San Sebastian Minor Basilica in the Philippines: Politics of Space and Heritage (Part 1 of 2)

In my almost two decades of being a resident of Metropolitan Manila, I confess I have not yet fully explored the city. One of the places that I have always wanted to explore was Quiapo and the University Belt where the majestic San Sebastian Minor Basilica (or most popularly known as San Sebastian Church) is located.

I have always wanted to see San Sebastian Church for various reasons. The most pressing was its exclusion from the Philippine tentative list or from being an official nominee for the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015. I was intrigued why there was so much buzz about its exclusion. I was also intrigued why the UNESCO Convention did not allow its reinclusion when the group of heritage conservators submitted a case for reinclusion in 2018.

The exclusion is based on a threat on its buffer zone and based on a threat of its sightline due to a government-approved construction of a high-rise condominium adjacent to the location of the basilica.

Finally, an opportunity to explore Quiapo through a project on heritage and performance!

On the way to the site, seeing the two towers from the road, my heart was pumping with excitement. The last time I felt like this was in Cologne, seeing the cathedral through the windows of the train. Then the same feeling I felt when I was in front of the Koln Dom (Cologne Cathedral), San Sebastian Church was an impressive and an outstanding piece of architecture.

Upon stepping on the grounds of the church the first time, I wondered why it is not even in the list of the World Heritage Site? 

This neo-gothic or gothic revival piece of architecture is located in a very busy district in Quiapo, Manila otherwise known as the University Belt. Surrounding San Sebastian Church are schools, universities and other academic institutions such as San Beda University, Centro Escolar University, University of the East Manila Annex, the TESDA Assessment Centers, Arellano University, Manuel L. Quezon University, and the San Sebastian College Recoletos de Manila, run and operated by the Augustinian Recollect Fathers, the same order responsible for the construction of the church beginning 1888 and finally completed in 1891. 

This being said, the area is a often crowded and sometimes even “rowdy.” For a strange reason, the cultural and economical life of an academic institution in the country attracts a neighborhood of make-shift eateries or restaurants known as carenderia, that sell budget meals seductive to students. 

At the same time, academic institutions and even public or government institutions attract street vendors who sell alternative meals with very low prices. The Department of Health, as a matter of fact, has put a sort of mark to the food as threats to nutrition. 

Then the fast-food restaurants are also all over the space.

The location, basically, offers a contrast to the main axiom of the Basilica as a space of worship. Incidentally, this is not a new thing in the Philippines. Most of the century-old places of worships are located in the town or city center coupled with several civic institutions that ironically create a curious case: how can a faithful invite a Supreme Being into a conversation whence the belief (at least in Catholicism) it is in the silence (and silence of the heart) where we can hear the voice of God.

What seems interesting in this intermarriage of the sacred and the secular in a single space is the proximity of traffic. Service, public and private vehicles also compete in the rowdiness of the space – vehicles are passing by to send students to schools, employees to their work offices or other individuals to chill at restaurants. Vehicles honking have become common even if a Eucharistic celebration is being held inside a church. The problem, there are no other roads that may be used. Short cut routes in the metropolis are also jammed. 

Photo: SAPT
Photo: SAPT
Photo: SAPT
Photo: SAPT
Photo: SAPT
Photo: SAPT
Photo: SAPT

In my view, the lack of proper, long-term and comprehensive urban planning has led to a confused sense of space. This confusion will not enable a sense of pride in a place. This is one reason why San Sebastian Church is perhaps having difficulty in the inclusion to the World Heritage Site list.

While heritage conservator are keen to safeguard the what’s and the must’s of heritage polities, I think amiss are the following: a more inclusive way of involvement in discussions of heritage and an educational system that will awaken a sense of pride in the ethical disposition of the Filipino people.

Heritage is not only a broad concept but also a contested sociocultural category. Often, only a selective few canonize something as heritage, which eventually becomes the official heritage without even consulting all involved stakeholders.  Heritage studies scholar Laurajane Smith argues heritage as a socio-cultural construct based on the politics of those who are labeled as “authority.” Therefore, heritage is an ideological construct. Not all stakeholders of the social sphere share the same understanding of the concept. 

Despite politics and debates on the conception of heritage, one thing is clearly evident as earlier discussed: heritage has become an important aspect of tourism industry. Nevertheless, heritage is also used as a brand – an industry marker. On this note, the  notion of heritage is leaning towards a mode of governance – an ideological mechanism in a similar way neo-Marxist and critical theorist Althusser looks at ideology as a modality produced by a dominant body (i.e. the State). Althuser notes that ideology provides an illusion that what itdoes is for the betterment of everyone. In this sense, heritage may be conceived as an ideological machine that does not guarantee a necessary protection of its constituents but it is formed to protect its own interests. 

To be continued . . .

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