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Puerto Rico through the eyes of a Filipino

Spanish-style, low-rise heritage buildings, each with its own bright, unique hues, add a vivacity to what would have otherwise been a staid, cobble-stoned European town



The feeling I had upon entering Old San Juan — the preserved, historic part of the city in Puerto Rico — is something Filipinos are familiar with: Regret.

The inevitable comparison arises: “Is this what Manila used to look like?” (Supposedly, it is, though one may notice a Caribbean influence in San Juan unlike the Chinese character in Manila); “Why can’t Manila look like this?” (One could write an entire book about it.) “Can we bring Manila back to its former glory?” (The answer is depressing).

The most immediate visual appeal of Old San Juan is its color. Spanish-style, low-rise heritage buildings, each with its own bright, unique hues, add a vivacity to what would have otherwise been a staid, cobble-stoned European town. The colors reflect the tropical flora and fauna of Puerto Rico.

And it works. Which got me thinking — as Filipinos like to decry the urban colors of Manila as garish, what people may actually be condemning is the filth and pollution that have metastized throughout the Philippine capital.

A thin building stands proudly.


LANDMARK monument in the old San Juan District.


Al fresco dining under umbrellas to protect the skin from the hot, tropical sun.

At least, the streets are clean and the air is breathable in Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan. And while I did see signs of the more rapacious aspects of US-style capitalism — a Wendy’s here, a Subway there — it is nowhere near the same extent as it is in Manila which is filled to the brim with chain restaurants.

The second characteristic one may notice about San Juan, and Puerto Rico in general, are the people. Like virtually all Hispanic countries, the Philippines included, the Puerto Rican people are a product of mestizaje, both ethnic and cultural. This fact, along with a shared national history, leads to a bemusing feeling of familiarity and kinship.

Aside from the well-publicized aspects of our shared culture, such as a love for boxing (Pacquiao, De la Hoya), beauty pageantry (remember when Aga Muhlach dated Dayanara Torres?) and, controversially, cockfighting (legal in the Philippines, while in Puerto Rico there are efforts to overturn a recent US ban on it), one may notice smaller, but no less significant, similar mannerisms.
For example, when our plane touched down in San Juan, the passengers started clapping, which I thought only Filipinos did, or Puerto Ricans’ use of the word Chonggo which seems to mean the same as the human-like mammal.

The physical appearance of Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, is another story. Perhaps owing to the island’s historic role as a port on the Atlantic side of the Americas, it’s hard to determine who are the locals and the tourists. The population is highly ethnically diverse and mixed. I was even told, informally, that one could see families with four noticeably different skin tones. Perhaps in the eyes of a Manileño, accustomed to the typical Austronesian-Chinese-Spanish mix, the Puerto Rican standard ethnic mix of European, African and Native American ancestries comes across as exotic.

Exotic, but familiar — that would be my summary of how many Filipinos may perceive Puerto Ricans.

Estrellados en mangú con chistorras served at Chocobar Cortés.



This extends to cuisine. While Puerto Rican food is its own cuisine, we have similar dishes. Empanada is one. So is lechon, of which I sampled a modern version: Cochinillo gyoza, something I thought I would see in the Philippines but instead discovered in Puerto Rico. And, of course, there is that Filipino dish of Caribbean origin, arroz a la cubana. An actual dish from the region, picadillo, is virtually the same, though strangely enough, I was served picadillo during my hotel quarantine stay upon returning to Manila.

Our shared culture with our Puerto Rican primos further extends to history, politics and economics. As two of the last vestiges of the Spanish empire, Puerto Rico and the Philippines (along with Cuba and Guam) were practically handed over to the United States following the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Perhaps this is one reason a kind of political economy is shared between Puerto Rico and the Philippines, both with a considerable portion of their populations living abroad due to lack of domestic opportunities. And a similar debate about independence from the US — if it is a good idea for Puerto Rico, as well as for the Philippines — is a hotly debated topic.

Colorful, old high-rise structures reflect the people’s tradition of gaiety and passion.


THE author (right) and his brother Diego (standing left) flank their father, Bobby.

Which brings us back to Old San Juan. I was told the US had minimal involvement in preserving the heritage of the town, meaning credit for successful heritage preservation goes to the Puerto Ricans themselves. I wonder if, in some alternate reality where the Philippines remained part of the US, Old Manila would have been properly preserved, or if we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

I will summarize, in Filipino Spanish, what I felt while gazing upon Old San Juan while thinking about Old Manila: Es como mirar un espejo distorsionado, y luego mirarse a sí mismo y descubrir que está aún más distorsionado (It is like looking at a distorted mirror, and then looking at yourself and discovering that you are even more distorted).

About the contributor

Ramón Rodrigo Kalaw Cuenca, CFA, is a gold-medalist Filipino martial artist and the creator of ‘Business Samurai,’ a free online manga about business. He is currently working on an app that will provide users with productive social networking. Follow him on ‘Business Samurai’s’ Facebook page, and you can read ‘Business Samurai’ on