Before I Forget

I don’t have a hometown

I visited the church yard where I  found tombstones of elders whose exotic names are listed in the family tree, proof that they once really existed

The 'carroza' of Jesus being taken down from the cross, the Good Friday procession in Malolos (Photo by Paulynn Sicam)

I don’t have a hometown, and I have always felt deprived.

I was  a boarder in high school and went home on weekends and holidays. Most of my fellow boarders also went home on long  weekends and holidays—to Malabon, Malolos, Angeles, Nueva Ecija, Naga. They came back sunburned and full of stories about life in their ancestral  homes in the provinces. But my family lived only in Cubao where I went home on Friday afternoons, lugging my school books and my laundry bag.

The reality stung: I had no hometown to go home to.

My father’s roots are in Abra, but he was born and raised in Manila. My mother was born in Zamboanga and grew up in Iwahig, the penal colony in Palawan where her father, a peripatetic government servant,  was once assigned as the superintendent. But she was sent to study in Manila for high school. My parents met and married and settled in Manila where they had 10 children in 16 years.

While I had heard a lot about Abra from our grandparents and our house help who all came from there, I had never set foot in the province until 1986 when, with a group of journalists covering President Cory Aquino, I flew to Abra where President Cory was meeting with the rebel leader Conrado Balweg.  From aboard a military chopper, I saw a harsh landscape, dry and rocky, with little traces of greenery. The province was rural, backward, poor. I thought to myself, this was the land of my forefathers where generations of my family members have ruled over many decades. This was, for all intents and purposes, my family’s home province. The capital, Bangued, was what my Manila-based grandparents called their hometown.

I returned to Abra in 2013 when the Paredes house in Bangued was declared a historical site, being the birthplace of Sen. Quintin Paredes who was the brother of my great-grandfather. It was a festive event where I met obscure aunts and cousins, and cousins of cousins who lived there. Abra was still pretty backward but it had its charm. I visited the church yard where I  found tombstones of elders whose exotic names are listed in the family tree, proof that they once really existed. But the place felt alien to me.

Every once in a while, the Paredes clan holds what is called the Timpuyug Dagiti Anak ti Paredes, where family members from Bangued and those who have settled in other parts of the country and beyond, get together in Manila for a grand reunion. It is a much anticipated event that we drop everything to attend, but such once-in-a-while reunions are as close as I get to my family’s Abra origins.

I heard about Iwahig as a kind of wonderland where my mom grew up, so I was eager to visit the place with my sister, our mom and her youngest sister who was born in the Superintendent’s house in the colony.  The  head honcho  wasn’t around but my mother and my aunt felt so much at home that they barged into his quarters, the colonial style house they grew up in, checking the rooms, and recalling where they played and who slept where. They bickered about  which room my aunt was born in—an  argument that my mother, having already  been a teen by then, won.  But there was no one in Iwahig who knew them anymore. No, it didn’t qualify as a town we could call home.

She asked rather cheekily, upon seeing a goat, if it too was a relative

Actually, my mother’s side of the family originated in Pangasinan, where various branches of the Misa clan still thrive, but neither my mother nor her siblings grew roots there. A story goes that when as a little girl, my mom’s other sister was first brought to Alaminos, where everyone she met was introduced as either a cousin, an aunt or an uncle, she asked rather cheekily, upon seeing a goat, if it too was a relative.

What passed for ancestral homes for us were my Paredes grandparents’ house on Alfredo Street in Sampaloc, and my Misa grandfather’s and later my uncle’s, official quarters in Muntinlupa, where they both served as director of Prisons four decades apart.  It was in Alfredo where my siblings, cousins and I were spoiled rotten by our grandmother, who gave in to our every whim, and spent lazy afternoons being entertained by our grandfather with his magic tricks, his collection of naughty statuettes, and memorable rib-tickling  stories. When I was a child, I looked forward to weekends in the house in Alfredo.

It was in Muntinlupa where during summers, I learned how to ride a bicycle, and my cousins and I climbed fruit trees, “cooked” leaves and flowers in play palayok, and dressed up for the Flores de Mayo procession.

But except for the vivid memories of childhood, there was nothing permanent about Alfredo or Muntinlupa.  The Alfredo house was sold, my grandparents passed on, and it was over.  And the Director’s quarters in Muntinlupa were only in the family for as long as our elders were in office.

I spent several summers in Bislig in Surigao del Sur where my uncle worked, and my cousins grew up.  I also often visited with family in Davao, which was my happy place, until my aunt passed away and politics divided the family, making Davao alien country for me.

But in general,  I’ve spent most holidays and summers in stifling Manila where the one positive thing is the light traffic—because everyone else is in their hometown enjoying the rites of summer.

Mater Dolorosa

Last Good Friday, a neighbor invited me to Malolos, her hometown, to observe the Good Friday procession of carrozas depicting the passion and death of Jesus Christ.  We were invited to a grand old mansion, with large windows that provided a front row view of the street and its other similarly situated grand old homes, where the carrozas would pass.

There were over 70 heavy carrozas that were mostly on wheels, but some were borne on the shoulders of able-bodied young men who walked in unison.  The carrozas bore displays of various images of  Good Friday—from the Last Supper that had 13 life-sized statues seated around a long table, the Agony in the Garden, the betrayal, arrest and torture of Christ, the Way of the Cross, the Crucifixion, the interment as the Santo Entierro, and the Resurrection.  Post Resurrection carrozas had Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalen and an angel pulling off the mourning veil of Mary in the Salubong. The entire Holy Week and Easter story in one grand moving extravaganza.

Behind each carroza walked the families that owned, maintained and decorated these fabulous displays for their once-a-year appearance in the Good Friday procession. Women and men—some in wheelchairs, and children—including babies in strollers, walked proudly behind their heirloom larger-than-life dioramas, holding lighted candles, praying and singing devoutly as they went.

I watched it all in awe—the religious fervor, the devotion, the family pride, and community participation

The procession seemed endless and repetitive—there was an abundance of Marys in various stages of grief and her retinue of weeping women, but the tableaux were fascinating. The images of the holy women were dressed in heavily embroidered gowns and bejeweled up to their fingers, necks, headdresses and haloes. Even Jesus at rest after being lashed and crowned with thorns, was garbed in a royal cloak befitting a king.

I watched it all in awe—the religious fervor, the devotion, the family pride, and community participation. I marveled at the pageantry that the community mounted year after year proudly displaying their mostly heirloom images all dressed up for the entire town to behold and venerate. It was a show of shows, an extravagant performance of a devotion proudly perpetuated by families that goes back generations.

A statue of Stella Maris, Star of the Sea in a private museum

Like many towns in the country on Good Friday, Malolos went all out expressing their faith and traditions, the way it has through the years, backed by an entire industry of  fashion designers, embroiderers, florists, jewelers, statue builders, carroza maintainers, et al.

Malolos is a buzzing, busy town steeped in history and antiquity. The Barasoain Church, where the heroes and villains of our past debated and ratified the Malolos Constitution, lords it over the main plaza, and gorgeous old houses, where the likes of Rizal, Mabini and Aguinaldo are said to have visited, stand proud and resolute against the pull of modernity. It was refreshing witnessing something as big as its Good Fridy procession that didn’t have a touch of commercialism.

Our hosts were gracious. I met interesting residents who shared stories about life in their town, walked us through their fabulous homes, described their way of life expressing their pride of place, and even their quirks. For one fleeting afternoon, I felt blessed not only by the grace of having attended a Good Friday procession for the first time in my life, but the warm welcome laid out by a hometown that made me feel less deprived, and quite at home.

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