Nagcarlán Underground Cemetery: a burial ground filled with sacred art and song

La imagen puede contener: nubes, cielo, hierba y exterior

Last month’s History Month concluded with a conference on colonial period cemeteries which was held at the Nagcarlán Underground Cemetery. It is unfortunate that it was the only history conference that I was able to attend, but I think that it was still worth it since I was with two like-minded individuals who were highly knowledgeable with Catholic art.

Since I had been to the place numerous times, I was thinking of wowing both Maurice Joseph Almadrones and Rafael Vicho with whatever interesting stuff that I know of the place. But it was the other way around: they astounded me with their vast knowledge of sacred art, architecture, and music that I didn’t even know existed in the said heritage site. Sometimes, history is not just about dates, events, and personalities. It can also be about art and song.

Please welcome this blog’s first guest blogger, my friend Maurice, as he explains to us his survey of the place. Mao’s observations are perhaps the most detailed descriptions one would encounter on the Internet regarding this unique cemetery. Frequent visitors ⁠—including the NHCP itself⁠— might be in for a delightful surprise.

All photos on this blogpost also belong to Mao, except for the last one at the bottom which was taken by Rafael.

Without further ado…

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* E * L * F * I *L * I * P * I * N * I * S * M * O *

Nagcarlán Underground Cemetery: A Burial Ground Filled With Sacred Art and Song
Maurice Joseph Almadrones

Last August 31, a rainy Saturday, was my first time to explore Nagcarlán. Despite my bouts of sickness, I really needed to give myself some time to relax. While touring the mountain town, my knee was hurting like there’s no tomorrow. But I had no choice but to walk, right?

When I was a boy, we always passed by the underground cemetery whenever we were to go to Liliw, but I never really gave much thought to see it. So I took the chance to explore it when I attended a lecture there by Asst. Prof. Michelle S. Eusebio on “Colonial Period Cemeteries as Filipino Heritage”. Since the conference was part of History Month, it was hosted by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP).

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Here are my observations on the Nagcarlán Underground Cemetery:

1. Besides it being a picturesque place (I’m looking at you, plain tourists), and of course a historical witness to the schemes of the rebellion against Spain, there is much artistic, religious, and socio-cultural value to the place.

a. The cemetery is made from bricks that were most likely produced outside the southern Tagálog region. This testifies to the wealth of the parochial community of the area. Notice that places to the northwest of Banajao have more brick structures compared to the southeast starting from Majayjay to Lucbán and down to Lucena which has more adobe.

b. The cemetery is octagonal (ochavado) in shape. Now, before anyone starts commenting that the octagon “is a testament to our multiculturalism citing Chinese influence” which is also a factor, it is also a Christian symbol of perfection, alluding to the creation and resurrection or “Octava Dies” or “octave” which is actually the full circle of a feast or of creation and life itself. The ancients constructed their baptismal fonts and baptistries in this shape.

c. The mortuary chapel, being preserved compared to many other examples in the region, has an ample seating capacity. Its walls are adorned with azulejos (blue-colored tiles) and baldosas (floor tiles) which were usually imported. Same tiles are seen finishing off the mensa (table) of the stone altar attached to the retablo designed for when Mass was still offered facing God with the people (sorry, Pampanga liturgists). The very same tiles are seen in the nearby parish church.

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d. The walls have wooden trims, moldings, and cornices, sometimes mixed in with the masonry trimmings. The ceiling is of a hardwood arched frame with painted panels.

e. The ceiling and the walls were painted in bright colors of orange, gray, cobalt/Prussian blue, yellow, green, and purple, perhaps to contrast the trend of parish churches sporting trompe-l’œil in monochromatic tones. Or maybe to add some color to contrast with the somberness of the rites of the Requiem Masses and Absolutions done in the chapel. The same trompe-l’œil palette is employed to create a faux vaulting in the crypt, also brandished in azulejos.

f. The painted trompe-l’œil false windows inside the chapel have fragments of verses from the Office of the Dead (technically Divine Office / Liturgy of the Hours) for the commemoration of the faithful departed. The fragments are of “Domine, quando veneris judicare terram, ubi me abscondam a vultu irae tuae? Quia peccavi nimis in vita mea” (O Lord, when thou comest to judge the world, where shall I hide myself from the face of thy wrath? For I have sinned exceedingly in my life).

The opposite wall must have contained the next part which reads: “Commissa mea pavesco Et ante te erubesco, Dum veneris judicare, noli me condemnare, Quia peccavi nimis in vita mea” (I dread my sins, I blush before thee: When thou comest to judge, do not condemn me, For I have sinned exceedingly in my life). These were taken by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina himself for a composition.

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g. The retablo quaintly frames a niche made from masonry and painted simply which contains space for the Santo Entierro (Holy Burial) which is still there. The crucifix on top looks as if it is not the original one intended for the retablo. It seems like the retablo also has a missing top to it; perhaps it may have been overestimated so the top was never realized since it was too tall for the ceiling.

