by Cesar Torres
The expression: “Everyone needs a hometown to love or to hate…” seems to apply to the Villahanons. I am not really sure where I got this. Perhaps, it was an original idea by Samar’s Poet Laureate, Aniceto Llaneta, a classmate in Samar High. When the late Postal Regional Director Andres Cabueños was Editor-in-Chief of “An Lamrag” and Secretary of the Province of Samar, Aniceto and some of our classmates would cut classes to listen to him as a convocation speaker in Catbalogan schools. Those were simple days when we were innocent. We love the written word and admire brainy people.
Perhaps, Aniceto got the expression from somewhere else. But to me, the important thing is that this expression somehow captures the sentiments of the Villahanons with respect to their hometown, Villareal, Samar, the only town in the Philippines which has an endearing nickname, Villa.
In some Villahanon souvenir publication honoring the Peruvian Saint, the Santa Rosa de Lima, I recall writing about the “dualism” inherent in that expression.”’To love or to hate…’ This is the moral dilemma of mankind. It symbolizes the synthesis of opposites. The dualism immanent in the universe – of beauty and ugliness, of purity and corruption, of heaven and earth.’
We love Villa! We hate Villa! We love Villa… It is like a mantra of the Hindu mystics.
The emotional force of this contradiction seems to enchain us to Villa. The bond is stronger than steel. After all, it is forged with every drop of our blood, every beat of our hearts. Thus, even if we are in Singapore, Tokyo, Hongkong, Canada, Norway, or someplace in Europe, in America, in the Middle East, in Australia, Brunei, and other parts of the world, or sailing the high seas as lonely mariners, our thoughts are never far from our hometown.
For some of us who are away from the homeland and whose lives seem to be trailing the sinking sun beyond the western shores of Maqueda Bay, frequent are the times when our minds wonder to those bygone days. Detailed clarity might be blurring but the general outlines are still lingering in our failing memories.
A hometown is where the heart is. It is not necessarily the place where one first saw the light of day, like me. I was born in Silanga, Catbalogan, Samar, a rich fishing ground many, many years ago. But it is in Villa where my memories are rooted more intensely.
What are some of these memories?
Having been born in the Second World War, as a child, I saw Japanese soldiers in Sigad in full uniform carrying guns with their helmets adorned with twigs that had still green leaves on them. They appeared to be crouching, crawling, then lying flat on the grass with their guns pointed at something. I think there were three of them. Nadulhog kami from our farm in Lam-awan to the bongto, the poblacion, at that time.
During the war and the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, I think we stayed mostly in our farm in Lam-awan. But even there, I have vague memories of my grandfather, Apoy Amboy (Pablo Ranera), and my aunts and uncles, the entire family, climbing the hills breathing hard, almost gasping. They were escaping from something or someone. One time, we hurriedly went to a shelter hidden in a bamboo grove, mga kawayan, which were growing on both sides of the stream. No one would suspect that there was a shelter deep in the heart of the kawayan grove. Of course, I did not know why those things were happening to us. But I remember, we would do this every time we would hear the frantic banging of the “talutang”, that bamboo instrument used to warn people that danger is imminent.
It must have been “Liberation”. I remember there were so many people harvesting rice in our “hagna”. Suddenly the skies were filled with airplanes, wave after wave after wave. Nobody told me why there were so many airplanes. We just looked up. I did not asked why there were so many airplanes either. After that, in the early evenings we would sit on our individual “banko”, and face Southeast, and turn our gaze beyond the mountains of Lam-awan. We could see lights streaming in the distant skies beyond the mountains. I learned later that they were tracer bullets. This was during the Battle of Leyte Gulf when the Americans had returned to the Philippines.
I have vague memories after that. But I think we went to Tacloban aboard some boats. I remember passing by “Bangon”, and sucking on raw eggs. And in San Juanico Straits nearing Tacloban, there were warships, where I could see naked white men taking showers on the decks.
I did not see an American soldier in Villa. But I remember all those delicious carne norte in long cans, courtesy of the American people. And the woolen blankets. Up to the time when I was in Samar High, we would still use those woolen American blankets, remnants of the American return to Samar.
My first day in Grade One, at least, the first early morning, is still clear in my mind. I think together with my aunts and uncles who were going to school also, we hiked from Lama-awan to the poblacion. It was still dark when we arrived in the elementary school. We were made to assemble below that famous acacia tree where enkantados have been rumored to be in residence. There was community singing. I do not remember the song. My teacher in Grade One was probably the late Mana Anggay.
