The gateway to America on Roxas Blvd.
Almost everyone from the Philippines who are now in the United States had passed through the American Embassys gate in Manila. Filipinos traveling to the U.S. had to personally appear before a U.S. Consul in the embassy for “the interview which, to many, has been the most critical moment in their lives
By Simeon G Silverio, Jr.
Publisher & Editor
San Diego Asian Journal
The Original and First Asian Journal in America
From the book “Homecoming by Simeon G. Silverio, Jr.
December 27, 1992
Their vehicle reached the end of Roxas Blvd. with Luneta Park, now called Rizal Park, looming ahead. He glanced at his left and saw the venerable United States Embassy, with its fence made of white cement posts and black iron grills.
It was a Sunday afternoon and since it was not a working day, there were no long lines of Filipinos seeking American visas. During ordinary days, people queued as early as four oclock in the morning to be the first served when the gate opens at eight.
Almost everyone from the Philippines who are now here in the United States had passed through this gate. Filipinos traveling to the U.S. had to personally appear before a U.S. Consul in the embassy for “the interview which, to many, had been the most critical moment in their lives.
“The interview would make or break their future. It would decide whether they would be allowed to go to the U.S. and possibly escape poverty and an uncertain future back home in exchange for the golden economic opportunity in the land of promise. Many of his friends and cousins had tried during the past years to get American visa approval; a few managed to get it the first time, others had sought them many times and were still coming back. The long lines at the U.S. embassy every day had become a national symbol of the Filipinos economic and sometimes political desperation.
To thousands of Filipino nationalists, however, the front gate of the United States Embassy was not the site of their manifestation of their love for America. Rather, it was where they proclaimed their hatred of the United States by staging violent demonstrations, lambasting the Americans for “imperialists policies and “anti-Filipino attitudes.
During his days as a university student in the late 1960s, student leaders would bus them from their campus in Quezon City to the front gate of the embassy where they would listen to speeches denouncing the American involvement in the Vietnam War. Afterwards, they would buy boiled corn on the cob and eat them in the bus on their way back to campus. Their demonstrations were so peaceful at that time that they were like excursions. After only two years, however, in the 1970s, all student demonstrations had become so violent that clashes between students and helmeted riot police were a common fixture resulting in many injuries and deaths.
There were not many changes at the Luneta Park since the last time he was there. It seemed that all the government did during those times was maintain and occasionally spruce up the facilities during special occasions like during Independence Day celebrations.
Luneta Park was called Bagumbayan (new town or country) during Spanish control in the 19th century. Here was where the Spainards executed Philippine National hero Jose Rizal by musketry in the 1800s, sparking an insurrection against the colonizers. In the 1960s, he met an old man who claimed to have seen the execution as a young boy while perched on a tree in Bagumbayan.
The old Rizal Monument still remains to be the centerpiece of the park, with honor guards standing at attention on its four corners during the day.
In the 1960s, the government tried to modernize the monument by adding a tall, tower like structure. People complained and longed for the old one for sentimental reasons. The tall structure was removed and presently marked the boundary of Pasay City and Manila on Roxas Blvd.
The area between Roxas Blvd. and Taft Avenue used to be a vast vacant land with tall cogon grasses. In the 1960s, newspaper columnist Teodoro Valencia solicited public and private donations and converted the place into a modern park.
Renaming it “Rizal Park, Valencia raised enough money to maintain well-manicured lawns and add stone benches, water fountains, trees, a concert park, a Chinese Garden, a Japanese Garden, a Garden for the Blind, a planetarium, a library, toilet and phone facilities and other features. He employed ex-convicts as maintenance personnel and the place became a haven for the public ever since.
He hated Valencia for his columns, especially his defense and praise of Marcos even until his death right after the dictator was toppled in 1986; however, he did admire Valencia for what he did to the Rizal Park. The place has been an inexpensive recreation area for the rich and poor alike. It was where the very poor would spend a Sunday afternoon with their kids and forget their troubles for a moment, one of the few luxuries they could still afford. Going there was so inexpensive since all one needed to do was take a jeepney ride. During Sunday afternoons, a free concert was held for the public to enjoy. During the hot summer days, all one had to do is sit under a tree near the seawater and enjoy the cool breeze all day.
As a young boy, his being quite sickly compelled his mother to go out of her way to bring him to Luneta everyday to breathe the fresh morning air. He was about five in 1952 and they were living near Dapitan Street in Sampaloc District in Manila. She would wake him up at about four oclock in the morning, and they would take a jeepney ride to the park. Halfway during the thirty-minute trip, the sun would be up and they would pass under Santa Cruz Bridge and Jones Bridge. He looked forward to passing through these two dark tunnels each time. As the jeepney they were riding in passed through each tunnel, the surroundings would turn very dark and suddenly the light of the day would appear again. To a young boy like him, it was a fascinating experience forever etched in his memory.
They would get off in front of the Manila Hotel where two very large green World War II cannons were displayed. The site of those cannons was their family meeting place whenever they were at the Luneta. The cannons had already been removed from the area, yet the Manila Hotel remains majestically in place. A five-star luxury hotel, it was the headquarters of General Douglas McArthur before and after World War II. Prominent people like former general and later U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower, American movie star Tyrone Power and his wife, and many other famous figures stayed in one of the hotels suites.
The hotels colonial style edifice has been refurbished and a new, multi-story building was built on its side to accommodate the modern influx of tourists. During their early morning trips, he and his mother would sit on the concrete structure that separated the water from the shore and watched the waves slap on the big stones below. They could see e crabs and other aquatic animals crawling on the stones as passenger bancas and catamarans would beckon customers to take a boat ride around the bay.
Luneta was also the site of Independence Day celebrations. During the 1950s, when television and other modern-day entertainment facilities were not yet available, one of the highlights of the year for many Filipinos was watching the Independence Day civic and military parade there. Philippine presidents and high government officials and other dignitaries would watch it from the grandstand while the public would line up along the parades route. Soldiers and tanks would be featured in the parade together with colorful floats with beautiful Filipinas onboard; private and government institutions sponsored this event. His father-in-law, who had artistic skills, would make colorful floats for the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes where he worked. His mother-in-law, a beauty queen, would grace these floats for years, even by the time she already had two small children.
He still remembered when the parade was rained out in 1956. They had to stay inside their car and listen on the radio to President Ramon Magsaysay as he delivered his Independence Day speech in the grandstand nearby. That was his last Independence Day Speech. Before the next years came around, he died when his presidential plane, Mt. Pinatubo, hit Mt. Manunggal in Cebu. AJ
(To order copy of the book, “Homecoming by Simeon G. Silverio, Jr. send email to email@example.com)