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Culture Crossing Tayabas

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TEXT BY Roel Hoang ManiponI got into casa de communidad de tayabasan early morning ride to Tayabas in the province of Quezon to check out the town’s aesthetic and cultural offerings. With us were Glenn Maboloc of the Public Affairs and Information Division and Rei Alba, web site writer, both of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), and Ryan Palad, who spearheads many artistic pursuits in this municipality.

The bus hurtled through the slightly nippy air southward, passing the province of Laguna until it reached its destination, the city of Lucena.

san miguel minor basilicaThe ride from Quezon City to Lucena City took three hours. We alighted at the Lucena Grand Terminal where most buses stop and some take respite on their way to the Bicol Region. It was a complex of pasalubong stores and restaurants, very much like a palengke. From here, we took a 20-minute jeepney ride to Tayabas, one of the oldest municipalities (founded in 1578 by Franciscan missionaries Fr. Juan De Placencia and Fr. Diego de Oropesa) in the province, lying approximately 11 kilometers north of Lucena, and 143 kilometers southeast of MetroManila by land travel. It also lies 14’50′ latitude east southeast of that famous mystic mountain Banahaw. As the jeepney wound its way through the country road, the scenery was dominated by patches of rice field with an occassional smattering of white herons and coconut trees.

One notices the difference between traveling south and north of Manila. If you travel north, you pass through wide expanse of rice fields. On the other hand, the south is dominated by coconut trees. On the bus, we would get occasional whiffs of pungent water buffalo dung and aromatic coconut oil, which indicate that we were now in the south provinces. Half of Tayabas, as a matter of fact, is devoted to coconut plantations. Tayabas was once the capital of the province, which was also named Tayabas. The province’s most prominent son is President Manuel L. Quezon, after whom the province was renamed . The adjacent province was named after his wife Aurora.

A subtle character of some south provincial towns is the feel of ancientness. There seems to be a considerable prevalence of moss-covered stones in structures like bridges, walls, some old houses and most specially the churches. The town roads are narrow, which were planned during the Spanish times when the horse-drawn calesas were the only means of transport. It is like this in Liliw, Majajay, and Pila, all in Laguna; and Lucban in Quezon. When we arrived in Tayabas, Ryan immediately set out to work. Scheduled for that day was a tour of the town’s old landmarks in the morning and a poetry reading at night. Actually, we were on the second week of the month-long holding of Salimbayan an arts festival.

Salimbayan is the contraction of sining ng pag-arte, likhang kamay at literatura, indak at musika ng bayan. (Art of acting, handcraft, literature, dance and music of the town). Salimbayan may also mean a getting together, and the Pagsasalin ng kayamanan ng bayan or the transfer (to the young generation) of the treasures of the town.

Among the highlights of the Salimbayan were a Letras y Figuras exhibit at the Pasillo de Casa Parochial, a lecture on this old visual art form conducted by Santiago Pilar, a professor from the University of the Philippines, followed by a workshop for students; a dance drama on the revolutionary religious leader Hermano Pule called Puli: Liwanang at Kapatiran; a street painting contest; and a collaborative mural painting activity among students and local artists. All of the activities, we were told, were held during the weekends as the proponents and organizers had their day jobs during the week. Coordinating all these single-handedly was Ryan. To help him out, he gathered a small band of young, university-educated people led by Aileen Babierra, the project coordinator and a Speech Communication student of the University of the Philippines.

Ryan, grew up in Tayabas, and developed a keen interest in his hometown’s heritage, arts and culture. Now he hopes to bring in art and culture so his townsmen would have greater awareness and appreciation. His is an interest that is almost a passion.

Ryan took up medical technology in college and currently works as a clinical researcher for a pharmaceutical company. Obviously, he made his career choice for practical reasons, although he admits a strong desire to devote himself to creative writing. In the Palad compound, he showed us a half-completed house, owned by his brother who left for the United States. Palad hopes to convert it to a creative writing center if he could acquire enough financial resources. He established the Tayabas Publication, and now publishes his own magazine called Suob, which has so far come out with three issues .

We then gathered in the town’s old church for the tour. Two jeepneys were standing by to herd elementary and high school students to different cultural landmarks.

The Church of Tayabas, or the Minor Basilica of Michael Archangel, is characteristic of many churches in the country with a plain façade, with its pale yellow paint streaked with the gray-green of age. A belfry stands at one side and a pasillo (hallway) at another. Next to the church is an elementary school and in front a plaza. The first church was established by Franciscans in 1585. The structure was made of bamboo, nipa and anahaw, and it underwent a series of renovations and expansions until 1894.

As the National Historical Institute marker by the entrance relates, The first church, made of bamboo, nipa and anahaw, was built by the Franciscan Friars in 1585 under the patronage of Saint Michael the Archangel. This was renovated by Fr. Pedro Bautista in 1590. In 1800 a church made of limestone was built but this was destroyed by an earthquake in 1743. The next year the church was rebuilt and enlarged. The roof was changed into galvanized iron in 1894. This is one of the most beautiful churches in the Philippines.

