I was born in Riverview Hospital in San Miguel on the feast day of Our Lady of the Pilar, the patron saint of the Santa Cruz Church so i was named Maria Pilar. Although Espiritu Santo Church was our parish, I paid homage to my patron saint on Sundays and her feast day.
How we came to live in Santa Cruz is a story in itself. My great grandfather from my father’s side was a Chinese trader from the mainland. He met a native woman while plying his trade. They married and settled in the parian. My grandfather became a naturalized Filipino before being accepted at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine in 1908, research said with the intercession of their neighbor, Don Ariston Bautista of the Katipunan who became his godfather.
When my grandfather married a nurse from Bulacan, he set up his clinic and residency in Quiapo. During the war, everybody moved there and it became a compound. Some of my cousins were born there. The compound was razed during the bombing of Manila. Temporary huts were built after that. When the families got the reparation money from the Japanese government, they moved to Quezon City except my father, who loved to bet on horses so chose to live near the San Lazaro Race Tract in Santa Cruz.
Our first house was on M. Hizon near Tayuman. There was a Chinese store at the corner where I bought ampaw, square-shaped kropek, Serg chocolate or choconut. Sometimes I would spend some coins on the pabunot for the chance to win balloons or cheap toys.
Across our house was the doctor’s house - that’s where we went for minor health complaints like sore throat, colds, cough or stomach ache. For more serious ailments, we’d be referred by my Tia Angela to her classmates from UPCM, some of them specialists at PGH. My godmother and relative, Ninang Purita Laureola, was also a doctor and practiced at Mary Johnstone Hospital in Tondo.
Beside our house was another big house owned by the Belmontes. On Tayuman, my classmate and best friend, the granddaughter of the Central Bank Governor, lived in another big house. My mother and I often went there because it was right beside my school.
There were mansions on Oroguieta and Felix Huertas too and I was able to go inside these houses only because our household help had a sideline as a moneylender to the other domestic workers. The only house I didn’t get access to was the Periquet’s because it was gated and far from the street.
Just as there were big and small houses (usually in the alleys), there were also good people and bad people. Drugs were not a problem at the time but gangs were. They made money through extortion. Some neighbors were in and out of jail for minor offenses. But I had a playmate whose father had been in jail for years so they were being brought up by their grandmother. The children went to private schools and were like the other kids, even more behaved.
There were headline-hugging incidents too, like the kidnapping of a pretty young woman by a wealthy businessman - she was found dead later. And the shooting of a family, including my two playmates, by a police escort because the man he was in charged of - the father of the children - had escaped while on a day pass. Then the policeman went outside and killed himself. That was a school day so we were spared the trauma. But I saw photos in the newspaper of my playmates, lying in blood on the floor of their dining room. There were also occasions that got the gossip mill grinding, like the special visit of a public official to a Bayside hostess at night. The street was blocked by police and his bodyguards patrolled the street. Even the children were amused by this show of power and grandstanding.
I only realized now that the family’s route was always towards Tayuman to Rizal Avenue. Maybe because there was a public toilet at the other end of the street near Malabon. Once a week, the refuse of the toilet was collected by a truck and we would close the windows and wait at the back until the truck had passed. Once a year, the fumigation truck went around spewing DDT in the government’s campaign against malaria. There was no advanced warning and the truck covered a wide area so there was not time to escape to another district or city. we were bothered only by the smell because we didn’t know yet at that time that DDT was toxic.
On Tayuman was the Catholic Trade School, my favorite store because I could go there with just my yaya and the money I have saved and buy jewel-like rosaries, gold trimmed stampitas or lacy veils for mass. They also sold sherry from Spain, the kind used for the mass. My mom bought a bottle once and she made us taste it (just a sip). I liked it. Since then my preference for wine has been on the sweet, fruity side.
Tayuman was also where Nomer’s Beauty Salon was located. Sampaguita stars went there for their dos and so we were able to catch a glimpse of some of them. Word would spread in the neighborhood if so much of a glimpse of the star was caught and us kids would run and wait for them to come out to their cars. Alas, my favourite star, Susan Roces, was elusive even in her and my cousin’s neighbourhood close to the Manalo compound and Sampaguita Pictures.
Santa Cruz was not very congested yet so we still had space to play in. We could play patinteroand piko in alleys. There were gardens we could steal flowers from for our lutu-lutuan using claypots. There was San Lazaro Race trucks to ride our bikes and skate. We also had a patio where my mom tended her potted plants and where we played with my cousins and friends. My brother and his equally artistic friend Danny Alano would hold puppet shows there. (Sometime they also made comic books or sold used ones). Admission was a clean, empty bottle or tin can that they sold for some coins.
Some Sundays my father would have a craving for lechon and would ask my mom to buy slices by the pound from a restaurant on Rizal Avenue. On Saturdays, the whole family would eat in Chinatown, in the same restaurants that the Leynes family frequented when they were living in Quiapo.
