If you were one of those who caught Pope Francis’ mass at the Manila Cathedral last January 16, you may have chanced upon the words of Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle in which he quoted a fellow named Fr. Horacio de la Costa who said that the resiliency of the Filipinos can be traced to “music and faith.”
While there is little argument to be made about that statement, some have raised a question as a consequence of the Cardinal’s statement: who is Horacio de la Costa? Today, this edition of The Guide will try to answer the question about this man’s identity and his contributions to religion, history, and even the landscape of the metropolis.
Born on May 9, 1916 in the town of Mauban in Quezon Province, Horacio Villanueva de la Costa was born to Sixto de la Costa, a judge, and Emiliana Villamayor. He spent his early education in Batangas before moving to Manila where he was eventually admitted to Ateneo de Manila.
It was in Ateneo where de la Costa shined, having displayed “excellence” not only in academics but also in student leadership. But it was in writing that he came to be well-known for as he served as a writer and eventually becoming the editor of the school’s newspaper, The Guidon.
After obtaining his bachelor’s degree from the school, in 1935 he decided to enter the religious vocation to join the order of the Society of Jesus which happens to be the same religious order that runs Ateneo de Manila. He entered the Sacred Heart Novitiate, the Jesuit house located in Novaliches where he obtained a master’s degree.
He returned to Ateneo this time as a teacher where he taught philosophy and history. Around the same time, he also continued his writing career this time for radio, where he also served as talent for the Catholic Church’s Sunday variety radio program “The Common Weal Hour.” It was within the confines of this variety program that de la Costa conceived the character of a kutsero or calesa driver named Mang Teban who would comment on the issues of the day, which at that time was the divorce bill which de la Costa and others in the Catholic hierarchy were opposed to. With de la Costa’s sharp satire delivered on air through Mang Teban and other characters, it not only get the divorce bill stopped, it also gained much popularity for these radio characters, enough for them to be spun off into a new program called “Kuwentong Kutsero,” which poked fun even more at the establishment with more biting satire courtesy of de la Costa and other writers who followed. “Kuwentong Kutsero” would become an even more popular radio program until the 1960s (a run only interrupted by World War II) with film and TV adaptations made as well.
During World War II, he helped in the resistance movement against the Japanese forces that occupied the country during that time, delivering needed supplies to the soldiers who were fighting the Japanese. For this, he was imprisoned by the Japanese for two months in Fort Santiago and was duly recognized after the war by the United States government by awarding him the Medal of Freedom. He would return to his studies this time in the US at Woodstock College in Maryland where in 1946, he was finally ordained as a priest. He then proceeded to earn a doctorate degree in Harvard in 1951.
He returned to the Philippines in 1953 and resumed his teaching career in Ateneo de Manila. Later that year, he would appointed to be the dean of the school’s College of Arts and Sciences, earning the distinction of becoming the first Filipino college dean in the school. In 1958, he was made a consultant for the Philippine province of the Society of Jesus as he gained on his academic credentials around the same time with his writings on Philippine history and culture, a Smith-Mundt-Fuldright scholarship in 1960, becoming research associate for the London School of Oriental and African Studies in 1962, honorary doctorate degrees received from University of Santo Tomas, (which incidentally is run by Jesuit “rivals” the Dominicans) Dumaguete’s Silliman University, and Tokyo’s Sophia University.
In 1964, he would earn another distinction by being appointed as the Provincial Superior or head of the Philippine province of the Society of Jesus, the first Filipino to hold such a position and is considered an achievement in the order’s growth in the country. He would remain as Provincial Superior until 1970 so he could assume another role and another first for the Philippine Jesuits as he served from 1971-1974 as General Assistant and Consultant to the Superior General (AKA the head) of the Society of Jesus, the first Filipino/Asian to hold such post.
Apart from these achievements as a Filipino Jesuit, he was known more for his work on promoting Philippine history and culture through his writings. He wrote a number of books, notable of which are “The Jesuits in the Philippines, 1581–1768,” “Readings in Philippine History” and his annotated translation on Wenceslao Retana’s “The Trial of Dr. Rizal.” He also contributed a number of articles in different publications, notably in Ateneo de Manila’s “Philippine Studies” where he also served as editor once. For these contributions, he was awarded the Republic Heritage Award in 1965 by then President Diosdado Macapagal.
He died on March 20, 1977 and was mourned by not only the Atenean community and the Jesuits, but by historians and others who have come to appreciate his writings on Philippine history and culture. In his honor, a building in the Ateneo de Manila campus in Loyola Heights, Quezon City was named in his honor where a statue of him can be found in front of the building as well.
In addition, a street in Makati’s Salcedo Village in the central business district was named in his honor, perhaps due to the influence of Ateneo’s Salcedo Campus located along this street. The Salcedo Campus by the way houses the university’s Graduate School of Business (for some classes at least) and the Center for Continuing Education, which is a bit ironic considering de la Costa was known more for historical and cultural studies rather than business and continuing education.