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Jerry Acuzar and heritage conservation

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For the heritage conservationist, San Nicolás in Manila is a well of opportunities to tap into one’s worth as a cultural worker. It is because this fabled district is filled with decaying centuries-old Filipino houses that are yet to be saved by the government and other concerned sectors. It is but unfortunate that there has been no move yet to salvage these historical treasures from the deathly claws of urbanization and civil apathy. Around three years ago, me and my friends Arnaldo Arnáiz and Will Tolosa visited the place and took pictures of almost all the antique houses. One that stood out from among the rest was the so-called Casa Vizantina.

BEFORE: A picture that I took of a decrepit-looking Casa Vizantina when it was still in the corner of Calles Madrid and Peñarubia, San Nicolás, Manila in 2008.

AFTER: Casa Vizantina restored to its former glory by Jerry Acuzar when we visited it last year in its new home in Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in Bagac, Bataán.

I am very familiar with Casa Vizantina’s façade. Whenever we go to my mom’s home in Tondo, we often pass by San Nicolás, right in front of this house. Throughout my growing-up years of traveling to and from Tondo, I do notice this house’s gradual deterioration. Year after year, the house turns more uninhabitable although several squatter families still live inside it.

It is interesting to note that the popular Casa Manila in nearby Intramuros was modeled after Casa Vizantina. This San Nicolás gem was built in the late 1800s by a certain Don Lorenzo del Rosario. During the First World War, the house was leased out to the Instituto de Manila (former president Manuel Roxas once studied there! today, the school proper is in Sampáloc district and is now known as the University of Manila). When all of Manila was being burned and bombed by the Japanese Imperial Army and the US WASPs, almost all of San Nicolás was miraculously spared. But what the war did not do to this once majestic arrabal the neo-poor did. Casa Vizantina, for instance, was leased out to “various tenants”. Little by little, the house was apparently abandoned by its original owners. Sadly, this once-upon-a-time palace became a castle of various squatter families —a “legacy” of US WASP governance— from the Visayas and elsewhere. Many other old houses in San Nicolás were being toppled down almost every year. And this alarming travesty continues to this day. It is very disheartening to hear that in every regime change, promises of a booming economy are continuously thrown at our faces. But we never hear anything from them about conserving our past treasures such as these San Nicolás houses that could even rival those in Taal, Batangas. The San Nicolás houses have a very big potential to attract tourists especially our Spanish, Latin American, and even Southeast Asian friends (remember that the bahay na bató is a perfect blend of Oriental and Occidental). Since the dawn of the internet, blogging, and Facebook, we have been seeing so many self-appointed heritage advocates clamoring for the conservation of various heritage sites throughout the country. But the government paid attention to other duties. And hardly do we find any philanthropical action dedicated towards the conservation of our past architectural masterpieces.

Enter Jerry Acuzar in the picture.

This self-made millionaire from Quiapò, Manila has been collecting heritage houses (bahay na bató) from all over the Philippines for several years already. As a young boy, he used to pass by Calle Hidalgo on his way to school. In his growing-up years, he witnessed how the beautiful Filipino ancestral homes found in the said street deteriorated. He then wondered why these houses were not being taken cared of by both the owners and the local government. Years later, he took it upon himself to save prominent but abandoned/semi-abandoned antique houses found all over the country. After buying them from their respective owners, Acuzar had these houses dismantled (his critics use the word “demolition”), had them transported to his seaside hacienda in Bagac, Bataán, and from there resurrected to how they originally looked like. Originally, Acuzar planned to make his Bataán property his own private getaway, but changed his mind. He then opened his 400-hectare seaside resort to the general public. The once private hacienda became known as Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar.

Casa Vizantina is one of the houses he was able to save from further humiliation, neglect, and possible destruction. It is now back to its former glory, albeit in a different site.

This herculean effort of Acuzar, however, received both praise and negative criticism from various sectors. Indignation against him reached its crescendo last year when the nation learned that he already bought and started dismantling the ancestral home of the national hero’s mother in Biñán, La Laguna. The dismantling was put to a halt when heritage conservation groups led by Dr. Rosauro “Bimbo” Sta. María of the United Artists for Cultural Conservation and Development, Inc. (UACCD) pressured the local government. As of this writing, the impasse between the City of Biñán and the UACCD vs Jerry Acuzar and Gerry Alberto has yet to be resolved. Over the past few months, my ambivalent stance towards the actions of Mr. Acuzar remains to be unresolved as well. Me and my wife had the opportunity to visit his estate late last year. Right after that visit, it dawned upon me that if it is possible to dismantle houses from their original locations, is it not possible to return them there as well? Shouldn’t we just consider Acuzar’s estate as a temporary haven for these houses, as a “safe-keeping” enclave where they will be maintained everyday until their local governments and/or original owners will be able to afford to take them back?

Various hispanistas and conservation heritage advocates such as popular travel blogger Ivan Henares and my Círculo Hispano-Filipino contertulios Gemma Cruz de Araneta and Dr. Fernando N. Ziálcita maintained that heritage structures should remain in situ. As Henares put it, “structures should remain where they are, preserved together with the environment they were built in”. But should these houses continue to remain where they are even if their very own environment starts neglecting them? That will no longer be heritage conservation.

Based on my observation (and experience), perhaps 99% of local governments all over our country do not have heritage conservation on the top of their to-do list. About a decade ago, I was working part-time for the now defunct Nueva Era newspaper which Señor Guillermo Gómez edited. It was the last Spanish-language newspaper in the Philippines. Me and Señor Gómez usually went around Metro Manila taking photos of all ancestral houses that our eyes could catch, for we feared that they will not remain standing in the next few years (before I joined the old man, he was already traveling around the country taking photos of various bahay na bató). We would then publish the photos in the said newspaper (those were the days before blogging, Facebook and Twitter ruled the universe). To our quixotic minds, since we are powerless to physically save those houses from being torn down, we were at least able to record historical memories for posterity’s sake. And browsing through past issues of Nueva Era, our fears proved to be true after all. We noticed that year after year, these Filipino houses continue to be demolished to give way to modernity. No worth at all is given for their historical value. Our patrimony was placed further into the darkest background. A bahay na bató was turned into nothing more but a mere bahay na bató that has no more place in modern times. It seemed as if nobody even cared to save these houses anymore.

But Acuzar is doing exactly that — saving Filipino structures from years and decades of neglect by having them transferred to his estate where they will remain taken cared of for good. Of course, the thought that he will earn money from it should be taken out of the question in the meantime. The fact remains that Acuzar will shell out money regularly to have these ancestral houses he had “snatched away” from neglect and ruin to be well-maintained and preserved for ages. Henares will definitely counter this. He wrote in his blog that the best solution is to educate the masses about the importance and worth of heritage structures found within their locality. I agree, or should agree. But is anybody doing this? With all due respect to Mr. Henares, has he or anybody else offered any concrete steps on how to do this? Who exactly should be responsible to educate the masses? And more importantly, who and how will this project be funded? And will this “education” immediately save the Alberto Mansion? Remember: around 20% of that structure was already dismantled last year. Only an official verdict is keeping it from being totally transported from Biñán to Bagac. Also, the owner, Gerry Alberto, needs no education on heritage; he is a highly educated man, and a distant relative of Rizal himself.

