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Calle Azcarraga, March 4, 1961
by Quijano de Manila
A current controversy is whether Manila’s old circumferential road should be renamed after Recto.
March 4, 1961—MANILA’S present city fathers should go down in its history as the most patriotic bunch of baptists ever to nurse a signpost. In the last year or so, they have subjected half a dozen streets with colonial names to a nationalistic rechristening. Trabajo became Manuel de la Fuente; Tuberías became Dra. Concepción A. Aguila; Morayta became Nicanor Reyes Sr., and Alejandro VI became Dr. Mariano de los Santos.
These changes drew only a disheartened protest from a citizenry inured to the shock of going to sleep on one street and waking up on another. But there was spirited resistance when Sta. Mesa Boulevard was turned into Ramón Magsaysay Boulevard and dear old Aviles, the street of Malacañang, became Dr. José P. Laurel Sr. Street.
Now, still another name-change that, in other circumstances, would have been welcomed as proper and fitting has met with opposition, chiefly because it comes as the last straw to a public exasperated by so much name-changing.
An ordinance renaming Calle Azcárraga after the late Claro M. Recto was twice passed by the municipal board, was twice vetoed by Mayor Lacson, is at this writing in the hands of President Garcia, who must decide which is the truer nationalist; the Manila municipal board, because it wants to replace the name of a Spanish premier with that of a Filipino patriot, or Mayor Lacson, because he wants to preserve one of the most famous place-names in the country.
One view is that nobody cares who the hell Azcárraga was; when Manileños say Azcárraga they don’t mean the street—and they don’t want the names of such important streets as Azcárraga, Sta. Mesa and Aviles to be tampered with. Indeed, even the names of unimportant streets, if they are old enough, should be respected, since many of these old place-names which seem merely capricious turn out to have, apart from the associations they have accumulated through the years, an original pertinence—like, for instance, the now-vanished Alejandro VI, named after the Borgia pope who fathered Cesar and Lucretia. Many have wondered why this evil man was honored with a street in Sampaloc. The fact is, Alexander Borgia had a very decisive finger in our fate; he authored the demarcation line which divide the new worlds beyond the Atlantic between Portugal and Spain—the demarcation line which, by a hair’s breadth (some say not even by that), included the Philippines in the Spanish sphere and thus decreed that our colonial history should be Spanish, not Portuguese. Borgia is no name to delight a nationalist, but it’s a pity the name has vanished from the landscape. The more gaudy-minded among us feel that it lent to that dingy alley in Sampaloc a touch of the color, the glamour of the Italian Renaissance, possibly prompting people, whenever they passed that alley, to realize that the history of this land goes far beyond the horizons that confine it and involves any number of unlikely people, from Renaissance popes to Elizabethan pirates. Anyway, a bit of racy atmosphere vanished from the city when Alejandro VI became Dr. Mariano de los Santos.
In this matter, the various conquerors of the land, with the exception of the Japs, have shown more piety than we do. The Spaniards kept the name of Soliman’s town and maintained the place-names around it: Tondo, Binondo, Pasig, Pasay. They gave Spanish names only to the new communities they founded and to the new streets they laid out. (We, on the other hand, have been vandal enough to obliterate such an old historic Malay place-name as Bangkusay.) The Americans, too, respected the place-names they found here and gave American names only to new sites: Dewey to a boulevard wrested from the sea; Lawton to a plaza formed by the opening of the Sta. Cruz Bridge; California, Colorado, Kansas, etc., to streets built in what was once the swampy interior of Malate.
The argument is that Filipinos are at last in possession of their land and should wipe out the vestiges of a painful colonial past. But Manila has been a Malay city, a Spanish city, an American city, and is now a Filipino city. It could be a Spanish city without any pulling out of its Malay roots, and an American city without any burying of its Malay or Spanish past; so why should its present keepers be so anxious to hide what this tough old town has been? A people as old as the Romans or the English may be able to afford to skip a few hundred years of history, abolish a few hundred monuments, in the name of progress; but a people as young as we have surely need of every bit of memory that can make us feel more intensely us.