Thereafter, life was a blur. We constructed a house in Tayod. But we still maintained our house in the “Uma”, the farm in Lam-awan. The poblacion was a sleepy town where you can hear the chirping of the crickets, ngiya-ngiya, even at noontime, and the romantic singing of the Villahanons especially in the early evenings when they were drinking tuba, men and women. When you walk the grassy streets, you might step on dog poo and pig’s leavings – the most “kadiri” to me especially when it happens to you when the ground was wet after a rain – and when you go to the laguertas which were green with guava plants, you cannot miss the colorful and rotting waste of many Villahanons. I don’t know how many had toilets at that time. There were some of us from Tayod who would go down to Hawod to relieve ourselves. Doing this between two big stones while gazing at the beauty of the starry night and conscious of the gentle swishing of the wavelets around you was almost a mystical experience. Unsanitary? Oh yes! But we were one with nature, a process of recycling especially when the fish would gobble them up which we then would catch and broil. Aaaarrrrgh!!!
We were already in Tayod when I first heard the sound of a motor vehicle in Villa. It must have been stuck in that Bayanihan road. I don’t know if it arrived intact in the town. I recall also that we pupils in the elementary school had to bring one stone every day to the school, stones which we then deposited on the Bayanihan Road.
We would go to the farm to plant rice, corn, camote or bilanghoy or gaway or harvest them. We would go to the farm to get firewood. We would roam the hills and the meadows stupidly trying to kill the defenseless birds with our slingshots. During summer when there was no drinking water, a group of us, boys and girls and our elders with long coconut tubes on our shoulders, we called them “salod”, would parade on the trails via the Sigad, to get drinking water. We would have been a sight during moonlight nights, six, ten boys and girls with long bamboo tubes on their shoulders, marching on the trails one after the other.
My family had no money. But I did see American coins, leftovers of the American occupation. So if we had no viand, and we are sick and tired of the salty hipon or shrimp paste of salted bahong, of kayod, and kisiyo, of bulad, we would troop to the seashore at low tide, during humbas, para mamangti, looking for seashells – sangpiyad, bukawel, karang karang, tikod hin daraga or just plain dahonan and lato. We would eat sangpiyad raw, we would get two of them, knock them on each other, and scoop out the sangpiyad flesh. One time, I stumbled on a binga. It was a happy day for my brother, Lope, and me and my family. Since many Villahanons were “cashless”, the adults would use their nets, sudsod, to catch fish, shrimps, crabs, crustaceans, and other products of our sea. Having a tinola of sinudsuran is more delicious than the French “bouillabaisse”.
For us youngsters, fishing, swimming, beachcombing, doing errands, going to church, to school, getting firewood, playing were integral parts of our lives. Our toys were were organic such as orokay which we used as tires when we were crafting cars and trucks. Except for the plastic heel of worn out shoes which we treasured for our games, our toys were all biodegradable. We played sato. We would go around the town from Tayod to Rawis to Kan Pia Otot (Barangay Villarosa), hitting that small stick with a long one, while our opponents would try to catch the short stick; and then running while holding our breaths. There was tatse, barobanyakay where we kicked bundled multicolored rubber bands, nirotigbasay during moonlight nights, rurumba (racing against each other whether in the school plaza or in the town streets in the afternoons, Virgilio Latorre was unbeatable), tagotago-ay (hide and seek, I like it very much when the girls would join us especially during dark nights or even during moonlight nights provided there were dark nooks and hiding places).
I think every Villahanon was a Roman Catholic at that time. So all Villahanons went to the Church of the Santa Rosa de Lima religiously. We listened patiently to masses said in Latin, which was of course weird because they were incomprehensible to us, even the “Ora Pronobis and the Pater Noster”. We confessed our sins and took communion. Then we sinned again, whatever they were. We studied cathecism in summer, especially in May. I was very good pupil. I even got a Pals Pomade as my reward. In May, we loved watching the girls in their white uniforms with flower garlands around their dainty heads and their blue sashes around their slim waists. We vowed to marry the pretty ones by eloping with them while riding on a white horse to Paradise.
At 6:00 o’clock in the evening, the towering kampanaryo would chime with the bells. The kampanaryo which was probably constructed out of the slave labor of the Villahanons, the towering kampanaryo which had a panoramic view of Maqueda Bay to safeguard Catholic Villa from the onslaughts of the Warriors who believe in Mohammed and the Sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao. It was Angelus time. If we were on the streets, we would stop, make the sign of the cross, and hurry up to home. At home, after our simple supper, we would wash the dishes. And then we would gather around the living room, perhaps the sala for the likes of Mila Figueroa and Virgilio Latorre who were rich and had big houses. Since there were no radios, no TVs, no computers, we would listen to our elders tell stories to us, part of our oral tradition. Usually, the stories were about engkantos and aswangs. And then to provide more drama and legitimacy to the aswang stories, something would fly overhead making the sound of “Wak, wak, wak, wak.” So we had no doubt whatsoever that indeed there were Aswangs or Wakwaks.
During summer the cycle was the farm, the sea, picnics, marking the nests of the birds, playing with our kites, fetching drinking water with our salod, getting firewood from the farms sometimes from the mangroves in Pangpang, rising early and going to bed early too.
During Christmas, there were panarits, Christmas Carols, and lantern contests. Even in the farms, there were groups who would walk from one hill to another hill singing the panarits all night long.
