Emilio Aguinaldo is NOT my favorite player on the stage of Philippine history, in fact, just the opposite. But from 1896 through 1901, this diminutive fellow was gigantic in the struggle for Philippine independence; first in his semi-successful fight against the Spanish, and then, as he continued a losing fight against the Americans. I wanted to see and explore his large family home, not because I am fond of HIM, but because the place literally overflows with history and historical objects. After having been there, I can say now that I was NOT disappointed.
We were going to wait until day two to check out Aguinaldo’s home in Kawit, Cavite. However, after finding a resort in the hills overlooking Calamba, complete with “healthy” warm spring pool water, supposedly piped in from underground hot springs straight into the swimming pool, the resort manager told us check in time wasn’t until 6 p.m. I was astounded! Inconveniences like that irritate me all the time over here. My wife had already paid, so we now had to kill about 9 hours until we could relax for the evening. I asked her what time we had to check out next day and was told before 8 a.m. Struggling to control my ire, I gritted my teeth, and asked if any lodgers were yet in the resort and if not, then why couldn’t we check in while it was still daylight for crying out loud!
Ridiculous, irksome stuff like that assails you constantly when you live and travel here. I always ask WHY, but usually I can obtain no answer. The hired help have no clue as to the why of things, so it’s useless to ask them. What I HAVE ascertained is that because this place has no concept of customer service, most business policies are based on the convenience of the business itself. “The customer is always right” does NOT exist here; although I believe the tourist bureau is trying to instill it, but as yet with little success.
After leaving the Rizal Shrine, we spent 45 minutes at our driver’s aunt’s house in Calamba. They were very gracious, but I wasn’t willing to continue our intrusion. I told Amalia that we should go ahead and visit the Aguinaldo shrine, so off we went.
The drive from Calamba to Kawit does not look so far on the map, BUT…! Roads, streets and highways are not built quickly or extensive enough to keep up with the increasing numbers of vehicles using them, thus traffic is a KILLER no matter where you go. It’s why I have a driver. I let him deal with the local driving habits, which basically entails the following two attitudes, “Me FIRST!” and “I am MORE important than you, so I will go down the wrong side of the street to pass you, while YOU wait patiently in that long line of cars and trucks!” Of course, when selfish drivers do this it snarls traffic even more, but that’s how it works here, primarily because there are no traffic cops to interfere with their madness. Hey! All you spoiled, whining Americans—you will NEVER COMPLAIN about too many cops looking over your shoulder ever again, once you see what happens when there are NONE!
I thought about Emilio Aguinaldo’s legacy during the 2 and ½ hour ride to Kawit from Calamba. As we drove up the main drag through Cavite province toward his hometown, not far from Manila Bay, we passed through Imus, a city notable during the initial fight for the peninsula against the Spanish in 1896. It was here that the sword of the defeated Spaniard, General Aguirre, was captured. I realized we were driving through a part of the Philippines that is to this day fiercely loyal to Aguinaldo, even though he is the man ultimately responsible for killing the founder of the Philippine Revolution—Andres Bonifacio. In fact, if you go to any website originating in Cavite, history is written to the effect that Bonifacio was a treasonous criminal and deserved his ignominious end.
We reached the Aguinaldo mansion at 1 p.m., entering the gate of a huge parking lot incorporated into an unkempt garden and memorial complex. We parked the van under the shade of a large tree. It was decided that only my wife and I were going to see the large white Aguinaldo house, while the rest of the crew waited at the van. I don’t have any say in these decisions and it really didn’t matter to me, but I would have thought that some of them would be curious about it, since Aguinaldo is an important name in Filipino history. My own fascination with the things and places of historical significance always causes me to believe that everyone else should be just as enthralled. Yeah right!
We walked toward the mansion through the large deserted parking lot, and we began to doubt that the place was even open. Ours was the only vehicle in the massive lot. We made our way up walkways and through parking lot sections toward the house, which seemed way off in the distance. We stopped and checked out the statue of Emilio perched atop his horse and brandishing a sword. The larger than life statuary stands perhaps 10 feet tall atop a massive block pedestal, which is another 10 feet high and covered with black marble slabs. It needed a rinse, and one of the marble slabs along the bottom of the support block had fallen off, as if a scale had fallen off a fish.
Contiguous to the Aguinaldo statue is a monument devoted to the signing of the June 12, 1898 Independence declaration. All the signers’ signatures look about 10 times larger than original and are displayed exactly as they look on the document, which is kind of cool. Some of the reproduced autographs depicted on some kind of metal wall of—maybe bronze, are somewhat oxidized, though that’s understandable in a hot, humid place such as this… I suppose. Still… Altogether, it IS a very impressive tribute, except that it is needs maintenance and repair. Unfortunately, there seems little money available for that kind of thing. Maybe we were there on a bad day; I hope so. We continued past the statue toward the whimsical looking Aguinaldo house.
