Photo by Martin Espino

More Parks, Please: Plaza Libertad and a Case for Open Spaces

By Harren Fegarido

Plaza Alfonso XII has been a constant witness to the rich culture and history of Iloilo. Heck, it was not renamed ‘Plaza Libertad’ for nothing: it was the site where General Martin Delgado led the Ilonggo revolutionaries in attaining the city’s independence from Spain on December 25, 1898.

As it turns out, Plaza Libertad also stands as a perfect example of how we can make open spaces work in an increasingly urbanized Iloilo. And as is often the case, please allow me to explain why it is so by sharing another “personal” story.

A Generation of ‘Strollers’

From the time my daughter started to walk, I usually take her strolling in Plaza Libertad every Sunday morning before the sun’s rays heat the belfry of San Jose Church, with early risers and joggers as our company. Not long after, the plaza is already alive with people used to their constant personal interactions with their fellows through this place. This historic space is surrounded with old structures– the Locsin mansion, the Masonic temple, the old Iloilo Hotel and the new Iloilo City hall–which should explain why the feeling of nostalgia seeps easily with anyone going through the place; for me, it is the Old World inviting me to join the long-lost Ilonggo society of the loyal and noble.

The square in the middle of this small city has been here even before my generation and my grandfather’s generation. As you could probably tell by now, the plaza is rightfully considered as an institution; it is not only considered as a public park, but as a venue where Ilonggos are reminded of their history and freedom. Seeing different kinds of people walk its winding pavements, I am reminded of the “liberating” symbol of Libertad, where people are encouraged to be free in their thinking and actions congruent with their nature [Editor: And since we all know Ilonggos can be sweeteningly polite to a fault, that should not be a problem.]. This is not just a place of freedom from our conquerors anymore–this is a place where I am free from blood and identity, where I can be free as a person and as a member of society. In short, this is where I can express my freedom as an Ilonggo.

A Place Where Stories are Told

The silence of the place, interestingly enough, draws me in to the stories that are being un-told by the people sitting on benches. I usually see them being quiet and contemplative, which leads me to think of how interesting their thoughts can be, no matter how deep or absurd it may be to other people not privy to their thinkings.

I love to create stories out from their thoughts. The old lady in front of me–is she thinking of her long-lost love? That man staring at the church–is he praying for a better future? These lovers holding hands in silence– are they actually second-degree cousins?

You can certainly see some “odd” characters in the plaza, but I would argue it’s what makes this place interesting. Ilonggos belong to different social strata–which are often segregated into the “rich”, the “working class”, and the “poor”–but when they intertwine in this open space, they essentially meet as one.

Open Spaces = Democracy

Plaza Libertad serves a different purpose for different people: it can either be a temple, an avenue for self-identity, a prison for the depressed, or a sanctuary for the contented. Our plazas are not just remnants from a time when historically significant events happened–they are essentially markers of our culture and society today.

Compared to other Philippine cities, Iloilo is lucky to still have plazas and open spaces. Where else can you find places which exist simply for people to walk around and think? Plaza Libertad, in particular, is always open to serve people like me who want to appreciate and absorb the wholeness of our being.

Plazas are a national treasure, and we should treat them as such.

Harren Fegarido is a wanderer