In contrast to its august exterior, the church interior radiates with colors, especially when you look up. The wooden ceiling is painted in sky blue showing clouds, angels and intricate designs, reminiscent of Renaissance church frescoes. The paintings become more elaborate at the dome above its main altar. By the choir loft at the other end hangs a chandelier carved out of wood. We also checked out the belfry with its bells that have acquired the green patina of age.

We then proceeded to the old stone bridges that are unique to Tayabas. The distinguishing marks of these bridges are the arches underneath. First stop was Mate Bridge in Barangay Mate. One hardly notices the original bridge as it is quite short, with only about fifteen steps needed to cross it. Like the roads of the town, the bridge is narrow, suitable for calesas. There was a new construction to lengthen the bridge. This, as well as the growth of vegetation, obscures the bridge. Built in the 1850s, this was the original and only thoroughfare to Tayabas from Mauban. Similar to Mate is the Lakawan Bridge, which is now being demolished to give way to a new bridge. At one side, the bridge has that tacky uneven surface like rock walls often seen in home grottos. And there is a sign of a new resort which, at the time of our visit, was being constructed just below the bridge beside the river.

The Francisco de Asis Bridge looks like a new bridge, but its antiquity is revealed when you go down the creek and underneath it. When we went down the creek, we saw a congregation of women washing their laundry. The old arch has been completely obscured by vines, weeds and untamed branches of trees. From the head to its foot, the bridge measures 40 feet in height. This bridge, which crosses over Iyam River, is called the Puente Isabel II. It is said that it was built to honor Queen Isabel II of Spain, the wife of Ferdinand de Asis, through the initiative of Governor Don Jose Maria. Construction started March 15, 1852 and was finished on July 6,1853.

The grandest of Tayabas stone bridges is the Malagonlong Bridge in Barangay Mauban. Built in 1841, the quaint bridge seems to possess balconies on it sides. It spans 445 feet with five arches with 36 feet wide underneath. Each stop, Ryan would gather the students and tell them a bit of history, the characteristics and the present state of the bridges and the value of preservation.

The last stop was a new cultural landmark in the town: the house and gallery of painter Jose Romero in 95 D. Nadres St. in Barangay Matiuna. Romero, who recently died in 2001, was a nurse by profession who worked in the United States. Apparently, he devoted his time and energy to painting, taking art lessons in Canada and then studying at the Art Instruction School in Minneapolis and at the Paris American Academy Beaux Des Artes. Eventually, he received the degree of doctor of art at the Marquis Guiseppe Scicluna University in Malta in 1986. He held one-man exhibits in the United States, France, China and in the Philippines. He described himself as an acrylic impressionist, which means his main medium was acrylic and his paintings were impressionistic. His works mostly depicted women, landscapes and street scenes influenced by his many travels. Among his almost a thousand works, Red Madonna (1974) is deemed to be his most famous, a rather haunting depiction of Mary in plain lines but splattered with bloody red paint that flowed down, thus forming the lower half of her body.

His gallery in Tayabas is called Galleria Romero, presumably built to be his home in the family compound, but was transformed into a gallery that is now open to the public. The two-story edifice of contemporary design is diminutive but spanking because of its white paint and its glass and steel structure and painted white, an obvious contrast to the neighborhood houses of weathered wood and rusting iron roofs. Aside from the kitchen, living room and the small bedroom with its pillows and stuff toys neatly arranged, the gallery houses some of his works.

Not included in the tour but is worth visiting is the Casa Communidad de Tayabas, which is just beside the church plaza. When we made our short visit, it was being renovated by the National Historical Institute. Built in 1776 as a tribunal through the initiative of Gobernadorcillo Francisco Lopez and named Casa de Communidad de Tayabas in 1835, the building was transformed into a school in 1945 until the mid-1970s. During its heyday, it was said that the building was largest and one of the most beautiful tribunals in the country. And indeed, it remains to be the most beautiful structure in town and the best preserved. The first story is, made of stone, while the upper floor is made of wood, accented by wide windows of capiz shell latticework. It has a small internal courtyard. The building now serves as a museum and also houses the municipal library.

In the afternoon, the town settled down for a siesta. The heat of the sun could be stifling for strolling the streets. But with the mountain breeze occasionally wafting through the trees, it is much cooler than in the city. Ryan set out to prepare the stage and sound for tonight’s poetry in front of the 1920s Santiago Reyes house at the corner of Santiago Reyes and Trece de Agosto streets, just a short walk from his house.

We passed the house earlier, not a grand structure but still quite handsome with its air of antiquity despite its rather dilapidated condition. The metal grills are rusting and bent, the windows close to tumbling, and the paint peeling at places. It is sad that the whole thing is beaten with age and neglect. Now seemingly abandoned, the house was owned by Santiago Reyes, the former mayor of the town during the Japanese occupation, and the Presidente Municipal from 1932- 1937. The street in front of his house was named after him.