If the Manileño seems, of all Filipinos, the most developed, it is because he is informed by a city soaked and drenched in history, a city where every spot of ground is encrusted with memories, where every place-name has emotional value, and where people consequently feel and think and live more intensely than anywhere else in the country. When a Manileño speaks, he speaks—whether he knows it or not—with all his past behind him, which is why his voice rings with such authority and pride. He is no cultural parvenu—or was not, anyway, in the days when every sign post, every street, every annual public ritual assured him of the antiquity of the traditions to which he was heir. The rest of the country may be willing to shed the dark past and start clean, but the Manileño is a creation of the baroque and should not be content with anything less than the totality of his city’s experience—Malay, Spanish, American, and whatever else there may be, including the latest invaders.
Alas, Manileños who have conveniently been blaming every postwar desecration of their city on the “outsiders” who have captured and are now running it may be dismayed to learn that the latest renovation—the proposal to rename Azcárraga after Recto—was authored by one of their own, by an authentic Manileño: Councilor Pablo V. Ocampo, who belongs to the Ocampos of Quiapo, a very distinguished Manila clan. In this ironic instance, it’s an “outsider,” Lacson of Negros, who is defending, against a true son of Manila, the heritage of the city.
Councilor Ocampo is a chubby young man who seems to be always abrim with mirth and energy. His paternal grandfather, after whom he was named, was the first resident commissioner to Washington and the first Filipino to demand independence for the Philippines in the halls of the American congress. The Ocampo house on R. Hidalgo is one of the oldest and largest on that street, where once dwelt Quiapo’s most splendid families: the Paternos, the Legardas and the Aranetas. An uncle of the councilor built that fantastic Japanese palace in an alley off R. Hidalgo.
Though the councilor’s roots are in Quiapo, he himself was born and grew up in the more modern district of Malate and he knew R. Hidalgo only during the 1930s, when its days of glory were over and it was already turning into a shabby semi-commercial street. Viewed from the sleek newness of Malate, all that old part of Quiapo, from Azcárraga to Arlegui, must have seemed indeed little more than a dump of dusty relics that should be cleared away. But it should be said that Councilor Ocampo is not always for abolishing the old; he has proposed that the pantheon in Paco be made a national cemetery, so it may be saved from ruin.
It was in October 3 last year, a few days after the death of Senator Recto, that Councilor Ocampo first proposed to the municipal board that Calle Azcárraga be renamed after Recto, “as an insignificant memorial to perpetrate [sic] the name and memory of this great man.”
The proposal was referred to the Philippine Historical Committee, which not only approved it but suggested that all Azcárraga plus Mendiola be turned into a single thoroughfare called Recto Boulevard. The name-change was also recommended by the Knights of Rizal, the national directorate of the Spirit of 1896 and the Palihan ng Bayan.
The Ocampo ordinance was passed by the board on January 17, was vetoed by Mayor Lacson nine days later.
Said Lacson: “We can give honor to Don Claro without obliterating important symbolic landmarks. General Azcárraga could probably be associated with many unpleasant things that happened during the Spanish regime. But the street named after him has already become deeply embedded in the history and culture of the city of Manila and has achieved such meaning that, if it is dropped and traded for another, the city may lose a landmark together with its historical associations.”
The mayor quoted the protest of the Manila Realty Board.
Said the realtors: “Whenever the name of a street is changed, property owners are confused, since they find their land suddenly situated on a street they never heard of. The Cadastral Plans are fast being outdated and confused by so many changes.” The realtors drily added that “we believe the purpose in naming streets is to help people find their way around.” And they suggested that the proposed new bridge at Nagtahan, instead of Azcárraga, be renamed after Recto. The mayor himself favored some streets like Colorado, Nebraska or Kansas.
To this, Councilor Alfredo Gómez retorted that to rename “an insignificant street to perpetrate [sic, again] the memory of a truly great Filipino patriot and nationalist may be considered an insult.” And he reproved the Manila Realty Board with a baffling non-sequitur: “Our is a changing world, so that we have continually to march forward with the progress of time. To subscribe to the contention of the Manila Realty Board that the frequent changes in the names of street lead to confusion is certainly not in keeping with the trend of progress.”