Henares also added that Acuzar should just build replicas in his hacienda instead. Still, building a replica of, say, the Alberto Mansion will not exactly save the Alberto House in Biñán. Gerry Alberto gave up on it already due to financial problems of maintaining it. If he hadn’t sold it to Acuzar, then he would have sold it to other people. And if that ever happened, perhaps a more terrible scenario could have occurred to the house itself. But in Acuzar’s hands, at least future generations will still be able to see it. And, as I have mentioned earlier, there is always the possibility of bringing the whole house back to Biñán once the Biñenses are truly ready to take care of it.

Going back to the Alberto House, what matters here now is how it should be conserved. And Acuzar was able to find a more viable solution. Before the Acuzar purchase, almost nobody ever gave a damn as to what this house is all about. But when the purchase and dismantling commenced, out came the “concerned” activists. Out came the “angry voices”. Out came Facebook pages trying to save the Alberto House. I guess what I hate about this hullaballoo is why do we have to wait for an Acuzar to enter the picture before we TRULY act? Now, it’s almost too late.

I would like to stress out that I am not against movements such as the UACCD. It’s just that their protestations came out a little too late. And although I am saddened by the thought that the spot where the Alberto house still stands might become vacant soon, I admit that I have now become somewhat soft against Acuzar’s ancestral-house purchases because to date only he has provided the most viable solution against the destruction of Filipino ancestral homes. Sometimes, unwanted methods had to be used for the sake of heritage conservation. Such are the methods of Acuzar. So let me make this clear once more: what I dislike about this heritage controversy is the apparent tardiness of Filipinos. They usually make noise only when the trouble has started to make serious damages.

I received some flak against members of the UACCD for my rather unfriendly remarks against their protest rally last year. One member even dared me on my sentiment about not writing anything about Biñán anymore. But let bygones be bygones. Right now, what is important is for all people concerned to save Doña Teodora Alonso’s ancestral house in situ. Besides, Dr. Sta. María himself revealed to me that he and his group has finally made some “strategic plan” to save the Alberto ancestral house. I have yet to interview him to know more about this. It is still worth a try. It might save not only the Alberto Mansion but also all ancestral homes in San Nicolás as well as those found all over the country.

But if this proves to be another failure, then let us all leave Jerry Acuzar alone.

Lastly, if P-Noy is really sincere in attaining everything good for our country’s sake, then may he be able to transfer the still existing military slush funds into saving the Alberto Mansión. With political will, he can do that in just a snap of a finger. Turn bad money into good.

Heritage conservation should not rest solely on non-governmental institutions such as the UACCD. It should be one of our government’s top priorities. Conserving our patrimony will help us map out our future because through it, we will be able to catch a glimpse of our future by reflecting on images of our beautiful past. And glimpses of our beautiful past are still within our midst.

Not everything is lost yet. Just look around; you might be able to see a bahay na bató “shimmering” alone on a street corner…

Biñán is in the heart (Biñán, La Laguna)

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Indians brought their game-cocks to be admired, but we did not encourage the display of their warlike virtues. There was much firing of guns, and a pyrotechnic display when the sun had gone down, and a large fire balloon, bearing the inscription, “The people of Biñán to their illustrious visitors,” was successfully inflated, and soaring aloft, was lost sight of in the distance, but was expected to tell the tale of our arrival to the Magidenne in Manila Bay. Biñán is a place of some importance. In it many rich mestizos and Indians dwell. It has more than 10,000 inhabitants. Large estates there are possessed by the Dominican friars, and the principal of them was among our earliest visitors. There, as elsewhere, the principalia, having conducted us to our headquarters, came in a body to present their respects, the gobernadorcillo, who usually speaks Spanish, being the organ of the rest. Inquiries about the locality, thanks for the honours done us, were the commonplaces of our intercourse, but the natives were always pleased when ” the strangers from afar” seemed to take an interest in their concerns. Nowhere did we see any marks of poverty; nowhere was there any crowding, or rudeness, or annoyance, in any shape. Actors and spectators seemed equally pleased; in fact, our presence only gave them another holiday, making but a small addition to their regular and appointed festivals. Biñán is divided by a river, and is about a mile from the Laguna. Its streets are of considerable width, and the neighbouring roads excellent. Generally the houses have gardens attached to them; some on a large scale. They are abundant in fruits of great variety. Rice is largely cultivated, as the river with its confluents affords ample means of irrigation. The lands are usually rented from the Dominicans, and the large extent of some of the properties assists economical cultivation. Until the lands are brought into productiveness, little rent is demanded, and when they become productive the friars have the reputation of being liberal landlords and allowing their tenants to reap large profits. It is said they are satisfied with one-tenth of the gross produce. A tenant is seldom disturbed in possession if his rent be regularly paid. Much land is held by associations or companies known by the title of ‘Casamahanes.’ There is an active trade between Biñán and Manila. -Sir John Bowring-

My son Jefe looking at the busy Biñán town plaza during his third birthday a few months ago (01/13/2010). The Alberto Mansion is obscured --nay, VANDALIZED-- by colossal political campaign ads. Will Jefe and his siblings ever see this house again?

“When’s your next travel to Biñán, man?”

This Arnaldo guy never fails to tease me in this manner whenever he urges me to travel. It’s because he has traveled to many parts of the country: Luzón, the Visayan islands, and Mindanáo. My record is a measly one compared to his — I’ve only traveled mostly in and around the La Laguna provinces, and most of those travels were in Biñán.

What’s with Biñán, anyway? =)

I dunno. But Biñán is in the heart. It reminds my wife Yeyette of its public market’s bargain prices, and of Barrio Canlalay’s garden plants and flowers for sale, and of course, the famous puto biñán. For me, it reminds me of its rich history and culture when the Philippines was still an overseas Spanish province. It reminds me of the town’s sector de mestizos filled with grand Antillean houses or bahay na bató, of the incorruptible Santa Filomena de Almarínez, and of the Rizal connection. And the best part of it is that it is just beside our current home, San Pedro Tunasán, the sampaguita capital of the Philippines.

All of my visits in that municipio-turned-city were mostly unplanned, such as the first one in 2004. Napagcátuwaan lang naming mag-asawa. That is when I first saw the Alberto ancestral house. I fell in love with it immediately. That is why it is devastating and heartrending to hear about this historic house’s impending doom. Its sale to controversial businessman Jerry Acuzar created quite a stir within cultural and historical circles.

The townhall of the then Municipality of Biñán. I recently learned that by virtue of last year's Republic Act 9740, this historic municipio is now a city. But its cityhood does not even manifest in itself.

Somewhere along this river, Rizal used to swim and frolic during his youth. He even almost drowned here when a naughty cousin of his pushed him on its deeper parts. Sometimes, I wonder what would he feel if he sees this river again in its polluted state. To the people of Biñán: congratulate yourselves for a job well done!

Another old house almost as big as the Alberto's. It stands across the Alberto Mansion at the town/city plaza. Soon, it will be another casualty of cultural and historical ignorance, and I will not even be surprised when that happens.

It is as if a heavenly light that rainy afternoon (11/04/2009) was bidding the Alberto Mansion to come up to the heavens.