And on Christmas Day in the poblacion, the Child Jesus would be paraded around the town. A kiss and a ting-a-ling of the bells of the Sacristans would earn the Church P0.01. One centavo at that time could still buy you a butterball candy.
There was some kind of a physical, cultural, economic, and political divide between Tayod and Hawod. There were “warfares”, “invasions” among the young warriors of Tayod and Hawod. The weapons were organic. Just bamboo guns with bullets carved from the roots of a tuber. There were haringas, water guns. Nobody died of course, like what is happening now between the soldiers and the NPAs and the MILF and the MNLF and the Abu Sayyaff. The world has become more civilized and more advanced.
Since there was no radio, no TV, no movies, and many could not afford to go to Catbalogan to watch a movie, entertainment for special occasions such as the fiesta in August, was through a “Komedya”. The rehearsals were done on a site near the building of the Holy Name Academy. The usual theme was the classic confrontation between systems of belief represented by the Mujaheddins of Saladin and the Knights of Richard the III and the Crusaders (perhaps the mysterious Knights Templar), a confrontation that goes back to Granada in 1492 and which continues to unfold today and could sound the death knell of mankind. It seems this Villahanon Komedya was known far and wide. Visitors from the neighboring towns and as far away as Carigara in Leyte, would come in boatloads to watch the Villahanon Komedya, sell their wares, partake of humba and other delicious Villahanon preparations for the fiesta, imbibed on tuba and whisper sweet nothings to Villahanon lasses. And the Villahanon swains would do the same to lovely lasses from such neighboring towns as Zumarraga. The late Villahanon educator and icon, Ninang Maring Romano, told me that there would be hundreds of boats anchored from end to end on the Villa waterfont. The late Eduardo “Dadoy” Hilbano was a towering figure in this art form.
While there was scarcity – having scrambled eggs seasoned with the fragrant sibuyen or having fried chicken were abnormal occurrences – there was also abundance. In August, the rice harvested in the previous planting season could not last the whole year through. So families had to make do with duma, root crops, and corn, which seems to be the favorite of the Cebuanos. However, cooking corn grits with coconut milk with a buraw barol embedded in the daba and then partaking of the combination is beyond description. We would close our eyes with the delicious preparation. And as a test how delicious the combination was of corn, cooked in coconut milk and barol nga buraw, we had to gulp water from a coconut shell because we were thirsty (hinihibol).
There was abundance of camote, bilanghoy, saging, all sorts of saging you would not believe the variety of saging at that time, silot, pako, fresh air, tubo, bokawel, tuba, bulad, sisi, fruits, sweet, luscious fruits, pasayan, and fresh fish. Tabangongo was and still is a delicacy. Having tabangongo with bihud or mother bangus, bangrus, which were so fat and so cheap and hanananaw, a sting ray with white liver which was the main ingredient of binakhaw, can make you forget everything else, even your girl friends or boy friends, including your numerous “Good Fors” from Mana Sabel and Mana Leling. Crabs, oh boy. One time, there were so many crabs that you don’t need to use a net to capture them. They would swim to the surface of the sea, almost begging you to scoop them to your containers. Crabs, crabs, crabs, fat, tasty crabs with aligue. And there was sarad, and bahong. Lope, to earn some money, had become a proficient sarad diver. One time when I visited Villa from Catbalogan, I saw him selling sarad by the bucket. And surprise! His hair had become blonde, bleached by the interaction of the sea, the sun, the air, and the salt. Years later, when I had gone to Tawi Tawi, the Badjaos there would remind me of Lope. And here in America, the green-eyed, blonde, lily-skinned Caucasians would remind me of Lope and sarad. Indeed, Maqueda Bay and the Bay of Villa were so rich with the bounties of God and Nature. And the Villahanons, young or old did not flinch from hard work.
The rainforest of Villa and Samar were majestic in their splendor. Almost pristine, primeval, untouched. You cast your gaze to the mountains, and the trees would be towering in the distance.
Lope and I went to the jungles of Sibahay one time. There I climbed a fully grown Kamagong tree, a tree whose wood is ebony black, and now so rare. They say the Kamagong wood is harder than steel and is more precious than gold.
And because the “web that sustains life” was perhaps still in perfect balance, in the late afternoons and the early evening, there were thousands and thousands of birds of all shapes, sizes, and colors flying from the hinterlands of Villa and Samar to roost in the islands off Villa such as Puro. One time, Pepito Varela, admittedly the most popular crooner of his generation, the late Jose Negado, and I borrowed a boat. We were on our way to Banquil, to serenade my classmate with whom the musician Jose Negado was “eyeing”. With a full moon lighting the entire Bay of Villa, we rowed towards Banquil. When we reached the sandbars separating Puro and Pacao, we had to get off from the boat and drag it over the sandbar. It was low tide. We rested after our exertions. And then Padé Joe took out his trumpet, blew on it, trying to accompany Pepito who was beginning to croon his Mario Lanza favorite of “Overhead the Moon is Beaming” inspired by the magic of the moonlight. It woke up all the birds resting in the trees of Puro. There was a cacophony of sound. We made the sign of the cross and stopped. Subdued and silent, we continued with our rowing to Banquil and came back to the bongto at 2 o’clock in the morning. I think the Protectors of the Birds punished us for disturbing their rest. Sablay (Padé Joe) did not marry the object of our harana in Banquil. Mana Petra was his destiny.
