Journey to the Philippines, Part 1

Marita (far left) with Paloma (far right) with family friends at Casa Blanca in Intramuros the day before the 80th birthday party for Marita’s father’s second wife’s granddaughter, Jess Huberty. Everyone’s wearing traditional Filipino blouses as requested by the birthday girl.

This post is my friend Marita’s revision of our earlier interview write-up of her first trip to the Philippines with her daughter Paloma. Part 2 will deal with her second trip with her brother Rick and his wife.

By Marita Lopez-Mena

Grandfather, Enrique Lopez y Mena

I’ve wanted to make the journey to the Philippines since I was a child. Born in 1883, my father and his two sisters enjoyed a colonial lifestyle in Manila that he spoke about frequently. He told stories about the family’s big house and luxurious way of life. The tales painted a paradise for me– a happy, lush tropical place. I am quite sure that the upper classes who lived in Manila (The Pearl of the Orient), the Spanish and the Americans, had a much different life than most everyone else.

Manila is a huge city of over 12 million people, but when my father was a teenager the entire country had a population of under 7 million. The city is densely populated today and growing rapidly. Metro Manila has been steadily re-built from the ground up in the decades following the massive US bombing while liberating the country from the Japanese during WWII. I wanted to see what life was really like where my family lived for so many years, so I made the big trip from New York City to Manila.

My father was born in Vigan, an old Spanish colonial military settlement [previously Chinese]. I believe that his father was assigned there as the head of military forces. The family moved to Manila, probably when my father was nine or ten. As a colonial from a prominent family his life of privilege included a young boy who slept on the floor by his bed at night.

My father’s mother was an active businesswoman, and he saw her by appointment every two or three weeks, a more European style of parenting than I grew up with. He said that he had to sit in a straight-backed chair, legs uncrossed and answer questions about how he was faring in his studies. He also reminisced about my grandmother’s parties. There were a lot of servants in this house, and they would wrap their feet in cloth and dance in the ballroom to polish the floor. He remembered dancing on the floor with them and laughing and playing. It sounded like an idyllic early childhood from his point of view, but I always wondered what it was like for the workers. His father died of consumption at about the age of thirty. His mother was left with three young children to rear. She owned an indigo plantation, and shipped the product all over the world on square riggers. She was part of society and involved in the life of Manila. She was one of the founders of La Cruz Roja (the Red Cross) in the Philippines.

I calculate that my father lived in Manila into his early twenties, so that would be approaching 1912 or so. He traveled a good deal, circling the globe four times in his life. He was seventeen the first time he sailed away. My grandmother paid for him to travel first-class on steamships, and I remember his set of monogrammed trunks and suitcases which had heavy canvas covers with stitched leather corners that rested in our attic. The set included everything a young gentleman of the world might need, including a round leather box for his shirt collars. He also had a leather bound flask with nesting stainless cups for travel, his own wooden deck chaise with a steamer blanket. He traveled alone on this first voyage. He said that he got halfway around the world and was on his way back when he ran out of money. He wired his mother for more money. She said something that translates to, “too bad.” So he went over first class and returned on the same ship as a stevedore working below decks.

Grandmother, Felicitas Ortiz y de Leon

He described this experience as a turning point in his life. He hadn’t thought much about who was outside his social class, and how they lived, until then. He was an independent, gregarious young man and didn’t object to performing chores he was not accustomed to. He made many friends as he worked his way home. My mother said in later years she never knew whom he was going to invite to dinner at their home in New York State — the electrician, the plumber – anyone he took a liking to. He apparently was socially flexible and also entertained a count, a Russian princess and other dignitaries in his lifetime.

We know little about our grandfather, he died young of consumption, but everybody knew my grandmother as a strong and opinionated woman. When my father was working for the government in the Philippines, his first wife and their daughter Nina, my half-sister, lived for ten years in the Malacañang Palace, the presidential residence and offices. My grandmother, when she came to visit her son and his family, would roam through the palace in her long gown. Nina remembered that she would encounter her in the dark hallways, something she dreaded as the grandmother would jump out of the shadows wielding a little pair of scissors that she kept tucked in the deep pockets of her dress. She would grab Nina and insist on giving her bangs an impromptu trimming. The women in the family had a tendency toward thinning hair in front, and she was convinced that if she cut Nina’s hair back she would have thicker hair. My father probably never spent any time on the indigo plantation that my grandmother operated. It was said to have been one of the largest ones in the world at that time—but that might have been an exaggeration. It was said they had sixty people working between the house and the plantation and the numbers don’t add up to a huge operation. I’ve heard that when one of her ships went down laden with indigo, she would wade into the sea and threaten to kill herself. The servants would “rescue” her from the waves. It must have been a tough decision as to whether to bring her to shore or not.

Paloma and Marita at a cathedral in Dumaquete

When we came to Manila I expected its size, but thought there would be more of the old Spanish neighborhoods still existing. I didn’t realize how thoroughly the American bombing had decimated Manila. Our family homes were blasted along with everyone else’s. People I traveled with during our stay who came from the same old families said their houses were destroyed after the Japanese invaded and appropriated them. On their way out, they burned and sacked homes. An American man in our party said that part of his family died and part of it survived, but every single thing they owned was gone. After the war they would sometimes find their silverware for sale in stores or on little tables on the street. They’d have to buy back their possessions.