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The wooden gradas (gradines) or steps on the altar are devoid of any flourish compared to the retablo sporting Corinthian columns. The retablo itself is reminiscent of the neoclassical style in vogue during the 19th century. The floral detail is crowned by a palm (symbol of victory) and roses / passion flowers (symbol of love / the Passion of Our Lord) intertwined. The gradas have lost the original metal candeleros (candlestick holders).

h. The altar of the chapel, as mentioned earlier, is finished off by azulejos on the mensa. It is still perfect for traditional Latin Mass to be offered. However, as inquired from the curators, the chapel has nearly zero chance of being granted such Mass, thus weaning it from its original function as a place of prayer, which is sad for most heritage places outside churches. They just become display pieces.

2. Going down the portal to the right of the chapel is the stairwell to the crypt. The wall above the stairway’s second landing has fragments of a poem. Sadly, it has deteriorated like much of the artwork found throughout the chapel due to natural humidity, rainwater seepage, vandalism, and of course, human body heat and flash photography, exactly the same problems that the Catacombs in Rome is experiencing. Historian Pepe Alas has tediously researched the poem which reads:

Ve espíritu mortal, 
lleno de vida
hoy visitaste felizmente este refugio.
Pero después que tu te vayas,
Recuerda que aquí tienes un lugar
de descanso preparado para tí.

No hay ninguna descripción de la foto disponible.

(Translation:
Go forth, Mortal man, full of life
Today you visit happily this shelter,
But after you have gone out,
Remember, you have a resting place here,
Prepared for you.)

No trace of the author exists, but we can only theorize that perhaps a local poet or the parish curate himself may have composed it. It is a very consoling thing to read as one accompanies the dead to be buried in a place of eternal peace.

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3. The crypt chapel features:

a. A stone retablo and altar which has a mensa finished off in brown baldosa and has a niche for an image, or perhaps a tall crucifix. Gradines are absent, hinting perhaps that the candeleros, a pair usually rested on the mensa itself. Evidently someone bore a hole on the body of the altar, perhaps in search of some “treasure” inside, out of curiosity, or because of the testimonies of locals that a tunnel underneath exists which connects the chapel to the parish church of San Bartolomé which is about a kilometer away.

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b. Some prominent Nagcarleños are still buried inside including two priests nearest the altar who died in the early part of the 20th century. The others have markers or lápidas that feature art nouveau and neoclassical designs of the early 20th century. The best lápidas in the embossed style of carving seem to come from the talleres (studios) of Manila.

We have not found any marker from the 19th century. Maybe it’s because up until recently the niches were reusable, or maybe the Katipunan rebellion and the American Occupation as well as grave robbers swept away all vestiges of older markers, including the dead.

c. The walls and the vaulted ceiling are painted in the same palette as the chapel above. Although the plaster and paint are deteriorating slowly. We were able to take a couple of photos before an NHCP caretaker approached us informing us that photography was no longer allowed in the crypt ⁠— either for the art’s safety OR perhaps our own. 👻

d. The elevated floor of the crypt altar and the stairs were decked in azulejos.

e. To the right facing the altar is a 3×4 meter space, like another side chapel but with no graves and no evidence of a liturgical function. However, the floor contains a 1×1 meter bare area devoid of azulejos. We suspect that it might be a blocked entrance to an ossuary for the disinterred dead (taken out of their plot or niche after dues were not renewed, or to free space for new bodies), or another structure or chapel might be underneath, or perhaps it is an entrance to the rumored tunnel.

f. To the left of the altar is a seemingly blocked up arched doorway hinted by the color difference of the plaster or palitada, and in older photographs, mildew take the shape of the arch. This might be an entrance to another chapel or perhaps the rumored tunnel leading to the parish church. Mr. Alas related that he got the testimony of one of the parish church’s caretakers who allegedly found a way to the tunnel starting from behind the altar but did not pursue finishing the length because it was too dark.

g. The stairwell is lighted and ventilated by one big window, the crypt by two small ones (the putrefying dead needed air too to help speed up decay).

4. The circumferential wall of the cemetery is unique for being a mostly decorative wall with grilled windows compared to other colonial cemeteries where walls double as niches. The windows allow fresh mountain air from Banajao to pass through to the grounds. The wall has detail on top all around akin to stone lacework or the parapets/roof detailing of Buddhist pagodas. There’s your oriental connection.

The outside niches and the chapel were featured in the 1976 film “Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?” where the opening scene shows the burial of Nicolás ‘Kulas’ Ocampo’s (played by Christopher De León) mother complete with funeral procession flowing out of the chapel, and the parish priest in black stole, cope, and a biretta for the internment at a niche to the left of the chapel (Kulas’ mother must have saved much to afford a niche!).

Thank you Professor Nick Deocampo for putting this film to our pedagogic canon.

5. The gate echoes the chapel’s fachada (façade) sans the espadaña (bell wall).

6. The chapel’s façade is in the baroque style with two levels. The second level has scroll designs and, of course, the espadaña designed to support a bell usually tolled when a burial procession enters. It also has two ocular windows; probably for ventilation purposes back in the day. The gate and the chapel have exterior niches however the statuary is missing.

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All in all, this mortuary chapel is of adobe and brick much like the nearby parish church.