One summer, Lope and I were assigned by our uncle, Tay Dadoy Ranera, to take care of a corn plantation in Tingara. For several weeks while the corn was growing, Lope and I, as soon as we would wake up in the morning, would put on our buri hats, strap the sundang to our waists, and hike as fast as we could to Tingara from our house in Tayod. We had to be there early to shoo away the birds who would feast on the sweet corn. One time, we arrived very early. While Lope was roasting corn ears, I climbed a nearby tree which was laden with fruits. I was there, leaning on the tree trunk when green and white parrots, picoy and abucay alighted on the tree where I was hidden by the foliage. I think the birds must have noticed me. But they were not bothered by my presence. They just went on eating the fruits of the tree. Those were halcyon days for us Our breakfast was roasted corn. Our lunch was roasted corn and broiled fungus. Sometimes we had roasted wild bird, tikling. And we roamed the hills and the meadows and hobnobbed with the wildlife.
I finished up to Grade Five in the Villareal Elementary School. Our poverty was not a hindrance to “the life of the mind”. The library was bursting with books. I would borrow one and bring it to Lama-awan. There, I would read the colored books by the light of the kerosene lamp.
Children will always play and dream. Dr. Jesus Reyes, “Esong”, and I were seatmates in Grade Two . During recess we would discuss how Superman might go to Korea, fight the enemies of the American and the Filipino soldiers. The late Benedicto “Ubaw” Rapanan was a very good friend too. We would go under the Gabaldon Building and try to catch those insects burrowing on the sand and play with them. As a teacher, we believed the late Tay Antonino Varela was a universal genius. He would teach us social studies, then music, and was in charge of our plots which were planted with pichay. Of course, every Saturday, we would visit our pichay plantation. One time, a classmate, Bernardita Gabrinao who only spoke the language of the Imperialistang Taga-ilog was on her way to their farm nearby. We were teasing Virigilio Latorre to Bernardita. In a fit of anger, Bernardita stepped on the pichay plot of Virgilio. To replant his pichay plantation, Virgilio had to borrow some seedlings from the rest of us without our permission.
The political bad blood among families in Villa was unavoidable even among us youngsters. This was apparent between the Latorres et al and the Gelis et al. I forget now what was the immediate cause. But suddenly, here was the late Potenciano Geli and Virgilio Latorre fighting it out in that Gabaldon building. To even the odds, I think Poten got a piece of bamboo, a gamon. I believe Virgilio’s eyebrow was cut. I remember blood was spurting from his face. Somehow, we must have been able to pacify the protagonists. I think years later when the two had become wiser, they would remember that incident as some sort of a rite of passage to manhood.
My Grade Five schooling was a watershed in my studies. Who was the most brilliant among us? Not Lydia Varela who was Salutatorian later. Not Esong Reyes. Not Virgilio Latorre who became Valedictorian one year later. Not Poten Geli. Not Cesar Torres. If you ask us to vote, I think we would vote for Aring (Agripina) Varela. (She left Villa when we were young. But I saw Aring once in Tongao, Butuan when I was roaming Pilipinas in the company of “lovely friends”. When Justice Eddie Nachura was just USEC of Education, I was always thinking of asking him to look up the address of Aring. It never happened. But I have always this fond memories of a dear, brilliant, always cheerful classmate.)
As I said, I continued my studies in Catbalogan in Grade Six. In my first year in Samar High in 1953, I was surprised to see Virgilio Latorre in our class. Madé Doding Conise (Gertrudes Conise-Ocaña) was another Villahanon in our class.
We had become orphans. So Lope and I stayed with an uncle in Manila, Tay Beboy Ranera. While in Manila, we sold newspapers, magazines, and comics. We knew the Santa Ana, Paco, San Andres, Pandacan districts, including the shanty areas, like the palm of our hands. After making the rounds, we would take our breakfast – a P0.05 bottle of Sarsaparilla, and I think two pieces of pan de coco worth P0.05. Elsa stayed with our Apoy Nanang (Juana Teves Hermida) in Villa.
After months of trying to survive with dignity in Manila, our fortunes changed. My uncle, Bienvenido Torres was looking for me. Because our father was a soldier in World War II and was listed as missing in action we were finally given some compensation for his services and his life. I went back to Catbalogan. I was still able to enroll in Samar High for the second year, but I was late by two periodical periods. But through the intercession of a kind woman, a science teacher in Samar High, Mrs. Engracia Garcia, I was admitted during the Third Departmental period. She is a mentor whose memory is deeply etched in my heart. Lope in the meantime, enrolled in Quezon City as Freshman. One time he had no money for jeep fare. So he walked from his school to Pandacan where he was staying. A nice two-hour hike.
