Revisiting the life of Manila’s first elected mayor Arsenio Lacson



By Anna Valmero

MANILA CITY, METRO MANILA – On your next Binondo  trip, try to learn a little history and stop by the towering statue of Manila’s first elected mayor Arsenio Lacson at the former Plaza Goiti.

Lacson was born in 1912 in Negros Occidental and is the grandson of Aniceto Lacson y Ledesma, a sugar landlord in Talisay noted for being the only Negrense to have a blood compact with Andres Bonifacio after joining the Katipunan.

The younger Lacson moved to Manila to study Bachelor of Arts at Ateneo de Manila and Bachelor of Laws in the University of Santo Tomas. He passed the bar in 1937 at 25 years old.

He is known as one of the most colorful political figure in Manila, having served three terms as mayor. Before 1951, the mayoral position for the capital city was appointed by the national government so Lacson’s win over incumbent Manuel Dela Fuente (also then  acknowledged as Malacañang’s bet) is no way as simple as today’s election standards, old folks would say.

Prior to his political career, Lacson – known for his signature dark sunglasses – spent years as a print journalist and commentator of a radio program titled “In this corner” that used to be popular among Manileños.

The roots of his being an activist dates back to his days at the Free Philippines Movement in the outbreak of World War II. He was in the 1945 Battle of Manila and fought in the Liberation of Baguio.

His experience as a field reporter was something he applied as a mayor by joining police raids and night patrols. After interviewing residents at Bay View and Filipinas Hotels, he is known to drop by Roxas Boulevard to witness the Manila Bay sunset. In case you are wondering, his was the statue of a bespectacled man reading the newspaper on a bench—before it was destroyed by the breakwater.

Among his notable contributions to the city, according to Nick Joaquin, include the firing of 600 corrupt city employees and reducing significantly the city’s debt from P23.4 million down to P4 million – a significant feat since the exchange rate that time was conversion two pesos to a dollar.

Most of the public buildings ofpostwar Manila are established during his administration. Most of these are still seen today such as the Manila General Hospital (now Ospital ng Maynila), Pamantasan ng Maynila, Quiapo Underpass, Manila Zoo, Boys Town and Girls Home.

He was an open critic from the administrations of Elpidio Quirino to that of Carlos Garcia, hence he was pushed to the background and so is his plan to enter the national government.

The biggest decision in Lacson’s political career was when he decided to run for presidency, which was somehow inspired by the visit of Ramon Magsaysay who offered him vice presidency. He declined because he believed it was not yet time.

Years later, it was clear that he would lead the Nacionalista Party in the 1965 elections but a stroke at his hotel suite on April 1962 foiled this long-term plan and so Ferdinand Marcos was nominated by the party for presidency.

Some believe that Lacson could be “the greatest president the Filipinos never had,” according to Urbanhistorian blogger Niki Jon Yabes Tolentino.

Nick Joaquin wrote of Lacson: “Lacson is also the first mayor to bring some order into the movements of the city’s inhabitants; he has succeeded in making them cross streets only at the proper points and has forced them to behave more decorously in public.”

“Those who think of Lacson as just another rabble-rouser should remember that, if he has fearlessly fought the high and mighty, he has been no less fearless in incurring the wrath of squatters, cocheros, and pedestrians,” wrote Joaquin in this May 1957 article.

And the list of legendary accounts would go on about this postwar icon. What remains to be seen though is how present local government leaders could follow his example and perform public service out of duty to the people and not to siphon taxpayer’s money from the treasury to fatten up personal bank accounts.

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