Growing Up in Tondo

Canal de Reina


He remembers the Canal de la Reina very well, like a song he sings in his heart when he’s all alone. It flowed fast their house in Palumpong, Tondo, flowing regally in a straight line from Azcarraga to Pritil, unlike the many esteros that followed a serpentine course within the city, crisscrossing each other, drawn along tortuous paths and destinies that many years later led to their doom. So, alas, did the Canal de la Reina suffer the indignities of garbage and squalor, and is today nothing more than a strangulated mass of foul some water and centuries of accumulated silt, the cesspool of a shrewish district notorious for her explosive temper and prodigiously fecund womb.



When Fernando Bautista was a young boy growing up along the banks of the man-made Canal de la Reina, named grandiosely after Isabel II of Spain, the waterway was very much cleaner and cascoes glided softly and swiftly over its broad back. The cascoes transported wares of fruits and vegetables, flowers and fish, vessels of wine and vinegar and mounds of tribal handicrafts from Bulacan, Pampanga and the northern provinces to the great market in Divisoria. The cascoes, long and tapering like a leaf, were steered by brawny casqueros using long poles called tikin. When they passed, the women would call out from their kitchen windows or batalan that perched over the edge of the water and beg the casqueros to sell them a few centavos’ worth of their vinegar, vegetables or bananas. Then, hurriedly gathering the lower folds of their loose saya, they would scamper down to the banks to collect their goods.


Fernando was born on the banks of the great eponymous Canal, in a house standing on a swamp that could be reached by a bamboo footbridge half a meter high. During high tide the water engulfed the bridge. His parents met while they were working as zarzuelistas in the famous Compania Ilagan of Tondo; Placido Bautista was a comediante monickered Pachong and Benedicta (Bitang) Gonzaga was a korista. The compania played the big theaters in the city, the Zorilla at the corner of Evangelista and Azcarraga (now C.M. Recto) and the Azcarraga on that street near Ilaya, and toured the provinces where the troupe spent most of the year, singing their well-loved songs and acting out passions larger than life on rickety stages. The compania was founded by Hermogenes Ilagan some of whose descendants became illustrious names in stage and movies, among them Marcelino Ilagan who starred in the first Filipino film, Malayan Movies’ “Dalagang Bukid,” with the zarzuela diva from Tondo, Atang de la Rama before it was made into a movie, the play, also with Atang in the title role, had a long and popular run on stage. Bitang Gonzaga was in the chorus.



Fernando was born poor but he never knew what it was to be hungry. There was always food on the table. His mother made bibingkang malagkit, alfajol, pinipig and gabing sungsung which she carefully laid out on a bilao and carried on her head to sell around the neighborhood, crying in a voice with the drama and timber or the theater in it. Often when there was a pasugalan in their house – Fernando’s father liked to gamble – his mother would cook her bestselling dishes and serve them for a peseta a bowl to the menfolk at the card tables, their heads bent hypnotically over their games of panguingge or kuwaho. On special occasions she would serve succulent lechon, chopped into bite-size pieces and drenched in a delicious sauce. What was left unsold from the bilao or the kaldero, the four boys Amado, Fernando, Vicente and Conrado feasted on, but they would have also kept the best parts of the lechon or the biggest of the siniguelas peddled by the eldest, Amado. Fernando understood well enough even then that in business you save the best for yourself. At the time Fernando was born, at dawn of March 10, 1908, Tondo had heaved itself to a quiescent lull following the long seething years of Katipunan struggle against Spanish colonial rule. The Katipunan was founded in 1892 in Tondo by the poor orphan Andres Bonifacio, who rallied the oppressed masa, and Emilio Jacinto, who represented the elitist-reformists. They were both from Tondo and so were most of the original Katipuneros whose membership inexorably swelled from a few hundreds to tens of thousands with the publication of Ang Kalayaan, the firebrand journal of the Katipunan. Tondo remained the hotbed of rebellion until the American administration when the secret organization finally succumbed to the new invaders’ superior arms. But one man, Tondo’s General Macario Sakay, persisted in the insurrection. The “Bandido,” as he was branded by the furious Americans who were often outwitted by the slippery rebel, was captured in 1906 and hanged.