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7. Of course, upon entering, we were greeted by a lush lawn with hedges, but perhaps underneath are the remains of people too since even the grounds were meant for the burial of people. Back in the day, the center of the field might have possessed an atrial cross (a requirement in the building of cemeteries and in the ritual of blessing the grounds for burial).

La imagen puede contener: 4 personas, incluido Maurice Joseph Maglaqui Almadrones, personas sonriendo, exterior y naturaleza

After the conference. Left to right: Rafael Vicho, Pepe Alas, Maurice Almadrones (author of this blogpost/article), and Dr. Michelle S. Eusebio (event lecturer).

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From excited foreword to grateful afterthought

A couple of years back, I excitedly announced in my now defunct Spanish blog that I was chosen to write for a coffee table book about the history of La Laguna Province. After almost two years of sleepless nights writing and doing field research, incurring trouble at the office because of several absences and tardiness, and capped by a press release on my accidental discovery of the province’s foundation date as well as defending it from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines’ “board of academic censors”, nothing came out of the said project. The publisher and I had a falling out while the provincial governor who was supposed to fund the project was  unceremoniously booted out from politics. That book was supposed to be my big break to become a well-known writer-historian. But it seems that bad luck is an unwanted twin of mine. Whenever my dreams are within arm’s reach, they start slipping right from my hands and crash down to the floor like fine chandelier.

When publication was nearing, I had my mentor, Señor Guillermo Gómez Rivera, write the book’s foreword. I couldn’t think of nor imagine anyone else to write one for me. He is, after all, the epitome of an authentic Renaissance Man: a journalist, historian, poet, playwright, fictionist, linguist, folklorist, cartoonist, recording artist, and Spanish language teacher as well as instructor of Spanish dances (considered as the only “maestro de flamenco” of Filipinas). Few people may know this, but he is also a polyglot: aside from his mastery of Spanish, Hiligaynón, Quinaráy-a, English, and Tagálog, he also has a working knowledge of Chabacano Zamboangueño, Cavitén (Chabacano Caviteño), French, Hokkien, Cebuano, and Portuguese. In spite of his personal problems and health issues, he still manages to continue the difficult fight for the recognition of our true national identity. A great man like Don Guimò only comes once every one hundred years. That is why I call him as the GREATEST FILIPINO alive today.

La imagen puede contener: Pepe Alas y Guillermo Gómez Rivera, personas sonriendo, selfie

Unfortunately, my coffee table book will no longer see the light of day. So I thought of just publishing here Don Guimo’s foreword for that book. I am not a decorated writer nor historian, but his words for me are worth all the medals of the world.

     Having known José Mario “Pepe” Alas since his college student days at Adamson University, we never expected him to be capable of writing a history book with such serene impartiality and with the taught discipline of a seasoned historian. And more so the complex history of La Laguna, a province that means so much to the development of this country. We always thought that only a Nick Joaquín would be able to do that considering the uniqueness and the vastness of the latter’s accumulated knowledge and profound understanding of Philippine history, the Spanish language, the Filipino national identity, and the Filipino culture that encompasses all these intellectual disciplines.

     But Pepe has somehow been able to acquire the necessary conocimientos which is more than knowledge, to grasp and reproduce what is Filipino. He did take for granted, as is the case of many Filipino college students, his Spanish language subjects at Adamson University, but after he graduated and was faced with the challenges of survival, he accepted the casual job of a typist and was given the assignment to type a whole book in Spanish on the history of the Primera República de Filipinas, a thick compilation of documents, with their respective comments, by Spanish language academician, novelist, historian, and professor, Antonio M. Abad from Barili, Cebú.

     Although we know that this is not the only book in Spanish that he was forced to read, because he had to type it, Pepe must have had read some other books in Spanish on what is Filipino aside from those available in English. To our surprise, Pepe could speak to us in Spanish about Philippine History after going through this old Abad book and the other books, works, and literary pieces in this language that were found in our library.

    As an old teacher of the Spanish language, we know that the student, to acquire this language, needs to master four basic skills: the skill to read it, the skill to understand it, the skill to write in it, and, later, the final skill to speak it. And Pepe Alas from Parañaque City had sufficiently mastered the four enumerated skills. To top it all, he also mastered to a high degree the literary, historical, and cultural content of Spanish in the Philippines which, as a culmination, has formed his firm conviction as a Filipino, free from the current maladies of a colonial mentality vis-à-vis the present colonial master lording it over our country.  In short, Pepe is no longer a stranger in his own country which is expectedly miseducated, therefore ignorant of its true culture and true history. Pepe has freed himself from these maladies and anomalies of the mind and soul, and, because of this newfound freedom of his mind and his soul, he now loves his country in a much deeper way than most other Filipinos of his generation ever did or do.

     As he advanced in the field of employment, he settled in San Pedro Tunasán, La Laguna, with his wife and children and immediately identified himself as a native born lagunense interested in the history and prosperity of his adoptive province. From there, he realized that he had a new world to know and write about which is La Laguna. His research on the history of his adoptive province led him to discover the real founding date of La Laguna. He went through all the old and pertinent Spanish documents with great ease and discovered that La Laguna started as a Spanish encomienda under conquistador Martín de Goití in the sixteenth century.

