Spanish Whispers in Cebu
When Ferdinand Magellan witnessed the sunrise from the deck of the Trinidad on April 27, 1521, he scarcely knew it would be his last. In the distance, the large coral outcrop of Mactan Island beckoned with a strip of powdery, cream-colored sand lapped by rippling cyan waters – the kind of tropical idyll that sun-starved modern travelers go halfway around the world to see. But the celebrated Portuguese explorer was here in the service of Spain, midway through an epic circumnavigation of the globe. His more immediate mission was to fight on behalf of his newfound friend and ally Rajah Humabon, the chieftain of a nearby port town named Zubu.
One wonders whether Magellan thought it wise to involve his motley crew in the local inter-island warfare, for the Iberians found themselves vastly outnumbered by an enemy force under the tribal leader Lapu-Lapu. As the fighting raged on the beach, their muskets and shipboard cannons proved useless from beyond the shallows, and the ragtag band of mariners beat back a hasty retreat to the safety of their ships. Four of Rajah Humabon’s soldiers and nine of their number, including Magellan himself, were killed in the melee.
It might have been an inauspicious encounter with the indigenous people of the Philippines, but that brief episode would pave the way for the Spanish to gain a lasting foothold in Asia. Magellan had already succeeded in converting Rajah Humabon and his queen Hara Humamay to Christianity, gifting them a wooden statue of the Christ Child upon their baptism, while the reports the surviving sailors brought back to Seville of an alternative route to the fabled Spice Islands (or Moluccas) was enough to inspire the Spanish to launch further expeditions.
Fellow Iberian explorers eventually followed in Magellan’s wake. Sailing westward from the Pacific coast of Mexico in 1542, Ruy López de Villalobos reached the islands of Samar and Leyte, naming them Las islas Felipinas in honor of the Spanish crown prince and future King Philip II. In time, the vernacular form Filipinas would come to describe the entire archipelago, which Madrid gradually took over to fight off competing Portuguese claims. Then, exactly 44 years to the day of the battle on Mactan Island, the forces of Basque-Spanish navigator Miguel López de Legazpi razed pre-Hispanic Cebu and set about creating a new colony from its ashes. The Spaniards established their first European settlement in the Philippines here, constructing its first fortress and church, laying its first colonial-era street, and later founding its first university.
As for the image of the Christ Child from Magellan, it was discovered inside a ruined house by one of Legazpi’s mariners (presumably while he was looking for loot). This was considered a miracle and from then on, the Santo Niño de Cebú became one of the most treasured religious relics in the islands – so much so that an annual festival, Sinulog, is still celebrated in reverence of the Holy Child. The Philippines is one of just two predominantly Catholic nations in Asia (the other being Timor-Leste); that is perhaps the most enduring legacy of 300 years spent under Spanish colonial rule.
Sometimes it takes years to turn a long-held fascination with a country and its convoluted history into an actual trip: my goal is to investigate Cebu’s Spanish-Filipino heritage in three full days. On my first morning in town, while sitting in the back seat of a taxi hearing rapid-fire Cebuano spoken over the radio, I suddenly understand the words for 8:54, a las ocho cincuenta y cuatro. Filipinos use Spanish to tell the time; several passionately regionalistic locals will later pronounce that Cebuano has even more loanwords from the Iberian tongue than Tagalog, the national language. One explains how it mirrors the intense rivalry between Madrid and Barcelona that extends beyond the world of football, save the calls for outright independence. “We’re like Barcelona – Cebuanos don’t like the dominance of Manila and the way Tagalog has been named the Filipino language. Aren’t we Filipino too?”
Soon, the driver drops me off near the famous Basilica del Santo Niño. Designated by the Vatican as the “Mother and Head of all Churches in the Philippines”, it marks the spot where the long-lost image of the Christ Child was found in 1565. The groundswell of devotion inside the sanctuary is both palpable and humbling. After admiring the cavernous nave with its gilded altarpiece, intricately carved wooden balconies, and ceiling murals that depict the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines, I join the long line of the devout circling halfway around a garden courtyard to get a closer look at the 16th-century image brought by Magellan. The much-loved relic is dazzling in its finery. Holding a scepter and cross-bearing orb, the Santo Niño wears a crown studded with diamonds and pearls, multiple bejeweled necklaces, and an exquisite maroon-hued velvet cape embroidered with gold thread. Everyone seeks the Child Jesus’ blessing by offering a prayer and wiping the bulletproof glass case with a cloth or tissue. Stepping out into the tropical heat, I head next door to Magellan’s Cross (as shown in the title image of this post), which stands in a small chapel erected on the site where Rajah Humabon and his queen were baptized.