THE SAGA OF THE ALBERTO ALONSO ANCESTRAL HOUSE

From where I sit, the status of Teodora Alonso’s ancestral home remains unclear: will it continue staying where it has been standing for centuries or not? The last time I heard, the sale of the Alberto Mansion to Mr. Acuzar will still push through despite the valiant efforts of Dr. Rosauro “Bimbo” Sta. María and the United Artists for Cultural Conservation and Development, City of Biñán, Inc. (UACCD), to save it from being dismantled (“demolished” is what they call it) and transported to the businessman’s Bataán resort. In his Facebook account, the good doctor seemed to confirm that the good fight is indeed over; he wrote an emotional letter to the members of the UACCD, and its title: PAALAM BAHAY ALBERTO!. A part of that letter read:

To keep the Alberto House in situ would mean at least ₱150,000,000 to buy the property, restore, and maintain it for the next five years. Adaptive reuse can be in the form of a museum, but will take time for it to become self-liquidating. Neither the City nor the National Government have this enough money for a single purpose.

Finis es?

*******

Whether or not this house is related to national hero José Rizal is beside the point. It has been part and parcel of Biñán for hundreds of years, alongside other historic Antillean houses. Moreover, this same house was visited by a famous foreign dignitary at that time: Sir John Bowring (1792-1872), the fourth Governor of Hong Kong. In his A Visit to the Philippine Islands, he wrote the following about the Alberto Mansion:

The roads are generally good on the borders of the Laguna, and we reached Biñán before sunset, the Indians having in the main street formed themselves in procession as we passed along. Flags, branches of flowering forest trees, and other devices, were displayed. First we passed between files of youths,then of maidens; and through a triumphal arch we reached the handsome dwelling of a rich mestizo, whom we found decorated with a Spanish order, which had been granted to his father before him. He spoke English, having been educated at Calcutta, and his house —a very large one— gave abundant evidence that he had not studied in vain the arts of domestic civilization. The furniture, the beds, the tables, the cookery, were all in good taste, and the obvious sincerity of the kind reception added to its agreeableness. Great crowds were gathered together in the square which fronts the house of Don José Alberto.

Inside the patio of the controversial Alberto residence. This is the house's zaguán where the Alberto's carromatas and horse-drawn carriages were kept. It now serves as a decrepit bodega.

At the patio.

What was once a beautiful garden is now an untidy heap of woebogone structures.

The patio stairway from another angle.

The stone escalera from the patio leading towards where the azotea and cocina are.

There are actually two zaguanes in the Alberto patio. The zaguán, in a way, is today's equivalent of a car garage.

The empty side of this house was burned several years ago in a fire accident. The other side has since been converted to a grocery store. I wonder: if Jerry Acuzar successfully acquires the Alberto Mansion, how would he figure out the way this house looked like in its original state when he rebuilds it in his Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar?

An odd, unaesthetic mix of old and new: centuries-old stone blocks with modern concrete masonry units (or hollow blocks).

An intricate arch which survived the centuries. Will it continue surviving?

The main entrance is not through this door but at the stairway to the left.

Cápiz shells were often used as squared window panes in wooden ventana panels. This is a usual trademark of a genuine bahay na bató.

I forgot who this lady in the portrait was, but Arnaldo still remembers that she's none other than José Alberto's allegedly adulterous wife. It was said that she was the cause of Teodora Alonso's arrest and imprisonment.

The spacious caída.

The now messy balcón overlooking the town plaza.

The door yonder (behind the staircase) leads to the main part of the house which eventually burned a couple of years ago. What was saved has been converted to Gerry Alberto's small office.

A glimpse of the Biñán's public market.

¡Totoy na totoy!

Arnaldo sitting in front of José Alberto's portrait. Notice the Orden de Isabel la Católica hanging on Alberto's chest.

A view of the now cemented patio from the antesala.

Techo (ceiling).

Only a few remaining Antillean houses / bahay na bató today sport a red-tiled rooftop.

Sunlight entering a doomed house. Or is it really doomed? Heaven forbid such a travesty to happen...

The same stairway which John Bowring ascended.

Then as now, great crowds still gather together in the square which fronts this house. The only difference is that today, this throng is composed mostly of uncaring, nonchalant, and uncultured individuals. And many of them are local government officials.

As I’ve written early this month, Arnaldo and I had the opportunity to meet Gerardo “Gerry” Alberto last 11/04/2009, a direct descendant of José Alberto, an uncle of the national hero. He confirmed to us that indeed he was selling the house to a businessman. He even handed out to me a photocopied document of an email conversation between a relative of his (one of his nieces, if memory serves right) and Ambeth Ocampo regarding the impending sale of the house to Acuzar, back then an unknown person to me. Unfortunately, that paper is still missing in my library, and I’ve completely forgotten what exactly the conversation was all about.

Arnaldo and I were troubled to hear about Gerry’s plan. Too bad we did not have any right at all to convince him to change his mind. In a recent TV interview, he was correct when he said that his ancestral house is private property — it is his property. He’s paid his (real estate) taxes religiously. Thus, he can do anything he wants with it: desecrate it, enshrine it, turn it into a casino, a gay bar, a school, a private zoo, a museum, sell it, anything that pleases him. And all cultural groups and “concerned” politicians can kiss his Fil-hispanic tuckus.

But Arnaldo and I know something that many Biñenses do not know: if only Gerry had the money to maintain the house of his ancestors, he would have kept it. End of story. Furthermore, he told us that he once asked some monetary assistance from the then Municipality of Biñán, but nothing came out of it. But of course, local governments did not have any money to shell out just to help maintain the house.

So what’s all the fuss these past few weeks among local government officials of Biñán as well as other concerned groups? All of a sudden, we see them on national TV and in dailies, protesting what many of them imply to be Gerry’s historical crime against their city? But where were they when Gerry needed their help?

¿Palagui na lang báng ganitó ang mga Filipino? Abá, cumiquilos lang tayo capág hulí ná ang lahát. Qué divertido.

It should be noted that Gerry no longer lives in that house but somewhere else in Metro Manila (again, that decision of his is none of our business). Of what use should it be whenever he shells out money to maintain a house that technically no longer serves him? The guy’s just being practical. In today’s deprived economic milieu, where inflation never stops harassing even the monetary giants of the world, no person in his right mind would continue financing an already abandoned and deteriorating house. Gerry may have lots of money, but he’s not wealthy (to use financial adviser Francisco Colayco’s context). Put yourselves in his shoes, dear readers.

Do not be mistaken, though. I do not intend to be his apologist. During my many visits to his ancestral house, I met Gerry only once. We’re not friends. I am just trying to make a rational point out of all this brouhaha. The point is, none of this debacle would have happened if everybody acted much earlier.

When news broke out that the house’s dismantling had already started, and that protests against it commenced, I let out a silent, sickening chuckle filled with resentment and loathing towards the people of Biñán. Why why why is it that there is no end to this kind of stupidity…?

So, when I saw the pitiful state of the house again more than a month after killer typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng unleashed their fury all over the capital and its surrounding environs, deep down inside –MUCH TO MY MOST BITTERREGRET–, I thought it was best to take care of the house elsewhere where it will be safe…

Arnaldo and I revisited Biñán together last 11/04/2009, nearly two months after Typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng wreaked havoc in Luzón.

Dirty, unkempt, deprived of care, but still standing proudly across the ages...

Entrance to the patio.

