Tales of Huks, communist horror during the Spanish Civil War, the imminent invasion of Mao Zedong’s red horde were the specters of my sheltered childhood on Donada street, Pasay. Yet, a gentle world unfolded behind the unbreachable stone walls (topped with shards of broken glass) of my Guerrero grandfather’s house. The property merged with those of the Roces clan (a daughter had married my uncle during WWII) and to us children that entire block enclosed by Vito Cruz, Donada and Menlo streets formed a “liberated area” for our adventures. How thrilling it was to roam about with a band of cousins and discover the many-layered mysteries of that private preserve. A series of tiny wooden doors swinging from garden walls provided access to the various sections of that secret realm. Our ubiquitous yayas could never catch up with us.
The first door, behind our house, led to Morita’s (my uncle’s wife) home, a boat-like fantasy in white with a porthole on its façade. It was a perpetual work-in-progress because every time she received a new issue of “Better Homes and Gardens” from the USA, my aunt would go into a remodeling frenzy. But, despite the heavy engineering, the balance of nature was never once upset. Morita built around the mabolo tree. The small swimming pool she designed hugged a resplendent acacia. The tiered flower boxes encrusted on a low detention wall along the driveway burst with zinnias, but the wild cadena de amor were never uprooted. She did not enlarge a daughter’s bedroom in deference to four fruit-bearing santol trees by the window.
Beyond the swimming pool, a second door connected to the third domain of even greater proportions where Pachot, Morita’s sister, lived with her brood. There was a wired corral where chickens, geese and goats lived in perfect ecological harmony. A majestic duhat tree was protected by a low fence. We climbed its branches to rip off purple fruits, before a colony of orange ants could nibble on them. An old mare grazed beneath a balimbing, and during one summer, Pachot hired Norman, an English refugee, to give us casual riding lessons.
The colossal caimito, fallen on its side during the Battle for Manila, had sprouted a luxurious canopy of copper-tinted leaves. We swung from its low branches feeling like acrobats on flying trapezes. A few yards away, we mined “batong buhay”, flintstones of various shapes; we discovered fire until shadowy dusk. In the abandoned artificial waterfall, we unearthed a cache of bullets, moist and covered with patina, which the yayas told us not to touch. They were probably left behind by Japanese soldiers, one of them said. No, by the HUKs, I insisted with authority. The night before, my grandma had frightened us to sleep with tales of Taruc and Capadocia. The Cold War was just beginning.
As it turned out, what made life apocalyptic on Donada street was not the “Yellow Peril “nor the “Iron Curtain”, but the heavy presence of the American School on Harrison and Menlo streets. The drama unfolded at high noon, on that precise day when all the working Guerreros and Roceses had decided to have lunch in their homes. The American School people had put up a wooden “Do Not Enter” sign that blocked passage to Donada from Vito Cruz. As the family cars converged at that crucial corner, my grandpa’s vehicle among them, his driver began tooting the horn to alert the houseboy about our arrival. Just then, a couple of American School buses tried to impose their self-proclaimed right-of-way. My relatives disembarked en masse angrily protesting the lack of democratic consultation. “You gringos, go practice what you preach!” The wooden sign was hastily removed and two-way traffic restored.
Once, I heard angry voices, dull thuds, running and stomping, shoes grating on asphalt. I rushed to the living-room window only to see a neighbor pummeling a blond boy his size with furious blows, even if the latter was already pinned on the ground. About a dozen Filipino youth formed a tight circle around the pair. They were not ganging up on the foreigner from the American school, but they booed and hooted while egging on their compatriot. I had never before witnessed such violence; my knees were shaking uncontrollably.
That stretch of Donada street encased by Vito Cruz and Menlo is under no one’s jurisdiction. That is where Manila ends and Pasay begins, so neither city wants to provide security nor basic public services. In the 1980’s, the naked, mangled cadavers of 4 unidentified salvage victims were propped up, in the most cynical fashion, against the portals of my grandfather’s house. That must be, precisely, the “twilight zone” where no laws apply.