Life under the Americans was pretty much quiet and normal for the growing boy and his family. When they were big enough to face the world, he and his younger brother Vicente shined shoes. They stationed themselves at the gates of the North Harbor where American warships were berthed and where there was a constant stream of people coming and going. Ding had managed to put together a wooden box, a brush and shoe polish and learned to make the rhythmic sounds with the old drill or khaki cloth against the leather and the sharp knocks on the wooden box to indicate that you’re done with this one, the next shoe please. The white-suited dock clerks liked their shoes shined to a sparkle and if they threw at you two centavos you considered yourself a lucky fellow. The hulking American soldiers with boots as big as barges were less demanding and more generous, nonchalantly flicking at you an extra coin or two. He and Vicente also hawked newspapers and magazines, the Liwayway, the widely read magazine in the vernacular, on Thursdays, and the Sunday Tribune, the ilustrado periodical in English, on Sundays. They made more from selling Liwayway – a centavo and a half per copy. The two boys deliriously figured that if they sold 25 to 30 copies each, they could amass a small fortune.



My brother Vicente always beat me at selling Liwayway and Tribune. Maybe his route was better, maybe he walked faster. But I tried my best. The first copies of Liwayway would come out at 9:30 in the evening, sometimes 10 or 11 at night. If it comes out late, we sleep on the pavements of R. Hidalgo and Platerias along with all the other newsboys. Vicente and I work the same route for Liwayway, starting at Platerias all the way to Velasquez. Our ambition is to sell a copy of the magazine on every street we enter. However late the hour, our customers won’t go to bed until they had opened a copy of Liwayway. Our best customers were the maids of Miguel Cuaderno who lived in a big house on Ylaya.


The Sunday Tribune comes out on the night of Saturday and this time Vicente and I take different routes. He works the length of Juan Luna all the way to Maypajo, while I work Ylaya and Herbosa all the way to Velasquez. Vicente and I continued selling Liwayway and Tribune until we finished our elementary grades. I failed Grade I because I was frequently absent in the morning from working late the night before selling Liwayway and some mornings when I should be in school I was bootblacking.



My mother begged me to stop bootblacking and cut short my Liwayway route. She took pity on me although she knew very well that I needed the extra money to buy my pencils and paper and I liked snacking during recess. In school in those days you could have pan de sal with matamis na bao for one centavo. Or banana pie prepares with flour or a slice of biko. The biko was as big as a plate and cut up to six or seven pieces.


Mother was the eldest of three sisters and a brother from the second marriage of her father, who worked as an escribiente in Manila. She had a half-sister from her father’s first marriage and a half-brother from her mother’s first marriage. Mother was a beautiful woman, tall and striking with naturally curly hair. She liked to dress up and wear jewelry. She sold jewelry from Meycauayan (Bulacan) on installment, collecting fifty centavos or one peso every week from each of her customers. I like to think I inherited from my mother her industriousness and her great capacity for work.




She was employed as cajista in La Grandeza (a cigarette factory in Meisic, now Abad Santos, at the corner of Azcarraga, renamed Claro M. Recto). Even when Vicente was already in pre-med school he helped mother at night in the factory, stuffing the cigarillos into packs. With Vicente helping her fill up more packs, she earned more money – one centavo for two packs, a peso for 200 packs. When she was at work, my brothers and I took our meals with our uncles and aunts. And it was our job to fetch water from the public faucets. My aunties would say “While you’re resting, why don’t you get us water from the well or chop wood for the stove?”


On Sundays and holidays my Uncle Pedro (San Felipe) and I would tidy up the orchard of a wealthy aunt who lived on Juan Luna. Her mother was the sister of my grandmother and her family owned 12 apartment units in Divisoria. She would pay us five centavos each for a day’s work, but we did not complain as we were allowed to eat the fruits of the trees that grew in her yard – guava, duhat, siniguelas, aratiles, macopa.


I even learned how to wash my mother’s baro’t saya. You wash with hugas bigas if the cloth is white; otherwise you wash with sabong luto. Then you prepare laundry starch. Then on a square wooden frame, a bastidor, you stretch the cloth and you press the starch upon it to give it sheen.


