This is the first time a Literary Landmark is designated in honor of a Filipino-American writer by the American Library Association (ALA). The Manila House is the fourth structure to be designated a Literary Landmark in Washington, DC. The three other structures designated a Literary Landmark are the Founders Library, Howard University (1997); The Jefferson Building, Library of Congress (1998); and the Frederic Douglas National Historic Site (2007).
Manila House was the “home away from home” for the District’s Filipinos in the 1930s to the 1940s. Located in Foggy Bottom, Manila House offered food, music, and fellowship for homesick Filipinos.
The Manila House has many links to RMCF. In 1993, Rita Cacas (RMCF President) learned about the Manila House from stories shared by Fernando Aguilar (1905-1996) and Mateo Salvador Perez (1908-1995) (when she interviewed them for her documentary project, “A Visit with My Elders: Remembering the Washington DC Filipino Pioneers.” She later wrote about the Manila House in her book, Images of America: Filipinos in Washington, DC. (Arcadia Publishing, 2009, p. 64)
For Nila Toribio-Straka (RMCF VP), it was more personal. Nila’s grandmother, Asuncion Gaudiel, pictured here on the left), managed the Manila House, along with her husband Gil Esposo. Nila remembers gathering vegetables in the garden and chopping it up to prepare Filipino dishes like sinigang. She also remembers card games played in the living room.
Though the memories were vivid, the exact location of the Manila House was unknown. It was in 2013 when my husband, Erwin Tiongson (RMCF Board member) found the location of the Manila House by looking it up in vintage directories and newspaper articles. The Manila House is located on 2422 K St., NW, and is now called the Carwithen House, the administrative offices of St. Paul’s (Episcopal) Parish.
The short story, "Manila House" was later reprinted in the anthology "Scent of Apples," which was published by the University of Washington Press, and later won the American Book Award. After the war, Santos studied at Harvard and returned to his family in the Philippines. He returned to Washington, DC as the honored literary member of the Philippine Arts, Letters, and Media (PALM) Council from 1987 until his death in 1996.
I would have loved to see the Manila House then. There are many scenes I visualized based on the stories of Bienvenido Santos, Nila Toribio-Straka, through Rita's interviews with Fernando Aguilar and Mateo Perez, and in the newspaper articles. I imagine walking to the house painted white with a vegetable garden out in the back.
Once I enter the front door, I smell the delicious comforting aroma of Filipino food and hear the piano playing in the background. I see customers - cab drivers, writers, musicians, students, government workers and soldiers - milling around the various rooms. Perhaps, I will join the intense card game in the middle of the living room. Or maybe join the dancing instead, as I can’t resist the dance music the orchestra is playing. I overhear conversations about their families left behind in the Philippines, and I feel the sadness and worry of these men and women.
Today, through the United for Library's Literary Landmark program, we have more than memories and images of the Manila House and its community. Thanks to Rodney Gorme-Obien (RMCF Treasurer) for his idea to apply for a Literary Landmark designation for 2422 K. Street, we will always hold a physical reminder of Bienvenido Santos and the Filipinos who were part of the Manila House. Hopefully, the next generation of Filipinos and those who pass the bronze plaque at Carwithen House will remember the former community and their stories.
Stay tuned for my comprehensive article about Manila House, expected to be published in Positively Filipino in May.
We'll see you at the Dedication event on Saturday, May 6, 2017 (beginning promptly at 3pm).