In the Samar High, Lydia had joined us. With Virgilio, it became a reunion of sorts. In Samar High, I believe we Villahanons were blazing trails also. For instance, there was never any doubt that Virgilio would someday become Governor or Congressman of Samar. He was our student politician par excellence. In fact, when we were just Third Year, he would have beaten Eddie Nachura for President of the Student Council if I was not Eddie’s candidate for Vice President. His charisma and self-confidence was undeniable. Well, God works in mysterious ways. Virgilio was destined for other things such as being a top brass in the regional administrative system but with the risk of his pants being burned. With her brief stay with us in Samar High, the beautiful Lydia was a member of the high school social elite.
I was in Samar High when I had my first real job, supposedly with a wage. It was a government job. Ever the kindest person that he has always been (one time in Tacloban, when Mano Alding Oreo and I were going to Villa to campaign for a congressional candidate, he gave me his last P0.10 centavos), Virgilio gave me three days of the five days he was allotted in the road work by his uncle Mayor Fidencio Latorre — cleaning and maintaining that now famous Bayanihan Road of shrubs and debris that were littering the road. For three days in summer, I would wake up early in the morning. Bring bahaw and fried usu-os as my balon. strap the scabbard of the sundang to my waist, put on a buri hat, walk to a place somewhere beyond Igot and do our work. I forgot now who were my fellow laborers. But I really worked hard because even at that time I believe that it was the people of the Philippines who were paying us for our work. And I did not want to cheat on them.
I waited and waited for my wage of my three days of hard work. I never got it. Not even Virgilio could tell me what happened to my wage or if he got it in his name or someone got the money and pocketed it. This was my first official encounter with my Government.
During summers in high school, I would go to Villa. We had our barkada. We would meet periodically in the imburnals especially during moonlight nights. We would debate, trying to impress each other with our facility of English, serenade the girls, engaged in the occasional irignom and picnics on weekends. Since we were teenagers valiantly trying to impress the girls, we would wear bakya, wooden clogs, all over the town. The Japanese had not yet discovered the manufacturing of those rubber sandals which pollute the environment.
We graduated from high school in 1957. There were no graduation parties and rejoicing. Ramon Magsaysay, the CIA-backed President of the Philippines, had died in a plane crash in Cebu. After our commencement rites, I went to Villa, as an onlooker of the graduation in West Coast Academy. While there, we were looking towards Catbalogan which was burning to the ground right at that very moment. Surprisingly, I was not worried; perhaps because I had few personal belongings in Catbalogan. Sometimes, it is nice to be poor.
I ended in the University of the Philippines. While in Manila, we Villahanon students obviously gravitated to each other — Budick Yu, Vincent and Nonong Figueroa, Ubaw Rapanan, Ising Endrina, Nanding Hilbano, Lydia and Raul Varela, Edith Latoja, the lovely Evelyn Latoja, Liit and Bing Tizon, Gingging Dasmariñas who was our junior, the Seludos (Maruja, Douglas and their siblings) Gironedes “Neding” Gelera, later on Andrew Varela, then Pacit Varela, Felisa Tandinco, Baby Godo Gelera who was not a drunkard like us, Titing Gelera Latorre who was more of a Guiuananon than a Villahanon, and some others, and of course Lope. We became the core of the “Villareal Youth Club of Manila”, VYCM. I was its President. I think we helped in celebrating the fiesta in Manila. But we did have some meetings. I remember quarreling with Caridad Paco over some inconsequential issue.
But our VYCM was nothing compared to the trailblazing achievements of the Villahanon Association of Metro Manila. They have shown the way. I just hope they do not get waylaid by the wayside, groping in the dark recesses of pride and lack of humility.
When I would drop out from the U.P. I would end up in Villa bothering Mikolo “Kalig”.Miguel Presnilla. He was already a teacher at that time. And of course, he was a very popular and sought after teacher. Very romantic, great with his fingers, especially when he was strumming the guitar and using those slender fingers for all activities. God, created him that way. So I would go with him to Bangon, to Plaridel. There I would help in the Pintakasi, repairing a school building among others. I would go with the Ugdok (eel) catchers. One time, Batá Pepe Morabor who motored to Bangon to sell some fish, labas, wanted to take me back to Villa, worried that the tagnok would eat me out. Then from Plaridel, we would walk the mountain trails to San Andres and visit Araceli Abainza, Gloria Latoja, and the other lady teachers in San Andres. From San Andres, we would hike to San Roque. We even went to Bino-ongan and Santa Rosa and gobbled up Libook. We had no money to buy cigarettes. So we roasted tobacco, crumpled the tobacco leaves and rolled them in paper to make a tigol.