My father was not too lucky in business. He worked for a time as a clerk at the Manila Railroad Station. Then he went into a rent-a-carabao-and-cariton business. It didn’t work out well either. And then somebody wheedled him into becoming a partner in a jueteng operation. Father looked like he enjoyed the risks and the excitement. The operation extended from Canal de la Reina to Malibay in Pasay. He admitted he was conned once by his partners and he lost P500, a great deal of money then. In one stroke of luck, however, he was able to buy our house in Pingkian (that area in Palumpong was generally known as Dagupan, the main street).


Rosa Castillo when she was a baby on the lap of her mother Petra in a charming picture that has survived the years


We had been renting the house for P5. After the war my brothers and I also bought the lot from the man who owned it. Pingkian is now called Gregorio Perfecto, and intersects Rosauro Almario, which was named after a classmate of mine in the grade school who became a councilor. It’s where my eldest brother put up his printing press, now called Coloright and run by his sons.


I don’t remember much about my father. He was always touring with the zarzuela, or he was away in the provinces on a trading venture or other. He dealt in mangoes from Cebu but after two trips or so he was wiped out. In Mindoro where he was prospecting for gold, he fell down the mountain during a storm and broke his ankle. He came home with malaria and a gangrene in his leg. Since then we saw him in the house more often although he kept mostly to himself. I vaguely remember people saying he became a member of the Espiritistas who believed they could talk to spirits.


He gave us care, I guess, maybe love – he was so undemonstrative. When I became a parent myself, I knew I would be different from my father. I would want to be always with my children, to watch them grow, to become part of their lives.


One time I narrated my boyhood to Carlos P. Romulo and he said, “Naku, Nanding, I wish I could write your life story.” And I told him, “Never mind, just attend to the affairs of the country.” Romulo was a dear friend. He liked to say, “Nanding, I like talking to you. We can talk eye to eye.”


PALUMPONG plunged headlong into the same fate as its overpopulated neighbors. A dumpsite for scraps of steel and broken bulbs in time grew into a fly-infested mound of garbage filled with rotten vegetables and fruits and other refuse of the neighborhood. At first they sprayed a chemical on the mound to neutralize the smell, but when the spraying was too much a bother; the neighborhood was quick to tolerate the smell and the flies – and the deterioration that slowly seeped into the weave of the social fabric.


Fernando and his brothers never tired of playing patintero, luksong tinik, tumbang preso and buga. The frisky boy also ran around with the other kids in the neighborhood whose idea of fun was to steal up from behind the cascoes when the casquero was not looking, or would be occupied at the far end of his long and slim boat, and filch a watermelon or a coconut or, if they could unload it without making a splash in the water, a whole bundle of sugarcane. If the casquero caught sight of them, the filthy rats, he would run after them, threatening to impale them with his tikin dance.


In time even the cascoes simply vanished, unnoticed, unlamented, gliding away from the corroded landscape of Tondo and the fey memory of its residents, to be replaced by the raucous blares and deadly smoke of hideous machines on wheels.





It was Fernando and the neighborhood toughies who sang the song of the fading waterway. After a strong rain of the water of the Queen’s canal would rise, heaving on its brackish back the carcasses of pigs, cats, and rats. It did not deter the young kids from swimming, dog-style, in the overflowing canal. They would dive into the water and then emerge gasping; whoever came out with a dead animal or flotsam caught on the top of his head, like a prized trophy, was declared the king of the estero.


The sari-sari stores of the Intsik were often the victims of their mischiefs. Fernando once joined the neighborhood gang in a nighttime raid of a Chinese store, from which they carried away a boy’s booty of candies, mammon, cookies, sweet kundol and buchi. These they devoured behind a bamboo raft two blocks away from the store. What started as pranks became thievery. It reached the ears of Fernando’s father that the boy was part of the gang that conducted a commando raid of the hens and swiped all the eggs under the neighbor’s houses. For the first time in Fernando’s life, he got a belting in public from his father.


Fate favors some, damns others. The leader of Fernando’s gang was Adiong Reyes, who turned into a real gangster and achieved notoriety in the 50s as Public Enemy Number One. “Adiong’s house was right beside ours,” recalls Fernando. “It was so close we could touch hands across our windows. In our neighborhood in Palumpong, I knew of only two or three families who made good. One of them, I must say, is our family. The others are the Bernals, the Tionlocs and the Palmas. Rafael Palmas’ children always claimed we were related to each other.”