But for me the real treats were American food. My father, the picky eater, would have his steak and other things American at JUSMAG with my uncle who worked there. Then he’d buy us cookies, chocolates and bacon or hot dogs for breakfast at the commissary.
My mother would take us out occasionally on weekends. That’s when we’d eat American food. We’d browse and buy books and magazines first at PECO or Alemars and clothes at COD or Bergs, shoes from Syvels, then we’d have ice cream soda, shake or banana split either at Botica Boie or Magnolia. Other times we’d go to the American Women’s Thrift Shop in Malate and we’d eat at the new restaurants along Roxas Boulevard or in Ermita.
Outings with my father were rare but can also be special. It could be a ride on the Motorco (double decker bus) with a view of the sunset of Manila Bay and then somewhere to eat. One time it was Manila Hotel. And when we were older, outside of Manila, with my cousins Mel and/or Carlota.
Carriedo was where the shoe stores were and the first Shoe Mart was built at a corner there. Now Shoe Mart sells more than shoes and has become known only by its initials SM by the younger generation.
The second-hand bookstores were on Azcarraga (now Claro M. Recto). The RM Manlapat store for men was also there as well as the clinic of renowned optometrist Dr. Louie Casaje.
There were I think two first-run movie theaters on Rizal Avenue: Capitol and Odeon. For live theater, there was Opera House where Pilita Corrales, my father’s favorite, performed with vaudeville stars. And the crown jewel was the art-deco Metropolitan Theater.
The record stores were on Evangelista Street. But there was an upscale record store with listening booths on Escolta, Villar Records. That was where my cousin went to buy her LPs. I would go with her and my aunt because I thought it was cool. I liked going out with them because it always included shopping at Cartimar or Zurbaran for imported goods or to small textile stores for hard-to-find fabrics to bring to the dressmaker.
Santa Cruz had everything within reach by jeepney or by foot. It was a small, contained place. Sometimes we did not even have to travel to buy some things or get some services. Dirty ice cream, Sison’s Ice Drops, Filipino snacks like boiled corn, binatog, kakanin, taho and balut were sold by roving vendors riding on bikes or pushing carts. Some attracted buyers with bells or sing-song voices. One could tell by the ring of their bells or their voices if they were our favorites. Our pandesal was delivered by a young man on bike at 5 a.m. If we wanted to have our pandesal still hot so the butter melted when we spread it, then we had to get out of bed when we heard the toot of this bike’s horn, announcing his arrival.
The children of the neighborhood went to different schools - both public and private. The schools did not have catchment areas and so schoolchildren could go to any school outside of their district.
My brother started schooling at the Protestant Cosmopolitan School run by American missionaries so he was English-speaking. I got started on English too but was too shy to speak it but I guess reading books in English and hearing English helped me with grammar. I initially went to Espiritu Santo Parochial School.
My brother and I both moved to Cecilio Apostol Elementary School when a friend of the Leynes family became the principal there, Miss Reyes, also a Manileña. And to help her, my mother became active in the Parents-Teachers Association.
My brother moved on to another public school, Arellano High School, quite a distance from our new residence in the Blumentritt area while I went to Philippine Women’s University High School on Taft Avenue, even farther. My mother’s preference for me was Maryknoll because there was a school bus that picked up a neighbor’s kid. But on a visit to our family dentist on Rizal Avenue one summer, my mom met a PWU official while waiting for me at a dress shop downstairs. My mom and her sister also went to PWU HS so she felt disloyal by not enrolling me there. That same week, I was registered at Women’s. She got me a locker just outside the Principal’s office (bad for me because the principal had a practice of catching students whose uniforms were above their knees and those whose Beatle bangs were below their brows). She also paid for me to be a half-intern so I could have my lunch at the school dormitory and take a nap.
I had to take the jeepney to school. The househelp would accompany me to the bus stop, carrying my school bag and an umbrella when it rained. At the stop, I was with the other schoolchildren going to schools along Taft. A schoolmate from Espiritu Santo was there every morning with her younger sister and their yaya - they went to Assumption College. Then there were twins - one went to PWU and was in my batch and the other went to St. Theresa’s College Manila. Four years later I would meet the one from STC at UP Diliman. There were boys too of course but we did not mind them. They went to Letran or La Salle Taft. There was no traffic at that time so our travel time was just 30 minutes.
After high school, my brother and I went to the University of the Philippines in Diliman. This time we had to take the jeepney and the bus to another city. It took an hour. Students who lived in Manila took the red bus all the way to Quiapo while those from Quezon City took the white bus to Cubao, the last stop. I would get off at España and then take a jeep to get home.
When I was a staffer of the Philippine Collegian, we did our press work at Liwayway where my father used to work and on the street where my grandfather’s house used to stand.
I lived in Santa Cruz - though in my adult years on and off - until we immigrated to Canada. I proudly claim Santa Cruz as my hometown. I am a native of Santa Cruz, that’s where I came from.