A trip to the old district of Ciudad de Iloílo became a pilgrimage of sorts to the spiritual legacies of the colonial period – an epoch where the most imposing and richly decorated edifices are churches which the missions and the community constructed. Everyday Filipino life back then revolved around it. And this faith, culture has influenced the people’s way of life and the Filipino’s social atmosphere.
I tried to travel to as many places as I could during my four-day visit to Iloílo. On my third day, Jaro (hispanized word for Saro) was next on my list. It is one of the oldest districts of Iloílo that was believed to have been the hub of trade in Isla de Panay long before the Spaniards came. Its position is most ideal as it is located between two navigable rivers. Both Spanish and native use water channels primarily as passageway – this tradition was lost to us when the Americans started constructing roads to push forward their concept of “modernizing” Filipino infrastructure, i.e., commercializing it. Trading and traveling using water passageways also had a positive effect on the rivers as man cleans and removes obstructions that might cause delays. Because people largely benefit from smooth-flowing river and canals, they understood why there is a need to take care of it, while other Asian nations (such as Thailand) have kept this tradition we lost ours.
The Jaro Cathedral (Catedral de Santa Isabel de Hungaria) is a simple yet graceful church with gothic features. I have not researched much on its structural history yet. But judging on its appearance, it appears to have been renovated countless times over the years. It has retained its charm and sense of history. Observing the people coming in and out of the church, it’s obvious that the people of Jaro still hold dear the value of their modest cathedral being the center of faith and the town’s local history. It faces the iconic campanario de Jaro, a soaring bell tower that had served as a sentinel against pirate assaults during the Spanish era. On a clear day, this tower can be seen from as far as downtown. From where I stayed (del Pilar which is near San Agustín), I could see this brick tower. The Jaro Church is among a very few that has a detached bell tower, reminiscent of the churches that can be found in Ilocandia.
An interesting event took place in 1613 when the Dutch buccaneers succeeded in penetrating Jaro, wreaking havoc and destruction. So devastated was Jaro from this vicious raid that it was later ordered to be reduced from a major township to a mere visita. The effect on the people and existing buildings had been terribly overwhelming. However, this was resisted by the religious and the community. The history of Dutch against Spain was a lopsided affair here in our country. Although the Dutch had succeeded in disturbing peace and causing damage, they had been defeated several times by the Filipinos and the Spaniards. Funny that I was reminded of these events when Spain defeated Netherlands in last month’s World Cup. Of course it’s a stupid comparison to make. It’s odd but this is how history works inside me.
Due to repeated slave raids, the church was moved from its original site in La Paz. Transferring a church to another place as a result of piratical attacks was a common problem among the established Christian communities in the islands during those times. This cruel practice against Christianized towns only served to strengthen the determination and devotion of the converted to defend their newly found faith. Defenses like the bantayan towers (such as those in Guimbál), cannons, and fortresses were built and militias were created to fend off these sadistic attacks.
The feast day of the venerated image of Nuestra Señora de la Candelariais commemorated every 2nd day of February. It is one of Iloílo’s most popular celebrations. The carnivals and expos for the fiesta begin around Christmas time. The unmatched pageantry of its long and colorful parades, including a festive sabong (cockfighting) marathon with record bets, are among its attractions. The emblematic image of the Lady of the Candles is the only icon in the country to have been personally crowned by a Pope (in 1980s). No other Filipino Catholic icon shares this distinction.
A walk around the plaza (Graciano López-Jaena Park, named after a famous son of Iloílo who is one of the most recognizable bayani in Filipino history) reveals one of its forgotten treasures. The Palacio del Arzobispo (Arzobispado de Jaro), built during the time of Archbishop Cuenco (first Filipino archbishop of Jaro), was designed by the celebrated Filipino architect Juan Nákpil; thus the man who had it made was actually not a native of Iloílo. José María Cuenco was born into a Cebuano political family. He was set to become a lawyer, had already studied in the US, until he contracted typhoid fever. After his recovery, he decided to become a priest. He was ordained in Cebú in 1914. He founded El Boletín Católico and Veritas (then an English and Spanish daily).
