Like a heap of sand


Built or erected in marble or stone, though some cast in metal, as landmarks in a country’s history or reminders of heroic deeds, monuments are so aimed at permanence or impregnability that for it to crumble one day hardly sound possible.

From what I learned from a restoration architect, my late husband Felix N. Imperial II, who studied the art at Escuela Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid, and came home with quixotic dreams to apply what he had learned in Intramuros, keeping monuments intact requires more than stone masons, brick layers and other such hands (because it is as much a handiwork as building them), it asks of governments a political will—monuments belong to a nation, after all.

Indeed, a great number of such buildings or structures have defied decay from both centuries of natural and manmade disasters like tropical weather and wars such as San Agustin Church but especially elsewhere, those well-kept palaces and temples we often dream of walking into, if only to experience a moment of greatness or a glorious past that for many of us exists only in ether. Virtually a young city of 140 years, I see no such buildings here in Vancouver the likes of Philippine colonial structures most of them sadly left for time to eat away.

But why must a country like the Philippines struggling to stave poverty feed its past of non-living things? Answers to this all too common question with what seems obvious can drag into either despair or acrimony those who belong to the many sides of upholding or not patrimony. Such complex imbalance of forces to Felix had first, scaled down then later, hazed his dream: Intramuros would have given the Philippines a niche with the only medieval walled city in Asia among nations who showcase an inimitable past.

Except for the four gates, major parts of the walls, and the esplanade at Parian, a few of which he restored from the ground like Puerta Santa Lucia, most of his dream—if but one of the palaces, the Ayuntamiento, would have risen again—like moth wings slowly powdered and blown away. He died though, realizing how tiny a vessel man’s body to bear his dreams.

I think Felix was luckier in that he found closure and acceptance, in contrast to my paternal great grandfather who had built not a national monument but a personal one, which I suppose most families would recognize, “for his heirs”. Of these, there are several in Vancouver, most of them exquisitely cared for as living museums—one of them, the Colbourne House still breathing right across our gate.

My great grandfather’s house was of brick and mortar townsfolk of Bacarra called, kabite; its frame had been all I grew up with, a hulking shadow right across from our then fragile wood and bamboo house; apparently its interior was burnt. While almost a myth to Santiago, a nephew my age, and me, as adults we dwelt on snippets of what sounded like tall tales about it. Such as: a short bridge spanning a narrow moat, circling the house, washing the base of a fat rectangle of what we heard were stables, and dark wooden doors and windows that would open at midmorning to the camino real.

As Santiago and I sometimes sat on ruined steps of what we thought must be a grand staircase, we imagined a giant chandelier flooding a hall. Long dining tables like those stacked up under the creaky house we lived in must have been set on those monogrammed linens I once found in my grandmother’s trunk. Guests must have taken their liqueur from those Depression shot glasses, which we thought were toys in the buffet shelf of Santiago’s mom.

He and I hardly met during our university years in Manila. Not even when a court case stirred enmity in our families in a fight over yet another property, the land where our house stood—we had since lost the one where the kabite stood through another heir. Two decades later, poring over a heritage book about our town, we closed the pages miffed at nary a word about it.

During a rare visit to town after yet another decade, I missed seeing the landmark. As I later retraced my way with an aunt, I learned why: it was gone. Where it had loomed solid as a small mountain, there sprawled a thick growth of poison berries and cactuses.  “Why, didn’t you know,” my aunt had said. “It crumbled like a heap of sand in the last earthquake.”

I would have to tell Santiago about it, I had vowed. But I decided to keep to myself a realization that no matter how massive some structures are like what my great grandfather built to defy impermanence, these could vanish. On the other hand, Felix’s view of Intramuros may yet be fulfilled: “it had lived through three centuries without me it would stay for others to dream of more.”

In photo: Puerta Santa Lucia facing the bay was totally ruined in WWII when a tank rammed into it; it was restored from the ground up by restoration architect Felix N. Imperial II, using traditional techniques of merely fitting the stones and without any reinforcing bars. He restored all four gates of the Walls.

