The Renaissance Man Returns: Jose Rodriguez, Director, Instituto Cervantes

The Instituto Cervantes Manila has truly grown into a veritable institution in the lives of many Filipinos. Officially tasked with promoting the Spanish language and culture by organizing classes and events, this year has seen many new developments for the Instituto. In January, they moved into their new building located beside the Casino Espanol at T.M. Kalaw St. in Ermita, Manila. Then in July, Manila laid to rest its distinction as having the only Instituto Cervantes in Asia with the opening of Instituto Cervantes Beijing. August bore witness to the despedida for the much-admired Dr. Javier Galvan, who ended his term after five fruitful years as the Director of the Instituto.
When news of Dr. Galvan’s imminent departure first started trickling out to the students and patrons of the Instituto, speculation naturally turned toward the identity of his possible replacement. Whoever it would be, everybody was strongly hoping for someone who would have a great affection for the Philippines and rapport with Filipinos. For these criteria at the very least, the new Instituto Director, Jose Rodriguez, definitely qualifies. He loves Filipinos so much that he married one, then went on to live here for more than 25 years.

“My romance with the Philippines started some 30 years ago when I first met my wife in Spain. I was seduced.” Dr. Rodriguez confesses. “So today we have this total interconnection between a Spaniard and a Filipino.”

To demonstrate, he peppers his speech with Tagalog words and expressions, and even prides himself on his appropriately Pinoy-sounding palayaw, “Pepe”. It was indeed an inspired decision by Spain to appoint as Director of Instituto Cervantes Manila, not a stranger to the country, but an old friend.
Born and raised in the province of Ourense, in the Northwestern region of Galicia in Spain. Dr. Rodriguez’s wife is renowned Filipina portrait artist Lulu Coching. Their two children, Lara María and José Francisco, “grew up as Filipinos,” he asserts.

To get here Dr. Rodriguez has come a long and roundabout way from his Ph.D and M.A. in business administration, and Bachelor of Science degree in agricultural technical engineering. After completing his military service in Africa’s Sahara desert in the 1970s, he shifted to the field of journalism as a correspondent for major Spanish dailies, and eventually joined the Spanish News Agency Agencia EFE where he went on to become regional bureau chief for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. It was during his term and through his efforts that Agencia EFE established its English-language world service headquarters in Manila.

He became president of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) in 1992 and was elected president of the Manila Overseas Press Club (MOPC) in 1995. He is also a member of the International Press Institute (IPI) and an honorary member of the National Press Club of the Philippines. He co-founded with the late Secretary Raul Manglapus and a group of Filipino Hispanistas, the weekly Crónica de Manila, a Philippine publication in Spanish.
He has been Honorary Consul of Bolivia in the Philippines (1987-2004), and President of the Academia Filipina de la Lengua Espanola since 1989. Dr. Rodriguez has been awarded the Encomienda de Isabel la Catolica by His Majesty King Juan Carlos I of Spain for his contributions to the strengthening of Spanish-Philippine relations and was recently conferred the Order of Sikatuna by the Republic of the Philippines. He has also been conferred a degree of Doctor of Humanities honoris causa by the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila.

Dr. Rodriguez has spent the past four years away from our shores, and is very happy to be back here in his new role. “It was worth it to wait for this opportunity. This time I will no longer be just reporting on the Philippines. I hope to be able to make things happen in my field of endeavor that will be of mutual benefit to my two dear countries.”

Although he just officially started his term last September 1st, Dr. Rodriguez hit the ground running. In only two weeks his leadership style at the Instituto is already clearly felt. “I come back to the Philippines to assume this new position with something very important: a vision. My mandate is to focus on activities that will further strengthen the social and cultural relationship between Spain and the Philippines,” he explains.

