Looking Back

Seeing Madrid through Rizal’s eyes

/ 04:30 AM November 08, 2019

Contemporary art installed in the Palacio de Cristal in the Parque del Buen Retiro, Madrid obscures its conflicted history. Visitors who take the trouble to read background information will learn that it was built for the 1887 Philippine Exposition, inaugurated by the Queen Regent Maria Cristina, and was originally used as a greenhouse for Philippine flora and fauna that formed part of the exhibits that underscored the culture and products of the overseas colony. Not much is known, however, about the people chosen and imported for the show: Lowland Christians in their typical costumes were the success of Spain’s civilizing mission overseas, while specimens from the Cordilleras and Muslim Mindanao represented the salvajes, or savages to be conquered, Christianized and civilized.

Rizal mourned Basalia from Mindanao, who died shortly after arrival, and criticized the way Filipinos were displayed as curiosities before the Madrid public, very much like freaks in a perya. To visualize and contextualize Rizal’s essay, one has to visit the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (across the Atocha train station) where most of the artifacts of the 1887 Philippine Exposition are now preserved: paintings, sculptures, wood carvings and other works of art, highlighted by two large works by the 19th-century Filipino master Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo; samples of clothing and textiles, from women’s garments in delicately embroidered piña fabric to a marvelous man’s hat, or salacot made from finely woven nito ornamented with silver. As in all European and American museums, there is an assortment of weapons from the Cordilleras and Mindanao—armor, shields, spears, arrows and bladed weapons that, together with weaving, basketry, farm and fishing implements, as well as models of houses and other artifacts, depicted daily life in the colony. Hanging in the ground floor display area are huge bancas dug out from two huge trees, and were used in the small pond in front of the Palacio de Cristal during the 1887 Philippine Expo.


To make up for all the years I had put off taking a Carlos Celdran Intramuros tour, I had planned to surprise him by popping up unannounced at his Halloween Rizal in Madrid tour. But he passed away unexpectedly two days before I left Manila for a Sentro Rizal lecture series, funded by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, through London, Frankfurt, Berlin, Hamburg, Vienna and Madrid. In all these cities, I made the effort to trace Rizal’s footsteps, a task that I should have done systematically years ago on previous visits.

Celdran’s death gave my recent trip a sense of urgency and regret, which drove me to walk aimlessly around the streets of Madrid last week, clocking in from 12,000 to 20,000 steps a day, unusual for a couch potato who hardly registers 500 in Manila, as I am usually seated by a desk or caught in traffic. Armed with a map of Rizal addresses downloaded from the Philippine Embassy website, I began my tour guided by Google Maps, but got lost and ate my way through the streets of Madrid.


While walking, I remembered Pedro Ortiz Armengol, writer, historian and ambassador of Spain to the Philippines, who took me on a life-changing tour of Rizal’s Manila. With an 1872 street map, we started in Binondo, located the house of Kapitan Tiago, and ended in Intramuros at the site of the Monasterio de Santa Clara where Maria Clara was last seen wailing during a dark and stormy night. School did not teach me to study Rizal’s novels as closely as this; it took a Spaniard to show me the physical plan of Rizal’s Manila through its unchanged features: streets, rivers, esteros, ruins and landmarks.

A pity that when I reconnected with Ortiz Armengol in Madrid in the late 1980s, we did a Benito Perez Galdos walk, following the path of characters in the novel “Fortunata and Jacinta” that ended in a meeting with the 19th-century writer’s grandson, instead of tracing the houses where Rizal lived in and the places he frequented.

Seeing Madrid through Rizal’s eyes is not just a physical walk through history and tourism, it will also uncover our conflicted historical relationship with Spain.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Madrid, Palacio de Cristal, Parque del Buen Retiro, Rizal
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