On June 12, 1898, from the balcony of his ancestral home in Kawit, Cavite, General Emilio Aguinaldo proclaimed the country’s independence from Spain – the conclusion to over 300 years of colonization. The Philippine flag was hoisted and waved for the very first time. Banda Malabon performed the National Anthem, composed by Julian Felipe with lyrics adopted from Jose Palma’s poem Filipinas. To officially mark the momentous occasion, June 12th was officially declared the country’s day of independence, and the site – known as Aguinaldo Shrine – was designated as a national shrine and birthplace of Philippine independence.
The way Filipinos all over the country celebrate their independence today is arguably flexible.
Some countries’ independence day celebrations are tied to an activity, such as barbecues and fireworks in the United States, or to food such as tricolor dishes in India. Others are strongly associated with a place and annually attract hordes of tourists to take part in the festivities. Apart from the annual flag-raising ceremony in Kawit, the flag’s display in local establishments, and maybe the occasional parade, household celebrations of Independence Day all over the Philippines are not necessarily as distinct. Perhaps a common patriotic element to various cities in the country is something more fixed and often overlooked: plazas and parks.
Plazas and local independence
It is not a coincidence that many parks and plazas in the country are aptly named in commemoration of revolutionary acts, events, and people. In fact, a few plazas in the country are literally named ‘independence’ park. Plaza Independencia in Cebu went through many names (‘Plaza de Armas’, ‘Plaza Mayor’, ‘Plaza Maria Cristina’) before all colonizers left the country and it settled on its current one; the site is now a symbol of that independence from all that attempted to gain command over the Queen City. It’s the city’s oldest civic space and is currently often used as an activity center for government programs.
Iloilo’s Plaza Libertad was also setting to significant events in the city, as it was witness to the surrender of Governor-General Diego de los Ríos of Spain to Filipino revolutionary troops in December 1989, and was where the country’s flag was raised in Iloilo for the first time. In February this year, the historic site held the groundbreaking for its redevelopment. Conceptual plans for the project were prepared in coordination with renowned landscape architect Paulo Alcazaren (Iloilo Esplanade, Velasquez Park), and include more pathways and a plaza lighting system.
Unbeknownst to many, the Bacolod Public Plaza is actually officially named Plaza del 6 de Noviembre in honor of the surrender of the Spanish government to Negrenses following their revolt the day prior. The official surrender took place nearby in the house of Jose Ruiz de Luzurriaga, who served as the arbiter between the opposing forces during the historic event.
The plaza recently concluded renovations, as the city’s public information office posted photos of the new and improved public space last April 2021. The revamped plaza boasts an enhanced landscape, restored flooring, and more trees for ample shade.
While municipalities such as Kawit officially declared their independence from Spain on June 12th, cities across the sea such as Bacolod and Iloilo experienced their own liberation on much later dates. Perhaps these parks and plazas may serve as a unifying element in the celebration of independence from Spanish imperialism; they offer locals a stronger sense of place and connectivity to the symbolic event.
According to Section 15 of the Public Assembly Act of 1985, every city and municipality in the country is required to establish or designate a suitable freedom park within their respective jurisdiction. These refer to centrally-located public spaces wherein citizens may hold demonstrations and meetings freely, without the need for prior permits. The Quezon City Memorial, Plaza Rizal in Pasig, and Pinaglabanan Park in San Juan are examples of designated freedom parks in Metro Manila. Here, citizens are not only able to bike and take part in other leisure activities but are also free to organize protests, rallies, and other means of expressing themselves legally.
The liberty of moving through and occupying space
During the pandemic, more people have yearned for a change of pace and sought to engage in outdoor activities. As more Filipinos head outside and turn to bikes in the absence of mass transport, online forums and social media have been filled with calls for more pedestrian-friendly and alternative mobility supportive spaces. More cities have worked on opening the streets for commercial use and installed bike racks and designated lanes for their citizens. Spaces where people can enjoy the outdoors within a safe distance from each other have become especially relevant. Public plazas are not only markers of cultural significance, but also an avenue for people to freely move and express themselves.