Listening to the director, it becomes obvious that it is this clear vision that drives his enthusiasm. “My dream is to be able to increase Filipino interest in Spain in such a way that they will begin to appreciate that they have to learn Spanish in this day and age. Spanish was very much a part of the Philippines’ past. Having learned our lessons, my dream is that Filipinos will now consider Spain as part of their present and future.”
This dream rests on deep foundations, which the director respectfully acknowledges. “I hope to build on what my predecessors have accomplished and even dare to try to raise the level of awareness of our historical ties,” he states. “We share a great number of things in our culture. Let’s not forget that we have almost 10,000 Spanish words in the Filipino language. But in my own judgment, the Spanish culture is beyond language. It is customs, traditions, food, etc. In short, it is a way of life.”

He is positive that the Instituto’s work and worth will speak for itself. “I want to invite everyone to come visit the IC, to look at the beautiful building with state-of-the art facilities for students, an auditorium for conferences and film showings, and a library with, as of today, some 25,000 books.” The director also invites everybody to participate in and enjoy the many activities the Instituto Cervantes has planned for this year’s ¡Fiesta! the Spanish Festival for Culture and the Arts in October.

For Dr. Rodriguez, the Instituto’s further success lies in those who have yet to learn of it. “The youth, as Jose Rizalcorrectly said, is the hope of the land,” he avows, laying out his grand plan for targeting them. “Our goal is to make the Filipinos come to the Instituto Cervantes, not only for educational and cultural reasons, but as part of their way of life. To thrive, the Instituto Cervantes, or IC, must be a welcome home for everyone. We are committed to bringing the IC to the millions of students around the archipelago. Students are the soul of the Instituto Cervantes. They are the main hope to be able to achieve a dialogue between the two cultures.”The director stresses how the Instituto’s mission entails a coordinated effort. “We will try to achieve this dream by working very closely with my colleagues here, the Spanish Embassy, The Spanish community and the home government, and with the youth of this land through the universities and colleges of this country. But I know that our efforts will be crowned by success only when Filipinos embrace these programs as if they were their own. And I am confident that they will do so.”In all his statements, the consistent theme to the director’s stance is his great respect for the Filipino people and desire to serve the Philippines.

He passionately waxes effusive over our country in a manner that would bowl over even the staunchest militant nationalist or revisionist historian. “The Philippines is one of the richest cultural mosaics in the world. It is a unique window display into the westernization of the Orient. I would like to say to all foreigners who still have doubts, come to the Philippines, try the Philippines, stay in the Philippines, you will never regret it.”

Aside from raising his family and devoting half his professional life here, Dr. Rodriguez has also left a lasting legacy in the form of two books that he has published about the Philippines. “Crónicas is a mini-memoir of my stay in the country, he describes. “You will see all the major protagonists in the political and social life of the Philippines during those years, as well as other stories on themes like the Sto Nino, myths, faith, earthquakes, transition pains, the Spanish language, and prominent personalities.” He is most proud of his most recent book, published two years ago. Featuring portraits of Philippine First Ladies, he co-authored the book with his wife Lourdes, one of the country’s foremost portrait painters. “This is a book of portraits of women who shared their lives with men of power, women who played significant roles in the history of the nation,” he relates. “The book focuses on the first ladies as wives, mothers, and in one singular instance, as daughter, in the midst of revolution, war, tragedies, and political and economic challenges from 1898 to 1998.” Crónicas is available at National Book Store branches, while Philippine First Ladies Portraits is available at all Rustan’s Department Stores.Although the director has already so much to look back upon and be proud of with what he has already accomplished, he believes that it is more cause for gratitude and inspiration than an indicator that he should begin resting on his laurels. “I will never forget my 25 years in this country and the hand extended by the Filipinos, frank and kind, reaching out to hold me with a unique affection and brotherhood,” he concludes. “So now I am committed to everything left in my hands and more, to demonstrate that what has been given to me by the Filipinos has not been in vain.”
-text & photo by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2006

These Walls Can Talk in Spanish (and they tell quite a tale)