Peregrine Notes, August 26, 2012, Business Mirror Philippines Opinion Page

‘City of my affections’






A city is

not a

landscape I now realize; it is a heart’s structure recalled blindly within its chambers. But it has taken time for me to sense that I prowl Vancouver’s streets in search of Manila, ‘city of my affections’, an endearment borrowed from my idol, Nick Joaquin.

Disbelief over this thought would strike anyone who has lived in it. Indeed, what do I miss in Manila? How could I not remember chaos in its streets, the high decibels of groaning engines, grating brakes of buses and jeepneys, music from stores and snack nooks vying for ears from across each other in streets? What about the grime, the rawness that has become its nature? Could these be what have heightened my senses?

In contrast, Vancouver is calm, rarely frazzled. Even during rush hours, only staccato steps, light laughter and snatches of conversation counter the deep breathing of pneumatic brakes plying their routes on main streets—no honking except when extreme danger of an accident pops up; only an ambulance and fire truck tandem is allowed to rent the air.

Buskers, as street performers with permits are called here, sometimes crochet music in the breeze. I once stood with a small crowd, letting pass a few buses I had walked on a stop to board, for a concert violinist stage an engaging performance of a few Beethoven concertos. With all my senses Manila has sharpened, none such moment passes without me plunging in it.

And because buses run on electric and no diesel in gas pumps, skies always tend to be iridescent except on foggy days in the fall and hazy ones in the spring, and especially when frozen in the winter. Perhaps it is under such clarity that has made Vancouverites commit to a clean city. I can’t say how it is achieved because I hardly catch cleaning dirt monsters with circular brushes in between wheels creeping through streets as in those mornings I did in Manhattan, and from a deep mist, Imelda’s orange clad sweeping brigade.

Once in a while when on my way to a meeting, I’d have to skirt around from getting sprayed by a power hose, dislodging dirt on the just-poured-with-disinfectant sidewalk. I had met waste pickers, too, donned in neon-striped, yes, orange vests, combing the streets and picking up bits sweepers missed. Discreet CCTV cameras notwithstanding, I’ve learned as a Vancouverite to keep my garbage or toss it away where I must.

And yet when drawn within to write, what creeps in are more of what I don’t see like Manila’s mangy dogs prowling and sniffing at the air like ghosts under a day moon or starved cats meowing their hunger at shadows. But more heart rending, who wouldn’t agree, are children on Roxas Blvd. who dart by your car window, a sniffling runny-nosed baby strapped to their fragile bodies, joints protruding, right hand up with eyes begging for sympathy or alms—and you later find out, the baby is no kin and whatever is given goes to whoever hired them.

Vancouver, too, has a few dark spots like a stretch of Hastings St. by Chinatown. Once in a while, I’d stumble on a homeless man in a corner. A couple of them have taken a permanent post by the granite steps of the cathedral. I had talked to youngish woman I caught sniffling as she counted the coins thrown into a hanky she knotted in the corners as in a box, learning of an abusive husband she just left but tearing her heart out was a daughter too, she hoped to go back for once she recovered from the horror of that day. Didn’t I listen to a similar story of a woman who cradled the asthmatic child she fanned as it labored to breath through an uneasy slumber by the entrance of Harrison Plaza? Could poverty of hearts possibly incarnated into ghosts possibly haunting me, I had wondered then.

Ahhh..but there’s Manila Bay that overpowers with its irony of vastness, fullness even grandeur at its incomparable blaze at sunset. And for true-blue Manilenos, the romance of pocket corners in stonewalls and intimate streets scented by champaca, veiled in shivering shadows of ilang-ilang trees like those in Malate. I merely close my eyes to find my late husband sketching on his favorite dappled stone bench at Paco Cemetery, as he waited for me to finish up at the then Inquirer offices.

Like carrying a hidden side of the day moon, I stroll on Vancouver’s West End relishing shades of giant chestnut leaves, often pausing in a pergola by a formal English garden once a private estate, then promptly getting on to the end of the street on English Bay. Most times silky smooth unlike swollen Manila Bay, this bay unfurls at the feet as if cajoling in tiny wave rolls. Even its late summer sunsets are sweet peach orange, bouncing against slopes of mountains framing it as if it were a stage for dreams. Now, do I sound like I’m switching my affections? I think I’m two-timing! 