     What is funny, if not something to be highly indignant about, is that the government office that supposedly works on the history of this country flatly denied and rejected this discovery because of an old U.S. WASP induced prejudice against the Spanish encomienda. Some employees in that government office on history had this prejudice against the encomienda because of the falsities taught to them in their history classes by an Americanized history teacher that never learned to see through the 1900 American sectarian propaganda against what is Spanish and Filipino in these islands. These de-Filipinized elements wrongly labeled an encomienda as a system of slavery and oppression when it is in the encomienda that our native Indio forefathers learned not only the predominant religion of Filipinos today but also learned a more advanced system of agriculture, a sophisticated cuisine, basic arts and trade, and all that a people needed to later form a pueblo and a municipio as we know them today.

     But the La Laguna Provincial Board, being open minded, quickly saw that this Alas discovery was logical and, therefore, correct. It eventually approved and recognized the date of the founding of La Laguna as a Spanish encomienda to be also the beginning of the legal entity that is this province today. An Inquirer article called Pepe an achiever who, as a young historian, discovered what others blindly ignored for so long. Kudos to the provincial governor and the La Laguna Provincial Board!

     Reading Pepe’s general history of La Laguna is a pleasure. The language is easy and all that is historical data are neatly interwoven to give an accurate picture of how La Laguna developed and how its people progressed through the years in spite of the vicissitudes that would disturb such advances. Credit is given to whosoever deserves it. As an historian, Pepe will never say, like Teodoro A. Agoncillo says on his “History of the Filipino People”, that it is “difficult, if not impossible, to define what a Filipino is”.  Pepe gives us the sensation that he exactly knows what is Filipino and that it is neither difficult nor impossible to define what it is. Because of his mastery of Spanish, Pepe Alas agrees with Teodoro M. Kálaw’s definition of what is Filipino, a definition that is, evidently, not “politically correct” nowadays, but which is accurate anyway you put it. Wrote Kálaw, and we quote him in his own language to avoid any mistranslation:

“Cuando se discute la capacidad de una raza para la autosuficiencia, todos los elementos y factores que intervinieron en su cultura, todas las generaciones anteriores, se someten a prueba. Y entrelazadas en esa exégesis está la obra de España y la obra de Filipinas indígena, dos civilizaciones que han venido uniéndose en una misma civilización que llamamos filipina sobre este suelo por casi cuatro siglos para luego constituir una vibrante nacionalidad, la que dio espíritu a la revolución y a la primera República de Filipinas.”

     La Laguna is, indeed, one of the oldest provinces of the Philippines because many of its original families have branched out to other places in this country. As a mere example and modesty aside—, this writer’s family, on both the paternal and maternal sides, traces its roots to La Laguna. Gómez comes from a 17th-century Spanish alférez from Pagsanján, Francisco Gómez, who married a Tagala named María Dimaculañgan, while Rivera traces its roots to nearby Pila. Upon a recent visit to the parish church of Pagsanján, this writer saw, from a list of donors, individuals that carried both surnames: Gómez and Rivera. There is always that inclination to come to Pagsanján and upon viewing the old and majestic arch at the beginning of what was Pagsanján’s Calle Real, a sensation of having been there becomes overpowering.  And then, there is the now almost abandoned Gómez mansion near the river while it is also at the rear of the old Church of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, the advocation of the Virgin Mary that merited the Pontifical titles of “Emperatriz de las Américas, Reina de México, y Patrona de Filipinas”. Aside from the famous Pagsanján Falls, the arch, the old bahay na bató houses, and the parish church are also tourist attractions.

     The attraction of La Laguna in general is great, and tourism is not a new phenomenon for Pagsanján. There is this bilingual sing-song of long ago that attests to what we say:

Muy bienvenidos
Sean ustedes
A nuestro pueblo
De Pagsanján.
Aquí tenemos
La maravilla
De veinte saltos
En un bancal.
Sobresaltante
Pero seguro
Es el paseo
En un raudal;
Porque las bancas
Son de arbol duro
Y los banqueros
De mucha sal.

–o–

Maganda nawâ
Ang ‘yong pagdayo
Dito sa amin
Sa Pagsanján;
Magarang arco,
Magandang bahay
Gawá sa tabla
At sa bató.
Ñgunit ang tunay
Na pañghalina
Ng bayan natin
Ay ang talón
Casama’ng daloy
Ng mananañgcang
Sanáy sa tulin
At sa tinô.

     La Laguna, as a center of Filipino culture, as expressed in song, dance, ritual, poetry, cuisine, and hospitality, is bound to advance. More so with the new crop of leaders it presently has to steer this vision onward.

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Another win for built heritage

Enough of bad news even if just for a short while. Let’s have some good news from renowned heritage advocate, Arch. Joel Vivero Rico…

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With the above-mentioned revision of the demolition permit application, heritage buildings, including those that are over 50 years old, have a stronger fighting chance against wanton demolitions. According to Arch. Rico, he submitted a letter to President Rodrigo Duterte early this year for the possible revision of the current demolition permit form that is used nationwide by the Office of the Building Official (a local government unit division).