The Manila Times had come out with an editorial against the change, on the ground that historical traditions should be preserved and that Calle Azcárraga, an unsightly, traffic-jammed, commercial street, was hardly the proper one to bear the name of so august a statesman as Recto.
To this, historian Domingo Abella replied with two questions. What street in Manila has no tangled traffic? And what tradition could be invoked in the name of a street that had borne that name for only about 50 years? Dr. Abella warned that the defeat of the Ocampo ordinance would mean “victory for a certain element in our community which still maintains that the days of Spain in the Philippines were the ideal ones in our history, and which feels deeply nostalgic about that era.”
Stung, Lacson called Dr. Abella’s logic “a little shaky.” Following Dr. Abella’s reasoning, we would have to obliterate all things Spanish in the Philippines because they constitute a symbol of our servitude under the Spaniards. “This would be tragic,” said Lacson, “because even Dr. Abella’s name, Domingo, is Spanish.”
But Dr. Gumersindo García of the Knights of Rizal pointed out two special reasons why the name of Azcárraga should not be preserved by Filipinos: as Spanish minister of war in the 1890s, Azcárraga had sent reinforcements to the Philippines to suppress the Revolution, and he had ignored a petition of clemency that could have averted the execution of Rizal.
Lacson replied that Mexico City has preserved a colonial-era monument to Hernan Cortés, who was responsible for the rape and pillage of Mexico: “And yet no one can accuse the Mexicans of being less patriotic or less conscious of their national dignity than we Filipinos.”
Cries Lacson: “They’re calling me colonial-minded now! This country is suffering from ultra-nationalism. And yet, down in Mactan, there’s a magnificent monument to Magellan, only a shabby marker for Lapu-Lapu. Why don’t the nationalists do something about that? And all this name-changing! They changed the names of Trabajo and Morayta—and that’s illegal. Those streets were donated to the city by the Sulucan Subdivision with the stipulation that the names were not to be changed.”
While the controversy raged, the mayor happened to run into the author of the disputed ordinance. Councilor Ocampo asked what Lacson had against the ordinance. The mayor reiterated his wish to preserve the city’s historic landmarks. Ocampo replied that his ordinance had the approval of the nation’s leading historical societies, which, after all, should know better than the mayor what landmarks should be preserved. Then he told the mayor that the municipal board was going to override his veto and re-pass the ordinance. “That is your right,” said Lacson, “but my stand on the matter has not changed.”
On February 7, the board, declaring that public opinion pointed to “an overwhelming endorsement of the proposal,” reenacted the ordinance, with two-thirds of the councilors voting in its favor. Mayor Lacson vetoed it again and sent it back to the board the very next day, February 8, the 70th birthday of Don Claro.
“It’s now up to President García,” says Councilor Ocampo, “to uphold the autonomy of the municipal board of Manila.” He says he expects the President to sign it and does not doubt that the citizens of Manila are as keen over the measure as he is: “Oh, there will be confusion at first, yes, but the young will quickly get used to the new name.”
Far from being daunted by Mayor Lacson’s vetos, Manila’s city fathers seem to have been goaded to fresh feats of rechristening, becoming, indeed, even more avid to perpetrate, not to perpetuate. Right after the first veto, Councilor Herminio Astorga proposed that Dewey Boulevard be renamed Rizal Boulevard and that Rizal Avenue be renamed Bonifacio Avenue. One wonders how soon the Luneta, the Escolta and Plaza Miranda will suffer the fate that now threatens Calle Azcárraga.
The man whose name has provoked such bitter debate was a local boy who made good, though one would bring down the nationalists on one’s head if one were to call Marcelo de Azcárraga a Filipino simply because he was born in the Philippines, as were his immediate forbears on both sides. Azcárraga is a Basque name and the general was of practically pure Spanish blood. On his mother’s side, he was related to the Palmeros and Versosas of Cagayan; on his father’s side, to the Ugartes of Manila. An uncle of his was a Filipino delegate to the Spanish Cortes in 1820.
Azcárraga was born in Manila in 1836. His father had a bookstore on the Escolta; his mother ran a shop on the other side of the Pasig. In spite of their eminent relatives, the parents seem to have been poor and Azcárraga was able to study at Letrán only as a working student: he did kitchen chores in the school in exchange for his education. But he was a brilliant student and, while still very young, already spoke of someday becoming a famous general.
