Sunday, February 19, 2006

Caught up with Cebu's Colonial Past

Cebu, the first city I've ever seen in the Visayas, always surprises me with something new—an avant-garde bridge, a luxurious mall, a swanky hotel or what have you—whenever certain occasions lead me to visit this boom town; all of them impressive testaments to the progress sweeping the metropolis that reinforce its reputation as the undisputed Queen City of the South. That's why I still look forward to the next visit even if I've been there on countless times during the last two decades. 

Despite its changing landscape, there are a number of things in Cebu that have remained virtually untouched by the relentless wave of urbanization that continues to bash its shores. Take for instance the ancient landmarks that speak so much about its colorful history. One of the city’s more prominent historical shrines I've visited on several occasions is Magellan's Cross. 

Located just a stone’s throw away from city hall, it was put up in honor of the Portuguese navigator who landed on Sugbu (Cebu’s old name) in April 1521. Following a mass held in the island, Ferdinand Magellan planted a wooden cross on the very spot where the shrine now stands and then gave the Sugbu chieftain’s wife an image of the Santo Niño.

Housed inside a roofed chapel-like concrete kiosk, the cross or, more accurately, a replica of the original that was planted almost 500 years ago, never fails to attract the crowds. Every time I go there, the place is often packed with curious tourists, beggars and itinerant peddlers selling a variety of items — guitars, rosary beads, sweets, to name some.

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On one occasion, I found myself accosted by women devotees on my way to the covered  pavilion, selling candles and offering to say a prayer for me, for a fee, of course. I politely declined and asked them to leave me in peace. Along with other tourists, I turned my attention to the kiosk’s center of attraction, the wooden cross standing on top of a pedestal. Below the cross is a sign claiming that the real one is encased inside the replica made of tindalo to protect it from people who have been chipping it away for its alleged miraculous healing powers.

pic nameLooking up, I noticed the colorful mural on the pavilion’s ceiling that depicted the various events during the arrival of the conquistadors in the island — the conversion of the natives, the image of the Holy Child, and of course, the planting of the cross, among others.
In one sortie to the city, I stumbled upon another famous historical landmark: Fort San Pedro. Located at the city’s port area near Plaza Independencia, it was originally built in 1565 under the orders of conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi to protect the settlement from the persistent attacks of Moro raiders. Rebuilt in 1738, the triangular-shaped fort was once called San Miguel but it was renamed to Fuerza de San Pedro later. 

Through the years, the former Spanish fortress stood as mute witness to the unfolding of historical events in the city. It became a barracks and a school during the American regime; a refuge and hospital during the Japanese occupation; and an army camp during the early postwar years. Starting in the 1950s, the crumbling bastion, or some parts of it, was turned into a mini-garden, a clinic, a public works office and—guess what—a zoo!

By the 1960s, it was so dilapidated that a major rehabilitation effort became very imperative if only to save this important historical landmark. It took the collaboration of the city government, a civic club and the tourism board (now the Department of Tourism) to mount the massive undertaking. The restoration work was said to have progressed slowly but the facade, the main building, the walkway and the observatory roof garden were faithfully restored after one and a half years.

At present, the fort houses the DOT office, an open-air theater and a park. Part of it has also been turned into a museum where I came across some well-preserved legacies of Spanish rule in the country such as documents, paintings and sculptures.

Cebu also holds the distinction of having the country's oldest street—Colon, which has been in existence since the time of Legazpi. Located in the downtown area, it was named after Christopher Columbus, the Italian navigator credited for bringing the Americas into the forefront of European attention following his explorations in 1492.

In its heyday, Colon used to be the hive of the city’s business and commercial activities. Following the rise of shopping malls and the exodus of entrepreneurs and merchants into the city’s booming uptown area in the 1990s, it lost quite a significant portion of its customer base. 

The economic crunch in recent years, however, has brought back many shoppers to Colon which has always remained a haven for bargain hunters. Most of its old shops and even the newer ones offer quality merchandise at prices way below those sold by their counterparts at the malls.