It should be noted that the current form does not have any provision for non-issuance if the applied structure for demolition is already old or is architecturally significant. In short, there is almost no hassle at all in demolishing any old structure, even it if it’s culturally and historically relevant. But Arch. Rico’s draft explicitly refers the application to any of the three cultural agencies involved (the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the National Museum of the Philippines, and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines) for verification or rejection of the application subject to the provisions of Republic Act No. 10066 or the “National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009”.

Clearly, this is another win for the conservation of our country’s built heritage. Congratulations to the parties involved, most especially to Arch. Joel Vivero Rico. May your tribe increase!

For now, let us wait for the next move coming from the President and his allies in Congress.

NHCP asserts its authority against Alimodian Mayor

Finally, we have good tidings in favor of built heritage conservation (a rarity nowadays)! 😃

Two months ago, news broke out that Mayor Geefre Alonsabe of Alimodian, Iloílo Province was planning to desecrate their centuries-old town plaza by constructing a ₱4.6-million multipurpose building which will take up about ¼ of the area. This, of course, didn’t sit well with the townsfolk, heritage advocates, and even concerned netizens, not to mention that the planned structure is a violation of Republic Act No. 10066, otherwise known as the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009. But the mayor was stubborn, claiming that the plaza is not even half a century old, and that majority of Alimodianons are backing him up on the planned building.

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How Mayor Alonsabe’s multipurpose building would have eaten up considerable space of his town’s plaza had its construction pushed through (image: Raymond Deza).

The National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) stepped in to enforce the said heritage law to protect Alimodian’s town plaza from being disrespected by its own mayor, thus putting a halt to the construction of the building. Mayor Alonsabe made a formal appeal early last month. On September 20, the NHCP finally released its decision regarding the matter…

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Copy of NCHP letter furnished by Nereo Cajilig Luján, chief of Iloílo Provincial Government’s Public Information and Community Affairs Office.

The NHCP decision, signed by its chairman, Dr. René Escalante, proved to be a major blow to the mayor and this project’s contractors, but it is a huge victory nonetheless for Alimodian’s heritage and history. It is even a much bigger victory for our country’s struggle in conserving its built heritage considering the alarming fact that we have been losing several heritage structures to both greedy and apathetic people through the years: the Manila Jai Alai Building in Ermita, the Alberto Mansion in Biñán, the Michel Apartments in Malate, and the list just goes on and on. I haven’t even mentioned the countless ancestral houses or bahay na bató all over the country that have been lost to wear and tear and total neglect.

And even as I write this, several more heritage structures such as El Hogar Filipino in Binondo,  the Puente de Barit in Laoag, and Life Theater in Quiapò just to name a few are in grave danger of disappearing to give way to “progress”. And while some structures were saved from the wrecking ball, others were not as fortunate as they still suffered the shame of defacement (remember the sorry state of the Church of Calumpit when it was turned into a “wedding cake”?). And whatever happened to the people behind the demolition and/or defacement of our few remaining historic structures? They remain free from the penalties of R.A. 10066. That could be one major reason as to why the said law is still being flagrantly violated. That is why this recent move from the NHCP is a cause for celebration as this could be the impetus that tired heritage advocates have been waiting for. At last, R.A. 10066 is now showing some teeth!

Protecting a town plaza, no matter how cumbersome looking it may be to the general populace, is not a derisory activity. Same thing goes to protesting the planned demolition of a rickety looking bridge over a polluted river, or an old toppled-down jailhouse in the midst of a slum. Remember: built heritage is another facet of our national identity. It tells a locality’s story. These cultural treasures are remnants of a once glorious past that even today’s progress could never equal.

La imagen puede contener: exterior y texto

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Marcelo H. del Pilar, a broken dad till the end…

Today is the birth anniversary of Marcelo H. del Pilar, one of the leaders of the Propaganda Movement.

Below is a brief biographical sketch of the bulaqueño native written by Carmencita H. Acosta from the 1965 book Eminent Filipinos which was published by the National Historical Commission, a precursor of today’s National Historical Commission of the Philippines (recently known as the National Historical Institute).

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My wife Yeyette in front of Marcelo H. del Pilar’s monument in Plaza Plaridel (Remedios Circle), Malate, Manila. This monument used to be in front of nearby Manila Zoo. Fellow Círculo Hispano-Filipino member and my comadre, Gemma Cruz Araneta (a descendant of José Rizal’s sister María) suggested the transfer of this monument to this site while she was the president of the Heritage Conservation Society.  The transfer was done last 2009 under the guidance of former Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim (this photo was taken on 24 August 2010).

MARCELO H. DEL PILAR
(1850-1896)

“The most intelligent leader, the real soul of the separatists…” — these were the words used by Governor General Ramón Blanco, chief executive of the Philippine colony, in describing Marcelo H. del Pilar. A master polemist in both the Tagalog and Spanish languages, del Pilar was the most feared by the Spanish colonial authorities.

