Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Luneta: Notes on Filipiniana in Mexico City

Edward Basse


Illustration by Dante Carlos

A Philippine historian’s archival travelogue to Mexico City reveals the
twinning of cities and the twining pasts

    They stand gazing—

    they wonder:

    is there something beyond that spectacle?

-Ryszard Kapuscinski, “Magellan Reaches Tierra del Fuego”


In 1964, the Republic of the Philippines and the Republic of Mexico celebrated “Philippine-Mexican Friendship Year,” the 400th anniversary of Miguel López de Legazpi’s voyage, a trip that would see the establishment of Spain’s first permanent settlement in Asia. That year the venerable Filipino historian Carlos Quirino, later a National Artist, supported by a mix of university and government sponsorship, went to Mexico to take a closer look at the Filipiniana in two key depositories located in the capital, Mexico City: the Archivo General de la Nación and the Biblioteca Nacional.

Although Filipiniana has been a part of the Mexican archives since at least 1790, they hadn’t been a popular source of information, at least for general Philippine history. Two simultaneous events in 1957 changed that: Chicago’s Newberry Library, with a Filipino consular official’s help, microfilmed some of the Archivo’s Filipiniana, and Filipino historian Gregorio Zaide conducted independent research at the Archivo, publishing his Riquezas Filipinas en los Archivos de Mexico shortly after. These events gave Filipino scholars a better idea of what the archives had, what else could be available, and provided the impetus for their subsequent visits.

Upon his return, Quirino published an essay on his experiences. As a graduate student at the University of the Philippines, I came across the essay, “Philippine Documents in Mexico,” in an old edition of Asian Journal. It’s a short piece, accompanied by a supplementary bibliography. It gives a brief sketch of the circumstances of their visit, an outline of Mexico’s archival impact on Filipino historiography up to that point, some selections that piqued his interest, and, ultimately, his ambivalence concerning the archive’s long-term usefulness.

Although Mexico’s holdings are by no means as prominent as, say, Seville’s Archivo General de Las Indias, and Quirino is, for the most part, correct in his assessment of its relative value to Filipino scholars (as I would later find out), the prospect of such a peculiar and esoteric connection caught deep hold of me. I had traveled to Mexico’s capital a half-dozen times before, and was familiar with the city: the Mexico City of Rivera, Bolaño, and Sabines, but one that had always been informed by my life in Manila. The same can be said for the other. Both are cities of vibrant colors and startling contrasts, and they parallel each other in startling ways: disjointed Spanish edifices and towering skyscrapers, flamboyant folk calligraphy and magnanimous public murals, and the oscillation between grinding poverty and the glamour of immense, concentrated wealth. Mexico City is probably the closest analogue we Filipinos have to a Manila that could have been, a Manila shipwrecked by the torrents of war.

For both nations, many of colonialism’s psychosocial photogenes remain, but these afterimages of race, class, and the national imagination have not seen broad, simple assent but calibration and reconceptualization, so that the nation became from its birth a new, territorialized subject. There is a strangely poignant statue in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the city’s Tlatelolco district. The words, carved into a large slab of stone overlooking the square, pontificate on the Aztec surrender to conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1521. Underneath, it soberly states:

Neither triumph nor defeat; it was the painful birth of themestizo people who are Mexico today.

This always struck me as something that could have been said about the Philippines, something suggestive for Filipino populist nationalism in the 21st century. It wasn’t until the spring of 2014 when an auspicious opportunity to once again visit Mexico City arrived: a chance to reflect once again on the conversation between two nations which once flew under the same flag, and the possibility of seeing for myself the documents that trace the early days of this accidental communion. Setting aside a couple days, I made the necessary arrangements and, amidst the city’s sweaty huarache stalls and smog-choked avenues, retraced some of Quirino’s steps.


Since eternity was out of stock,

Ten thousand aging things have been amassed instead.

-Wisława Szymborska, “Museum”


After arranging a visit in advance with the visitor’s center staff, I took a taxicab from Centro to the Morelos district. Stepping out, I stared at the archive’s façade, admiring its crenellated towers. Things have changed since Quirino’s time. In 1980, the Archivo moved from the old city to a converted prison, and there’s a certain irony knowing that what once housed the nation’s criminals now contains Mexico’s historical wealth.

After checking my bag at the entrance, I walked into the main arcade. A large Mexican flag hung from the ceiling. Walking the corridors of the archive felt neither tomblike nor ecclesiastical. Each brick cellblock has become a separate gallery, fronted by glass wall entrances. A stone plaque fixed on a gallery wall reads, “Documents safeguarded here have been registered as UNESCO’s Memory of the World.”

Stored in the converted cells, immured behind imposing iron gates, lies the El Ramo de Filipinas, a collection of 63 volumes. Far from our archipelago, across the greatest expanse of water on Earth and residing in the most populated city in the western hemisphere, these books, totaling over 50,000 pages, paint a portrait of the Philippines from the 17th century all the way to the birth of Mexican Independence (ca. 1815). Consisting mostly of administrative documents, El Ramo recalls Mexico City as the former seat of Nuevo España—that its own history of blood and commerce, fire and sword, was inextricably linked with a chain of islands that would one day share in its revolt against colonial rule.

