding houses catering to poor students and workers from the provinces.

Crime and prostitution had crept into the city after big businesses and respectable establishments left for better quarters in outlying districts. Intramuros was only alive for Sunday Masses, weddings, anniversaries and religious parades as a matter of habit for the relocated elite families.

Apart from the humiliation of accepting a male boarder and looking for a job to make ends meet, the Marasigan sisters welcomed the old crowd to an annual tertulia or intimate gathering of friends to watch the La Naval procession go by. This would signal long commentaries of the city’s decay and the crass materialism that threatened the Filipino soul. The irreconcilables against the American conquest would rail all over again about the betrayal of the revolution.

Because the unyielding sisters and their Intramuros were fated to be destroyed by the coming war, the play could only end with a dark tone of regret and tragedy. Call it the eloquence of a lost cause and of pre-ordained defeat.

I was too young to watch the play in the original English staging by Lamberto Avellana but I saw the Filipino adaptation of the Philipine Educational Theatre Association in 1968.

But what really drew me to the play was the 1965 cinema version in English (based on the original Avellana production) that was directed by Gerry de Leon. It starred the unforgettable team of Daisy Hontiveros-Avellana and Naty Crame-Rogers as the ill-starred Marasigan sisters. I saw it during its very brief first-run showing on Rizal Avenue and again in 2005 when I got hold of a pirated but rare Betamax copy. Both times I was moved to tears and wished more people would see it.

The PETA and Avellana productions have their respective merits although I felt that it was more authentic to see the characters talk in English because the upper classes of the period spoke English and Spanish and not Filipino. The PETA version was a concession to nationalist sentiments that seemed a bit ahistorical. But with hindsight, I think the dispute was at best polemical. What mattered was the sense of an honorable past being eviscerated by crass materialistic values.

What grabbed me about the film was the house that was the symbol of doomed resistance and inevitable destruction. What happened to it?

One evening a few years ago at a chichi art show in Makati, I ran into Ivi Avellana-Cosio, the artist daughter of Bert and Daisy (he’s long gone and she only a few weeks ago). I asked Ivi about where to find and who owned the purported Marasigan mansion.

“It was the Yaptinchay mansion in Biñan,” she said, adding that it sat in the center of the historic trading town some 30 kilometers south along the Laguna de Bay.

Could I visit the house? I inquired.

“Sorry,” she said, a bit wary of disappointing me, “but it was sold and torn down many years ago during martial law period.”

Evidently, the Yaptinchays had divided up their properties and the ones who took possession of the mansion decided to sell what to them had become a white elephant. The period furniture, religious artifacts and other heirlooms were parceled out, most ending up in the antique shops of Ermita and some into foreign hands.

What happened after the house was razed to the ground? I can’t recall today exactly what Ivi Cosio told me. Either the site had become rental property for Jollibee, a parking lot or a gas station. Whatever it was, for me it sounded as the final insult to the long-desecrated memory of Intramuros.













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