Arnaldo with Gerry Alberto, a great grandson of José Alberto, Rizal's uncle.

Parts of the house haven't dried up yet due to the recent killer typhoons.

The cápiz shells in the window panels were rapidly deteriorating.

Rainwater seeped into the house. The interiors are no longer safe for future typhoons.

A view of the town plaza (including the San Isidro Labrador Church at the left) from the Alberto house.

Everytime I see this portrait of José Alberto, it gets worse. It was slightly damaged by rainwater caused by Typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng.

Don Zoilo Alberto and his bride (Gerry's parents). Señor Guillermo Gómez Rivera had the chance to meet him many years ago. He described Don Alberto as a true Filipino of the old school. Even this portrait was damaged by typhoon rains.

Downstairs.

Un arcoiris -- ¿habrá una esperanza para este caserón histórico?

Gerry Alberto, moi, et Arnaldo Arnáiz.

RIZAL’S SCHOOL

Here’s another reason why I deplore Biñenses: the sad fate of Rizal’s school

Historically, Biñán is best known as the place where Rizal had his primary education under maestro Justiniano Cruz y Aquino.

Take a look at the hut now where Rizal spent some of his school days in Biñán. When my family visited this place in 2004, it was already fragile but still standing. We even had the opportunity to go inside. Why did Biñenses allow this to happen?

I first visited this nipa hut school in 2004. It was situated inside the huge garden of, if I remember right, the Jacobo Gonzales ancestral house (which is along Calle Gonzales, the area which was called sector de mestizos during Spanish times). Thanks to my wife’s insistence, we were allowed entry but never really got to talk with the owner. We were with Krystal and Momay (they were just two back then). We were so fortunate to have entered the premises because a few years later, When Typhoon Milenyo attacked the Philippines, maestro Justiniano Cruz’s school was to become but a stack of woods. Too bad we did not have any camera during that unplanned visit.

The hut was already on the brink of ruin when I first saw it. I was able to talk to the caretaker. He said that many people –tourists, students (mostly from UP), and conservationists– have visited the place. They took not only photos but videos of the place. Some even promised monetary assistance to help maintain it. But nothing came out of those promises.

Typhoon Milenyo gave it a deathly blow in 2006. Nobody ever cared about the school anymore. Not even historical conservationists. Not even the incredible local government.

A SEPULCHRAL DISCOVERY

Walking towards the national road on our way home from the Alberto Mansion (during our 11/04/2009 visit), we came across a queer discovery: a 19th-century structure that is either a chapel or a mausoleum…

We just chanced upon this old structure on our way home. I am still not sure if it's a chapel or a mausoleum. Around this structure is a small cemetery.

This chapel (or mausoleum) has been standing here since 1853!

And then, we saw these…

We inadvertently found the tombs of Gerry's parents!

A tomb in Spanish, housing the remains of a certain Macario Marco, possibly a family member of Gerry Alberto's mother.

Hours earlier, as I was browsing over boxes containing old stuff from the Alberto past, I came across a passport owned by a certain Pilar Alberto (Gerry’s mom?). And then hours later, we saw her tomb. Weird/creepy coincidence? Arnaldo kidded that perhaps the souls of the Alberto’s of yore were sending us a message to help them preserve their house.

For all we know…

NUESTRA SEÑORA DE LA PAZ Y BUENVIAJE

Here is another Biñense blunder: the total renovation of Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage Parish Church located in Barrio de la Paz. It’s now altered beyond recognition. For what? Because it looked old?

An undated old photo of the Nuestra Señora de la Paz y Buenviaje chapel, possibly taken either during the last years of the Spanish era or during the early years of the American invasion of the Philippines.

Right after the unnecessary facelift, taken several years ago (courtesy of BJ Borja).

Unknown to many, this is the old chapel where Rizal used to frequent. It was heavily renovated and modernized, much to a historian's chagrin. This should have never happened, because changing the whole feature of any historic or heritage site is tantamount to desecration. It should have just been maintained and well taken care of. Again, why did Biñenses allow this architectural desecration to happen?

The retablo.

An image of La Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción, the patron saint of the Philippines.

The image of the Nuestra Señora de la Paz y Buenviaje (Our Lady of Peace and Good/Safe Voyage). Although the chapel --now a parish church-- was heavily renovated, the parish priest we spoke with when this photo was taken (03/28/2008) said that this image is still the original.

A close-up of the image.

For posterity! =)

This chapel –now a church– was one of Rizal’s favorite places in Biñán. In his diary, he wrote that during his last days in Biñán, he usually walked from his place to this church (a chapel back then) to pray most of the time. Why bypass the town church (San Isidro Labrador) which was nearer to where he stayed in Biñán? Why walk several meters just to pray to that faraway chapel? We surmise that this holy place had a special affinity to Rizal’s heart because his mother, Teodora Alberto Alonso, was a devotee of Nuestra Señora de la Paz y Buenviaje in Antipolo, Morong (now called Rizal province). It should be remembered that a young Rizal once traveled to that church in Antipolo with his dad in order to fulfill his mom’s promise when he was still in her womb. And during his homesick days in Biñán, he somehow felt at home in this chapel which is the namesake of that other historic church in Antipolo which was also close to Doña Teodora Alonso’s religious heart and soul.

Today, not even a historical marker can be found in this equally historic site. And worse, if Rizal were to be transported to our era on a time machine, he would have been horrified by the altered unaesthetic look of one of his favorite haunts as a child.

IGLESIA DE SAN ISIDRO LABRADOR

Iglesia de San Isidro Labrador, Población, Ciudad de Biñán, La Laguna.

All photos of this church were taken last 11/04/2009

The church's Eucharistic Adoration Chapel.

May God forgive me, but somehow this triangular symbol gives me an eerie feeling that it is somewhat... Masonic...

The handsome altarpiece.

Among the donors of this church, we've already personally met two: Adelaida Yatco (a friend of another friend, Mayor Calixto Catáquiz of nearby San Pedro Tunasán) and Gerry Alberto.

MY FINAL VISIT TO BIÑÁN

The following photos were taken during my son Jefe’s third birthday (we did not bring Juanito because he was still an infant):

Jefe's third birthday in Jollibee, Biñán.

My family enters the mansion -- for one last time...

Ascent through time...

Time space warp!!!

¡Mi mujer linda!

My family within the eerie shadows of the Alberto house's foreboding doom...

The first time I visited this place with my family was a Sunday. And I still had only two kids. We were not able to go inside because it is open only on weekdays. Jefe’s birthday was a Monday, thus we were able to come in; Gerry was not available that time, but his secretaries still recognized me.

I happily toured my family inside. Most of the furniture were kept inside one of the big rooms; it appeared that preparations were all underway for an imminent demolition (some of the tambays downstairs and even the secretaries did confirm that). I explained to Yeyette and Krystal that it could be the last time that we’d be able to relish this piece of history in Biñán. It saddened us all.

*******

What can we learn about all of this?

Arnaldo couldn’t have put it more perfectly on his blog when he reacted to what had happened to Rizal’s school:

Here in Biñán, I found the perfect example of how our government has failed to restore and promote our national treasures. We are not being unfair with the historical giants, but to our very own children. Only in pictures will we be able to share to them what Rizal’s old school looks like.

And I couldn’t agree less.