I looked back over my shoulder at the martial figure on his bronze horse and I grimaced a bit at the sight of him. My primary problem with Emilio Aguinaldo is that he made some poor decisions during the critical time he was in power. I point to two key events to make my point:
First, he allowed his fellow Caviteños to push for the death of the primary contender for power—Andres Bonifacio. After the “trial,” where Andres was falsely accused of treason, Aguinaldo correctly commuted the sentence from death to exile. But then Aguinaldo allowed his Caviteño advisers to convince him that Andres had to die, and Emilio caved! It was a horrible, unforgivable decision.
Second, during the running (losing) battles against the Americans, it seems to me that Aguinaldo may have decided to have his senior military leader, General Antonio Luna, set up and murdered by his company of Kawits. Check it out: In 1899, Aguinaldo sent a message to Luna for a meeting at a convent in the northern town of Cabanatuan. Luna showed up, and on his way into the building he dressed down one of the Caviteño guards for being a slacker. The story is he even slapped the man. Aguinaldo was NOT there (hmmmm!?), and so Luna loudly criticized Aguinaldo out of frustration. When Luna exited the convent, the men of the Kawit ambushed him. Luna’s last words as he brandished his pistol, firing it ineffectually into the air, were: “Assassins!” “Cowards!” He was shot and stabbed to a bloody mess.
Was Aguinaldo involved? Well, he never ordered an investigation, and no one was ever punished for the crime. (It seems that not much has changed since then, eh?) Aguinaldo apologists like to conjecture that Luna may have been plotting against Aguinaldo, a typical smear tactic seeking to turn the victim into the villain. The result is that whatever was left of the morale and willingness of the Philippine Army to fight on was snuffed out along with the life of General Luna, and there was no improvement whatsoever once Aguinaldo took over as senior commander. Any wonder then, that I question the leadership and judgment of Aguinaldo?
We strolled toward the front of the Aguinaldo house that once faced a street, no hint of which any longer exists. This long gone street was the major local thoroughfare called El Camino Real, or “The Royal Road” in English. In creating the Aguinaldo Shrine, the government has simply blocked off both sides of that street and created a permanent detour around the entire compound. It would have been terrific if they had maintained the look of the original street, because it was on this avenue that huge crowds of local Caviteños had gathered on June 12, 1898, when Aguinaldo declared national independence from the veranda of his home.
Amalia and I stood looking up at the window where independence was proclaimed more than a hundred years before. I tried to imagine what it might have been like back then, with hundreds of people crowded excitedly down below the house in the street, waiting to hear momentous words from their leader. That he was a fellow Caviteño must have made them immensely proud and energized. I could imagine him standing there in his military uniform, waving grandly at his adoring people before beginning to read loudly from his text.
There was no way to get into the compound of the house itself from the larger section containing the parking lot and Aguinaldo statue. A tall wrought iron fence separated it from us. We noticed an “entrance” sign pointing around the fence to the right, so we headed that way. We had to actually leave the parking complex completely and then reenter a whole different compound to get into the grounds of the house. A middle-aged Philippine Navy enlisted sailor wearing neat blue dungarees was on duty, and he met us as we entered the well-kept yards and grounds of the mansion. I greeted him, asking if we could tour the house. He nodded smiling and pointed toward the entrance.
I decided to look around the lush gardens and yard before going in. The outside of the home is beautifully maintained. Obviously, the house and its yard is where most of the upkeep money is spent. A fine-looking old 1930’s vintage car used by Emilio is on display in a protective glass enclosure, the only way to keep metal objects rust free over here. I glimpsed Aguinaldo’s enormous burial crypt located behind the house and I started to walk toward it. I was discouraged from continuing by the guard for some unknown reason, so we entered the home instead.
The mansion is so large and has so many interesting features, that I cannot do it justice by trying to describe all of it in detail. What I can say is, “Wow!” An older gentleman, Vera Valez, the house’s expert and guide, invited us to sign the guest book. I noticed that a dozen or more parties had visited earlier that day, some Americans, a couple Europeans, and the rest Filipinos from other provinces. They had all been there that morning. I was beginning to realize something after our fiasco earlier in the day at the Rizal Shrine: It’s best to visit Filipino tourist sites after lunch; hardly anyone else is out and about, so you’re likely to have the whole thing to yourself. That is exactly what happened to us at Aguinaldo’s. We were there for more than an hour with no one else getting in the way of our tour.