Another historical figure from Jaro is Fernando López, Elpidio Quirino’s pick for the vice presidency in 1949. He was elected twice as vice president. After disagreements between their family and Marcos (supposedly on issues over business interests), he resigned in 1971 and became an opposition. Of course, we know what happened to their business empire when Marcos became dictator. López is a product of Dominican education and was considered a political protégé of President Sergio Osmeña (he appointed López as Mayor of Iloílo without experience).
To reiterate, another López, the aforementioned Graciano, also hails from this prosperous town. Unfortunately, we are separated from his genius because our generation no longer speaks his other language: Spanish. He is erroneously referred to by Wikipilipinas as “Prinsipe ng Mananalumpating Tagalog” because he is not Tagalog in the first place, nor did he speak that language well, if he ever knew it at all. Aside from Spanish, the only other language he spoke magnificently is his beloved Hiligaynón, the main language of Iloílo. Although he was from a poor family, he had well-off relatives (the propertied branch of the family) to whom he owed his schooling. Interestingly, among his first educators were the friars that he would later attack in his writings. He sought refuge in España fearing retribution from the victims of his critical expose. He was the pioneer editor of La Solidaridad. The master orator died a pauper during the year of the revolution. He was buried in a public cemetery (up to now, no effort has ever been made to recover his remains). While Marcelo H. del Pilar and Juan Luna all made it home even after thorny setbacks their relatives encountered, our Ilongo hero who had a reputation of being untidy at times, never made it home. López Jaena deserves to be laid to rest in Jaro.
A visit to Jaro is never complete without seeing its great mansions. Within these amazing houses are some of the wealthiest families of Iloílo. The town was even once considered as the “richest” in the entire colony. From the López’s Nelly Garden to the Lizares Mansion – all of these palatial mansions showcase the cultural, spiritual, and historical elements of a society that has demonstrated the uppermost sophistication of the “true” Filipino imagination. I have not made an effort in entering these magnificent mansions as they are still private residences but I did notice several mansions that have been abandoned. I would want to comeback and gain access to these houses one day. The trouble is that sometimes asking for permission takes too much time.
The Parián (original Chinatown) of Ciudad de Iloílo, one of the six districts of Iloílo, is home to the famous Saint Anne Church, referred to as the “feminist church” because of the lady saints standing on an elevated base attached on the Corinthian columns its interior foundations. An old diary written by a certain Ms. M.M George (1801) referred to Molo as “a town of half castes”. Intermarriage was relatively common between the Chinese and the natives. Later on, because of the Chinese-Filipinos’ remarkable commercial, agricultural, and industrial business success, they had increased their social and political importance. One thing that’s noticeable about the Chinese-Filipinos who converted to Christianity was their devotion and dedication to the Christian religion. Once they had been won over, they had been known to contribute greatly to their new religion.
The case of Mother Rosario Arroyo de la Visitación (born Mª Beatriz del Rosario Arroyo) is an example of such devotion. A grandmother of former First Gentleman Mike Arroyo, Mother Rosario founded the Beaterio de Molo and Congregation of the Dominican Sisters of the Most Holy Rosary using her inheritance. Her parents were the wealthy couple Don Ignacio Arroyo and Doña María Pidal in Molo town (Pidal, I’m sure, rings a bell with Arroyo critics).
There are several remarkable historical personalities who originated from Molo, it being a rich and important district where many affluent Ilongo families once lived. It earned the title “Athens of the Philippines” because it is the home of four major Spanish educational institutions: Instituto Enseñanza Libre de Molo, Colegio de Santa Ana, Centro Escolar de Molo, and the Escuela Pública (the Englishman Bowring praised the people of Molo by saying, “I found nowhere among the natives a people so industrious, so persevering, so economical, so prosperous”). Don Gregorio Araneta y Soriano, who was secretary of Justice during the Aguinaldo government, was married to an influential Roxas clan in Manila. He would later defect to the other side and would be appointed Attorney General under the American regime. He was a well-known Federalista. Another Molo native, Ángel Magahum Sr., became known for writing the first modern novel in Hiligaynón. He created more than 100 zarzuelas, poems and essays, and religious songs of which some were in Spanish. He was a product of seminarian schooling and was known as an eloquent speaker of the Spanish language.
