The conviction and devotion of the penitents brought home to me the fact that people had been worshipping at the Malate Catholic Church since1591. Manuel Estacio De Venagas and Governor General Diego Fajardo could’ve sat in those pews. And here we were in 1970 and people still asked help from the statue of the Virgen de los Remedios, which was brought from Spain by Fr. Juan de Guevara, OSA, in 1624. The statue had survived the Chinese invasion of 1662, the British occupation of the church in 1762, the Great Earthquake of 1863 and the destruction of the church in February 1945. Then let’s leap forward to1948. The war was over, and people were picking up the pieces of their lives. I tried to imagine what it was like and why they were rebuilding the church and not the old walled city. It didn’t seem that long ago. Rebuilt as strong as ever the church had been the scene of many historical events, including occupation by the British in September 1762. It had also been under the successive administrations of the Augustinians, the Secular clergy the Redemptories and the Columbans. I recalled praying in the church myself during a deadly storm, though I’m not a God-fearing person. I knew then that I was onto something. Up until then I attributed other people’s devotion to God to superstition and fear, and I thought that I operated in a different universe than they did. I thought though we lived on the same planet, in the same country and even in the same neighborhood, we looked at the world differently. I felt sure that there wasn’t anything in the church for me, while I watched with interest people pray to a very beautiful, small (two foot) statue of a virgin that people relied on when times got tough. I didn’t knock it, really. Still until I went to the church for safety she (the stature) hadn’t made much of an impression on me. I had only gone into the church one time before then, as a tourist, and though I lived just around the corner from it going inside it again never crossed my mind until the storm. I was a newcomer, a foreigner, and an outsider without really a memory of the place and was far away from home. Not from there, I also didn’t know the language (and since everyone spoke English I didn’t think I needed to learn it). What history of Manila and the Philippines I knew came from what I picked up on my excursions and from reading historical plaques.
“May lakan diyan,” they would say among themselves and from this remark the Rocha house with its magnificent baths and garden got its name. Over time Rocha was forced to sell the place for $1,100. For the next 22 years, Malacanang was neglected and forgotten until it was sold to the government on January 2, 1825 for $5, 100. Still it remained abandoned until a royal order on August 27, 1847 made it the official residence of the Governor General. General Aguinaldo, though he was installed as the President of the Republic, never got to live there and by 1940 had long been ignored and was a bitter old man. The Marcos family moved into the palace in 1965 and still lives there.
The bridge can easily be missed, but it will always be remembered. The bridge is on Mendiola Street, and I crossed it when I went to see the presidential palace and went to pay my respects to the students who died there. I had to stand on the bridge that separated the palace from the heart of downtown and where the battle between the police and the students and other demonstrators raged on through the night. I missed it because I’d been too timid to go and because I didn’t think it was my fight. As I stood there in the rain, the memory hadn’t quite faded. Beneath the gray clouds, the traffic over the bridge had returned to normal, but the memory of the battle hadn’t quite faded. It seemed like the heavy traffic was in itself symbolic of the blood that flowed through the veins of the students and was sadly spilled. So regardless who was in power the life-blood of the city continued to flow, like the torrents of rain that ran through the gutters and mixed with the tears that ran down my face. Mendiola, I cried, Mendiola!
Then with sadness and admiration, as if I was discovering something that I shared with those students, I stammered the name of the bridge again: “Mendiola, Mendiola.” Yet I never bothered to learn the names of the young men who died there.
Nick Joaquin, in a famous play, has a character say, “Oh, I can almost see them.” In dusty bookstores and run-down tenements “they would gather… Aside from this sort of nostalgia they had very little in common. The men were literate and illiterate and were of the gentry and serfs. But all of the men constituted a certain physical type and spoke, or used to speak, the same language. They were confused in the same way, and the proof was in how they told the same stories.”
I could almost see what happened on the bridge. I asked a tourist what he knew about the battle, but the exercise meant nothing to him. I repeated my question. He gave me the same puzzled look. All I can say is that it might as well have happened, instead of 1970, during the time of Wesley Merritt, the first American governor-general of the islands.