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MANILA, Philippines - Just nine years shy of marking 500 years since they first came together as colonizer and colony, Spain and the Philippines mark this week a special kind of friendship -- this time as partners, with a remarkable need of each other in an evolving world of ever-changing fortunes.
The themes of past and future marry in the activities lined up to celebrate the friendship that began on such an exuberant note for the conquistador in 1521, was mired in nearly three centuries of unequal treatment that saw over a hundred revolts by the colonized, and now finds both parties standing as equals -- confronting a turbulent present where each has a role for the other.
For nearly all of this week, the public forum has been filled with debates on whether it was right of the Philippine central bank to commit a $1-billion loan to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to support a global fund to shore up ailing Europe, where the biggest casualty so far of the debt crisis is the continent’s fourth largest economy, Spain.
To be fair, none of the critics of the $1-billion loan, to be drawn from foreign reserves built up with mostly the sweat of millions of Filipino migrant workers, criticized the loan just because they did not wish to help Europe, much less Spain. They simply thought the gesture too grandiose for a country that, for all its robust reserves, remains a debtor, after all; and mostly, because the loan is to the IMF, from which Manila exited three years ago, but only after enduring years of severe adjustment and austerity programs. One militant group even said lending to the IMF would not be an act of friendship for Europeans in distress like, say, the ordinary Spanish worker, because an IMF program always dictates harsh austerity schemes that hurt the poor while bailing out the rich like big banks.
If Spain is in need of friendly creditors these days, the Philippines is in need of old friends who can buttress its claim over its territory, precious chunks of which are in peril of being permanently occupied by its giant Asian neighbor China. And what better witness, indeed, can help Manila prove its “historical” claims to counter China’s own stubborn invocation of “history” than the old global power that once set its sight on conquering the world and then stumbled on an archipelago that it turned into a key Christian outpost in the Far East?
Art, knowledge, power
The timing, we’ve been told, is not deliberate. Call it serendipity, but on Tuesday the 26th, the Spanish embassy, with leading figures of the Filipino-Hispanic community in Manila, and champions of Filipino-Spanish friendship like Sen. Edgardo Angara opened an exhibit on “Three-Hundred Years of Philippines Maps (1598-1898).”
Most of the guests at the opening, at the central bank’s Metropolitan Museum of Manila, were instinctively drawn to the most famous -- because of the current controversy with China -- of the 134 maps on display: the “Mapa de las Yslas Filipinas” of Jesuit priest Pedro Murillo Velarde, rendered in 1734 and updated in 1744. This has been tagged the “Father” -- or “Mother” depending on, said the exhibit organizers, one’s gender preference -- of Philippine maps.
Even from afar, it was easy to see what the buzz was about, as one tried to squeeze into the small crowd of barong-clad, mostly old mestizos examining a huge reproduction of the Spanish priest’s classic map. Most fingers were pointed at just one spot, one the upper left side of the map, and one could hear the words “Masinloc,” or “Bajo de Masinloc” and “Panacot,” (the original name of Panatag Shoal, site of a standoff since April 10 between China and the Philippines).
The old Fil-Hispanic gentlemen kept shaking their heads and protesting: Where does it say there, they asked, that this belonged to China? You get the drift.
Thanks to the Panatag standoff, what would have normally been just a cultural sidelight in a weeklong celebration of friendship between two peoples has become a rich intellectual exercise, a forum for study and debate; a weapon, even, for a tiny archipelago eager to assert its right against an aggressive giant neighbor in a global arena.
In his opening speech at the exhibit launch, Madrid’s ambassador to Manila, Jorge Domecq, summed up the importance of maps to people’s lives: first, they are by themselves, great works of art. They are, second, archives of knowledge that help navigators and provide a window to a past -- to physical terrain and people’s looks and lifestyles. And last but most important, as Manila is painfully realizing now, they are instruments of power.
Senor Domecq called the map makers of those ancient times the “advance party for Google Earth.”
Art, knowledge, and power are fused, indeed, in the “Mother” of all Philippine maps by Padre Murillo Velarde. As described by the commemorative report on the exhibit, there are 12 vignettes on the sides of his 1734 map, six on each side showing native scenes and inset maps of Manila and Zamboanga. The drawings were done by another Filipino, Francisco Suarez. The first Filipino who worked with Murillo was engraver Nicolas dela Cruz Bagay, described as a “master printer, skillful engraver, and loyal friend.”
The map as a weapon for knowledge is manifested in Murillo’s meticulous attention to geographic details like mountains, river coasts, and bays, which “made his map highly useful for navigation.”
And as for power, Filipino leaders have of late been alluding to the Murillo map to beef up their arsenal in the maritime dispute with China.
Certain differences between the 1734 and 1744 maps of Murillo Velarde were noted by another Jesuit priest, Fr. Miguel Selga, in a bicentennial monograph in 1934, but one thing was clear: both maps carry the shoal called Panacot, now known as Panatag, off the coast of Masinloc town in Zambales province. The explorer Malaspina would later call it Baxo or Bajo de Masinloc.
“The Murillo Velarde map is the high point in Philippine cartographic heritage, joining Spanish science to Filipino artistry,” according to the maps’ exhibit briefing report.
Meanwhile, also part of this year’s celebration of Spain-Philippines friendship is the arrival next week of Queen Sofia, who is expected to grace a Spanish government-funded resource enter on climate change, something quite useful to many Philippine islands that must arm themselves to fight the rising risks from extreme weather. Corollarily, the Philippines has been looking to Spain for technical advice and investments in renewable energy. Queen Sofia is also expected to grace a special exhibit that is a treasure trove of Philippine textiles, showing the country’s rich heritage. Truly, the future and the past finding relevance in the present.
Maps tell story of colony, colonizer
Senator Angara, recently honored by the government in Madrid for forging Fil-Hispanic relations, said in brief remarks at Tuesday’s opening of the maps exhibit, “Collections of maps tell a tale as rich as any tome in history. Maps are the graphic record of how a nation was forged, the evidence of the fate of both colonized and colonizer.” Indeed. To a Nine-Dash map that claims most everything in China’s horizon, even the EEZs and continental shelf of its neighbors, a once-mighty conquistador now humbled friend presents a brilliant Jesuit’s cartography as the perfect foil. Where the dissonant voices of the past will lead a troubled present is anybody’s guess. For the moment, as one guest at the exhibit said, “we hold on to our maps, they [China] hold on to theirs.”
Note: the “300 Years of Philippine Maps” exhibit runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila at the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas complex on Roxas Boulevard, Manila, until July 31. Museum hours are from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Saturday. The museum is closed Sundays and first Mondays of the month and on holidays. Entrance fee for the exhibit is P100.
Interesting lectures, all scheduled at 10:30 a.m. at the Museum’s Tall Gallery 4, complement the exhibit:
• “The Mapping of Philippine Provinces” by Christian Perez, June 30, 10 a.m.
• “Power, Beauty and Knowledge in Philippine Antique Maps” by Leo Garcia, July 7
• “From Night Stars to Rocky Shoals” by John Silva, July 14
• “Biography of Fr. Pedro Murillo Velarde” by Dr. Benito Legarda Jr.
• “Cartography in Art” by Florentina Colayco, July 28