From Letrán, he went to a preparatory military school that had just been opened in Manila, completed his military training in Spain, and was sent to Cuba. He was a lieutenant at 18, a captain at 20, a major at 22. During the Carlist revolt in Spain, he fought on the side of the crown and is said never to have lost a battle. In 1871, at 35, he fulfilled his childhood dream and became a brigadier-general.
Eight years later, he retired from the army and entered politics. He started as a senator, rose to become minister of war, was prime minister of Spain in 1897, when the Philippines was on the brink of revolt.
Azcárraga’s attitude toward his native country has been hotly debated. He is said to have advocated reforms in the Philippines and to have been sympathetic to the cause of the Filipino propagandists in Madrid. But there is against him the sending of troops to quell the Philippine revolt and his refusal to grant clemency to Rizal. Don Francisco Pi y Margal claimed that he made the petition and that Azcárraga rejected it. In justice to the man, however, we should bear in mind that, in those times, all Spaniards as well as some Filipinos regarded the Philippines as an integral part of Spain. Their attitude toward the Revolution was, therefore, what our attitude would be if, say, the island of Palawan should try to secede from the Philippines.
Most quoted against Azcárraga are three lines that Ferdinand Blumentritt wrote in a letter to Rizal: “Azcárraga has written me about the defense of your Noli. I did not know he is a Filipino, but it seems he is that only by birth.”
Yet we know that Azcárraga attended Filipino gatherings in Madrid, that he was present and gave a speech (being then already the top man in the Spanish government) when Juan Luna won a prize for the Spoliarium, and that he referred to the Filipinos in Spain as his “paisanos,” bidding the government to take special effort in serving them because “they are separated from their country and far from their loved ones.”
In his home in Madrid was a painting by Luna of a woman in Philippine attire with a child. Azcárraga himself had sat for the child, and he told visitors that the woman represented Filipinas and the child the breed of the land.
Can Azcárraga be considered a Filipino? In the present advanced meaning of the word, definitely not, not only because he was of Spanish blood but because he could not see the interests of the Philippines apart from those of Spain. He was an imperialist, not a pioneer nationalist. Yet it can be said that he helped advance the idea of the Filipino simply by being born in this country and bringing prestige to it by rising to the highest government position in Spain.
The idea of the Filipino did not suddenly emerge full-blown in the 1890s; it was the result of an evolution that’s still in progress, like all other nationalisms. Athenian in the days of Pericles did not mean every native of Athens but only a small minority on top. Roman did not mean all the people of the empire or even of Rome but only the elite who were citizens. France, England and Spain, in feudal times, chiefly meant, first the barons, then the king—and a French monarch who had brought the nobles to heel could say that all France was gathered in his bedroom. It took a long process to develop the idea that nationhood resided not in the nobility, though they may have been the first to be conscious of it, but in the masses. Of the Congo today, its present premier says that it is not a people but many peoples, not a nation but many tribes. There is as yet not even a minority to start the idea of the Congolese. As another Congo official says: “The people here have no memories.”
Filipino, too, once meant only a minority on top: the Philippine-born Spaniards or Creoles. The name might have stopped there but for an event in our history. In the early 1800s, the Philippines sent its first representatives to the Spanish Cortes. The representatives may have been of pure Spanish blood, but they went to the Cortes not as Spaniards but as Filipinos; they represented not Spain but the Philippines. For the first time the world was made aware that there was such a thing as the Filipino, the native of a land called the Philippines. Once the idea had formed, the Creoles were powerless to keep it to themselves any longer. It was bound to grow and develop, to reach down to the Indios, to spread roots throughout the land till it meant, not the minority on top, but the masses below.
If regarded as a step in this development, Azcárraga, too, might be included in the term Filipino. He was born on our soil, he grew up under our skies, and many of our forbears must have felt the thrill of nascent nationalism when they heard that the poor little boy who had trod the streets of Manila had become the prime minister of that faraway Reina Regente in Spain.
