City of Manila

Manila’s “Arsenic” Mayor

Last December 26 was actually the 101st birth anniversary of one of the most colorful figures in postwar years of the City of Manila, and the Philippines as a whole. His name is Arsenio H. Lacson.

Born in Talisay in the province of Negros Occidental, he was once actually a boxer, lawyer, World War II guerilla, dabbled as a journalist and broadcaster, elected as congressman of Manila’s 2nd district, then eventually becoming mayor of the City of Manila from 1951 to 1962. He was actually the first elected mayor of the city, as before that, Manila mayors were actually appointed by the President of the Philippines.

His 10-year tenure as city mayor has been immortalized ever since as the “glory days” of postwar Manila and him becoming “the greatest mayor Manila ever had” in the same vein that Fiorello La Guardia is for New York City during his tenure. And in many aspects. “the Arsenic” (as Lacson was called) had a lot in common with “the Little Flower.” (as La Guardia was called because that’s the literal meaning of Fiorello in English)  Lacson was a tough, no-nonsense guy who immediately went to work on fixing Manila’s bleeding finances at that time, managing to turn it around and by 1959, the city was already enjoying a budget surplus.

the Lacson underpass in Quiapo, inaugurated in 1961
Manila Zoo, opened in 1959
in 1960, Mayor Lacson approved allotting P 1,000,000 for the construction of what would be the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila. unfortunately, he would not live long to see its opening in 1965

It was also thanks to Lacson that Manila enjoys various infrastructures today like its own city hospital, (the Ospital ng Maynila) its own university, (the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila) its own zoo, (the Manila Zoo) and its (and the country’s) first underground walkway now known as the Lacson Underpass in Quiapo.

True to his monicker, Lacson did have an arsenic tongue and pen that aimed at the corrupt and the powerful who did not serve the people they were supposed to serve or did not adhere to the law of the land. His unbending values had him in conflict even with the popular President Ramon Magsaysay who was also his Nacionalista partymate. Yet, he was sympathetic to the plights of the people, ready to hear their grievances even when he was at the lounges of one of those hotels along what is now Roxas Boulevard at night, sometimes even relaying his directives to his men in “colorful” expletives.

Then there were those tales of his charm on women. There were rumors of him being linked to an actress and some strippers. Then there was that of a young Leyte lass named Imelda Romualdez who was a candidate for the Miss Manila beauty pageant in 1953 who first approached Mayor Lacson for help because she claimed she was cheated of what would have been her victory in the pageant. It was said he was captivated by her beauty so the next day, he overruled the decision of the pageant’s board and declared Imelda to be the winner of the Miss Manila pageant. The board naturally protested it and decided to ignore the mayor.

The controversy would soon lead to something else in the life of Imelda as a young politician from Ilocos Norte named Ferdinand Marcos took notice of her thanks to the issue. It was said that Lacson was in love by then with Imelda and when news reached him about Ferdinand Marcos, he challenged him to a boxing match to win the Leyteña’s heart, a challenge Marcos ignored. Eventually Ferdinand Marcos won Imelda’s heart in a whirlwind romance. And the rest, they say is history.

Since Magsaysay’s death in 1957, the Nacionalistas were wooing Lacson to be the party’s standard bearer for the presidency but Lacson felt that the time was not yet ripe. Actually, he left the Nacionalistas for a short time to campaign for Diosdado Macapagal of the Liberal Party in 1961 and because he hated Carlos P. Garcia, the Nacionalista standard-bearer, which helped Macapagal win the presidency. But Lacson returned to the Nacionalistas and became more critical of Macapagal, as he remarked, “I only promised to make him president, not agree with him forever.” But there was something more to this return. At that point, the Arsenic already intimated his intention to run for the presidency in 1965 to challenge Macapagal.

But fate would intervene what would have been a sure victory for the popular mayor. On April 15, 1962, just 3 years before the presidential elections, Arsenio Lacson succumbed to a heart attack. He never enriched himself while in office, thus his death left his family in financial need that the people readily gave help. His death was greatly mourned not only by a city who was able to rise from the ashes of war thanks to his administration, but by the rest of the nation who would not have the opportunity to have him as a leader. At this bleak time, Ferdinand Marcos would turn again in this curious tale as the Nacionalistas chose him instead as the standard-bearer. And again, the rest is history.

the Arsenio Lacson monument in Plaza Lacson, Santa Cruz, the first monument built in his memory
formerly named Plaza Goiti, after the Spanish conquistador Martin de Goiti who along with Miguel Lopez de Legazpi established Manila in 1571, it was renamed Plaza Lacson after the beloved mayor, with the monument of him as the plaza’s centerpiece.
the second Lacson monument at the Roxas Boulevard Baywalk across Plaza Sulayman in Malate, originally it was set up that his monument was facing the bay. it recently restored after being heavily damaged by a storm surge that affected the city in 2012 but has been reoriented that it is now facing the boulevard instead.
the third Lacson monument unveiled last December 26, 2013 in the plaza fronting Manila City Hall. former President and Mayor Joseph Estrada has always been open in his admiration of Arsenio Lacson, considering him and Lacson faced the same problems of a city in debt when they assumed office. at this time of writing, only time can tell if Estrada will succeed like Lacson in overturning the city’s budget woes.

At a time of dirty politics, Arsenio Lacson was a figure above the rest whose service to the public was beyond question. For his contributions to the city he served for more than 10 years and the gratefulness of the city to its beloved mayor, one cannot escape the legacy of the  “Arsenic” in the city, not just in the aforementioned infrastructures that still stand today, but in the landmarks that now bear his name like the avenue where his house used to stand nearby and the plaza in Santa Cruz which also has a monument of him, not to mention another monument of him along the Roxas Boulevard where he used to lounge around at night, and the recently-unveiled one in front of Manila City Hall where he had held office.

Acknowledgements as well to Law and Behold, Señor Enrique, F*** Yeah History Crushes, and Manila Standard Today

© The Urban Roamer


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