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Looking Back
Images, names from the Spanish conquest

By Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 20:59:00 01/27/2009

Filed Under: history, Human Interest, Personalities

Miguel Lopez de Legazpi (1502-1572) is best remembered in the Philippines for the two places that bear his name: Legaspi City in the Bicol region and Legazpi Village in the Makati commercial and business district. If you scan the names of the posh Makati subdivisions, you will discover that with the exception of Forbes Park, which is named after American governor-general William Cameron Forbes, these places are associated with the Spanish conquest: Magallanes is named after Ferdinand Magellan; Urdaneta is named after Fray Andres de Urdaneta, the Augustinian friar who navigated the Legazpi expedition; Dasmariñas (who also has his name in Binondo and Cavite) is named after Governor General Gomez Perez Dasmariñas who was murdered by Chinese rowers during a ship mutiny; and Salcedo is named after Diego de Salcedo, governor general during 1663-1668.

Even in our nationalist times, we rarely had gated communities named after the Filipino contemporaries of the above Spaniards. With the exception of Sikatuna Village in Quezon City, I have yet to see Lakandula Village, Tupas Towers, Humabon Court, or Rajah Matanda Condominium. Is this lapse due to the way we were taught our history? Or maybe the ancient Filipino names do not have the same selling point as the Spanish names?

Offhand there are only two things I remember about Legazpi from my school history: First, that it was he who finally brought Spanish dominion over the Philippines, a project left unfinished after Magellan was killed in Mactan in 1521; second, that aside from the resistance from the natives, his biggest threat was the Portuguese. Our history books tell us that during the so-called ?Age of Discovery,? two countries competed for the lands unknown to the West during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Spain and Portugal were sending fleets to Asia in search of spices. Pope Alexander VI mediated in this rivalry by cutting the world in half like an orange and gave one half to Spain, and the other half to Portugal. In this arbitrary demarcation, the Philippines unfortunately fell on the Portuguese side. How we remained Spanish is subject for a future column.

One of the relics of this rivalry is the venerated image of the Nuestra Señora de Guia (Our Lady of Guidance), the image of the Virgin Mary venerated by the faithful in Manila?s Ermita district. Both Paul VI and John Paul II prayed at her shrine when they visited the Philippines. Like the Santo Niño de Cebu that was found by one of Legazpi?s men in 1565, the Virgin was found in what is now Ermita by one of Legazpi?s men in 1571. According to the late 17th-century ?Anales Eclesiasticos de Philipinas? the image was found after a hard battle for Manila between Legazpi?s men and those of Soliman.

A soldier walking along the shore of what is now Manila Bay found the miraculous image of Nuestra Señora de Guia on the center foliage of a pandan tree. It is said that the natives had built a quaint wooden temple for the image where it was transferred a little beyond the place where it was originally found. Where did this image come from? Who brought it to Manila?

One story is that the image was brought to the Philippines by the Magellan expedition, together with the Santo Niño de Cebu, perhaps, one of the three images shown to Humabon and his wife in 1521. Of the three ? a crucifix, an image of the Virgin and the Santo Niño ? the newly baptized Queen Juana asked for the Santo Niño. The image of the Virgin, if it is indeed the same image, is believed to have been given to the rulers of Manila as a present from the rulers of Cebu.

Another version is that the image, carved from the Philippine hardwood, molave, with its distinctive Asian rather than Western features, was made by pre-Spanish Filipinos and venerated as a ?likha,? a ?diwata,? perhaps even an ?anito.? I visit Ermita often to pray, but I cannot get the historian out of me and end up gazing at the Virgin pondering her origins. You can?t see her up close because she is high up on the main altar of Ermita church; we cannot determine from this vantage point how many times she has been painted and restored over the centuries. We see very little of the image, its wooden body obscured by elaborate embroidered finery. It would be impolite, even sacriligeous, for me to request to see the Virgin naked, so I just have to go by hearsay. Underneath her robes the image is not an anito, as nationalist historians would want us to believe; it is definitely a Roman Catholic image of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, an image of Mary without the baby.

To complicate matters, a Portuguese historian visiting the Philippines in the 1970s claimed the Virgin of Ermita resembled that of yet another similar image, also in a place called La Hermita (The Hermitage), overlooking Macao. Was the image brought by the Portuguese to Manila? If Legazpi had as much as acknowledged that Christianity was already planted in Manila before his arrival, with this image of the Virgin as proof, the admission would have strengthened the Portuguese claim to the Philippines. All this is now past history under the bridge, but the fact that relics and antiquities can make us rethink what we think we already know and move us to review the records broadens our view and understanding of an oversimplified textbook about the past, which has enough complexity to keep us thinking for the next five centuries.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.

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