I would go back to Manila after a stint of serenading the Villahanon teachers in the barrios and picking up, sagol, choice fishes for kinilaw from the tables of Mana Payang and scribbling all those innumerable “Good Fors” some of which are still probably outstanding. And with the inspiration and prodding of Lydia who had come back from America, I had to finish my studies, especially when Mara and Alexander were already around. But our house in Project 2 in Quezon City and Sampaloc were still veritable half-way houses for Villahanons who had no place to stay in Manila. To finish my studies, there were times when I would not go home once I knew that there was drinking going on in the house. After all Lope and Nanding Hilbano, Nanding who was the best curacha dancer I have ever seen in Manila, were still the drinking buddies of most Villahanons, including the new members of the Lepanto Boys, Mano Ramon Hilvano, the late Padé Prudy Geli who entrusted to me her daughter Dada, and the late Tiboy Latorre, who was so hard to control when he was drunk. Sometimes we would hold him by his hands, and his feet and dump him on a taxi and bring him home.
In the Villareal community in Metro Manila, we would still see each other especially during the celebration of the Feast of the Santa Rosa de Lima.
Compared to other Samarnon groups in Metro Manila who would celebrate their fiestas in elegant surroundings such as the Manila Hotel, where only the elite and those with money could savor the grace and ambiance of a Catholic and Christian tradition devoted to God and His Saints, in contrast, the Villahanons, at least when I was still there, would reach out to everyone. Nobody would be turned away, even those who were definitely gatecrashers and freeloaders. Precisely, as a response to our Catholicism and graciousness, celebrating the Feast of the Santa Rosa in Metro Manila was characterized by popular and grassroots responsibility. From a single hermano or hermana during its early years, now there are so many of them and they all come from all over the world especially from Denmark, whose trailblazer was Rosalia Gerardo. I think she was the first Filipina and Villahanon in Denmark and Europe.
After saying “No” to the beckoning of America in 1983, with a heavy heart, uncertain what the future would bring, I decided to try my luck in this land of milk and honey, the former colonial master of our people, the most powerful and richest country in the world.
With $10 that I borrowed from Fe in my pocket I boarded the Northwest Jumbo Jet to San Francisco in November 1985. Except for ex- DAP Executive Vice President, Dr. Segundo Romero, Jr. I did not tell anyone in the UP that I was leaving. When I told my staff in Ayala that I was leaving in the afternoon on that very day, there was lamentation. Mara and Alexander followed, arriving in the University Town of Berkeley on December 24, 1985.
It was a very humbling and frustrating experience in San Francisco during the early months of our arrival. Only Lydia was working. Despite my qualifications, I could not find a job. We were helped by very kind Calbiganons, Ester Ocenada-Benigno and her cousins, and a Basaynon whose name we have forgotten but whose kindness is forever engraved in our hearts. Finally, when we had the time and the resources, we gravitated to our kind. First to the Calbiganons, because Lydia is half-Calbiganon. Theirs was the first fiesta we attended in America. Then the Catbaloganons, after all I was born in Silanga. Then the Villahanons whose leaders and concentration were in Los Angeles.
But several years would pass before we could go to Los Angeles. As a symbol of our solidarity and unity with all Villahanons all over the world, we never succumbed to the siren song of forming our own Villahanon association in San Francisco, especially if the only purpose was just to celebrate the fiesta. We thought we should organize a pilgrimage to Lima, Peru and devote whatever resources we could spare to helping our hometown, instead of focusing so much on our fiesta celebration here in America.
For us, therefore, there was only one community of Villahanons all over the world. We referred to ourselves as “The Villahanons International” which include Esdras, Inday, and Ponso Romano in Northern California, Ruben Gerardo and other Villahanons in Norway, Quirino Ragub and his beloved Tunding who has a penchant for burning pants of his beloved cousin, Nora Colles-Chawla, Ada Quijano-Reyes, Soledad Agote in Canada, Nora and other Royandoyans, the Hilvanos (the late Godfather of the Villahanons, Mano Sotero Hilvano, sons Victor and wife, Doctor Mansueta and Angelito), Gery Hilvano in Las Vegas, and their cousins, who spell their names differently, the Hilbanos, in Southern California and Las Vegas, (Mano Joe, Belen), Mana Bangbang and Ate Grace Arcallana, the Ricaldes (Mana Oswalda and the late Fr. Nick), the admirable couple, Dina Seludo and Frank Bunuan, Clarito and Mana Mila Seludo, Mana Juling Gabompa who has a lovely house on top of a hill in Northern California, the Seludos-Tabungars, Caridad Paco, Mana Cordying Daluraya, Suki, Tening, and Zenaida Ygat in California, the Varelas in the Midwest, Lotlot Fallorina, Mana Nina Latorre-Ras and lovely daughter, Bingbing, Dave Yu, the finance whizz who waited 8 hours to be picked up at the San Francisco Airport, Aida Geli, Rufino and Jimmy Obregon, Ralph Brillante who has severed his relationship with Villahanons in California, Mana Lily Fabilane and brother, Isidro, and Mana Ruthie Dougherty whom we visited regular and now we do not see anymore, Gina Cabueños and Dennis Blanco, Joanna Aboga and her gracious American husband, Bob Foster, our ever reliable, classmate Minda Geli, Godofredo “Baby” Gelera, one of the pioneer Villahanons in California, Padre Pepe Garcia in Canada, and the family of Judith Presnilla in Sacramento, and many others more. There are now so many of us, Villahanons in Diaspora, we need a huge database. For those I cannot remember, please forgive me. The next Villahanon historians will rectify our lapses.