El Ramo embodies the complex system of exchange between Mexico and the Philippines within the global nexus of Spanish imperialism. As we know, the viceroys of New Spain were tasked with the administration of monarchic orders and state concerns in the Philippines: dispatching the annual situado stipend, handling commercial and maritime litigation, addressing Manila’s requests for medicine, Mexican silver, and European wares, and providing financial and logistic assistance to the clergy.

The majority of these documents probably refuse to have more purchase outside small circles of hardened history students: tax invoices and military payrolls; pleas for salary increases; reports from provincial municipalities; shipping bills of lading, sketches, official correspondence and other records of imperial logistics, forgotten pensions, supplements to the situado; extensive galleon registries, real warrants, inventories; reimbursement receipts for services rendered. There’s even an exhaustively authoritative list of tribunal ministers from 1796 alone, including officers hailing from “Zebu,” “Ylocos,” and Pangasinan.

While this might all seem like the fastidious detailing of anxious bureaucrats, the El Ramo makes manifest its value to those with the faintest clue of Philippine history: several lively reports of Taal’s eruption history, including gorgeous sketches; the arrest sheet of Ysidro Abad, a carpenter, for apparently filching high-priced Chinese goods from a market stall; multiple Moro attacks on Spanish outposts; a warrant for a vagabond named Toribio, who attempted to burn docked penitential galleys; a detailed description of Mohamat Alimuddin I, Sultan of Sulu, and his entourage during a diplomatic visit to Manila. Alongside abeyant property disputes singed with envy are numerous sketches of local costumes; rough outlines of fortress plans share the same volume with complaints of languorous indios; and there’s even fairly candid gossip about a Spanish lieutenant, reprimanded for sexual impropriety with one Maria Espinoza (after repeated warnings).

Signs of an increasingly cosmopolitan Philippines-Mexico nexus pepper the archive. Many of the allocated army staff and soldiers were Mexican, and a significant number of executive administrators in Manila were peninsulares who had put in time in Mexican offices. There are the details surrounding Fabián de Fonseca’s appointment as Iloilo’s “provincial mayor,” years before he produced the monumental Historia General de Real Hacienda. Documents meticulously track the movements of different vessels through the coast, highlighting the presence of British, Dutch, French, and Japanese in the region. And it was through the Philippines that New Spain first heard of Captain Cook’s first voyage and “discovery” of Australia. There’s also a report on the 1805 Balmis Expedition, a major international public health experiment: To ensure effective inoculation against smallpox throughout the Empire, over 20 young orphans were collected from various Mexican states and sent to Manila. One by one, they were inoculated; each orphan acted as live carrier of the virus while the vessel made its way across the ocean.

There’s a lengthy and fascinating account of the state’s reaction to Commodore George Anson’s capture of Nuestra Señora de Covadonga off Cavite in 1743—it so alarmed local traders that galleon shipping was suspended for four years, and authorities only authorized one ship’s departure for that shipping cycle: It arrived in a Jalisco port in the early months of 1744. The captain, fearful that the British were still stalking Acapulco’s waters, waited diligently for reports along the Mexican coastline before sailing into port in full Spanish dress.

As El Ramo makes clear, the task of administrating the Philippines was considered difficult and unwieldy. But the possibility of massive wealth accumulation, as well as the relatively limited liability afforded by royal favor, made such career moves attractive, especially for lower-ranked Mexican creoles and peninsulares. Covering the entirety of the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade, a sizable part of official correspondence is devoted to commercial concerns, many of which are surprisingly entertaining and idiosyncratic. Right away appear the solicitudes of colonial bureaucrats, who need to curry favor with the viceroy by generating income through tariffs and trade taxation and cultivating relationships with merchants and trading guilds. For instance, the galleons, by necessity accommodating a variety of shipping goods, were often late, and administrators constantly deplored their captains—many of whom were beholden to company owners—to be more exacting with their departure dates. The obsession with commerce hangs over these papers: The wind routes were such that, in order to reach Acapulco, ships had to pass under the tip of the Baja peninsula, and a system of communication existed so that as soon as the galleon was spotted, its imminent arrival was announced to ready traders in Guadalajara, Veracruz, and the interior hinterlands. You also could see how kuripot these guys could be, like how, since the king was obligated to foot the church’s pricey transportation bill to the new colony, company heads and viceroy officials would simply appoint the monks as ship chaplains to save money!

