I read a few weeks ago from a blogger that Rizal Park, better known to me as Luneta, is being renovated and updated. This is in time for the celebration of Jose Rizal’s 150th birthday. (Rizal is old indeed, but his relevance never fades.) Included in the project is building a boardwalk in the relief map, and re-opening of the dancing fountain. It is good that this park received some face lift, as it has been left in the dark ages for some time.
The blogger also posted some pictures of Rizal Park, then and now. Suddenly a flood of memories of this place came upon me.
Luneta was not just a national park that my family frequented. This place has a deeper meaning for me. I know it is the death place of our national hero, but it is also the fount of our living.
My father was a certified public accountant and he became an employee of the National Parks Development Committee. This agency was in charge of running the affairs of the park. Its office was right at the heart of Luneta, near the Tourism building. Here, my father served as an accountant for about 20 years, later becoming its chief accountant. His work there provided for our shelter, put food on our table, and sent us to school.
Countless times did we go there, not just to visit our dad, but also to jaunt in the park. I knew Luneta even when I was very young and barely speaking. My mother told me that when I see the park’s landmarks, I will scream: “Uneta na, Uneta na! I spent many hours in its playground – running, swinging, see-sawing, sliding, and climbing the big shoe, the big hippo, and other playground structures. Even when I was in high school, I still visited the playground. No, not to ride on the swing but on bump cars, and to play space invaders in its arcade.
We also spent numerous times in the breakwater at the back of Quirino Grandstand. Here we inhaled fresh sea breeze (or fresh ship fumes?), and played while eating Magnolia drumstick or pinipig crunch. There were also many instances that we stayed until dusk to witness the magnificent Manila Bay sunset.
It was also in one of the swings near the grandstand where I attempted to fly. While my father was pushing me in the swing, I abruptly released my grip and jumped. Yes, I momentarily floated in the air, but also rapidly plunged back to the ground face first. My heart had burst in sadness as my flight was unsuccessful. My lips also had burst open and I had to be rushed to a nearby clinic to have my wound sutured. So you think Rizal was the only one who shed blood in Bagumbayan?
We also passed long hours idling in the lagoon of the dancing fountain, Japanese garden, and Chinese garden. I remember my father would take me at dawn on weekends when I was young, and we would jog around the park. We also saw people practicing tai-chi and eskrima, but we did not join them. And even though I almost passed out from exhaustion, those where one of my sweetest memories.
My sisters and I also skated several times in the skating rink at the water globe there. There were lots of skillful skaters in that rink (I wasn’t one of them). Many times, I stumbled and fell in that place. I scraped my knees – also my pride and dignity.
Of course, we also visited Rizal’s monument a hundred times. It was fascinating to watch the soldiers march around, especially during the changing of the guards. At one time, during my high school days, we stood and paraded in front of that monument in our fatigue uniform as CAT (Citizens’ Army Training) cadets, honored and pledged respect to Rizal. It was also under the shadow of Rizal’s statue that my parents taught me about patriotism and heroism. Rizal became my favorite hero.
After my father’s early death, our visit to Rizal Park had become rare. A few months after his passing, I was still in college then, my mother, due to loneliness, asked me to take her at the breakwater at the back of grandstand. There, we both gazed longingly far into the ocean. But we only caught glimpses of troubled waves and cloudy skies, for we could not view what our future would be.
More years passed. After I finished my studies, I went back there with my then-girlfriend (now my wife). As Rico Puno put it: “namamasyal pa sa Luneta, na walang pera.” Here, while we watched the sinking sun and the floating trash of Manila Bay, we let our dreams sailed into the west across the ocean, where the sun elopes and the light hides.
In 2008, after many years of living in the west, I went back to the land of my birth. One place that I re-visited was Rizal Park. With my wife, children, mother and sisters, we again toured the place that we loved.
We went to the newly opened Manila Ocean Park at the back of the grandstand. Truly, it was beautiful and can be compared to other nation’s top aquariums. My kids and I also rode a kalesa and went around Luneta, which made them happy. I made the kutsero happy too after I handed him our fare.
The water globe and skating rink were gone, the map was in bad shape, and the fountain was not dancing anymore. It seemed that only the carabao and Rizal had not changed.
I reverently approached my hero’s monument. Even though he had no more sentries, he still remained there standing, watching the world around him. I again humbly paid him my respect, and penitently whispered the reason I left him.