Del Pilar was born in Bulacán, Bulacán on August 30, 1850, the youngest of ten children of Julián H. del Pilar and Blasa Gatmaitán. His father had held thrice the post of gobernadorcillo in their home town. Del Pilar studied at the Colegio de San José in Manila and at the University of Santo Tomás; at the age of thirty he finished the course in law. He devoted more time to writing than in the practice of his profession because in the former he saw a better opportunity to be of service to his oppressed country. His oldest brother, Father Toribio H. del Pilar, a Catholic priest, had been deported along with other Filipino patriots to Guam in 1872 following the Cavite Mutiny.

He founded the Diariong Tagalog in 1882, the first daily published in the Tagalog text, where he publicly denounced Spanish maladministration of the Philippines. His attacks were mostly directed against the friars whom he considered to be mainly responsible for the oppression of the Filipinos.

In 1885, he urged the cabezas de barangay of Malolos to resist the government order giving the friars blanket authority to revise the tax lists. He instigated the gobernadorcillo of Malolos, Manuel Crisóstomo, to denounce in 1887 the town curate who violated government prohibition against the exposure of corpses in the churches. In the same year, he denounced the curate of Binondo for consigning Filipinos to poor seats in the church while assigning the good ones to Spanish half-castes.

On March 1, 1888, the populace of Manila staged a public demonstration against the friars. Led by the lawyer Doroteo Cortés, the demonstrators presented to the civil governor of Manila a manifesto entitled “¡Viva España! ¡Viva la Reina! ¡Viva el Ejército! ¡Fuera los Frailes!“. This document, which had been signed by eight hundred persons, was written by Marcelo H. del Pilar. It enumerated the abuses of the friars, petitioned for the deportation of the archbishop of Manila, the Dominican Pedro Payo, and urged the expulsion of the friars.

It was because of his having written this anti-friar document that del Pilar was forced to exile himself from the Philippines in order to escape arrest and possible execution by the colonial authorities.

“I have come here not to fight the strong but to solicit reforms for my country,” del Pilar declared upon arrival in Barcelona, Spain. La Soberanía Monacal en Filipinas(Friar Supremacy in the Philippines) was among the first pamphlets he wrote in Spain. The others included Sagót ng España sa Hibíc ng Filipinas (Spain’s Answer to the Pleas of the Philippines), Caiigat Cayó (Be Like the Eel) — del Pilar’s defense of Rizal against a friar pamphlet entitled Caiiñgat Cayó denouncing the Noli Me Tangere.

Del Pilar headed the political section of the Asociación Hispano-Filipina founded in Madrid by Filipinos and Spanish sympathizers, the purpose of which was to agitate for reforms from Spain.

In Madrid, del Pilar edited for five years La Solidaridad, the newspaper founded by Graciano López Jaena in 1889 which championed the cause for greater Philippine autonomy. His fiery and convincing editorials earned from him the respect and admiration of his own Spanish enemies. “Plaridel” became well-known as his nom de plume.

In November, 1895, La Solidaridad was forced to close its offices for lack of funds. Del Pilar himself was by then a much emaciated man, suffering from malnutrition and overwork. He was finally convinced that Spain would never grant concessions to the Philippines and that the well-being of his beloved country could be achieved only by means of bloodshed — revolution.

Weakened by tuberculosis and feeling that his days were numbered, he decided to return to the Philippines to rally his countrymen for the libertarian struggle.

But as he was about to leave Barcelona, death overtook him on July 4, 1896.

His passing was deeply mourned by the Filipinos for in him they had their staunchest champion and most fearless defender. His death marked the passing of an era –the era of the Reform Movement– because scarcely two months after his death, the Philippine Revolution was launched.

I am not really a big fan of Marcelo H. del Pilar, especially when I learned that he was a high-ranking Mason. Besides, I believe that what he fought for would not equate to heroism. He was, to put it more bluntly, another American-invented hero. The American government, during their colonization of Filipinas, virtually influenced the Filipino puppet government to recognize “heroes” who fought against Spain.

Pilar, Marcelo H. del.jpg

But a closer observation on Marcelo’s life will reveal that, like Rizal and other Filipino “heroes” of his generation, he never fought against Spain. They fought against the Church, the sworn enemy of their fraternity (Freemasonry).

What really captivated me about Marcelo is his heartbreaking fatherhood. Since I am a father of five, I can empathize with his sorrowful plight.

A few years ago, when Yeyette and I had only one child (Krystal), and we were still living in a decrepit bodega somewhere in Las Piñas, I happened to stumble upon Fr. Fidel Villaroel’s (eminent historian and former archivist of the University of Santo Tomás) monograph on del Pilar — Marcelo H. del Pilar: His Religious Conversions. It was so timely because during that time, I had just gone through my own religious conversion, having returned to the Catholic fold after a few years of being an atheist and agnostic.

In the said treatise by Fr. Villaroel, I learned of del Pilar’s anguish over being separated from his two daughters, Sofía and Anita. Due to his radical activities as an anti-friar, as can be gleaned in Acosta’s biographical sketch above, del Pilar escaped deportation. He left the country on 28 October 1888, escaping to Hong Kong before moving to Spain. He never saw his little kids and his wife ever again.