Published at Business Mirror Philippines in my weekly column,

“Peregrine Notes”, August 5, 2012

911 Revisited (repost from a 2010 post)

It’s still for me a searing memory…that morning 10 years ago

a dragonfly/zips into a tower–/what I remember

Visit to a Hallowed Ground

I looked on a shallow dish of dirt, raked and dug out, and still seething. From where I stood at the portico of St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street from across what used to be the World Trade Center, I gazed and gaped incredulous. How could it seem so small, so nothing now?

That now hallowed ground I had once walked on, eyes up where the twin towers held up the sky, was raw like a vulture’s leftover meal — the vulture that had zipped into it from the same sky.

The smell of burning still tarnished the air: it was sharp and pungent. Thin spirals of smoke still seeped off the ground where the dying has not ended. There was a stench in the downtown train I thought must be someone’s mess or as the friend I was with said, could be the cleaning agent used. And then, I realized it was the stench of decaying flesh.

For the first time on this visit to New York, three months after the disaster that the world now calls by its date, September Eleven, I finally lived the nightmare.

I could not recognize turns on the streets I learned by heart a whole summer I lived in New York. I had to let go, and be led on by the steady stream of people, moving about in a daze like me. We have walked into a city that was pummeled, ripped, and blown in parts; it felt strange.

The buildings around the World Trade Center, once glinting towers now scarred and wearing ashes have turned old and looked haunted. Delis and coffee shops serving breakfast at 8:45 that morning have grown frost where they had stood still.  (In which of them had I once shared with a friend the tastiest sticky bun ever one morning we walked this far?) But I had yet to find the remains of that day.

We had stopped at every cross street that opened to Ground Zero, and hung our heads. We had stalled, holding back tears, where instant graves had blossomed on wrought iron fences or granite walls. The graves drew out the grief, and tears gave names to what were earlier anonymous faces: A wife to one of those still missing stumbled into a huddle, and crumbled to the ground, touching a framed picture adorned with ribbons now frayed and fading. She had visited this grave each day since. A brother to one still lost crept from behind us quietly planting another candle where what he lit last night was dying. He had no way of telling if his brother was among the dead; he was still missing like many who walked into that ordinary summer day but whose bodies have not been found.

A wind ruffled the pages of a letter a grandmother had pinned on a young woman’s framed portrait, detailing how her oh so innocent two-year old son regaled the family with stories of a visit to the zoo in last weekend’s tearful dinner. A scrap of lined paper, bold scripts now blotted, was a young boy’s inspired poem on the heroic death of those he didn’t personally know. The ‘graves’ were now a mosaic of grief; none of us who strayed into them could stay around for long.

Memories of the nightmare played on. On these same streets, thousands of wounded had limped, transformed by terror and grief. Some had lost their hair in the fire, others, half their faces. The sirens had screamed, flying through the night and days from then on. New York congealed into a mass of the helpless hurt, the faceless who came to help, and the cops and firemen who gave their lives to others whose names they had no chance to ask. Blood flowed from cut limbs, and also from veins held up for the taking. This city of spunk and internal faces broke into a weeping, sobbing, moaning humanity. We, who lived through the nightmare whole days on end on television, could only imagine half the reality then.

From St. Peter’s portico, we glued our eyes on those giant combs of steel, the cranes that moved clumsy marionette arms; the diggers had not stopped sifting for remains. They had gone deep underground, out of our sight. After this visit, when they hit what used to be the Cortland subway stop, five more bodies turned up. But where we huddled, necks craned to Ground Zero on this visit, there was nothing else we could see out there. What I kept staring at instead, and like perhaps those strangers around me did, were spots on the ground that held memories, my own.

At the atrium that winter--its last

At the atrium that winter--its last

Through the haze of the silent grieving I shared with strangers around me, I combed for my own souvenirs from the ruins. I glimpsed my first in the steel skeletons of what was once the atrium, the Winter Garden. When it glinted under the autumn sun, I felt a leap in my breast.