In America, we tried to combine our religious piety with civic works for our hometown, little things for our church, the schools (books and scholars for the Holy Name Academy), innovative arrangements such as “The Paolo Lean Torres Pimentel Partners in Learning”, a collaboration with the Cambaguio and the Central Elementary Schools), the community, such as the Stairway to Heaven of The Clan led by Vincent Figueroa, supporting the publication of the pioneering “Budyong Han Villa”, which was staffed by Villahanon writers and poets and printed by using a mimeograph machine, and organizing the Omawas Foundation which unhappily resulted in the unnecessary and tragic death of two beloved community leaders, Mano Joe and Mana Nitnit Dalwatan and Elma Figueroa’s suffering. But for the courage and bravery of Mila Figueroa, one of the most respected leaders of our community who chose to stay in Villa to serve our people, instead of staying in America as a highly paid Florence Nigtingale, many more would have lost their lives. All for nothing. We need to honor Mano Joe and Mana Nitnit, mga Baraan nga Susgaran han Bongto.
We remember with fondness the late Epifanio Nuñez. Together with his wife, Flor Marasigan, they mobilized the Villahanons in California on helping our church. We have that aborted Kamorayaw Cemetery Project of the Villahanons International, of course. The souls of the dead Villahanons are wailing in the nether world because of a promise that remains unfulfilled. But the dream is there. Kun diri kita, iton sunod nga henerasyon. Kun diri yana, iton sunod nga panahon.
There were profound changes among Villahanons too. For once a Villahanon Parish Priest, Fr. Jun Cinco, could hobnob with his flock in America, not just in Villa and Metro Manila. Through the very illustrious and eminent Archbishop Jose Palma, Villahanon priests could visit us in San Francisco and other parts of America.
As fate would have it, a Villahanon, Marivel Sacendoncillo, could exercise some authority and influence to send local government executives, such as Mayor Renato “Boy” Latorre, (and sister Calbiga Mayor, Luzviminda “Bebot” Latorre) to train in Canada. Before this, our mayors could only travel to Lamingao, to Catbaloganon, to Tacloban and to Manila on official business with some relaxation in some night spots. After all, it was so tiring and tedious following up official business in the bureaucratic bowels of the Philippine Administrative System, especially if one has a hangover.
The singular importance of our democratic social structure and its concomitant egalitarianism — we do not distinguish ourselves from each other whether tuminongnong or a timawa or whether Manila-born or fresh from San Francisco, New York, Canada, or Norway or from Inasudlan, San Andres or Himyangan — separates us from other groups. There is also that oneness with everyone which somehow culminates in the hermanidad and celebration of the fiesta in Metro Manila where one is deemed not to have fully complied with the unwritten initiation of being a Villahanon if one has not yet become a sponsor of the Santa Rosa fiesta. Finally, there is our characteristic as thinkers, visionaries, and dreamers. Sometimes, like the eloquent Fr. Rudy Romano or the Calubids, and others, we pay with our lives. All these and other factors provide us with a dynamic community of Villahahons linked to each other all over the world.
With the advent of the Internet, many diasporic Villahanons have become closer to each other. We communicate in the World Wide Web with a flick of a “computer mouse”. Aside from long distance calls, there is cell phone texting, Yahoo Messenger, Web Cameras, and the most popular of all, electronic mail. Our brilliant municipal consultant and local government planner, Armando “Boy” Ridao transmits huge computer files from the municipio to me in California, files which contain the comprehensive development plan of the town under the leadership of Mayor Reynato “Boy” Latorre and his fellow municipal officials. I chat on real time with Jim Gabree, the Amerian husband of Marjorie Hilvano in Guintarcan, through a computer which is connected to the Internet through “satellite broadband”which does not need land-based telephone connections. I used to chat with my godchild, Jeanette Presnilla, in Tacloban while I was in San Francisco. Indeed, our familiarity with the Internet makes us tower above many other groups all over the Philippines. As of last count, for instance, we have three websites and electronic discussion groups.
The foregoing, together with other factors, combined to develop a synergy, a confluence of events and circumstances, making us a model all over the Philippines and the Third World. When we took on this mind-boggling collaborative project to repair and cement this 8-km public road through Tiklos or Bayanihan, a project that has never been done voluntarily in the history of the Philippines, a project that involves massive use of the Internet, a project where even our school children are helping, we showed the world that poor as we are, we can hold our heads high with dignity. The corrupt and the nincompoops do not dangle us by their dirty little fingers anymore.