By late afternoon the stage was set and the speakers blared with cheesy dance tunes. The children had come out to play, jumping on and climbing the stage and the veranda of the old house.

kamayan sa palaisdaanWe fetched Vim Nadera, the featured poet and also a Tayabasin, at the Kamayan sa Palaisdaan, the town’s most prominent restaurant. The place was a sprawling fishpond where the tables were set on floating rafts with thatched roofs and the smoky aroma of seafood being grilled with dried coconut husks constantly hung on the air. Vim had brought along fellow poets Michael Coroza and Teo Antonio, and poet and literary scholar (and now National Artist for Literature- ed.) Virgilio Almario, former executive director of the NCCA and revered mentor of most poets writing in Filipino today. He is also known by his pseudonym Rio Alma.

The poetry reading was called Makata sa Kanto (Poet at the Street Corner). Indeed, the old house lent a majestic and vary apt backdrop to the reading. Spotlights were set bestowing the house a glow that was both romantic and reverent rather than eerie, despite the rumors that the house is haunted by 14 ghosts, an idea that amused me. One ghost less it could be a movie.

In his introduction, Ryan explained his choice of venue to emphasize the old and historic structures of the town and the need to love and preserve them. There was a hint of quiver in his voice as if he was about to cry. This occasion was also held to highlight and honor three Tayabasin artists, who are now almost completely forgotten even by the Tayabasins themselves. Posters showing their portraits and short biographical notes hung at the veranda of the old house. And Palad introduced them to the people one by one.

The violinist and songsmith Gregorio S. Salva (9 May 1902 – 20 October 1982), a member of the Tayabas Orchestra and Babat Orchestra, wrote the folksy Abaruray-Abarinding and the kundiman Ang Oo Mo (Your Yes) and Tanging-tanging Ikaw (Only You). He also wrote the music for the song Mutyang Pangarap(Precious Dream) with lyrics written by Pablito Obispo; Pagtitiis (Suffering) with lyrics by Elias Desembrana; and Lihim (Secret) with lyrics by the poet Jose Corazon de Jesus.

Julian Roces Valdecas (16 February 1903 26 June 1973) was a poet who wrote more than fifty poems reflecting life in Tayabas. He also wrote plays including Magkapitbahay (Neighbors). He was one of the founders of Kapisanang Diwang Tayabas, which aimed to bolster the stature of the Tagalog language.

The painter and muralist Manuel Jamilano (1 January 1906 5 August 1988) studied painting at the University of the Philippines under the tutelage of Fernando Amorsolo. His more then twenty paintings depicted scenes of his hometown, particularly the rice fields of Barangay Alsam, Ibiya; the dam in Lakawan and the town’s rivers and falls. The first part of the program was the reading of a few poems by Valdecas and some poems by Tayabasins. And then the main part was the poetic joust or balagtasan by Nadera, Antonio and Coroza. Antonio, who is known to be a little flamboyant in his attire, was in attention-catching green barong. Nadera served as the moderator, while the two spontaneously debated in poetry on a topic. Nadera chose to stay low-key as moderator, giving the topic, whether the Filipina should be allowed to work abroad.

The audience was made up of students, neighborhood children, and people from houses around the venue including the manginginom and istambay sa kanto. We sat among the guests who passed on plates of adobong mani and glasses of lambanog. People were entertained as each poet would start his rhetoric by panlilibak or insulting his opponent in the most poetic and witty manner as possible. Antonio would zero in on Coroza’s portliness, due to the fact that he is well-fed, to point out his indifference to the hardships of the Filipina. Coroza, on the other hand, would attack Antonio’s green barong, which to him symbolized his fondness for American dollar regardless of the dangers that await Filipinas working abroad.

The balagtasan concluded without a winner being declared, and Rio Alma was cajoled into giving a final speech. It doesnt matter if Filipinos should go abroad or not, he said. Mentioning William James, he said that what is important is the cultivation and deepening of our roots, lauding and reinforcing Ryan’s plea for the preservation and recognition of the old house, which symbolizes all the old structures of the town and the town’s cultural heritage. That night, the poets immediately headed off to Manila, while we went to Lucena, where the nightspots were. We then crossed to Lucban at three in the morning to eat lugaw at Boyet. The morning after, we visited E. Jacinto street where the pasalubong stores are, offering sweets like the cre-brulee-looking cassava cake called budin and the nilupak, also made of cassava but formed as rolls. Then we all set out to Manila. Ryan had to get back to work the next day.

Bringing forth art and culture and their appreciation can sometimes be lonely. But we are strengthened by witnessing the efforts in Tayabas, somehow made aware that somewhere in the seeming barrenness of the country there is someone in some town sowing seeds and hoping they are taking root, and who bring to light old bridges and making new cultural ones.

One may contact Ryan Palad through telephone number 042-793-8174 or mobile phone 09174132318, or mail him at 165 13 de Agosto St., Tayabas. For more information on the Jose Romero Gallery, contact Norman Ragudo at telephone number 042-793-2395 or at the address 37 Apolinario Mabini St., Tayabas.

*Roel Hoang Manipon is a free lance journalist whose articles about Philippine arts have been published in various dailies. He took up MFA Creative Writing at the De La Salle University.

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