Indeed the Ayuntamiento of Manila had already expressed its pride in the local boy who made good by naming a street after him, long before he became minister of war or premier. By 1872, Calle Azcárraga was already on the map of Manila. It was probably given that name the year before, to celebrate Azcárraga’s promotion to brigadier-general and his victories in the Cuban war. Contrary, therefore, to Dr. Domingo Abella’s assertion, Calle Azcárraga—or the Tondo-Binondo portion of it, anyway—has borne the general’s name for about 90, not merely 50, years.
The original street was known as the Paseo de Felipe II and did not extend beyond the Tondo boundary. Shortly after it was renamed Paseo de Azcárraga, the authorities saw the need for a circumferential road linking the western to the eastern side of north Manila, which was then a jigsaw puzzle of islands: Isla de Meisic, Isla de Binondo, Isla de Tanduay.
A street, called Nueva, was opened across the island of Meisic and connected to Azcárraga by a bridge across the Canal de la Reyna. At the other end, Nueva was joined by a bridge across the Estero de Magdalena to the Calle del Gen. Izquierdo in barrio Trozo. Another new street, later called Paz, was cut to link Gen. Izquierdo to the Calle de San Bernardo in Sta. Cruz. San Bernardo stopped at the present junction of Azcárraga and Quezon Boulevard. There was an estero there—the Estero de Bilibid—and across the bridge that spanned it was Calle Yriz, which ended where the Mendiola bridge now begins, and where once stood the Plaza de Sta. Ana.
The old circumferential road was, therefore, a wide winding thoroughfare beginning on Manila Bay and ending at the Estero de San Miguel, and was composed of six different sections divided from each other by esteros: Azcárraga, Nueva, Gen. Izquierdo, Paz, San Bernardo and Yriz. By late Spanish times, the name Calle Azcárraga already covered about half of the circumferential road, up to the Magdalena estero. The portion called San Bernardo was later renamed Bilibid.
In early American times, the circumferential road was further widened and straightened until it gained its present semblance of a single continuous thoroughfare. The Americans decided that four or five names were too many for one street and the name Azcárraga was extended to the entire road from Manila Bay to Bilibid. A few years later, the remaining portion, Yriz, was annexed to Azcárraga too. The downtown portion of Azcárraga has, therefore, borne the name for only some 50 years.
The old Paseo de Azcárraga was open to the sea at its Tondo end and what old folks most vividly remember of that seaside paseo is that it was where the gallows was set up for public hangings—not a very pretty “historical tradition” and an argument against this “landmark” the pro-Rectos have missed. The gallows rose where, very appropriately, the matadero now stands; and one wishes that slaughterhouse could be removed so the street, whatever its name will be, could again run right down to the sea, as in the days when it was a paseo.
Today, the Divisoria, Tutuban Station and the various bus depots have turned this part of Azcárraga into Babel town and its uproar, stinks and turmoil are, for provincial newcomers, their first taste of Manila life.
Around Tutuban used to be a nipa village. Here, Bonifacio was born; here, the Katipuneros held their first meetings. Just past Tutuban, near the corner of Reina Regente, was a bibingka stall that was the most famous in the city during the 1920s. Renaults and Studebakers succeeded each other at night in front of that humble shop, where a couple of old women took what seemed hours to cook one perfect bibingka.
Farther on, beside the estero, was the Meisic police station, which controlled the turbulence of Tondo and which was to gain a sinister fame during the Occupation as one of the Japs’ torture chambers. Also in this neighborhood stood the house of a sister of Rizal, Lucía Herbosa, where the hero’s family stayed during city visits. Next door to it was the house of Maximo Viola, who helped finance Rizal’s books. Both houses—large rococo edifices dating back to the mid-1800s—were destroyed during the war.
Across the estero was Calle Magdalena, at the Azcárraga corner of which lived the Lunas. The brothers Juan and Antonio introduced the bicycle to this country and in a coliseum just off Azcárraga they sponsored weekly bicycle races. A few blocks away, on the other side of the street, was the residence of Don Florentino Torres, one of the first Filipinos to be named to the Supreme Court. The old alley beside his house now bears his name. In front of his house stood the Star Theater, a poor man’s vaudeville house, where, however, some very bright stars (Pugo, for instance) had their start. This part of Azcárraga has now become Manila’s funeraria row.