(first published in Manila Bulletin, 2003. photos c/o Instituto Cervantes Manila)

The Mayflower building was built in 1938 on the site of an old estate. Ancient trees, even older than the building itself and all that remain of the original lands, continue to stand guard over the grounds. A Filipino architect was commisioned by then Vice President Fernando Lopez to design an innovative structure to rise within the fashionable district of Malate. The property started out as a residential enclave of great exclusivity and elegance. Its large apartments fronted a spacious courtyard and it even featured a separate building for the servant’s quarters. During the Japanese occupation, the Mayflower saw its share of devastation, and many endangered souls took refuge in its sturdy walls. But the structure proved its resilience by surviving the ravages of the war.

After the liberation of Manila, the building was quickly put to good use. It was leased to the US Agency for International Development to serve as their offices, and also as the residence of the agency’s director. The Mayflower then became a favorite haunt of President Quirino and in turn, President Magsaysay. They would often drop by to discuss affairs or enjoy breakfast with the USAID director. In the 1970’s the building was occupied by the Embassy of Indonesia, and then in a bit of foreshadowing, the Embassy of Spain. It was then taken over by the Opus Dei in the 1980s for their Maynilad study center. But it was destined to fall back into Spanish hands when in 1994 it became home to the Instituto Cervantes. The inauguration of the new facilities was graced by the presence of no less than Her Royal Highness, the Infanta Elena of Spain.

Javier Galvan, who holds a doctorate in Heritage Architecture, has been the Instituto’s director since 2001. But he first visited the building when he was invited to give a lecture in November 1994, shortly after the inauguration. An amiable and exceedingly humble Spanish gentleman, he gamely posed for photos and allowed us the run of the facilities. At first, he half-seriously proposed that we hold the interview in Spanish, but finally agreed to speak with me in English, that is until after I’d finished a few more classes at the Instituto. “But the next time, hablamos en Espanol.” he teased.

An architect might appear to be a curious choice to head an institution that is best known as a language school. And although he is a very accomplished and cultured man, Dr. Galvan considers himself to be no linguist. He originally came to the country in 1993 as the senior architect of a multinational team funded by the EU to assist in the reconstruction of Baguio and Dagupan in the wake of the 1990 earthquake. While in the Philippines, he found himself fascinated by Spanish colonial architecture, particularly the Filipino style of “architectura mestiza”, and ended up touring the country to better appreciate its unique principles. He gave lectures, held conferences, wrote papers, and spearheaded exhibitions on the subject here and abroad. His research work and proposals helped develop the master plan for the revitalization of the historical center of Vigan. The Spanish crown clearly appreciated his efforts when “for his outstanding service to Spanish culture and his work in strengthening ties between the Philippines and Spain” he was awarded The Cross of The Order of Isabel the Catholic. All these sterling qualifications, combined with his passion for our history and heritage, singled him out as an inspired choice for the director of the Spanish government’s official cultural outpost in the Philippines. Under his term, Instituto Cervantes Manila has thrived.

However, the Instituto’s success has also been the cause of some its problems, Dr. Galvan admits. “Over the past nine years, activity in Instituto has grown. There are more students, and we need more facilities. We need a larger multipurpose hall to accommodate more people. For instance, we have a series of movies every Saturday. But the halls are often crowded and people cannot come inside.” Despite its restrictions, the director remains grateful for their current accommodations. “So far, the building is appropriate. It has served us well all this time,” he affirms.

