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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Pulumbarit

What I learned from economist, historian Dr. Benito Legarda Jr.

I met renowned economist and historian Dr. Benito Legarda Jr. at the Instituto Cervantes Manila in 2015 as I was covering "Dia del Libro," the International Day of Books, for GMA News Online.

At that time, Dr. Legarda was a participant in the book fair of Instituto Cervantes, a worldwide non-profit organization established by the Spanish government.

Dr. Legarda was selling a mix of books -- those he had authored as well as some old and rare Spanish books from his personal collection.

It was easy to miss him at such an event. The place was crowded, there were many book sellers and and even more book buyers.

Dr. Legarda, who passed away on August 26 at age 94, had an aura of reticent dignity about him. At the Dia del Libro event, he was sitting very quietly and unassumingly in front of a small table that held his books.

In his tribute to Dr. Legarda, former Budget Minister Dr. Jaime Laya described him in the Manila Bulletin as a "reserved gentleman with old world manners, Dr. Legarda was a charming person when you got to know him, generous in sharing what he knew."

Dr. Laya recalled that he and Dr. Legarda were colleagues in the Central Bank of the Philippines, saying "he was deputy governor for economic research and I, deputy governor for supervision and examination."

"As Central Bank deputy governors, we used to run into each other at Ermita antique shops during lunch breaks and over the years, at the annual Dia del Libro, Arroceros Park events, CCP concerts, numismatic bazaars, Philippine Map Collectors Society meetings. He was a true nationalist, a scholar, a man of great knowledge. Few are like him," Dr. Laya wrote.

Apparently, Dr. Legarda was a fixture in Instituto Cervantes Manila events such as the Dia del Libro.

Javier Galvan, director of Instituto Cervantes Manila, wrote on Inquirer Lifestyle: "Don Benito was always one of us at the Instituto Cervantes and Spanish Embassy. He attended every single lecture, sitting in the first row. When the lecturer said something funny, Benito would burst out in loud laughter."

Galvan noted how Dr. Legarda remained active both in the Manila social scene and on social media, posting his thoughts on pressing issues the country faces.

Galvan said Dr. Legarda "represented the excellence of being Filipino, the blend of the best of the ingredients of Filipino identity. He was very Filipino, but with Spanish and Chinese ancestry, who acquired education in American universities, at Harvard and Stanford, no less."

Dr. Legarda was the son of Benito Legarda and Trinidad Fernandez-Legarda, former head of the Manila Symphony Orchestra.

Galvan described Dr. Legarda as a nationalist who embraced his heritage -- Filipino, Spanish, and Chinese.

At the Dia del Libro event in 2015, I asked him if learning a foreign language like Spanish was contrary to being a nationalist. But Dr. Legarda said a true nationalist would endeavor to learn the country's history.

He explained that many important books on Philippine history are written in Spanish especially as the Philippines was a colony of Spain for more than 330 years from 1565 to 1898.

After that, he went on to tell more stories about Spain, his parents' roots, the beauty of the Spanish language, and so on.

Galvan said Dr. Legarda "belonged to the last generation of Filipinos that had Spanish not as an acquired language but as a mother tongue. He had a beautiful Filipino Spanish with a very rich vocabulary, a way of speaking Spanish that has practically died with him."

Photos by Riz Pulumbarit

During my informal conversation with Dr. Legarda, I confessed to him that I was embarrassed I knew very little Spanish when our family had Spanish roots.

My great great grandfather was a Spanish priest, Padre Isabelo Velarde, who had a child with a Spanish-Filipino woman in Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija.

In Spain, one of our ancestors is a national hero, Capitan Pedro Velarde (1779-1808), one of the two military captains who led Spain's "Dos de Mayo Uprising" against their French colonizers, led by Napoleon Bonaparte.

I remember showing on my tablet a painting of Capitan Pedro to Dr. Legarda, who smiled and encouraged me to learn the beautiful Spanish language of our forefathers. Thank you, Dr. Legarda. I hope to emulate your nationalistic ideals and learn to embrace both my Filipino and Spanish heritage. R.I.P. sir.

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