But in fairness to Biñenses, this kind of travesty does not happen in Biñán alone (it just so happens that right now, their hometown is the center of all this unwanted attention). Almost everywhere in the Philippines, the same dookie happens. Irritatingly, concerned individuals react only when the death blow is about to strike.

Who is to be blamed?

I say, EVERYBODY in Biñán is to be blamed.

We have already tackled Gerry’s plight. According to him, he was just compelled to sell his house, implying that he had no more money to maintain a house that he no longer uses. But earlier this month, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) issued a statement on its website:

NHCP on ALBERTO HOUSE

1. The NHCP exhausted all possible means to convince the owner (Gerardo Alberto) to retain and preserve his property (the Alberto House) in its original setting in Biñán, Laguna, and to prevent its eventual demolition.

2. Two or three years ago, the NHI coordinated with Mr. Alberto on several schemes it prepared for the structure’s rehabilitation and adaptive reuse. The structure was already in a bad state of conservation, and deterioration and material losses were getting worse. The rehabilitation and adaptive re-use of the house were not pushed through by the owner for reasons beyond the control of the government.

3. The NHI prepared guidelines and recommendatory measures for the preservation of the Alberto House. These were forwarded to Mr. Alberto.

4. Several meetings had already been conducted at the Alberto House among the owner/s, Biñán local officials, Ms. Gemma Cruz, the design consultant, and NHI officials and technical staff. The owner/s repeatedly explained his/their plans for the old house and what assistance can be provided by the government if their house is declared a Historical Landmark or a Heritage House. Otherwise, Mr. Alberto reiterated that he is already quite old, and the decision that would serve the family’s best interest should be made soonest.

5. Before the controversy, the local government of Biñán was not interested in the preservation of the Alberto House. It signified its protest to the owner when it came to know that the Alberto family had already committed the transfer (dismantling and reconstruction) of the house from Biñan to Bagac, Bataan.

6. For so many years, the Municipality of Biñán allowed the proliferation of makeshift structures around the house, thus obliterating the majestic view of the old structure. If they considered the house as an important Landmark and part of their heritage, why did they not attempt to clear the area for visitors to appreciate the structure?

7. In 2004, the NHI Board approved in principle the installation of a historical marker for the house. NHI wrote Mr. Alberto regarding the proposed marker, and stipulated his compliance for the removal of obstructive and unsightly signage at the ground floor façade. The marker was not installed since Mr. Alberto did not react very positively to the conditions set by NHI.

8. The Alberto House is a private property. The Alberto family does not want the government declaration because now, the Bagac deal best serves the family’s interests and needs.

9. The Alberto House is not a declared National Historical Landmark nor a Heritage House because of its bad state of conservation (less than 70% authenticity), the owner’s non-acceptance of any declaration and installation of a historical marker, and his refusal to donate the property to the government (local or national).

10. The house cannot be 435 years old as claimed, having been built in 1575. The construction method of the original house used cut nails made of steel. Steel was first used in Europe during the Industrial Revolution. Therefore, the Alberto House could have been constructed between the late 1700s to early 1800s. The year 1575 may have referred to the family escutcheon, as the original owner’s father was decorated with a Spanish order during that time.

11. As time drags on, the Alberto House continues to deteriorate and accumulate damages, thus lessening the historical value and conservation opportunities of the structure. If no intervention/maintenance efforts are made, the house will certainly be totally lost.

12. It is not necessarily true and apropos to automatically declare any or all structures 50 years old or more an Important Cultural Property, a National Historical Landmark, or a Heritage House without passing through the established criteria. It will be very much prejudicial to the significance/quality of the structures/artifacts of historical or cultural importance, and to the best practices in selecting nationally-significant historical and cultural heritage.

13. A personal heritage may not necessarily be another person’s heritage; a family’s heritage may not necessarily be another family’s heritage; a community’s heritage may not be another community’s heritage… But we can have a national heritage whereby all citizens can claim the right to preserve and protect it. Likewise, in a world heritage, all peoples in the world have the right to preserve and protect it regardless of race, religion or ideology.

14. Some residents of Biñán approached NHI, asking if there is still a way to prevent the planned transfer of the Alberto House to Bagac. Architect Reynaldo A. Inovero advised them that if there would be any offer to fully restore the Alberto House for the family, and a place for the family’s proposed commercial establishment, perhaps the interested party can approach the Alberto family and make this proposal. Otherwise, there is no better alternative to the Bagac transfer in terms of the owner’s advantage.

15. The term used by heritage advocates is the “demolition” (Demolition of 200-year-old home of Rizal mom stopped, PDI, June 2, 2010). The correct term is dismantling, in order for the house to be transferred to Bagac. NHI does not advocate the destruction of any structure. We consider all options for a structure’s preservation, including compromises.

16. The one disadvantage of the transfer of the house to Bagac is Biñán losing one of its most important historical structures.

7 June 2010

It is hard to dispute the logic set forth by the NHCP on its statement regarding the Alberto house debacle. However, item 7 may put more heat on Gerry Alberto. It said that a few years ago, he did not react positively to the conditions set by NHCP (then known as the National Historical Institute) with regards to the installation of a historical marker for the house. What was that negative reaction all about? Here was perhaps a chance to save his house. But he apparently blew it.

ACUZAR

Acuzar then enters the picture. He has been painted by popular blogger Ivan Henares as a heartless and greedy sonofagun, shopping for cute Antillean houses that he can transfer to his seaside resort in Bagac, Bataán. Acuzar’s got good intentions, says some. He is, after all, gunning for old heritage structures that are no longer being taken care of, as is the case of the Alberto ancestral house. Rather than let it fall apart on its own, shouldn’t we rather see it safe and sound and intact, albeit in another location? Yes, it will hurt all of us lovers of heritage, culture, and history to see such architectural gems dismantled from their original sites just to be transferred to a money-making resort. But as what the NHCP said, the Bagac transfer is the only viable option right now to save what is left of the house. My museum idea is another option, but nobody would buy it.

Oh, did I say Acuzar had good intentions? Yeah. And as some clever wags say, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions…”

Indeed, if Acuzar wants to play philanthropist and/or culture hero, and if he is indeed deeply concerned on saving heritage structures, why not just donate the money to Gerry Alberto? Well, that would have been crazy. So think logically: no capitalist in his sane mind would ever want to do that. Acuzar, therefore is no financial saint. In “saving” the Alberto home, he also has to consider that act as an investment. Not just for “pogi” points, but for money points in the future.

According to fellow Círculo Hispano-Filipino member, Prof. Fernando Ziálcita, Ph. D., when Acuzar acquired the Enríquez Mansion in Quiapò, Manila, he also bought its lot. And what happened to that lot? A condominium now stands in place of the mansion! Professor Ziálcita has more to add about this:

Well, the first two ground stories form an arcade over the sidewalk. But there was no serious intent to copy closely the original look. The cornice juts out exaggeratedly in a very clumsy way. The arcade pillars of reinforced concrete now have grey, adobe garments whereas originally they were round, lime-covered, white Tuscan columns. And the arcade now serves as parking for the cars of the residents rather than as a walk-through for pedestrians.

No alternative traffic plan has been provided by him for a street that has five (5) jeepney terminals and that is always clogged at almost all hours.

Indeed, whoever approved of this condominium is today a rich man.

