Fighting to preserve heritage in Santa Ana, Manila

Katerina Francisco

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The historical district of Santa Ana in Manila wants to preserve its heritage – through the power of its community

WELCOME TO HISTORY. A poster outside Sylvia Lichauco's office shows how Santa Ana used to look like. Photo by Katerina Francisco/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – The old Kingdom of Namayan once stood here. Before the Spanish conquistadors arrived, this was the kingdom that ruled over what is now Mandaluyong, Makati, Pasay, and the Manila districts of Pandacan and Paco.

During the Spanish period, this could have been Manila’s Forbes Park. The home of landed Manileños and prominent personalities, wealthy families built grand houses near the Pasig River, attracted by the cool breeze and the proximity to what was once the main artery for travel.

This is Santa Ana, Manila, one of the capital’s historically and culturally rich areas. It has been at the center of history: when Manila was bombed during World War II, it was in Santa Ana where civilians sought refuge. When the Americans came, it was the bells of Santa Ana church – bells that the Japanese had ordered silent for 7 months – that heralded the good news. 

Centuries later, the quiet, old world suburb feel has been overrun by noise. Jeepneys roar past McDonald’s and Jollibee – prominent signs that modernity has arrived. In a place steeped in history, it’s hard to spot glimpses of the past: blink and you’ll miss it. But a group of local residents with a deeply-rooted love for Santa Ana is fighting to preserve its glory days, and their strategy aims to involve the community in heritage-driven tourism.

HERITAGE HOUSE. The Lichauco House has seen history pass through its doors. Photo by Katerina Francisco/Rappler

‘Restore dignity of Santa Ana’ 

Sylvia Lichauco is a descendant of the late former Philippine ambassador Marcial Lichauco. In 2010, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines declared her family’s home, the Lichauco House, a heritage house. The sprawling property not only reflects the style of Spanish-era mansions, it has historical significance too; this house by the Pasig River used to be a safe haven for hundreds of sick and wounded refugees displaced by the war.

For decades, Sylvia’s mother Jessie lived in this house, watching Santa Ana transform from one decade to the next. It was not until the neighboring Columban Fathers’ House was demolished that she got her daughter involved in heritage conservation.

Sylvia recalls seeing her mother cry. The priests’ house was being torn down for a supermarket, Sylvia’s mother wept, and appealed to her: “Help bring back some of the dignity of Santa Ana.”

HERITAGE TREASURE. The Santa Ana Church sits in the middle of a busy area in what was once a pre-Hispanic kingdom and the home of wealthy Manileños. Photo by Katerina Francisco/Rappler

Heritage for the people, by the people 

For many historic places, modernity brings with it the threat of eroding cultural treasures. But a group of Santa Ana residents is determined not to lose the last holdouts of the past. For them, cultural preservation does not mean stifling commercial activity. There’s an ideal meeting point between the two – a way to preserve a community’s cultural treasures while promoting economic growth.

Fundacion Santiago executive director Chaco Molina is pushing for a strategy that can preserve heritage and promote livelihood. It’s called community-based heritage tourism (CBHT), a strategy that involves adaptive reuse and the conservation of cultural assets. By working on the sustainable care of their shared heritage, residents can find ways to boost their livelihood too.

It’s an ideal set-up for the community: heritage is preserved, awareness is promoted, and economic activity is stimulated. Walking tours, for instance, generate job opportunities – but for this to work, heritage houses need to be preserved. Sylvia also wants to put up exhibits and establish a museum that highlights Santa Ana’s cultural treasures and draw in tourists.

Sylvia understands the challenge of getting people on board. Most of those who grew up in Santa and remember its glory days are the most active. But a large part of the population, Sylvia says, are informal settlers who may not have that sense of “pride of place.”

Heritage preservation, she adds, would be the last thing on your mind if you’ve got an empty stomach.

To solve this, she and her group of heritage advocates conduct workshops, medical missions, and feeding programs to help their community. The goal is to help people understand that their quality of life could improve by working together and doing their part to preserve heritage that could drive new means of livelihood.

SANTA ANA CHURCH. The Parish of Our Lady of the Abandoned was found to have pre-Hispanic pottery buried under it. Photo from

Identity through the arts

Sylvia is also pushing for a unique approach to heritage conservation: use Santa Ana’s performing and visual artists to help popularize CBHT. For heritage conservation to draw in the youth, it has to be made appealing first.

“We plan to use performance art to foster cultural identity,” Sylvia says. Traditional learning methods are not working, she adds. Lectures simply enter one ear and go out the other. Sylvia says what’s worked, so far, are creative ways to tell the stories. For one semester, her group worked with students from the University of the Philippines to create child-friendly stories that tell the history of Santa Ana.

There’s many more that could be tapped: talented residents could perform songs and dances for festivals and celebrations. Puppet shows could be used to tell heritage stories for the young. The goal is to get the youth onboard, to instill pride that their icons and heroes all hail from Santa Ana.

Future forward

The Santa Ana group has achieved important success by getting parts of the district declared a heritage zone through a city council resolution in 2011. It’s also been tapped by the Department of Tourism as a priority zone in the next 5 years.

But there’s still a lot of work to be done. Sylvia rattles off a laundry list of plans – many ambitious, all of them promising – but the stark reality is that these will face difficulties. Aside from the obvious problem of funding, politics can also get in the way.

“Sustaining the community’s interest is difficult whenever momentum slows down due to forces outside of our control. And when national cultural government agencies and local government can’t communicate with each other effectively, a great deal of momentum is lost,” she says.

To make Santa Ana tourist-friendly, major overhauls in the environment and waste management need to be done as well, something the Santa Ana group cannot do on its own. It took 20 years and political will for Vigan to be promoted as a heritage tourism site, Sylvia says, and their initiative in Santa Ana has just begun.

The challenges are great, but Sylvia remains optimistic. Many historical places have attempted to do what she now wants to do in Santa Ana and succeeded. It will take time, she says, but it remains doable.

“Wherever the heritage conservation spirit is alive and well,” she says, “it was not achieved without an inspired leader or leaders and a great deal of effort.” –

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