Upon exploring the premises, one passes through arched entryways leading into narrow corridors lined with framed prints and sketches of Philippine and Spanish subjects, old maps, letras y figuras, and an eclectic assortment of paintings. “The paintings are property of the Instituto,” Dr. Galvan explains. Some of them were offered by artists who have held exhibitions in the building. The classrooms, despite being rather oddly-shaped, are all well-equipped and adorned with posters of excerpts from Spanish classics and maps of the Spanish-speaking world. The library is stocked full of books, periodicals, and audiovisual materials in Spanish. Everybody uses the building’s curvy, winding grand staircase, which Dr. Galvan considers to be the interiors’ most memorable feature, to get from one floor to another. One wonders though how most people can resist from sliding down its polished wooden bannister. Tucked behind the offices is a terrace with a view of the grounds and another, less grandiose set of stairs that also functions as a fire escape. And everywhere, huge glass windows bring light into the building. Dr Galvan points out that “because the windows are very large, there is a lack of isolation,” The sun and sounds of Manila are never completely shut out.

Most Filipinos with a passing knowledge of architecture tend to lump all structures built in Manila between the two world wars into “Art Deco”, but Dr. Galvan politely proceeds to corrects this common assumption. “The building has been said to be art deco but I don’t really think we can call it that. In art deco you have decorative motifs which you cannot see here. It’s more rationalism, that kind of architecture belonging to the modern movement. In the same period you have different styles. But all these architects in those years said you have to forget about decoration. They were more interested in ships, engines and machines, the iconography of the modern movement.”

Dr. Galvan was initially reluctant to classify the Mayflower’s architectural style. “I don’t like to label buildings. Probably, it’s very clear if a building is Gothic or Roman. But when you go past the Renaissance, it becomes unclear. You can try to find a way to classify architecture, but in many cases it’s not easy to put a label,” he explains.

He continues to ruminate on the building’s design. “The purity of lines, and the rounded corners, are typical of rationalist architecture. It has the kind of aesthetics derived from ships,” he muses. “It is very clear that these are rationalist, but proto-rationalism would be the most appropriate label,”Dr. Galvan finally concludes.

He agrees that it is fortunate that a structure with such an intriguing history and architecture has survived while many others have not. “It’s a pity because these are all part of heritage, but unfortunately the will of Filipino society to preserve old buildings is not strong. Little by little it is improving, but many have no interest,” he says with much concern..

“In Manila they say ‘this is old, let’s forget it, it’s abandoned, let’s make something new’. People prefer new developments like Makati or Fort Bonifacio, historical districts like Intramuros, Ermita and Malate are abandoned. These districts are still recuperating. It has happened already in many towns in Europe. In Spain you can see how recuperating the historical center of the city is important. The situation in the core of the city has been improved and upgraded.” As logical and well-proven Dr. Galvan’s ideas may be, it seems that local officials are only beginning to take such concepts seriously. “I hope someday Manila itself can fully recuperate. Of course there are some beautiful spots, but they are hidden by the jungle. If the entire city is improved, general services, lighting, sidewalks, all these things, business will come back here. And the value of the property will be higher,” he contends.

Despite (or because) of his own experience with local restoration projects, Dr. Galvan manages to be optimistic about the situation. “It’s very good what happened to Roxas Boulevard. It’s a space worth rejuvenating. I would prefer that efforts would concentrate more on projects like these.” Dr. Galvan receives news of other redevelopment efforts around the city, like the Avenida Rizal walkway and the Pasig River linear parks, with much pleasure. “The Pasig River also, is part of the heritage. Like other famous big rivers, it should be enjoyed by the people. I would love to live along the Pasig River. If I could, I wouldn’t ever go to Makati. If you could live in Intramuros or by the bay I’d gladly live there rather than in a new development.”

Pondering the day when the Instituto might have to relocate, Dr. Galvan reveals his grand plan. “I have proposed to move to Intramuros. It is a project that hasn’t pushed through so far. The plan is to reconstruct the Ayuntamiento then to have the Spanish embassy, the different agencies, and the Insituto Cervantes there. It’s a huge project. We are in talks, but it takes time to carry out.”

