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Philippine connections in Madrid

/ 04:07 AM September 08, 2021

If the city of Madrid were a human body, one of its lungs would be the Parque del Buen Retiro. All 1.4 square kilometers of it on the edge of the Spanish capital have manicured gardens, a serene lake, and wide-open spaces that make it live up to the name “Park of Good or Happy Retreat.” It provides an escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. Filipino tourists who enjoy the park today should know about two historical connections both quite sad because they refer to race.

The first is the impressive Palacio de Cristal del Retiro, a conservatory erected in 1887 as a temporary space for the Exposición General de las islas Filipinas. The Crystal Palace has remained, but is no longer used as a conservatory or greenhouse, it is now a branch of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía that specializes in modern and contemporary art.

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When one sees the Crystal Palace and the pond across it, one should remember that Jose Rizal railed against the 1887 exhibition commenting on a certain “Basalia” one of four individuals who died in Madrid as part of the live ethnographic exhibits. Rizal was neither in Spain nor did he visit the exhibition, and one would think that his anger was directed not so much on the notion of Spain’s benevolent rule over the Philippines but more on the stark difference between the “primitive” non-Christian tribes and the lowland Christian “civilized” and “educated” Filipino that he identified with. Many of the artifacts: paintings, sculptures, clothing, etc., from 1887 can be viewed on the ground floor of the Museo Nacional de Antropología, a short stroll from Retiro Park. In the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Missouri, humans from the Philippines were again exhibited but in a more circus-like way.

The other historical reference goes all the way back to the time Retiro was a royal park not accessible to the public. In the 18th century, Mateo de los Angeles caught a white (albino) stag in Leyte. As a rarity (some would say freak of nature), the white stag was presented to the Spanish governor-general in Manila, who recycled it and sent el venado blanco to Madrid as a gift to Fernando VI, a patron of the arts and sciences who established the royal academy of art, an observatory and botanical gardens were he kept rare and exquisite animals.

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De los Angeles and another Filipino were sent to Spain with the stag that turned out to be a huge hit with Fernando VI who sent it to the Parque del Buen Retiro to graze freely instead of keeping it in a cage. Only De los Angeles stayed in Spain as the stag’s keeper; the other Filipino, whose name I have yet to tease out of the archival documents, returned to the Philippines despite an allowance and lodging in the park. De los Angeles later married a Basque woman. After the death of el venado blanco, Fernando VI and his successor Carlos III continued De los Angeles’ allowance even after he had returned to the Philippines where he re-invented himself as a volunteer in military campaigns against Muslims in Mindanao.

After the British Occupation of the Philippines (1762-64), no less that Simon de Anda, the “Liberator of Manila” long before Douglas MacArthur was born, sent a memorial to Madrid seeking honors for De los Angeles following his able command of Filipino soldiers in the resistance against the British. Not content with medals, honors, and even a pension for life that extended down to his children, De los Angeles wanted to become “white.” Since glutathione and skin whiteners had yet to be invented, De los Angeles sought to be declared “white” by royal decree. His petition was either refused or ignored providing his winter of discontent. He spent the remainder of his life sending memorials to Madrid on Spanish abuses in the colony.

These are leads provided me ages ago by the late Luciano Santiago who saw the De los Angeles documents while doing archival research in Spain. So far, I have only been able to track two documents online and hope that a younger historian will dig up all the material and write about the fascinating story about a white stag and the brown Filipino who wanted to be made “white” by royal decree. If younger historians pursue these leads, I’m sure we will find more Filipiniana collections in Retiro Park and elsewhere around Spain.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]
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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Filipino connections in Madrid, Looking Back, Philippine history
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