The frisky kid, nonetheless, remained his mother’s trusted aide. He did the laundering, the cooking, even the marketing. “My mother would give me 50 centavos for the market. Fifteen to 20 centavos paid for meat, ten to 15 centavos fish, two to 5 centavos vegetables, two centavos egg, white or red. May kupit pa akong two or three centavos. With that I’d buy myself softdrinks – soda, lemonade or sarsaparilla. If you buy it at the El Adelante, the factory on Juan Luna, it costs two and a half centavos, or three centavos with a bit of ice. If you buy it at the tindahan it costs three centavos.”





He went to school at the Meisic Primary School (Grades I to II) in the vicinity of Divisoria in Binondo. Because he was spending more time in the streets selling newspapers than in the classroom, he failed Grade I; he repeated it under the stern eye of his aunt, the formidable Elisea Gonzaga. He took up Grades III and IV at the Rizal Primary School in Pritil which was closer to their house, and finished intermediate (Grades V to VII) at the Tondo Intermediate (now the Isabelo de los Reyes Elementary School) at the corner of Morga and Sande near the Tondo Cathedral. He went to the Manila North (now Arellano) for his first year high school, after which, as was the practice then, when it was necessary to speed up the education process of a nation that had languished under centuries of a colonial regime, he was allowed to transfer to the Philippine Normal School for four years of studies leading to an Elementary Teacher’s Certificate.


When he was at the Tondo Intermediate, he spent his hours after school, as well as Saturdays and Sundays, helping his Tiya Genia, the wife of Tiyo Jesus (Gonzaga, the brother of his mother), in her textile store in the Yangco market. When he sold 50 centavos worth of clothing material, he got a commission of one or two centavos. In those days you could get a material for a bestida for 50 centavos or less. A baro’t saya worn by teachers and elder women fetched two to three pesos. Custom – and fashion – demanded that once a girl reached her teens she had to wear the elegant baro’t saya. Young boys in the secondary schools were required by the Americans to wear long pants and suit, called americana.


On campus Fernando was the energetic captain of the basketball team, catcher in the junior baseball team and tosser in the volleyball team. As a middle-distance runner he participated in interscholastic games. Saturdays and Sundays practice games were held at the Mehan Gardens and at Plaza Lawton (now a bus terminal), which was then the playground of the city schools of Manila. Track and field players sweated it out on the race track of the Nozaleda Park (now part of the Rizal Park). “We played basketball and volleyball barefoot,” Fernando recalls. “The schools made no provisions for shoes for their athletes. Rubber shoes then cost fifty centavos, mostly Japanese made. The sando and short sleeves with two or three buttons, also Japanese made, cost ten centavos. If we had a new kamiseta, we were more than happy.”




In those halcyon days, practically all the bazaars in Manila were owned by the Japanese, along with the photo stores and the ubiquitous stands selling the popular mongo con hielo creamed with Senorita evaporated or condensed milk. When the Pacific war broke out, the Japanese storeowners and vendors and even the lowly gardeners in the rich people’s houses showed their true colors: they turned out to be officers, many of them holding the lofty ranks of captains and colonels in the Emperor’s Army in the Land of the Red Sun.


Besides being athletic, the young boy also showed glimmers of an eloquent speaker. In school he participated in elocution and declamation contests as well as acted in short plays and operettas, notably, for him, the lead role in “The Windmills of Holland.” Fernando remembers how his father the zarzuelista would make him stand on a bench or the tapayan when he was smaller and teach him how to gesticulate and emote – in the few occasions of togetherness between father and son. But the father, who under the Spaniards learned only the fundamental cartilla when he was 16, had little understanding of the American schooling. Filipinos were teaching his son in the language of the dayuhan. His son was reading English literature from the Camilo Osias Readers and learning geography written by Mary A. Polley.


Fernando harbored the lofty aspiration of taking up law but his mother said they could not afford it, not anyway with her earnings as cajista at La Grandeza. When he graduated from Grade VII in 1923 he couldn’t even have a decent pair of shoes. The poor boy from the banks of the Canal de la Reina, the little rat of the cascoes, marched up the stage to receive his diploma in a white kamiseta, white cortos and well-worn slippers.


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