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

In the first part of this post, heritage was argued to have become an important aspect of the tourism industry. It was used as a brand – an industry marker. In fact, the day me and my colleagues visited San Sebastian, there were also domestic tourists who were amazed by the grandiosity of the complex.

As stated in the first post, this  notion of heritage, is leaning towards a mode of governance – an ideological mechanism that provides an illusion that what it does 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. 

This is not to point out that I am anti-heritage. I am not. I am a believer of heritage. In particular, I take heritage as both a discourse and a praxis (performance and play). With this, my conception of it is partially coming from a firm conviction that heritage is a social construct. I guess, my personal bias is to critique its ideological and political content, especially since it is an abstracted construct. Also, my critique on heritage is based on the way it is used today as something coming from an agenda that does not include the “other” members of the community: the stakeholders such as the ordinary residents residing nearby.

However, in as much as I push for a more inclusive way of defining heritage, this could be a double-edge sword situation: the difficulty of engaging everyone in a consensus and the difficulty of comprehending a more critical understanding of it from everyone.

I would like to stress the latter.

In my view, the playful principle of pride-of-place side by side heritage seems to be not a common identifier for all community members in the Philippines. Take this conversation I had for instance, with a personnel (a security guard, I think) somewhere in a very important “heritage” building in Manila:

ME: Gaano ka na katagal nagtatrabaho dito kuya? [How long have you been working here?]

PERSONNEL: almost three years.

ME: Balita ko po kuya, gigibain na raw ito? [Is it true that there are plans for the demolition of this building?]

PERSONNEL: Oo. Luma na rin kasi, kailangan ng baguhin at palitan ng bago. [Yes, that is true because it is an old building. We need to build a new and a more modern building]

Then, this conversation on a resident residing along the street where the building is erected:

RESIDENT: Kailangan ng bagong condo unit kaya raw papalitan na yan. Mainam na rin yun para magkaroon na rin ng mas murang tirahan ang mga mag-aaral. Hindi na rin kasi makapag-provide ng dormitory ang school. [There is a need for a new condo-building. This is the reason for the demolition. For me, that’s okay. Our school does not provide decent dormitories for its students. The new condo-building will be helpful].

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

Often, we think of modernity as a necessity for progress. And that to progress is to get rid of the old. It’s easy to accuse the personnel and the resident to manifest what we call “walang pagpapahala sa nakaraan” (do not see the value of the past). But there is a larger problem here: home and school, two of the basic institutions that are conceived to be the cornerstones of learning have different ontological and methodological waya of teaching pride-of-place to the Filipino people.

For example, I do not remember critically discussing in elementary and high-school a sense of pride-of-place in subjects such as Arts, Sibika at Kultura (HEKASI), and Araling Panlipinan. In Arts, the emphasis is to imitate other existing works in your own “art” project. In Sibika at Kultura and in Araling Panlipunan, we were taught to memorize dates of historical periods, types of geographical locations, capitals and provinces of the Philippines, names and quantitative contributions of the Philippine presidents.

I think there is a need to reassess the way these subjects are taught!

True enough, my niece asked me to help her in her art assignment. I asked her how art and the other aforementioned subjects are taught in the classroom today. I was surprised that nothing much really has changed since my elementary and high school days some 30 years ago. It is just sad and pathetic, in a sense that, the Philippines has shifted to the K-12 curricular framework – still appreciation of the past, the traditions, the local arts, and culture are still considered invaluable in today’s social sphere. Just like my early school days, the level of learning is still a matter of memorization. Learning through appreciation is still out of the picture in the pedagogical system of the Philippines.

Just recently, there was a television show about the way indigenous traditions of weaving in the North Philippine (Cordillera) are taught in that region. To my dismay, the pedagogical framework is highly vocational-technical. The main priority is “how-to” and the “why-is” or “why-are” are in the fringes. The methodology of transmiting knowledge to the younger generation is highly positivist and that students are treated passive listeners. Memorization is considered the highest form of knowledge.

In this regard, the value of communal heritage seems to be impossible.

Then, there’s home.

While home is the very first place where one experiences care, love and hospitality; it is also the first place where one encounters “othering.”

Think, for instance, the concpet of bakod (fence), which provides a sense of insecurity once you are outside of it. This is because the fence signifies security and ownership.

Home is also the birthplace of tolerance, which in my view is a regulated form of aversion (read here: who wants to be tolerated anyway? Tolreance suggests that something is wrong with the person being tolerated). This regulated aversion is also dangerous for the way we perceive the world outside the domains of home.

In relation to the talks about heritage: pride-of-place is also often isolated within the domains of the fences of home. In some occasions, residents or homeowners have other forms of security that are often linked with the economy (read here: practicality before concerns on heritage).

Take for example the case of the homeowners or the residents near the San Sebastian Church. Some of the homeowners opened make-shift cafeterias. One homeowner remarked: “hindi naman namin ginagambala ang aming mga kapitbahay – wala kaming pinipewisyo – at may permit naman kami.” [as long as we do not disturb our neighbors. Besides, we have permits]. Then, the neighboring home remarked: “okay lang, napagtitiyagaan at matitiis naman sila, basta ba pagtiyagaan din nila pag kami ang nagbukas ng carinderia.” [we do not see any problem there – we tolerate them that is why. As long as they also be patient with us when the time we open our own cafeteria].

But when asked about their placeness in relation to the San Sebastian Church, both home-owners blame the local government unit for giving them residential and business permits in the current location where they stand.

Ah, the third culprit: urban or town planing. Let us talk about this sooner.

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