At the rate things are going, there’s no stopping to Cebu’s march to progress. With the passage of time, its landscape will continue to change but its historical must-sees will be there to provide fixedness to a city that’s forever in a state of flux. :D

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Contemplating in Child Jesus’ Country: Cebu City

Considered as the Philippines’ oldest Spanish permanent settlement, Cebu might just as well be called Santo Niño country. Nowhere in the entire archipelago can you find a place as devoted to the Child Jesus than the city. Central to this devotion is the original image of the Holy Child which is enshrined at the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño.

If I’m in town, I make it a point to pay homage to the miraculous icon inside the church, which is located just a few steps away from the kiosk housing the cross that Portuguese maritime explorer Ferdinand Magellan planted on the island in 1521. 

Whenever I go there to attend a mass, say a little prayer, light a candle, or contemplate on life, I have this awesome feeling of peace and serenity engulfing me. Truly, it must be the Santo Niño who’s at work on such occasions.

In the many times I’ve been to the Basilica, I always encountered a steady stream of devotees praying before the image that has shaped Cebu and the rest of the country’s history since Magellan came to Sugbu (Cebu's old name) almost 500 years ago. History has it that he gave the Santo Niño’s icon to the Sugbu king’s wife after her and her people’s baptism.

When Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi landed in the island more than 40 years later, he and his men found an image of the Santo Niño which is believed to be the one that Magellan gave to the chieftain’s wife. A church—the first one in the Philippines—was then ordered built on the very spot where the icon was discovered.

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On a recent visit, I came across an interesting back story about this centuries-old shrine whose rank was elevated to a Minor Basilica by Pope Paul VI. Still being run by the Augustinians, its original structure, which housed the image that the conquistador found, was gutted by fire. The same thing happened to the second one that was also burned down in 1628. It took a little over a century for the third structure to be completed, but this one stood the test of time and the elements, eventually becoming the renowned seat of widespread devotion to the Santo Niño.

Every third Sunday of January, thousands of devotees, not only from Cebu but from other parts of the country and the world, flock to the basilica to pay homage to the miraculous image of the Holy Child through Sinulog, Cebu’s biggest, grandest and world-renowned celebration. I haven’t been to the city during the festival day itself but I'm still hopeful I'll make it there one of these days. 

Just across the basilica, there's this sprawling, open-air theater type structure—the Pilgrim's Center—where Friday masses and other religious activities are held. As Santo Niño's devotees kept growing over the years and easily filled up the basilica beyond its capacity, the Augustinian authorities deemed it wise to put up the center to accommodate the growing number of worshippers.

Also, you’ll find hawker stalls outside the basilica selling all sorts of religious items—rosaries, icons, prayer books, candles, etc. Years ago, I bought a replica of the Santo Niño’s image in one of the stores there which now count among the many souvenirs that came from Cebu. Whenever I’m down and out, I just take a look at the statuette and say a little prayer that somehow eases whatever pain I have.
There’s another religious shrine in the city which I also had the chance to see on two separate occasions: the Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral. Located a block away from the Basilica, the church is the ecclesiastical seat of the metropolitan archdiocese of Cebu.

It took almost a century for this church to be completed due to numerous problems. Construction, which reportedly began in 1719, was suspended when funds were diverted to finance military campaigns against Moro raiders. Done in typical Baroque style just like many Spanish churches in the country, the church was finally completed in 1811 after so many delays.

Much of it, however, was destroyed by Allied bombings during World War II, with only its belfry, facade, and thick walls surviving the bombardment. In the 1950s, a massive reconstruction was relentlessly pursued to restore the cathedral into its former state. One time, I was tempted to take some snaps of its dazzling interior but a wedding ceremony was in progress, deterring me from doing so. 

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pic nameLike the many centuries-old shrines all over the Philippines, the churches in Cebu stand as tenacious and timeless landmarks of what can be considered as Spain’s greatest legacy to us: Christianity. 

Unfortunately, there are some people who argue that these religious edifices are nothing but symbols of the tyranny, oppression and injustice we experienced during the Spanish regime. I’d like to think though that without them we’d never get to know and understand Christ and his teachings, much less become the shining beacon of Christianity in this part of the world. :D