From the basilica, it’s less than 10 minutes on foot to the historic neighborhood of Parian, once a wealthy district that was established by Chinese-Filipino merchants. My next stop is perhaps the unlikeliest place for a museum. Stepping inside Ho Tong Hardware, I had the feeling that I’d strayed into a zone that was strictly off-limits for tourists: I’m immediately confronted by a lumber and metal yard with soot-faced workmen hauling materials to and fro. And yet amid all this industrial activity sits a coral-stone building that is one of the oldest ancestral homes in Cebu and quite possibly the entire Philippines.
The building functioned as a storage depot until 2008, when it was converted into a private museum called 1730 Jesuit House. I’m welcomed by the young curator Christian Bonpua, and as he walks me through the ground-floor exhibits, he explains that although this structure has previously been dated to 1730, Ming Dynasty coins dug up during an excavation suggest that it may be as old as the mid- or early-17th century. “Putting coins in the foundation of a new house is a Filipino tradition that was learned from the Chinese,” he says. Going upstairs, I can’t help asking about Christian’s view on Magellan and his encounter with hostile forces on Mactan Island. “Lapu-Lapu was the first Filipino national hero because he stopped the Spanish from conquering the Philippines the same way they did in Latin America,” he replies. “You see, they never used the word conquest [to refer to the colonization of these islands], but pacification.”
Just two blocks away at the Casa Gorordo Museum, a handsome abode built in the 1850s that was once the residence of Cebu’s first Filipino bishop, I tap on the interactive displays, most impressively a digital 3D map of Cebu city in four different eras. It shows the downtown area as an expanse of smoldering ruins in the aftermath of World War II, by which time the Philippines had become an American colony. I learn that much of Cebu’s historic center was bombed to smithereens during Allied liberation, including the proud Metropolitan Cathedral, then reduced to its belfry and the shell of its outer walls. Few important structures – the Basilica del Santo Niño (perhaps miraculously so), the Cathedral Museum, and a handful of Parian’s ancestral houses – survived intact.
Far more uplifting is a video that explains how the Filipino identity can be seen through its mestizo culture, as evinced by the traditional tile-roofed houses called balay nga tisa. Derived from the stilted indigenous homes known as payag, which are divided into upper-floor living quarters and an open-air silon used for storing food and keeping livestock, the balay nga tisa added European architectural elements (like a large terrace or azotea) and a layout reflecting the social rules imposed by the Spanish. The ground-level silon maintained its original purpose but came enclosed in coral stone, whereas the upper story was built with hardwoods taken from Philippine rainforests; details like balustraded open vents and sliding capiz shell windows respond to the tropical climate. And because the craftsmen were often Chinese immigrants, a great many balay nga tisa sport carved wooden corbels and curved roof corners.
There’s an oft-quoted saying that the Philippines spent 300 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood, which began when Spain ceded its Asian colonies to the ascendant United States following the Spanish-American War of 1898. After brutally putting down a protracted struggle for independence (a letter sent back to New York by a soldier confessed that he was “probably growing hard-hearted, for I am in my glory when I can sight my gun on some dark skin and pull the trigger”), the Americans replaced Spanish with English as the lingua franca, introduced republican institutions, and brought on a love of fast food and beauty pageants. The two countries’ close relationship has continued since independence in 1946, so much so that a Filipino friend once told me with an honest, ambivalent expression, “We’re like the little brown brothers of the Americans.” And yet for all the glimpses of modified Americana – the Hollywood-inspired movies, banana ketchup, and U.S. military jeeps repurposed to become public transport – the Spanish never really left.