Of course, we Villahanons are not angels. I once stumbled on Ruben Gerardo’s “Villahanon Forum”, a discussion medium in the Internet. I could not believe at the lack of principles, the cowardice, the unkindness, and the quality of the exchanges. I could not discern any graciousness and humility. People would just fling accusations left and right without any evidence. They hide under aliases. It is disheartening to realize that the kind and noble intentions of Ruben’s Villahanon Forum has been hijacked and mutilated by unprincipled individuals. It is practically reeking with unimaginable evil.
We will self-destruct if we don’t wake up from our psychosis. Hurling accusations while hiding under aliases and fictitious names are symptomatic of a sick society, a society of political, cultural, and civic misfits. We have to wrench ourselves from the old ways of doing things. We cannot continue to be hating each other without letup. We will explode with our unflinching hatred at our fellow Villahanons.
It is critical that we transcend our myopic and tongao-like perceptions of our roles in our municipality, in how we confront the challenges facing Villa, the entire Philippine society, and the world. Our almost deliberate inability to do this is what makes unlovable.
Even then, we continue with our mantra: “We love Villa! We hate Villa! We love Villa….” And if we are believers in the Peruvian Saint, Santa Rosa de Lima, and all the other saints whose sainthoods are being celebrated by all Villahanons in our 38 barangays and by their associations in Metro Manila, there is no doubt that love will triumph, that good will vanquish evil and hatred.
I end this labor of love with some lines from the Ecclesiastes:
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak,
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”
And from Desiderata:
“Do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are borne of fatigue and loneliness.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”
Editor’s Note: When I requested Mano Cesar to contribute an article, I was thinking that busy as he is, he would only come out with a one-page or two-page piece that he can finish in one setting. When he called me and asked how long his article might be, I told him that it should be 5 to 6 pages. I was wondering what was taking him so long. It turned out that he has decided to write about the Villahanons covering a period of more than half a century. This piece is far from being a definitive, authoritative, historical piece. If ever, this simply attempts to preserve for the future generations some memorable events among Villahanons in our hometown, in Metro Manila, and in America where he is based now since 1985. It shows the way. We should not construe this as his story. Rather, this is the story of our town and how he lived there. He has decided to do this, so that our past is not forgotten, so that our children and their children’s children will know. He correctly thinks that if he will not do this, nobody else will. And if he will not do this now, this will never be done at all.
The author is a product of our public school system. An alumnus of the Samar High School where he graduated with honors and was a student leader, he is a recipient of the Outstanding Centennial Alumnus Award in 2004. He has three degrees from the U.P. one with honors which automatically made him a lifetime member of the International Social Science Honor Society of Pi Gamma Mu. In the U.P., he has the distinction of being the only undergraduate to be appointed Assistant to the Vice President for Development and Public Affairs of the U.P. System. He was an Assistant Professor of the Department of Political Science while being Senior Consultant of the think tank Development Academy of the Philippines. During the Centennial Celebration of the U.P. National College of Public Administration and Governance, he was nominated by now U.P. Vice President for Planning and Finance, Dr. Maria Concepcion Parrocco-Alfiler who was then Dean of the College, as Outstanding Public Administration Alumnus. He has created the Internet group, UP-Alumni-In-Cyberspace@yahoogroups.com. He is still working as a senior analyst of the State of California where he was given the Sustained Superior Performance Award in 1997, the only Filipino to be given that award that year. He is active in the Filipino-American community in Northern California – Founder of the Samar High-Samar National School Alumni Association of America, Past President of the San Francisco-based Samareños of California, Board Member, Acting President and Vice-President of the
Filipino American Council of San Francisco, Chairman of the Pamana ng Lahing Pilipino Foundation, Board Member of the UP Alumni Association of San Francisco. He is an original convenor of the innovative International Discussion Group Filam-Forum@yahoogroups.com who meet every now and then in San Francisco. He is a columnist of the “Filipino Insider” which is also published online. Together with Ruben Gerardo, he moderates the Internet discussion group, GugmaHanSamar@yahoogroups.com and is the Chief Editor and contributor of the online publication of Gugma Han Samar Cyberspace Movement.
He is married to the beauteous Lydia Froilan Varela with whom he has two children, Maria “Mara” Teresita Varela Torres-Pimentel and Alexander “Doydoy” Varela Torres.
Mara is married to the author and former San Francisco Chronicle staff writer and ABS-CBN anchorman, Benjamin Pimentel, with whom they have two boys, 8-year old
Paolo Lean Torres Pimentel and 2-year old Anton Diego Torres Pimentel. Together with thousands of Filipino expatriates around the world, especially in the Middle East, he is currently involved in helping organize a worldwide, economic, social, and political movement that will focus on a more effective participation in Philippine development of the more than 8 million Filipinos in Diaspora. This piece is dedicated to the future generations of Villahanons.