Vera gave us a delightful, private tour of the mansion. We started off on the ground floor, seeming more like a massive wide-open basement, originally used as a storage area of grain and farm supplies because of its cavernous, barn-like quality. Much of it is now filled with displays that tell the story of Aguinaldo along with the Philippine quest for independence—from the Caviteño and Aguinaldo perspectives of course. I tried to engage Mr. Valez about the Aguinaldo versus Bonifacio situation, but he simply ignored me, which is what folks do here when they wish to avoid an unpleasantness. I knew enough to drop it, something I wouldn’t have done just a few years ago. I’m learning.
Two oddball items of the house are the bowling alley in the basement and the swimming pool just outside and below the second floor master bedroom. They sound better than they are. The bowling alley is a single laner and looks chintzy, perhaps due to age. The pool is not much more than a long cement bathtub about eight feet wide and 20 feet long, if that. It wasn’t even outdoors; it was right along the edge of the house and roofed over as part of the house. Vera said Emilio used it more for therapy than for enjoyment. I’ll bet his grandkids had a grand time in it though.
It is said that the house was built in its initial form before the mid 19th century, perhaps 1845 or so, as a traditional Filipino style dwelling. Pictures exist of it at the turn of the 19th century; showing it with a high, extremely pitched roof covered with nipa thatch. The Aguinaldo’s were known as good businessmen before the revolution, and the money must have continued to roll in after he lost his fight against the Americans. I say that because from 1919 to 1925 he really went to town and renovated the house so that it was almost unrecognizable from its previous appearance. The window from where declaration was declared was turned into a veranda, but at least some semblance of the original still exists from 1898.
The outside look of the house is a combination of Spanish, Filipino and American architecture. To me, the tower and pitched gables make it look a little Bavarian—with just a twist of Disney Land! The inside of the place is awesome! It’s all hardwood—the floors, the walls, the ceilings, the furniture; all of it polished and nicely preserved. The National Historical Institute has done itself proud. I love all the memorabilia collected during Emilio’s almost 100 years of life. Scores of dignitaries, statesman, politicians, and stars of all kinds visited him over the decades, and there are photos of many of those visits.
Much of the incredible furniture throughout the mansion is antique, or expensively made gift pieces made by notable Philippine craftsmen and furniture companies. My favorite display item is the sword captured by Aguinaldo’s troops from the Spaniard Aguirre, when they defeated his army during the height of the Caviteño’s military successes in 1896 at Imus.
Vera took me all over the house and I could not get enough of it. The place is teeming with hiding places, secret rooms, escape tunnels, and hidden passages. Vera let me enter and explore every one. There is a huge ball room with a wonderful vaulted ceiling and Vera showed me how the ball room could be secretly bypassed through several secret passages so that the master could enter his bedroom unseen if he wanted.
The tower is THE most unique aspect of the mansion; you just don’t see any homes equipped with them in this country. Vera said that Emilio loved it, and spent much of his time up there. A very narrow stairway leads up to the tower bedroom and living area where at least one of the Aguinaldo boys chose to use as his bedroom. From this room we climbed some even steeper and narrower steps up to the main tower platform. Emilio loved hanging out here, where he enjoyed being able to see Manila Bay, and even the Manila skyline from high in his eagle’s perch. I have to admit that if I lived there, I would also spend most of MY time up there too. The breeze was great, and the panoramic 360-degree view would have made the difficult climb more than worth it, even after Emilio became old and weak—and he became VERY old. Finally, I climbed an ancient wooden ladder to the very hot and musty tip-top of the tower, and looked out at the world through its tiny glass panes. I wanted to be able to say I had made it up there, and I was!
The family bedrooms and bathrooms look almost exactly the way they did when Emilio and his family still trod those hardwood hallways. Amazingly, he lived to the age of 95, when he died of heart failure in 1964. Several times I could feel his presence signified by an eerie cold feeling in my back, and when the hair on my arms and the nape of my neck stood up. It was a deliciously uneasy feeling, and several times I said “hello” to him under my breath.
I never felt closer to him, however, than when I stood in his master bathroom where he had performed his daily “constitutionals” for decades. I pretended to turn the faucet that he had turned for some hot water; I lathered up with imaginary soap, and in a bit of a crouch, I looked into his mirror, cloudy with age, and pretended to shave. At that point, his presence became overwhelming. Smiling at my own milky reflection (and at his it seemed eerily), I acknowledged the old general’s ghost, “Hello General. I like your place. Rest easy sir. I’ll be gone soon.”
Looking out a window towards the rear of the grounds, I examined Emilio’s final resting place and wondered if he had ever looked out the same window at the spot he would someday rest for eternity. It seems fitting that he lies there in his huge over-sized crypt, completely alone, with no family to keep him company. To me, it says something about him that he chose to be laid to rest solo like this. I’ve been to the graves of great American presidents, and every one of them lies in the ground next to a beloved wife, and all have family nearby as well. What it says to me is that Aguinaldo, with all his ambition and ego, was unwilling to share his final glory with anyone else, even his family. It seems he loved himself above all others.