I am not proud of Intramuros

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - March 2, 2020 - 12:00am

The Instituto Cervantes sponsored a forum last fortnight on Intramuros and the efforts to preserve it. Several Spanish academics attended to give the forum more authority and technical expertise. Director Javier Galvan asked me to give the last word.

I am afraid I derailed the forum when I said I was not proud of Intramuros. I always regard it, however with nostalgia for saw it fade.

I came to Manila in 1938 to enroll at the Far Eastern University High School. I passed Intramuros often when I went to the National Library in what is now the basement of the National Museum. I walked the cobbled streets of the walled city and climbed its walls which were gardens. Most of the houses had courtyards, some with marble fountains long unused. Their massive wooden doors were braced with iron. Intramuros in the 1930s was no longer the elite district of Manila as its rich denizens had moved to Ermita, Pasay, Santa Mesa and Quezon City which were uncrowded. The rooms of the houses were rented out to clerks, students, and migrants. I recall the few stores in it selling Chinese figurines, reptile skins, carabao horns with carvings, and buntal hats.

From Taft Avenue, Intramuros was vividly distinct with its walls and the spires of so many churches. Fort Santiago was closed to the public because it was the headquarters of the American army.  It was spruced up and opened after the war. The Rizal shrine in it became its very heart.

I enrolled in the pre-med course at the Intramuros campus of Santo Tomas University in 1944 – our school was the building beside the Santo Domingo church. Both were destroyed except the gate which was transferred to the campus in Espana. We were having a Japanese language class at ten a.m. – our teacher was a young naval officer when American carrier planes came, roaring just above the acacia trees. All of us rose, cheering, stomping our feet. That was September 21, 1944, the last day I saw Intramuros.

Intramuros is very much in my fiction, the entire setting of my story, Dama de Noche, and it is also in my two novels, Ermita, and Ben Singkol.

But first, a bit of history and sociology. Seldom are cities planned; the exceptions in modern times are Paris, Washington and in South America, the capital of Brazil, Brasilia, whose inauguration I attended in 1960.

Asian cities particularly are mostly organic; in fact most cities grow naturally from the first settlements, then villages. They become towns as nations grow with their major cities as capitals.

But cities die with the nation empires that sustain them. Some survive, like Rome, but all that remains of Rome’s ancient eminence are the ruins of its coliseum. What remains of the Greek empire is the Pantheon in Athens, ditto with earlier empires – they also left similar ruins all over the Middle East.

Cambodians today are proud of Angkor Wat from the vanished Khmer empire, and the Peruvians have sanctified Machu-Picchu that their forebears, the Incas, built. And finally, the Egyptians are justly proud of their pyramids – perhaps the most magnificent of all ancient structures whose construction continues to baffle the most learned and modern engineers of the whole world.

I am not proud of Intramuros. The Spaniards built it, not us. It was the exclusive domain and headquarters of Spain’s imperial office, as well as a monument to Spanish colonialism, and the four centuries that we were subjugated and tyrannized by Spain.

But if I take no pride in Intramuros why do I tolerate its preservation? It is important for us; we have little sense of the past, and Intramuros is a significant relic of that past. We cannot change that past but as a people, we must not forget it. If our leaders had an eye to the future; the planning of Intramuros should have started immediately in 1945 or 1946. From the rubble, it was transformed into a wasteland; beautiful during the rainy season when the wild grass that covered it bloomed with plumes of white. Then, the cratered lots were settled by squatters from all over the country, and finally a few haphazard buildings built in it in the style of the old stone houses.

The second viable reason for its preservation is because it can be a real tourist jewel for us and for foreigners. But its development as part of the greater city of Manila cannot be stopped. Eventually, it will have skyscrapers, shops, and it will have to be integrated into Metro Manila itself, afforded all the amenities and conveniences of a modern capital, the health facilities, power, transport, sewage.

The Spanish empire was at its apogee during the reign of Charles I. The men who crafted that domain were motivated by religion and gold. The empire girded almost half of the globe. Certainly, Spain left us not just a city whose walls will perhaps be the only remnants after the passing of time. Our greatest legacy from Spain is not Intramuros and will never be. What Spain bequeathed to us is far greater than a huddle of hoary buildings. Listen! When the Spaniards came here in 1521, there was no Filipino nation. We were several tribes fighting one another; we still are. Spain defined our national boundaries, and for whatever reason endowed us with nationhood. The other is our Christian faith; it connected us to the western tradition, its noble values, the glory of Greece, the grandeur of Rome and this faith is the essence, the core of our identity.

But alas, with all our venerable history and the epic heroism of our ancestors, we have yet to build a strong sovereign nation, and live our faith fully as Christians. After four centuries, we are yet to be a nation. We need not despair though. We are going there in spite of our toxic leaders, and Intramuros is a good milestone.

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