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The Alberto Mansion debacle

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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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