My younger daughter, Paloma, and I spent nine or ten days in Manila and then went north for three days to Vigan. We visited the cathedral there to find my father’s baptismal certificate (the priests were very helpful and located it within fifteen minutes of our request). We hoped to find an address where the family lived. We toured the right area with a young, municipal employee who volunteered to help. We got a much better sense of what the Spanish architecture was like—large, square or oblong houses on the streets with window panes made of shell, tiled floors and beautiful hardwood floors—but never located the house my grandparents lived in. Then we moved on for three days at the seashore outside Dumaguete in Negros Oriental. It’s a very pretty place, with lush land and country roads.

Maria (Marita) Cerilia Lopez-Mena

We have no relatives in the Philippines that we know of. The person who enticed me to visit was my father’s second wife’s granddaughter. She remembered my dad fondly from when she was a small child. The other people we traveled with knew my Aunt Marita, my father’s favorite sister, the woman I’m named after, who perished during World War II. She was caught in Manila when the Japanese invaded and one day was marched away to her death like the family members of two people we were traveling with. A gentleman named Rod Hall remembered my Aunt Marita with clarity, as he was twelve years old when he last saw her. The Japanese had taken most of the houses in the neighborhood by the time they got to the one owned by this man’s family on the same street. My aunt retreated to his family home after her own house was seized. Other friends were there too, sleeping four and five to a bedroom. Aunt Marita had been out shopping for scarce food the day the Japanese came to the house. The families were separated, some were left and some were taken away. When my aunt came back from shopping, the Japanese soldier at the gate refused her entry. For some reason she insisted that she lived there and was thus was captured and never seen again. No one knows for sure where the two women went, but it was thought that they were taken to the Masonic Temple—a building the Japanese used as a prison. The incarcerated were kept alive for a few days, families even brought them food, and then they were shot and burned.

Almost everybody has been friendly and helpful in Manila. We attended a birthday party in the Casa Blanca for the woman who contacted us on a whim – my father’s second wife’s granddaughter. Some were Americans, some Spanish-Americans, some Spanish-Filipinos or Filipino-Americans—any number of combinations. They were all very welcoming, pleasant and curious to know why we were here and what we were doing. They found it amusing that we were visiting my father’s second wife’s granddaughter

My overall experience of Manila was colored by the contrast between the fortunate who are prosperous and those mired in poverty. Even in the financial district in Makati, there was a lot of wealth but also a lot of extreme poverty—people living on the streets or in tin shacks, small children asleep under a tree alone in the midst of people walking on the sidewalk.

St. Sebastian Church in Manila
The sanctuary at St. Sebastian Church

Metro Manila is suffocating in air pollution. They tell me it’s so much better now than in the past, but I can’t imagine how. When we were walking around and asked for directions, everyone we approached was willing to help. People said we shouldn’t take taxis, but we found them reliable. We’re used to taxis in New York City and a cab is a cab. So we began to feel more adventurous. But we did a lot of walking.

Paloma at a shop in B-Side, Makati

One day my daughter and I walked over to The Collective, a dark, dank former warehouse which now houses stores and the performance space called B-Side. It’s a community project where counter-culture events take place. We walked through all manner of neighborhoods to get there, including some where we were the only Americans. People seemed a little curious about what were we doing there, but I felt less comfortable there than my daughter did. That said, we had a lovely time. At a little restaurant we split a good sandwich, and at another Paloma bought one of those gadgets that shreds melon into curly strips. I purchased two of the best chocolate bars I’ve ever had in my life — handmade and beautifully wrapped.

As a student I didn’t learn a lot of history about the Philippines, but I am grateful that to have learned more by visiting this wonderful country. We wanted to visit the San Sebastian Cathedral as someone mentioned that our family crypt might be there, but we ran out of time. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to understand my father’s birthplace a little better by traveling with people whose families have lived in Manila. I don’t know if I will ever return, but some questions have been answered and new ones have arisen from seeing firsthand the country where my family lived so long ago.

The Lopez-Mena family graves in the St, Sabastian crypt. The caretaker said someone had come recently and lit a candle. We have no idea who that might have been.
The crypt at St. Sebastian.

I wouldn’t have missed this trip for the world. It has put to rest certain questions that I’ve always harbored— a measure of the reality against the fantasy. I didn’t really expect to “find” my father or a lot about my roots. He died when I was very young — six years old. I never met my namesake aunt, but inherited some family jewelry that I treasure from her older sister, my Aunt Encarnacion. In a photo of my grandmother in her mantilla, she is wearing the diamond earrings that I was bequeathed. Under the circumstances, the best I could discover at this late time would be a glimpse of their personalities from a story somebody who knew them might tell me. And that has happened with our kind traveling companions and has been very satisfying.

A reader writes:

I love this piece about historical Manila; so many themes that resonate with expats.

Another reader writes:

Very interesting great story.