The next day, I venture into a quiet residential neighborhood to visit Circa 1900, a casual-chic hangout spot that consists of Casa Uno and Casa Dos: a pair of 1920s buildings that once served as the homes of the Castillos and Jerezas, two prominent Spanish-Filipino families in Cebu. The restored Art Deco house of Casa Dos is my first stop for the tapas bar Cicada, a cozy bolt-hole of timber-framed windows, plush armchairs, and carefully reproduced period floor tiles. I feel as though I’ve traveled back to the Roaring Twenties or early thirties. Monochrome portraits of both the Jerezas and esteemed onetime guests – like General Douglas MacArthur and previous Philippine president Sergio Osmeña (a native Cebuano) – are neatly hung from the walls. I’m here to meet Adrian Sollano, who has been with Circa 1900 ever since Casa Uno opened to the public four years ago. “It was the first project in Cebu that converted a heritage house into a restaurant,” Adrian says. Casa Dos would follow in 2016, providing another after-work venue to relax and wait out the city’s worsening rush-hour traffic jams.
Adrian is about my age and it isn’t long before our conversation feels like a catch-up between friends. We perch ourselves at the bar, where my request for something Cebuano is met with a bespoke cocktail: local Tanduay rum muddled with aromatic Cebu mangoes, lime, and root beer. It’s delicious and immediately refreshing.
As night falls, we cross the street to Casa Uno to have dinner at its upstairs restaurant and piano bar. Adrian introduces me to Sydney-born chef Steve Shrimski and Eya, his Cebuana wife, both of whom are veterans of the hospitality industry. Steve’s enthusiasm is infectious. “What I’m doing is taking Filipino flavors that haven’t been adulterated and presenting them in a different way,” he explains with a grin. The dishes arrive and I’m immediately impressed: there’s large ube (purple yam) ravioli stuffed with succulent lechon (roast pig) and served in a creamy cocodobo sauce; dressed-up chicken bringhe, a local take on paella; and champorado, or chocolate-flavored Filipino rice pudding that is a typical breakfast dish or post-siesta snack. But this champorado is chili-infused and topped with bonito flakes in place of locally dried fish. I barely have enough space left for a maja blanca cheesecake, Steve’s own reinterpretation of maja blanca, a beloved jelly-like dessert made with sweetcorn and coconut milk, atop a biscuit base using Cebuano rosquillos.
Once the meal is over, Steve reappears at the table and regales me with some fascinating stories. “During the war, the Japanese general lived in one of these houses (Casa Uno) while General MacArthur stayed in the other one. Did you see the bullet holes in the iron railings of the staircase [at Casa Dos]? We left them because it’s part of the history here. And there are ghost stories too!”
Adrian recounts how a member of the Jereza family asked the staff members at Casa Dos if they had seen “the grey lady” in one room, while a social event in the same building was so successful it apparently attracted not just mortal guests. An elderly visitor supposedly saw Casa Uno’s erstwhile owner standing at the bottom of its exterior staircase, and there was a security guard who reported strains of piano music drifting down from the upper floor long after the restaurant had been locked for the night. “We had a priest, an exorcist, come in to take a look,” Steve says. “None of them are harmful spirits – they just want to have fun.”
My final afternoon in Cebu is spent on Mactan Island – not to see the shrine dedicated to Lapu-Lapu, or survey the beach where that fateful battle is re-enacted every year, but to try out the food at Enye, a mod-Spanish restaurant at the beachfront Crimson Resort and Spa Mactan. I had heard of Gallery Vask, the acclaimed Manila venue where Spanish chef José Luis ‘Chele’ González has been spotlighting native Filipino ingredients in bold new ways – and González had sent his second-in-command Ivan Saiz Sordo to open up an outpost in Cebu just months before my visit. More than anything, I was eager to hear what a modern-day Spaniard thinks of Filipino cuisine.
“When I first came to the Philippines, the food was very weird,” Ivan candidly admits. But the more he traveled around the country, learning about its varied culinary traditions and tasting its flavors, the more he realized how much there was in common with the cooking of his homeland. “You can see a lot of influence from Spain in names like afritada and calderetas, and all the acidity that they use… and the bay leaf. The bay leaf is used in most dishes in Filipino cuisine. I don’t see any other kind of gastronomy that uses as much bay leaf like we do in Spain.”
Enye mostly showcases authentic flavors drawn from northern Spanish regions like the Basque Country and Ivan’s native Cantabria, although it’s also known for locally inspired dishes such as a salad of Philippine-grown cherry tomatoes, ricotta, pearls of balsamic vinegar, pickled onions (“very Filipino”) and bok choy leaf tempura. Munching on a taco that brings together two of Cebu’s most famous edible finds – lechon and mango – enfolded in a soft flour tortilla with dabs of whipped beans and sour cream, I’m glad I’ve made the effort to come. ◊