Sofía was just nine years old at the time of his escape; Anita, one year and four months. Father Villaroel couldn’t have written this painful separation better:

Month after month, day after day, for eight endless years, the thought of returning to his dear ones was del Pilar’s permanent obsession, dream, hope, and pain. Of all the sufferings he had to go through, this was the only one that made the “warrior” shed tears like a boy, and put his soul in a trance of madness and insanity. His 104 surviving letters to the family attest to this painful situation…

…He felt and expressed nostalgia for home as soon as he arrived in Barcelona in May 1889, when he wrote to his wife: “It will not be long before we see each other again.” “My return” is the topic of every letter. Why then did he not return? Two things stood in the way: money for the fare, and the hope of seeing a bill passed in the Spanish Cortes suppressing summary deportations like the one hanging on del Pilar’s head. “We are now working on that bill.” “Wait for me, I am going, soon I will embrace my little daughters, I dream with the return.” How sweet, how repetitious and monotonous, how long the delay, but how difficult, almost impossible!

Here are some of those heartbreaking letters, translated by Fr. Villaroel into English from the Spanish and Tagálog originals, of Marcelo to his wife (and second cousin) Marciana “Chanay” del Pilar and Sofía:

In 1890: I want to return this year in November (letter of February 4); Day and night I dream about Sofía (February 18), I will return next February or March (December 10).

In 1891: It will not be long before I carry Anita on my shoulders (January 22); Sofía, you will always pray that we will see each other soon (August 31).

In 1892: If it were not for lack of the money I need for the voyage, I would be there already (February 3); I am already too restless (March 2); I feel already too impatient because I am not able to return (April 14); This year will not pass before we see each other (May 11); Be good, Sofía, every night you will pray one Our Father, asking for our early reunion (September 14; it is interesting to note that del Pilar advised her daughter to pray the Our Father despite his being a high-ranking Mason –Pepe–); Don’t worry if, when I return, I will be exiled to another part of the Archipelago (November 9).

In 1893: Who knows if I will close my eyes without seeing Anita (January 18)!; My heart is shattered every time I have news that my wife and daughters are suffering; hence, my anxiety to return and fulfill my duty to care for those bits of my life (May 24); I always dream that I have Anita on my lap and Sofía by her side; that I kiss them by turns and that both tell me: ‘Remain with us, papá, and don’t return to Madrid’. I awake soaked in tears, and at this very moment that I write this, I cannot contain the tears that drop from my eyes (August 3); It is already five years that we don’t see each other (December 21).

In 1894: Tell them (Sofía and Anita) to implore the grace of Our Lord so that their parents may guide them along the right path (February 15); Every day I prepare myself to return there. Thanks that the children are well. Tears begin to fall from my eyes every time I think of their orfandad (bereavement). But I just try to cure my sadness by invoking God, while I pray: ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ I am the most unfortunate father because my daughters are the most unfortunate among all daughters… I cannot write more, because tears are flowing from my eyes aplenty (July 18); We shall meet soon (December 5)

I have to admit, reading these letters never fail to move me to tears because I, too, have experienced the same orfandad and the longingness for a father. It is because I have never lived with my dad for a long time since he was always overseas. When we were young, he only stayed with us for a couple of weeks or a few months. And my dad was a very silent man.

His work overseas, of course, was for our own benefit. But the price was depressing: we’ve been detached from each other forever. Whenever he comes home to us, my dad was like a total stranger to me. Especially now that I have my own family and I rarely see him nowadays. No, we are not in bad terms (although I know that he still resents the fact that I married at a very early age). But we are simply not close to each other because of those years of separation and lack of communication. I do not know him, and he doesn’t know me. We do not know each other personally. But I know for a fact that my dad loved us dearly, and that he experienced the same anguish experienced by del Pilar. I’ve read some of dad’s letters to mom, and in those letters he expressed the same desire to come home with us and stay permanently. But nothing like that happened (and now, my parents are no longer together).

The same thing with del Pilar. After all those patriotic talk and nationalistic activities, nothing happened. His sacrifice of being separated from his family was, sadly, all for naught…

When he died a Christian death in Barcelona (yes, he also retracted from Masonry shortly before he passed away), he was buried in the Cementerio del Oeste/Cementerio Nuevo where his remains stayed for the next twenty-four years. Paradoxically, a renowned Christian member of the Filipino magistrate, Justice Daniel Romuáldez, made all the necessary procedures of exhuming the body of del Pilar, one of the highest-ranking Masons of the Propaganda Movement. His remains finally arrived on 3 December 1920. He was welcomed by members of Masonic lodges (perhaps unaware of del Pilar’s conversion, or they simply refused to believe it), government officials, and his family of course.

Sofía by then was already 41; and del Pilar’s little Anita was no longer little — she was already 33.

Anita was very much traumatized by that fateful separation. Bitter up to the end, she still could not accept the fact that her father chose the country, ang bayan, before family. An interesting (and another heartbreaking) anecdote is shared by Anita’s son, Father Vicente Marasigan, S.J., regarding her mother’s wounded emotions:

[My] first flashback recalls April 1942. Radio listeners in Manila had just been stunned by the announcement of the surrender of Corregidor. There was an emotional scene between my father, my mother, and myself. My mother was objecting to something my father wanted to do ‘para sa kabutihan ng bayan’. My mother answered, ‘Lagi na lang bang para sa kabutihan ng bayan?’ [‘Is it always for the good of the country?’] And she choked in fits of hysterical sobbing. All her childhood years have been spent in emotional starvation due to the absence of ‘Lolo’ [Grandfather] Marcelo, far away in Barcelona sacrificing his family para sa kabutihan ng bayan.