There was a recent demolition which took place near the Molo church. This time, the casualty was the Locsín house of Molo, one of the many old houses that was still looking good just two years ago. According to a blogger (habagatcentral), it was sold by the owner. It is a terrible thing to see, but some people just have no vision nor a sentiment of heritage at all (thus Calle San Pedro, where a good concentration of Antillean houses can be seen, will look incomplete without the Locsín house). The Locsín of Molo is probably the house of Senator José Locsín’s parents. The senador negrense who once served as Negros Occidental governor is best remembered for his “Filipino first” advocacy and his closeness to fellow Visayan leader Sergio Osmeña. He is considered as one of Siláy’s greatest political leaders. He was part of former president José Laurel’s economic team that realized the Laurel-Langley trade pact (replacing the pro-american Bell Trade Act). A Philippines Free Press article quoted him as warning the Filipinos of the “relentless demands of modern-day living”. Although it seemed that he was pertaining to the economic conditions of the 60s, he might as well have said it to warn future generations (including ours) of getting caught up with the destructive patterns of our quest for modernization.
According to Englishman Dr. Leone Levi in the 1864 edition of the “Annals of Legislation”, Ilongos, especially the rich families of Molo, had “invested in large tracts of fertile and well-situated lands on the coast of Negros”. This movement has something to do with the business prospects of Negros. The opening of ports in Negros was creating opportunities.
The center of the town is the church. This is of course typical of an old Filipino town which remains largely unchanged up to our time. The man who is credited for having built the first church of Santa Ana is Fray Locsín who, according to a friend, was a Chinese mestizo and a relative to the huge Locsín clan of Iloílo. Rizal, who once visited the church, praised its beauty and it was because during that time people were so involved in their church. Newstoday writer Nereo Lejan wrote that “the church of Molo symbolize the engineering genius of the Spanish friars”. But perhaps the grander design is that the mission created a sense of place and community. In our contemporary historical texts, this spiritual effort is not treated separately from all the other errors of the Spanish conquista. This gift that we now take for granted is the most potent of all elements which made us a nation. These missions get lost in the shuffle of how history is taught.
We’ve heard of the famous pancít molo and probably had the chance to savor this wonton Filipino adaptation. It has been the dish which the people of Molo have been very proud of because it is uniquely theirs. But it was strange that I have not found any place which sells this typical pancít. I’m sure there is pancít molo here somewhere, but I guess I didn’t look hard enough. My preparation was bad as i ran out of time because I only arrived in Molo at around three in the afternoon.
Iloílo was once considered the best producer of piña cloth. The sinamáy, a fabric made of pineapple fiber, was known for its incomparable quality and value. This humble product was once a source of local pride. The fine and remarkable fibers of piña, jusi, and cotton fabrics were already being produced in significant quantities in Iloílo and is being exported by sea to Manila and other Asian countries. At the height of its textile industry, Iloílo was considered the “textile center” of the country.
In Arévalo (originally La Villa Rica de Arévalo), the sinamáy house still stands as a reminder of the days when the much-sought fabric was in great demand. Raw silk was being ordered from China (mid 1800s) in great quantities. Silk was combined with the weaving process and this was said to have added a more luxurious finish. Because of its high quality and beauty, buying it was considered as an important “event”.
When the port was opened, fabric imported from England and China directly competed against the locally produced sinamáy. This would not last long, though. Shortly after the imported products flooded the market, the sinamáy industry started to dwindle. Some also pointed to the fact that the decline of Iloílo’s textile was because the province’s wealthy traders shifted to planting sugar, abandoning the textile business altogether. Without government regulation and protection from foreign imports, local produce are made to suffer from unfair and deceptive trade practices – and we haven’t learned our lessons as we continue to allow concessions to bigger countries in exchange for debt reduction and other future incentives.
Trite as it may seem, we should always learn from history.