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A Walk in the Park

First on the list was San Francisco Church. Historically, the oldest in the city of Naga, said to have been the first church to be built in the region by the Franciscans in 1578, it was bombed out during the Second World War and left mostly in ruins. It even was used as a moviehouse until a church was built with a modernist structure in the late 50s. I remember it before as lean and spare building. There was nothing awe-inspiring then about that church but it looked clean.

By my reckoning, there was nothing “old” anymore in the church that we saw in the late 60s. The only sign of its real age is the massive brick belfry detached from the entire church. Through these years, reconstructions and more renovations were added on to the building.

That night, as I looked at it from across the street, I was struck at how unique – not exactly splendid – the building was. Its façade gave it the appearance of pagan temple to some Greek deities. I looked up and there was a balustrade running around the roof, which resembled the stretch of balustrade ringed around the Basilica in Rome that we see in photos. Instead though of rows of saints, there were only two statues at either end of the balustrade: Sts. Peter and Paul, their backs flat, very Mesopotamian in influence.

If one stands on the side of the Quince Martires, one can see more differently designed forms. These, I suppose, are the wings that jut out on both sides. With their turrets, they are leaning more to the aesthetics of English churches. On one side, is a tower where a lighted small cross beams yellow; on the other is a tiny tower that could serve as belfry.

The front of San Francisco Church has Corinthian pillars, which are decorative as they do not support anything. They are small and do not manifest strength and stability. At the center of this façade, a semicircular awning fitted with bulbs shine on a huge space where written are words related to the coming election. The announcement with its light brighter than anything coming from the church seems to be the reason for its being.

From that church, I turned to the part dedicated to the Fifteen Martyrs. Contentious as the monument may be and the busts commemorated on it, they have been embraced by the city and the region. In the narrowly circumscribed territory of local history, I looked around amazed at how the trees have been gaudily choked with electric fuchsia lights. The monument itself has no lights, the dimming sheen from its rotund form borrowing whatever reflection hit it from the trees around.

How do we read design decisions like this, that we value more the trees than our heroes? Or do plazas tell a story, in this case about how we are terrible with memories and monuments?

My question would best be answered by a saunter into Plaza Rizal. Before reaching that part though, I needed to pass through the Plaza Quezon, which we knew as Quiosco or Kiosk (we called it “Kiosko” then not even knowing what it meant). It means a small stall or cubicle from which drinks, cookies, even newspapers are sold.

Today, Plaza Quezon can best claim to possess one of the most inscrutably appalling platform stages in the region. The roof over said stage has been extended but it has remained like our economy underdeveloped. On one of its side is a cramped police station, which, by how it looks, manifests no respect to our men and women in uniform. A fastfood store borders its edge. How significant is grilling in our culture that a site for culture and, well, political meetings, is graced by a store that grills chicken and offers unlimited rice as if we have wealthy farmers? Why not a reading nook? Or a clinic offering free consultations? Or a coffee shop subsidized by the city?

From those questions, I cross to a dark space aimed at honoring our national hero. Some months back, during the peak of the pandemic, the area surrounding Plaza Rizal was under repair. No one could miss it because the ubiquitous tarpaulin announced what felt as an ambitious project. You see, we are not only not a society of readers but we are also a society that does not seem to know what to do with wide, empty spaces.

On either side of the park, lattices and trellis-like cover conspire to mark the outer ridges of the plaza. Flickering lights eternally scintillate on one side; on the other more lights cast beams on sidewalk vendors selling all sorts of food even as they occupy the street off the plaza sidewalk.

Like the metaphorically lighted memorial to the fifteen martyrs, Rizal in his park is deprived of his own lights. This is not the only breach we commit in this park, for on one face of the monument, someone has placed tall letters blocking a greater part of its base and tablet. Where these letters used to spell out the much abused and tacky I LOVE pronouncement (hideous by itself), there are presently the words, NAGA NA.

I understand this is the new slogan of the present administration. These words are all over the city. I respect that. However, placed in front of the official city monument to Jose Rizal, the words become egregiously absurd and misplaced. It does not make sense. Since when have heroes been used as map guides?

Ironically, my walk in the park, an idiomatic expression which connotes something easy and pleasant, that night was a tedious fieldwork on bad taste.


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