Rizal Avenue used to be Dulumbayan and near its present intersection with Azcárraga was the Teatro Libertad, one of the most famous zarzuela houses of the 1900s. When the zarzuela declined, it changed its name to Majestic and became a cine. It was pulled down when Calle Oroquieta was given an outlet to Azcárraga. A block away was the Bilibid, which, in the old days, was a circular building within a quadrangle of stonewall, surrounded by open meadows. Opposite the Bilibid was the Teatro Zorilla, the number-one zarzuela theater of early American days. It, too, was a circular building with tiers of windows all around. Inside were a horse shoe of boxes, an upper gallery and the largest stage in the city. It, too, later became a cine, ended up as a bodega. A school building is now being built on this site, which had been occupied by the Naric since the Occupation.
Next door to the Zorilla was the Oriente cigar factory, standing right smack on what is now the intersection of Azcárraga and Quezon Boulevard. On the same site, in the late 1920s, the FEU was born. Across the Estero de Bilibid was an open field where the circus set up its big tent in October. This field was bordered by thick bamboo groves, which, according to legend, were haunted by cafres. The field is now the FEU campus. The estero was buried when Quezon Boulevard was built but a foul vile remnant of it is still visible in Bilibid Viejo and Arlegui.
Calle Yriz, now the final section of Azcárraga, was a lovely street shaded by giant acacias and rivaling R. Hidalgo in the splendor of its houses. Here stood the homes of the Carmelos, the De los Reyeses, the Padillas and the Arces. The Arce house is now the old Selecta; the other mansions have become squalid boarding houses.
At the end of the street was the Plaza de Sta. Ana, now Legarda, which was alongside a stream so clear you could see the pebbles at the bottom but which is now so black and stinking it’s one of the most repulsive sights in the city. At the Azcárraga corner of the plaza was the Club Carambola, where young blades played billiards in the front rooms, card games in the back rooms. Beside it was the old Centro Escolar de Señoritas, whose girls were famous for their good looks, their brains and the elegance of their Spanish. The old Centro was a squat three-story building laced with fire escapes and so many Lotharios tried to climb those fire escapes Doña Librada Avelino had to ask for a special police detail to guard her internas from naughty males.
Opposite the Centro was the rear patio of San Sebastian Church, where charity fairs used to be held. The gayest season of this east end of Azcárraga was toward the end of January, when San Sebastian and the Centro celebrated their respective fiestas at the same time and the Centro señoritas, in pink ternos, marched in the procession of La Virgen del Carmen.
The old Azcárraga began with the slums of Tondo and ended in the fashionable world of San Sebastian and was throughout a sedate residential street. Even the Bilibid was so quiet a lot of people grew up in its vicinity without realizing it was a prison. On Saturday and Sunday nights, the street came to life as carriages full of dressed-up folk converged on the Zorilla and the Libertad. A friskier note was added when a streetcar line to San Juan was opened on Azcárraga. On Saturday nights, one saw the streetcars crowded with wild young men on their way to the San Juan Cabaret.
The present Calle Azcárraga begins with the transportation jungle of Divisoria and ends with the educational jungle between Quezon Boulevard and Legarda. Now a center of commerce, it has lost its acacias, its streetcars, and its fine old houses—except one. Across the street from Carmelo and Bauerman’s is a very long, colonial-style building that has kept its old appurtenances: its azotea, its shell windows and carved rajas, even its original sidewalk. Here dwell two spinsters—the Del Rosario sisters—who have watched their neighborhood invaded by commerce but have, through the years, stubbornly refused to sell or lease their house or have it altered in any way. Inside are some two-dozen bedrooms, ancient furniture and life-size images of saints.
The sisters are the last of their line; they have no heirs, but have three adopted children. They have become a legend. Stories are told about the fabulous sums they have been offered for their house and lot. Once there was a rumor they had adopted some Negritoes. Few people have been able to enter their old house. All around them, their street, the city, the people have been changing; but the years pass and their house remains unchanged, save that during Holy Week, the withered blessed palm branches at the always-closed windows turn into green ones.
There it stands, a monstrous monument against progress, on a street where all the other town houses have either vanished or decayed. This house has survived Calle Yriz and it looks as if it will survive Calle Azcárraga too.