Aside from the fact that this condominium defies the already-worse vehicular traffic, it can also prove Acuzar’s greed. Why? He bought the age-old Enríquez Mansion not just to “save” it from Calle Hidalgo’s urban jungle but to build this money-making machine called a condominium.

So, where’s the love, Mr. Acuzar?

UNITED ARTISTS FOR CULTURAL CONSERVATION AND DEVELOPMENT, City of Biñán, Inc.

And now we have Dr. Bimbo Sta. María and the UACCD to contend with.

The whole country, and perhaps the whole of Biñán, first heard of this group only when the dismantling began of the Alberto house. But where were they before this tragedy happened? Why protest at this late hour? They’ll be quick to defend that their group just started early this year (March, if I’m not mistaken). But still, the dismantling started early this month. And if they again defend themselves that they were not privy to the Alberto-Acuzar deal beforehand, then –again– what’s with the late protestations?

Better late than never? Not quite enough. I’ve been a student activist in college, having attended several protest rallies myself. And none of them achieved anything at all except, perhaps, solidarity among the student youth going against the powers-that-be. But really, that is all what it is. All protest rallies are virtually useless and inutile except if it transforms into a rebellion such as what had happened in EDSA more than nine years ago.

Days after the dismantling of the Alberto house began (which was immediately and unceremoniously halted by the city hall), the UACCD organized “WELGA: Isang Gabi ng Dula, Awitan, Sayawan, Atbp.” on the evening of the 9th of June. It was held at the town plaza, right in front of the troubled mansion. It showcased various cultural activities courtesy of the UACCD and other artistic individuals. But do most of these kids actually know what they’re doing? The disenchanted are correct: protesting in the streets is perhaps a “fashionable” thing to do. People will think of these kids as heroes, and that is exactly what these kids wanted the people to think of them.

Using the Alberto Mansion troubles, was the WELGA, therefore, organized to formally catapult the UACCD into prominence, given that this group was founded just a few months ago?

Doctor Sta. María’s advocacy may be true and pure. How about the people around him? How about the members of the UACCD? Their WELGA is a powerless show, whether or not the number of those who attended were big, whether or not it was in a festive mood (it shouldn’t have been festive; it should have been angry). It’s not about how many attended that night; it’s about the advocacy. How sure is Dr. Sta. María about the sincerity of all his young members who strutted their stuff on stage during their p(r)etty WELGA? Their dances and poems and stuff were no match against greed and apathy.

Gerry and Jerry must have been laughing their @$$e$ off in amusement during that night (“those crazy kids oughta be drinking their milk and sayin’ their prayers already,” they must’ve been thinking). That is one reason why I didn’t join that protest rally. It’s virtually useless. Money had already exchanged hands. That is why the dismantling already began.

I reiterate (counting from experience and years of observation): most, if not all (and that is a big IF), protest rallies are but a comedic sham. It is another product of democracy which is, in turn, a product of imperialist US.

I’d rather join a revolution.

*******

The UACCD might answer me back: “so did your writing/ranting about this issue fared better than ours?”

I admit: it did not save the Alberto House. It is because no powerful dude who read what I wrote listened nor even bothered to take it seriously. I do not wish to say that my suggestion to convert the Alberto Mansion into a money-making museum to save it from being uprooted from Biñán is the only smart solution. But at any given moment, it is a viable solution, nonetheless.

I wrote too late, too. Yeah. But, frankly speaking, I should not even be troubling myself with all this. I’m not a Biñense for crying out loud. But that is where, modesty aside, my sincerity and concern (and disappointment) comes in. What about you, people of Biñán? Many years ago, my friend, the great scholar and Filipinologist, Señor Guillermo Gómez Rivera, took pictures of your then town’s old houses in its sector de mestizos, fearing that one day, they’d be gone. He published those photos in his now defunct Spanish newspaper, Nueva Era. Fast forward to today, and his fears came into fruition. Look at what happened to Rizal’s school. To the church in Barrio de la Paz. The Yaptinchay Mansion. And many others that are now deteriorating. Arnaldo has written a couple of blogposts about the Alberto Mansion in the past, particularly its impending demise. And he was right, too.

Again, if nobody listened to the three of us because we’re not as popular as Ambeth Ocampo or Ivan Henares, or perhaps people think that we have no substantial things to say, then that is no longer our problem. And again, we’re not from Biñán. Cayá mahiyá namán ang dapat mahiyâ.

Besides, if nobody listened to the NHCP’s suggestions, who’d listen to a mere blogger? The likes of me are but products of an irritating and stupid society.

*******

Mahiyá namán ang dapat mahiyâ. Hmmm… At this juncture, it is virtually useless to point an accusing finger to anybody. The damage has been done. But items 5 and 6 of the NHCP’s statement regarding the Alberto Mansion just couldn’t stop me from ranting out my angry disappointment:

5. Before the controversy, the local government of Biñán was not interested in the preservation of the Alberto House. It signified its protest to the owner when it came to know that the Alberto family had already committed the transfer (dismantling and reconstruction) of the house from Biñan to Bagac, Bataan.

6. For so many years, the Municipality of Biñán allowed the proliferation of makeshift structures around the house, thus obliterating the majestic view of the old structure. If they considered the house as an important Landmark and part of their heritage, why did they not attempt to clear the area for visitors to appreciate the structure?

If we are to publicly behead all the culprits of this sickening psychodrama, we should look no further. Or, in the case of the Alberto Mansion, it should look no further. The culprits are just across the street.

Yep. Biñán’s caboodle of shiny shoed politicians should be figuratively burned at the stake (burning them literally is not a bad idea, too). The dirty trail leads to their inept offices. Anyway, one does not have to rely on the NHCP’s statement — just take a look at the house’s façade and surroundings in some of the photos above, and you’ll see these politicians’ dirty work.

Oh, I’m suddenly reminded of WWE wrestler Kane’s usual pronouncement to his foes: “Burn in hell!”

*******

So that is it. I will never ever return to Biñán, for it will only break my heart to see the población without its crown jewel, the Alberto Mansion (its absence in the población even gave me nightmares, seriously). Its polluted river, its helter-skelter streets, the rogue people on its grimy and littered streets, the worsening condition of its many Antillean houses, the disagreeable façade of the Nuestra Señora de la Paz y Buenviaje, and the sickening fate of Justiniano Cruz’s nipa hut school are the reasons why I do not want to go back. Not even puto biñán will make me go back there. I can buy some here in San Pedro.

But Biñán is still in the heart. Will always remain.

I am referring to old Biñán, still pure, still virginal, without any vestige of the American Dream. What we have now is a horrible shell of its former self.

Old Biñán will forever be etched in my heart. And that is the town that I will revisit…

¡Paalam, Casa Alberto! Hindí ca namin malílimutan. Nawá'y mahabág ang casaysayan sa mga waláng pusong lumapastañgan sa'yó...

The Alberto Mansion debacle

Posted on

Architecture is another form of language. -Guillermo Gómez Rivera-

The 400-year-old (some say 200) mansion of the Alberto Alonso clan (photo courtesy of JC Bernardo).

Last Monday, young hispanista JC Bernardo, a Biñense born and bred, alerted me about the start of the anticipated demolition of the fabled Casa de Alberto, the home where José Rizal’s mother, Doña Teodora Morales (Alberto) Alonso Realonda y Quintos, grew up. Upon getting JC’s message, I immediately felt sick in the stomach.

