Looking Back

‘The armpit of the nation’

/ 05:22 AM January 11, 2019

Quiapo is the Spanish respelling of “kiyapo,” a green aquatic plant that allegedly gave the town its name because it was abundant there. The plant

is also known as Pistia stratiotes, a scientific name that does little to describe what it looks like, hence we have other names: water cabbage, Nile cabbage and water lettuce.  However, despite its name and appearance, kiyapo is not edible, and is often used as an ornamental in aquariums and fish ponds.


Quiapo is more than the Black Nazarene, whose feast on Jan. 9 concluded without mishap. The town is many things to different people: It used to be the national center of pirated films on DVD. Plaza Miranda, the space in front of the church, used to be a speaker’s corner before the martial law years, where one could say anything publicly to a crowd without fear or censorship—until the space was silenced by grenades thrown at Liberal Party candidates during a caucus on Aug. 21, 1971. If Kilometer Zero, the point near the Rizal Monument in Luneta where all geographic distances in the Philippines are reckoned, is the navel of the nation, Quiapo was, to Pete Lacaba, “the armpit of the nation.”

Part of Quiapo—the streets radiating from San Sebastian Church—used to be where one found the heaviest concentration of wealth and culture, before the postwar exodus to Forbes Park in Makati. As a college student, I spent many Saturdays exploring the crumbling old mansions in the area that had been turned into squalid boarding houses with ancient hardwood floors, the ground floor spaces with granite or “piedra tsina” subdivided into various “accesorias.” Of the many mansions there, the most impressive and eccentric was the Ocampo Pagoda; the rest were merely pale shadows of what they had once been when the Resurreccion Hidalgos, Padillas, Paternos, Tuasons, Legardas, Aranetas and many more lived there.


I would peer into what was once the Bellas Artes or School of Fine Arts, now relocated to the Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in Bataan, trying to imagine art education in the time of Fabian de la Rosa, Fernando Amorsolo and Guillermo E. Tolentino. Quiapo today begs the question: Why is it that when we talk of Manila as a beautiful place, we only do so in the past tense?

One of the houses I heard much about was the Bahay Nakpil-Bautista—built on Barbosa, now Ariston Bautista—that was home to Gregoria de Jesus, Andres Bonifacio’s widow, who had married Julio Nakpil. Nakpil was a musician and Katipunero who composed the stately “Marangal na Dalit ng Katagalugan” (1896), which might have been our national anthem if not for the ascension of Emilio Aguinaldo, who chose Julian Felipe’s march, a whisp of incidental music, that has now grown into “Lupang Hinirang.” Then there was Juan Nakpil, National Artist for Architecture, his wife Anita Noble (Miss Philippines 1926) and their daughter Edith Nakpil Rabat (Miss Philippines 1956), whose conservative parents did not allow her to compete because of the swimsuit category.

Of Julio Nakpil, we have stray documents, “Apuntes” or “Notes” as he called them, written for prewar National Library director Teodoro M. Kalaw, now preserved in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Division. In one note, he mentioned a suggestion he made in February 1897 to take down the bells from the churches and “visitas” of Pasig and melt them into cannons and falconets to be used in the struggle for freedom. In another, he described the just desserts of Severino Taiño, a tailor who was assassinated in San Pedro Tunasan, Laguna. Nakpil was Taiño’s target for assassination on orders of Emilio Aguinaldo. He cited eyewitnesses to Antonio Luna’s assassination in Cabanatuan in 1899 who quoted Aguinaldo’s mother asking afterward: “Ano? Humihinga pa ba (Is he still breathing)?” Are there more such papers?

Unfortunately, Nakpil did not leave enough for a whole book, frustrating historians who wish he and others like him had taken pen to paper, documenting their memories and thoughts and adding new pieces to the incomplete jigsaw puzzle that is our history of the Philippine Revolution. Fragments these may be, but there is always the lucky chance that in some forgotten folder in the National Library or somebody’s bodega lie materials for other important episodes in our history.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: black Nazarene, opinion, Philippines, Quiapo
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