As painful as the truth. Manila is right now losing yet another cultural heritage treasure. There are people, among them local government officials, determined to make our capital a maze of high rises with no distinguishing aesthetic features; they want Manila to look like New York, I was informed. Very soon, it might not be worth a selfie because if you’re in Manila, you could be anywhere.
Why is it so abominably difficult to enforce heritage laws in our country? The wealthiest real estate developers act as if they have never seen Europe nor Latin America where heritage and culture have a premium and are properly conserved, protected from the wrecking ball. In Spain, Italy, Mexico, to name only a few, built heritage are conserved or given adaptive reuse and have become must-see tourist destinations.
We have Republic Act 10066 known as the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009, initiated and authored by the late Senator Edgardo Angara. While drafting the bill, he chaired many committee hearings in the Senate and invited representatives of non-government groups affiliated with the preservation of our built heritage, intangible and living culture. He formed Focus Groups, Task Forces that had regular meetings with the National Historical Commission, National Museum, National Commission of Culture and the Arts (our de facto Department of Culture), the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the whole gamut of historical and cultural associations. In one of those meetings, I was surprised to see representatives of the Philippine National Police.
The task was monumental, it took 10 years for the bill to be signed into law, after which a group of lawyers made the Implementing Rules and Regulations. Yet, even if the Philippine Constitution itself states that culture, heritage and the arts have to be protected, R.A. 10066 is barely enforceable. To have it respected and obeyed, one has to file interminable court cases. Republic Act 10066 was strengthened by Republic Act 11961 signed on Aug. 24, 2023 by the incumbent president, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. (PBBM), but we are still in the rubble of loss.
Serendipitously, Santa Ana rose to national prominence and regional fame because of PBBM’s parents. In 1966, the parish priest of Santa Ana had the convento repaired and while digging the patio, workers unearthed skeletal remains buried with gold personal adornments and porcelain trade ware. The National Museum archaeologists were immediately informed and they conducted scientific digs. Apparently, the church was built by Spanish friars on the highest point of Santa Ana de Sapa which turned out to be sacred burial grounds of our ancestors. During Christianization, it was a common practice to superimpose the symbols of the new religion on top of the ancient one.
A field museum was set up in the patio while the diggings went on. Meanwhile, President Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. convened the Manila Summit in October 1966 at the behest of the USA who needed allies for their war in Vietnam. The prime ministers of the former South Vietnam, of Australia and New Zealand came, as did the president of South Korea. The “guest of honor” was no less than President Lyndon Johnson.
While the “war hawks” of Asia’s so-called free world debated about the Vietnam war, First Lady Imelda Marcos, presented the gentle side of the summit. She invited her counterparts to the Santa Ana Field Museum where Dr. Robert Fox, head of the archaeology department of the National Museum, gave an erudite lecture about the significance of the Santa Ana archaeological excavations. So, that was how the world came to know about Santa Ana de Sapa, the former kingdom of Namayan, a pre-colonial community by the Pasig River that traded with merchants from China and other southeast Asian kingdoms. Spanish friars built the church precisely on the highest point of the ancient burial ground, a device of Christianization.
The event was given full coverage by both national and international tri-media. However, the Camarin of Our Lady with 11 of the oldest oil paintings on wood was not included in the itinerary. I suppose it was because the other First Ladies were not Roman Catholic.
In 1973, President Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., signed a Presidential Decree that established the Santa Ana Site Museum as a cultural landmark, but it was only in 2008 that the National Museum declared the Camarin de la Virgen a National Cultural Treasure. On Nov. 1, 2020, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines declared the church a National Shrine.
Ignoring existing Republic Acts, Presidential Decrees, other requirements from the Department of Environment, an Archaeological Assessment of the National Museum, there’s construction activity of three towers in the area behind the Santa Ana church, in the buffer zone of the Declared Heritage Zone of Santa Ana despite the Cease and Desist Order from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. The Camarin of Our Lady is cracking, are we going to lose a National Cultural Treasure?