The first time I saw this house was in 5 September 2004, when I transferred my family to nearby San Pedro (Tunasán). It was a Sunday. My wife, hearing our San Pedrense neighbors about the bargain prices which Biñán’s famous public market offers to its buyers, had wanted to pay the town a visit. So after mass at the mysterious Santo Sepulcro, off we went to the town of puto biñán.

I had a different agenda, of course.

I had always wanted to visit places I’ve never been to before, especially those which have historical worth. It was a virtual thrill for an Antillean-house connoisseur like me. As the jeepney we were riding was passing through the town’s arterial road, I saw from afar the glaring and imposing red-tiled rooftop of the said mansion. Although I still didn’t know it back then, something within me told myself that it was the ancestral house of Rizal’s maternal relatives. And I was right off the bat when, after inquiring from some market vendors about the owners of the fantasy mansion, they confirmed my hunch. “It’s owned by the Albertos,” they said. “But they are already selling the house.”

Little did I know that this “sale” meant its impending doom six years later.

We weren’t able to get inside the house because the owner wasn’t there. But my family (Yeyette and I still had two kids back then) was able to get inside the poorly concretized patio* where the zaguán** was. My wife was thrilled to have touched the centuries-old adobe walls of the house. Too bad we didn’t have a camera back then.

The unbelievable thrill of having been to that “unrecognized” historic house (unrecognized, because the authorities concerned didn’t even bother to put up a historical marker) prompted me to write an email message to my contertulios in Círculo Hispano-Filipino:

Mon, September 6, 2004 11:57:35 PM

¡Un buen día a todos!

Ayer, después de la misa de mañana en la iglesia milagrosa de Santo Sepulcro (San Pedro, Laguna), traje mi familia (mi esposa Yeyette y nuestros niños Krystal y Momay) a Biñán que está al lado de San Pedro. Mi esposa quiso visitar el mercado de Biñán que es famoso del precio bajo de sus materias y comidas (carne, verduras, etc.). Biñán es también famoso de su “Puto Biñán,” aparte del hecho que José Rizal estudió allí durante su juventud.

Al llegar de Biñán, estuve decepcionado cuando averigüé que el lugar ha perdido su toque rural. La plaza delante de la iglesia de San Isidro Labrador (¿era la misma iglesia dónde Rizal solía ir durante su breve permanencia allí en el dicho lugar?) y el ayuntamiento fue atestada por vendedores y tiendecitas. El lugar era tan lleno de tráfico humano y vehicular, sin contar la contaminación del aire producida por triciclos ruidosos y numerosos.

El lugar me recuerda de Divisoria en Manila (pero oí que el Alcalde Joselito Atienza ha hecho maravillas para aquel lugar).

El único contraste absoluto sobre todo los horrores urbanos fue esta vieja casa grande con un techo de azulejos rojos delante del ayuntamiento.

Es tan enorme, tan antillano. Inmediatamente asumí que podría estar donde Rizal había vivido cuando él se quedó en Biñán. Pero no confiando en mi presentimiento, pedí a mi esposa a preguntar el dueño de la casa; ella lo hizo después de comprar nuestros comestibles y el “Puto Biñán.”

Lamentablemente, la casa no era más en buenas condiciones. La parte inferior de la casa ha sido convertida en varias tiendas, rodeado por vendedores. La parte superior me parece abandonada.

Mi esposa, que es la persona más amistosa entre dos de nosotros, se enteró de la gente cerca de la casa grande que fue poseída por el clan Alberto.

El nombre Alberto de repente “me suena de nombre” dentro de mi cabeza—¡recuerdo que el abuelo maternal de Rizal es un Alberto! Dije este hecho a Yeyette, que inmediatamente fue excitada (últimamente, ella se ha hecho interesada en la historia filipina, también). Ella dijo que quizás podríamos entrar. Estuve sorprendido. Pareció imposible; la casa grande me pareció abandonada, y no hay nadie a que podríamos dirigirnos para entrar, o confirmar si este fuera en efecto la casa grande de un pariente de Rizal.

Pero la confianza en la ingeniosidad de mi esposa (su lema es “what Jenny wants, Jenny gets—lo que Jenny quiere, Jenny se pone”), ¡éramos capaces de descubrir más!

Ella era capaz de localizar donde podríamos entrar, y hasta éramos capaces de dirigirnos al conserje de la casa. El anciano, que puede hablar un poco español, confirmó que sí, esta era la misma casa donde Rizal se había quedado cuando él estudió en Biñán bajo el Maestro Justiniano Cruz. Lamentablemente, él tenía órdenes del dueño de no permitir a turistas durante fines de semana, pero él nos invitó a volver en cualquier momento durante días de semana (esta información particular me dejó perplejo). Pero él nos permitió a visitar los alrededores el patio. Mi esposa, que llevaba Mómay, entrevistó el conserje. Tomé Krystal conmigo para vagar en el patio. El lugar entero es desvencijado. Alcé la mirada a las paredes inlavadas de la casa grande, y la luz deslumbrante triste de las ventanas me contempló. El zaguán está lleno de chatarra. Casi trajo lágrimas a mis ojos; una casa tan hermosa y muy filipina no debería haber sido ignorado como así. Solamente toqué sus paredes para tener una “sensación” de historia. Sin embargo, me alegré que mi hija todavía tenga una experiencia de primera mano de ver una herencia cultural, una herencia que se está desvaneciendo rápidamente…

Cuándo volvimos a la entrada de la casa grande, ¡me dijeron que la casa grande ha estado de pie allí durante más de cien años ya! Éramos capaces de echar una ojeada en una de sus ventanas principales, y vimos una escalera enorme que conduce hacia el caída. Encima es un espejo antiguo y probablemente algún mobiliarios antiguos.

Sí, efectivamente: ¡volveremos allí! Y el conserje nos dijo que él se alegraría de recorrernos dentro de la casa grande y nos indicará el dormitorio donde Rizal se había quedado.

Pero comencé a preguntarme: ¿por qué no está allí ningún fechador histórico (historical marker) atado a aquella casa grande si esto es realmente la casa dónde Rizal se había quedado? Enfrente de esa casa es una plaza donde un monumento en honor de Rizal está erigido. Seguramente, nuestros historiadores no habrían olvidado esta enorme casa que es tan llena de la historia.

En realidad no estoy familiar a Biñan y yo no estoy seguro y consciente si la escuela donde Rizal había estudiado ha sido conservada, ni sé donde está localizada.

Además, era el mediodía pasado, y era el tiempo para volvemos a casa. Estuve a punto de ir a la casa del Señor Gómez. ¿Sin embargo, a mi sorpresa, mi esposa insistió que localicemos la escuela (donde Rizal estudió)… estábamos ya en Biñán, y esto sería un buen viaje educativo para Krystal entonces, ¿cómo no?

José Mario Alas

Fast forward to today. After that first visit, I went back to that house several times. Arnaldo and I first visited the house together two years ago:

Inside the once glorious house where Rizal's mom grew up (03/28/2008).