“The second flashback is rather dim in memory. I was then two years old, in December 1920. I think I was on board a ship that had just docked at the [Manila] pier, carrying the remains of Lolo Marcelo. All our relatives from Bulacán were present for the festive occasion. Some aunt or grandaunt was telling me how proud and happy I must be. I did not understand what it meant to feel proud, but I knew I was unhappy because I felt that my mother was unhappy. In the presence of that casket of bones, how could she forget the emotional wounds inflicted on her by her father ‘para sa kabutihan ng bayan’ [for the good of the country]?

History is not just about dead dates, historical markers, and bronze statues of heroes. It has its share of eventful dramas and personal heartbreaks. And this is one heartbreak that I will never allow my children to experience.

To all the fathers who read this: cherish each and every moment that you have with your children.

This blogpost was originally published in FILIPINO eSCRIBBLES exactly eight years ago today; reblogged here with minor edits. Later on, this blogpost won me the friendship of del Pilar’s descendants and found out that I’m actually related to them by affinity.

The town plaza of Alimodian, Iloílo is in grave danger

Last week, I was explaining to my son Mómay the importance of the Spanish language to us Filipinos by using this latest irritating news from Alimodian, Iloílo…

Alimodian mayor tells NHCP town plaza not a historical site

Published 

By Tara Yap

Iloílo City— Mayor Geefre Alonsabe of Alimodian town challenged members of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) to reconsider their decision questioning the municipal government’s decision to build a multi-purpose project in the town plaza because the site is a heritage property.

The plaza of Alimodian town in Iloilo province is the controversial site for the construction of a multi-purpose hall.  The plaza has been declared as an Important Cultural Property. (Tara Yap/ MANILA BULLETIN)

The plaza of Alimodian town in Iloílo province is the controversial site for the construction of a multi-purpose hall. The plaza has been declared as an Important Cultural Property. (Tara Yap/ MANILA BULLETIN)

“I challenge them. They should come and check,” Alonsabe said.

The NHCP earlier advised the municipal government of Alimodian to find a different site for the multi-purpose building and not build it inside the town’s plaza, which has been declared as an Important Cultural Property (ICP). The commission’s decision came after a group wrote to NHCP chairman René Escalante that the project site is within the town plaza, which they consider to be part of their heritage.

Due to the complaint, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH)-Iloilo 4th District Engineering Office) temporarily halted the project to coordinate with NHCP and other agencies.

Despite being told to find another local, Alonsabe is firm that majority of Alimodian residents want the multi-purpose hall to be constructed within the plaza. He also reiterated the General Welfare clause of the Local Government Code. “We need a covered court for our activities. This will benefit our people,” Alonsabe said.

Alimodian official are not fully aware of how the plaza is an ICP. “On behalf of the LGU, we do not have papers declaring the plaza as heritage property,” Alonsabe said.

Alonsabe added that the marker of the then National Historical Institute (NHI) does not indicate the ICP status. Alonsabe also reiterated that the current plaza is not 50 years old.

Mayor Alonsabe wants to construct a multi-purpose hall right within the town plaza. If he does that, the town plaza will be transformed beyond recognition. There might not even be a town plaza anymore. Thankfully, the NHCP is blocking the project because the plaza is a heritage property. But the mayor insists that it isn’t, even saying that the plaza is not yet 50 years old!

To students of history, it is common knowledge that all Spanish-era towns (then called poblaciones) include plazas. Whenever a parish church was built during that era, it was almost unthinkable not to construct a plaza right in front of it.

We then consulted an old book, the “Diccionario Geográfico, Estadístico, Histórico de las Islas Filipinas” (Volume 1), published in 1850 by Fr. Manuel Buzeta and Fr. Felipe Bravo, to check if Alimodian is a Spanish-era town. On pages 287 to 288, we found what we’re looking for…

Alimodian was founded in 1784 with only 1,602 houses. Its church, dedicated to Santo Tomás de Villanueva, was under the diocese of Cebú. Aside from the church, the town already had a convent, a public cemetery, a court (of justice), and even a jailhouse. In short, it was already a completely functioning town.

Could you just imagine a completely functioning town during those days without a plaza?

It’s pure tomfoolery on the part of Mayor Alonsabe to say that the plaza is not even 50 years old in order to justify his dimwitted plan of setting up his multi-purpose grotesquerie within a heritage site. But then again, he might make another excuse saying that he doesn’t know Spanish, that’s why he’s ignorant of his own town’s history.

What a shame. Because of the Spanish language, my 14-year-old son and I now know more about Alimodian’s history compared to its own mayor. And since we now know its historical background, we have come to appreciate it as well. And to think that we haven’t even been to that beautiful historic town of his that he wishes to desecrate in the name of… what?… contracts?

Sin vergüenza.