- A Cultural History of Santo Domingo by Romeo B. Galang Jr.
To the twenty-first-century mind, it may be hard to reconcile the relic that Intramuros has become with what was once the bustling center and seat of Spanish power in the Philippine Islands. This challenge of enlivening the imagining of old Intramuros Romeo B. Galang Jr. takes up in A Cultural History of Santo Domingo. Galang obtained his MA Art History from the University of the Philippines Diliman and currently teaches courses on literature and the humanities at Far Eastern University. This book is based on his thesis, which benefited from a grant from the Spanish Program for Cultural Cooperation. Published by the UST Publishing House, the book looks at accounts that cover four centuries of the ecclesiastical complex, specifically that of Santo Domingo. It aims to show how such an institution was able to “bring forth a distinctive cultural life for the people of the city” (2). Its themes include colonial aesthetics; the role of geography and climate; power relations between church and state; issues of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class; and even “Asian customs and traditions” (9)—a daunting task for a book containing a little over 150 pages of text. [End Page 583]
A common challenge in studying the history of the Catholic Church in the Philippines is the limited availability and accessibility of primary documents. Of those available, many reside in archives located in Spain. Fortunately copies of the manuscripts of the Archivo de la Provincia del Santísimo Rosario are available at the University of Santo Tomas Archives. It is from translated versions of these Spanish texts as well as other documents housed locally at the National Archives of the Philippines that Galang derives his main material.
The power that the Catholic Church and its agents have wielded in Philippine history is easy to recognize, their spiritual mission seemingly unaffected by mundane problems plaguing ordinary people. Details featured by Galang throughout the book’s eleven chapters, however, provide glimpses of the very real and practical considerations faced by the Dominican Order in setting up shop in Manila. For instance, one may find some amusement in reading how the Santo Domingo’s location, close to the Parian, was deemed an asset largely because the lot near the bank of the Pasig River was “the only site left in the city which could be bought” (13). Moreover the colonial government considered the enclosing walls required by the order’s cloistered way of life an obstruction to security during times of conflict, necessitating a compromise between these two powerful entities.
By delving into the patrons’ role in the building, renovations, and restorations of Santo Domingo, the book emphasizes the elaborate support system needed by the ecclesiastical complex in order to flourish and survive adversity. The descriptions of how spaces were appropriated, utilized, and transformed, coinciding with moments of celebration and disaster, offer a sense of dynamism to what would otherwise be inanimate wood, brick, and stone. Through these details, the book brings to the fore the existing power structures, along with the necessary negotiations and compromises among colonial institutions.
The ecclesiastical complex also reflected the inequity that characterized colonial society. Distinctions were seen in the roles performed by various racial groups. Aside from providing essential labor “in the building and maintenance of Manila” (103), black slaves were often put to work as musicians during religious celebrations. Galang stresses the treatment of slaves as property by citing accounts of their purchase, sale, and even donation to churches. In contrast, members of the native population were relatively privileged in the tasks assigned to them as cooks, choir singers, [End Page 584] and servants within the ecclesiastical complex. According to one account, native majordomos were put in charge of “[p]rovisions for the needs of slaves, including rations” (113).
While the multilayered approach utilized by the author gives a sense of how dense colonial society was, the reader can feel disoriented by the various trajectories of discussion and digressions dotting the chapters. The attempt to provide...