They exist in more accessible forms now; you can even download a scanned PDF version online. But, reflecting on the documents, and having actually held the vestiges of Philippine life which had exchanged so many hands prior, including Quirino’s, I felt that I had taken a peek at a separate, unfolding galaxy, where the curiosities, color, and noise of colonial Philippine life held orbit. Walking out of the library, and sweating once again on the subway, there was a charming dissonance, a feeling that I had one foot in Mexico City and the other in Manila, a wide gait that crossed centuries, languages, and the mighty Pacific. While feeling Filipino abroad is one thing, there’s a distinct electricity in considering one’s Filipino-ness in Mexico.

When the twilight broke through the main arcade’s windows, I returned the volumes and started to head out. In the exit gallery, a security guard, fetching my bag, started chatting me up about where I’m from.

“Estados Unidos?” He asked.

I nod, but I sensed that’s not quite what he was searching for.

“Mi madre es Filipina.”

“Órale!” He flashed a big smile. “Pareces un Mexicano.”

I looked Mexican. I exchanged some jokes, and grabbed my bag and headed out into the famed dark night of the soul of Mexico City.


While neither a comfortable nor, as some would argue, approbative fit, its conceptualization as a “mestizo nation” has been an anabolic force in the Mexican state’s development, an elementary particle that few regularly take for granted. That both the people and state describe themselves in their totality as mestizaje is revealing; in the Philippines, the mestizo is a specific Filipino, pre-figured to have a social and class bearing predicated on (usually Eurogamic) phenotypes. In The Hispanization of the Philippines, John Phelan speculates that the lack of a larger (and unambiguously defined) mestizaje population in the Philippines would help cohere it as a nation-state, leaving less social encumbrances and pressures attendant to the struggles of “mestizo nation-building.”

We see now that such a prediction was wildly off the mark: mass movements of the late 20th century revealed the fissures and limitations of such cultural nationalisms. And yet there is a guiding force to it, a powerful sense of communion and solidarity and history and tragedy in the mestizo nation. Although the Plaza’s declaration of the Mexican mestizo nation was erected two years after they had left Mexico, I wondered if Quirino thought of this mestizoness during his research, if he saw the Philippines in the faces of the crowds in Tepito or Colonia del Valle. Maybe understanding race in the Philippines progenerated certain nationalist historiographic tendencies of this era, or perhaps the imperatives of the intelligentsia in the 1950’s and 60’s didn’t make room for this—mestizo identity politics—and how this brought to bear the nuances of race in the colonial project onto some new state, whose formation is seemingly perpetual. Regardless, through and beyond the archive, Mexico stands to still teach us Filipinos ways of seeing ourselves, to look more critically at the absence of that kind of racial syllabary in the stories we craft about the possibilities of the nation.


Talking to the people of Mexico City, fellow researchers, members of the staff, and (later) my own network of friends and acquaintances—journalists, poets, academics, but also taxicab drivers, salarymen, and hairdressers—one gets the sense that the Philippines is most definitely in the cognitive map of Mexico and the Mexican people, and that this connection is often affectionate and considered. A ribald joke: Manila is the long-lost twin of Mexico City, or at the very least a tempestuous sister-in-law (sounds much funnier in Spanish). My heritage is Filipino-Scandinavian, but chilangos always think I’m from their hometown, and even after my background is explicated, Filipino is a semblance of something familiar, Manila imagined as a familial approximation.

And the Philippines speaks to Mexico in that it was through the latter that the former, not merely the end-point of a colonial commercial circuit, became a site of reciprocation: of blood, resistance, the primacy and sublimity of self-rule, the possibility independence absolved from subjugation. Remnants of Mexico haunt the Philippines. Carried by the same easterly winds that prevailed on the pataches and squarerigged galleons, the language of the Aztecs would ultimately find its way to the streets of Quiapo, Pateros, Tandang Sora, with loanwords like tiangge (from the Nahuatl Tianguis), and singkamas (xicama) audible above the manic din. And there’s a town in the Philippines itself called Mexico—and the 2010 census revealed that if it was located in its namesake country, it would be immediately be placed on its most populated cities list.


In the 21st century, Mexico and the Philippines are once again growing intertwined, both by adventitious happenings, and the oftenunscrupulous circumstances of globalization. The once lucrative galleon trade, drawn out in fading script across so many worn pages, has made way for new maritime networks handling more illicit forms of commerce¹. Both witnessed the dawn of the new millennium give rise to populist unrest against anti-peasant regimes, agrarian structural adjustment programs, and the imposition of multilateral usury. And as a certain pitch of Filipino civilization is reached, this relationship will grow more intimate, strengthened by solidarity, the continued recognition and celebration of shared dreams and hopes between sovereign nations agnatically descended from an imperious source. As the fibers of history and globalization begin to tighten, these archives serve as a powerful reminder to us, the mestizo people who are Filipinas today, that beyond the concentric circles of our national historiographic concerns—eclipsing the provincial, the regional, and even hemispheric—and the debates which tack and yaw inevitably and exclusively towards Iberia or (lately) the United States, there exists another nation and people, half the world away, who have yet to fail in their esteem, affection, and fascination with their once unconscionably distant kindred.