The government might be dragging its feet in helping to realize his dream, but that won’t stop Dr. Galvan’s mind from moving on. “If we were to put up a new building for Instituto, I wouldn’t like to build something like modern architecture in Spain. You can always try to have in mind the principles of the culture. For the design, I’m thinking of some principles of the architectura mestiza, the bahay na bato. Not a literal one like Casa Manila, but just using some principles, like the transparency of the light and how the windows control the entry of light. Maybe the same design as the ventanillas, but instead of capiz we use glass. In the end it will look very modern, not a literal Spanish or Filipino house.”

For now though, the Instituto Cervantes is keeping its address at the Mayflower. And Dr. Galvan always speaks of their home with much fondness. “This is an example of a building that has been used for many years and different purposes. I think that’s a good lesson to learn on how to use buildings like these. Good architecture can be used or adapted to different uses. Instead of demolishing old buildings, this should be done more. We need to maintain and preserve good architecture,” he states, ever the conservationist.

Although the Mayflower has been associated with the Instituto for many years, they are actually just leasing the building. The owner, an intensely private man, does appreciate the fact that his property is being ocuppied by a prestigious institution with a noble purpose. Although he also feels that some of the structure’s features are being underutilized. For example, the covered patios that extend from some of the rooms on the ground floor, where former residents must once have lounged, the Instituto merely uses for storage purposes. The owner also discloses that what we see now of the building’s interiors no longer follows the original floor plan. The contractor that the Instituto hired had to tear down a number of walls in order to convert the apartments into classrooms. In fact, the current rear entrance to the building is only a recent alteration, and used to be a kitchen. The circular plaza behind the building, with the cloverleaf design and Insituto logo set in concrete at its center, was supposed to be a swimming pool.

He has taken great care to ensure that any additions and improvements to the structure remain true to the original building’s lines. With the advent of airconditioning, the window shades and ledges were re-imagined to prevent the new fittings from detracting from the over-all effect. Modern plumbing, electrical, and communications requirements meant having pipes and tubes running across the building’s exteriors, but they have all been cleverly concealed behind slitted columns that conform to the structure’s aesthetic. Under the owner’s supervision, an entire floor was added to the top of the building, but it is integrated seamlessly enough that it becomes nearly impossible to tell that it was never part of the original structure. The perimeter fence and walls are also recent additions, but they blend perfectly with the general design, and do not prevent passers-by from appreciating the compound’s façade. The parking facilities were designed using sophisticated computer-aided techniques in order to maximize the space alotted.

A less devoted proprietor would have been content not to bother with superfluous details, but the Mayflower’s owner could not abide with such carelessness and indifference. To him, the Mayflower’s architecture is a treasure that must not be tampered with unconscientiously. And he wishes that all other building owners demonstrate just aó much thought and concern to the maintenance and renovation of their own properties. He also hopes that other businessmen realize that there is more to owning and developing real estate besides profits. He echoes Dr. Galvan’s disappointment at the general lack of interest and desire among Filipinos to protect their architectural treasures. Because of greed and apathy, we are losing a priceless legacy. It is this sort of narrow-minded and short-sighted attitude that haunts our country and holds it back from greatness, he avows.

History has bequeathed the Mayflower building with a grace and air that one may only perceive in buildings of a certain age and style. And yet because of the dedication and good sense of its owner, it possesses none of the mustiness and decay that usually envelops such structures. It endures as living proof that a privately owned building can preserve its legacy as an architectural landmark and still sustain its purpose as a valuable commercial property. At a time when many heritage buildings lie shuttered and neglected, waiting to be restored and revitalized, the Mayflower stands dynamic and vibrant. It’s heartening to know that a treasure like the Mayflower shall continue to serve a vital role in the urban landscape for generations to come.

Instituto Cervantes Manila transferred to a new compound beside the Casino Espanol along Kalaw St. in 2006. Federico Delgado, owner of the Mayflower building, was found murdered in his apartment at the penthouse of the building in 2007. The property has been acquired by De La Salle University – College of St. Benilde>

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved


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