We returned there late last year and eventually met the current owner, Gerardo “Gerry” Alberto, a distant relative of Rizal:

From left to right: Gerry Alberto, Arnaldo, and precious me. Gerry (also a native Spanish-speaker) is the son of the late Don Zoilo Alberto, the grandson of José Alberto, the brother of Rizal's mom (11/09/2009).

I even toured my family there early this year, during my son Jefe’s third birthday:

Jefe's third birthday (01/13/2010).

With the continuing existence of the Alberto Mansion at the heart of Biñán town, its cultural –as well as its people’s local– identity remains intact and secure. The Alberto Mansion is a classic example of an Antillean house, a bahay na bató. The bahay na bató is what gives Spanish Philippines its own individuality, thus differentiating her from her Latino sisters such as México, Puerto Rico, Cuba, etc. The bahay na bató, which is diminishing at a very alarming rate annually, gives us a sense of belongingness to our country no matter which part of the archipelago we go. Even if, for example, a Bicolano is stranded in Cebuano frontier, for as long as he sees a bahay na bató in another “tribal” turf, he is still at home. A Tagalog will still call Mindanáo as his domain inasmuch as these Antillean houses reign supreme in that island forever blessed by La Virgen del Pilar. I even dare say that Ilocanos can lay claim to “ancestral domain” to Sámar or Cebú or Batangas because their Vigan houses have countless relatives in those faraway areas. As the great nationalist and filipinista Guillermo Gómez Rivera put it, “architecture is another form of language”.

Aside from the Spanish language, the bahay na bató is what fuses the Filipino Identity. Furthermore, the bahay na bató physically gives form to a town’s Filipinoness. No amount of intricately designed Manny Villar or Henry Sy mansions can ever Filipinize their private subdivisions and villages as long as there are no Antillean houses within their suburbs.

In other countries, establishments of historical value –no matter how old they are– are almost regarded as sacred temples. But in this side of the world, we desecrate historical sites, whether they are houses or, worse, churches. The Alberto Mansion is no ordinary home — it is the house where the mother of our national hero lived!

In my helpless rage, I am tempted to declare that this country, particularly Biñán, is filled with mindless and heartless government officials. But as I write this, I discovered this on the net just a few moments ago…

Laguna town prevents demolition of Rizal mom’s home

The city government of Biñán in Laguna on Wednesday stopped the demolition of the 200-year-old ancestral home of the family of Teodora Alonso, mother of national hero Jose Rizal, and announced plans to acquire the property so as not to lose the city’s cultural heritage to a resort in Bataán.

The two-story house, with a floor-area of about 600 square meters, was built in the 1800s in the heart of the city opposite what is now the Biñán city hall.

The house, locally known as the Alberto Mansion, was owned by the family of José Alberto Alonso, the father of Teodora.

According to the local group United Artists for Cultural Conservation and Development, the current property owner Gerardo Alberto, had closed a deal to sell off the house to Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar, a heritage resort, in Bagac, Bataán.

It said about 20 percent of the house’s interior was already “demolished” as of this week.

“All the antique furniture were already taken out. The ceiling was also already taken off,” said Rosauro Sta. María, the group’s president and executive director, whose honorary chairman is also Biñán Mayor Marlyn Alonte-Naguíat.

Sta. María said the demolition was being carried out despite the non-issuance of a demolition permit by the city government to the property owner.

“We fully understand the plight of the Albertos—how costly it is to maintain such an old house and maybe that was why they were forced to sell it,” said Sta. María.

But Sta. María appealed to the Albertos not to take the valuable piece of heritage out of Biñán as losing it means losing the identity of the city.

“Understanding the present, means knowing the glorious past,” he said, adding that little is known about Biñán being a part of the history.

He said both Rizal’s parents, Franciso Mercado and Teodora, were natives of Biñán. The hero himself spent years in Biñán while he was in grade school.

“I asked our city engineering office to order a halt to the demolition. We have not issued them a permit for the demolition,” said Vice Mayor Arman Dimaguila in a phone interview.

He said the city council in a hearing on Thursday will discuss the mechanics of acquiring the house, which the city government could renovate to house a proposed Binan cultural affairs office.

The house was priced between P500,000 and P1 million.

“Our call is for the Albertos to heed the proposal of the city government of Biñan. If that won’t do, we are appealing to Jerry Acuzar, owner of the heritage resort, to instead donate the house to Biñán City and we will forever be indebted to him,” Sta María said.

Bryan Jason Borja, artistic director of the United Artists for Cultural Conservation and Development, said they were organizing a cultural protest and were inviting artists and cultural workers to join their campaign against the demolition of the heritage home.

During one of my final visits to that place, Arnaldo and I were questioning Gerry Alberto’s decision to sell his forefather’s house, arguably one of the most historical sites in the country. But he told us that he’s financially helpless to support a house that someday might topple down on its own due to wear and tear. I asked him straightforward if he still wanted to save his house. He didn’t say “yes”. Rather, he said that he receives no compensation from the government.

“The government has no money!” he complained to us.

In the middle of our conversation, he suddenly handed me a printed document. It was an email conversation between a female relative of his and a noted historian. They were discussing the imminent sale of the house to Jerry Acuzar, back then a strange name to me. They were planning to have the whole Alberto Mansion dismantled and then reconstructed in his Bagac, Bataán resort. The place is called Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar. It is a seaside resort where many prominent Antillean houses (including the Maxino house of Unisan, Quezon, my dad’s hometown) found all over the country are relocated.

Ivan Henares of the Heritage Conservation Society has been a staunch critic of Acuzar’s resort. In his popular travel blog, Ivan About Town, he wrote:

The main issue here is not simply the transfer but the fact that Acuzar is actively shopping for old houses, trying to woo the owners into selling their properties to him! How ironic that he mentions Scandanavia where “culture is preserved in structures.” If he was indeed to follow the example he cited, structures should remain where they are, preserved together with the environment they were built in!

This is a strong accusation. Arnaldo is actually a supporter of Acuzar’s project and had wanted to defend the controversial architect-cum-resort magnate from Ivan’s attacks. Arnaldo has good enough reason to do so. Indeed, why let old houses topple down and rot by themselves if their owners have already lost the heart (and the financial means) to maintain them? But in view of the abovementioned news article, it appears that the demolition of the Alberto Mansion was done rather deceitfully. Biñán native JC Bernardo confirmed this treachery just a few minutes ago (see screenshot below).

JC recounted that the demolition was done in the dark. The demolition started from within the house so as to avoid immediate public scrutiny! And before the local government was able to do some defensive action, the damage was already done: about 20% of the house was already desecrated!

These developments put Mr. Acuzar’s motives in question. Is his Bagac resort a haven for troubled ancestral houses? Or is Mr. Henares’ accusations true, that Acuzar is actually “shopping” for such houses, i.e., bribing beleaguered owners such as Gerry Alberto, into selling their homes that their ancestors had built and tried to preserve for future generations?

Too bad that document which Gerry gave me is still missing. It will prove to be a crucial piece to this criminal puzzle of destroying our nation’s historic jewels.

In the meantime, while there is still a standoff, I am calling all Biñenses and those Filipinos who still value our country’s patrimony to fight for Biñán’s identity!

*patios — are enclosed al fresco courtyards.
**zaguán — is where carromatas (horse-drawn carriages, the “private cars” during olden days) and floats of family icons (santos) are kept. It is made of stone. It is the equivalent of today’s garages.

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