One whole summer on one of my New York visits, that garden with its palm trees and benches was a “beach” where friends and I picnicked on tiny packed lunches. We had seen a couple of bridal entourage from Chinatown sashay from the marble steps, the bride’s gauzy veil and train twirled and knotted up in her arm, to pose for pictures. We had watched babies put to sleep on the benches, and toddlers let go of their carriage to crawl on the steps. We had sat beside someone who came to work on stuff he pulled out of a sagged backpack. We had walked here like most, to read the Sunday New York Times, and that ought to be the whole day.

I sought for the South Tower in what was now a hollow span in the sky, and, with scrunched eyes, retraced my steps that last time I rode the escalators up the lobby of the third floor, or was it the fourth?  It was on my birthday the year before. A friend and I had huffed first to St. Peter’s for the noontime holy mass, crashing into a side door, right off the subway stop, to the lower church. (When I walked up the portico on this visit, I could not recognize the church, except for the name; I did not know it was the oldest Roman Catholic Church in New York or imagined it had a portico.)

In the haze, only one of the two towers--to last forever

In the haze, only one of the two towers--to last forever

That day was planned like this: from church, we would cross the street and skirt around Borders bookstore, cross the fountain between the towers, and slip through one of the South Tower’s revolving doors to get tickets to a Broadway show; it was a birthday gift. I picked “Kiss me Kate” from the line-up of shows up for discount in the Tickits booth on that lobby. The line had snaked when we got there.

In the crawl, I feasted on the view from the glass windows that opened to the sky. (Was it from here I first saw the gothic spires of Trinity church rising delicate like a filigreed cone against the angular buildings around it?) Another line on the other side of the lobby had stretched its tail; the line was for those who wanted to fly up the elevators to view New York from the ‘top of the world.” I had vowed to do that some other time. But I was sick the rest of that summer and did not go back.

I flew back to New York two days before September Eleven, but I was driven away by friends to Baltimore soon after I wheeled out my suitcase from JFK International airport. We took the Verrazzano Narrows off the southern edge of Manhattan. The sky was its usual glorious New York glow, something really other worldly on summer nights: the skyline seemed cutout against that sky, and the windows of skyscrapers as always, backlit.

I traced with my eyes the rhythm of the tower tips on the sky, and had decided how flawlessly it flowed: the Citicorp and IBM huddle way down west, the Empire State, Chrysler, New York Met Life midtown, and the black towers of the World Trade Center on the southeastern end. Curving into Verrazzano, I felt the towers had seemed within my arms’ reach. My friends told me – a bit prophetically it later turned out – “Look at the towers for the last time, at least for now,” and I did.

Two days later, over a bowl of breakfast cereal, I watched the North Tower spewing fire, oozing black smoke, as an airplane the size of a dragonfly on my host’s small television screen kept on its steady flight path into the South Tower. Before my eyes, the tower burst into flames, tiny figures flying off; and then, it imploded, falling on itself in giant billows of smoke and ash. For weeks like many unknown to those who died, I watched and grieved for a weeping New York on television. Up until this visit, I was caught up in the endless weeping with America.

When that president of Cantor Fitzgerald sobbed before the camera for the one thousand employees he lost that morning, I wept. When the Beamer widow spoke of her husband on camera and never once quivered or winced in pain, I also wept. Even the sight of the American flag hoisted on every home front made me cry. Imagine how “America the Beautiful” sung in almost every show drew out the tears too, or how the “Star Spangled Banner” that wrung the hearts of thousands in baseball fields – and who would let out one huge sigh when an eagle was let to soar on that last line — when the World Series had resumed and the Yankees played, touched me. I was so drawn in the humanity of tears that I forgot why I too, was crying.

Three months later, on this visit, the open grieving seemed done. On the streets, beyond Ground Zero, I scoured for a reason for my tears. There was little I could pick up. I realized then that my sorrow was only for the death of my paltry memories. How could I have known that in those gleaming towers that I thought of merely as landmarks for two summers, thousands of real human beings made their living?

How could I have known that in this city where people looked inside and hardly ever showed a hint of feeling, thousands were husbands, wives, and kin who were loved deeply? How could I have imagined how coming face-to-face with senseless destruction of that magnitude felt?  How could a summer visitor know?

between the moon

and the gaping sky, still

my fractured heart

(this and the introductory haiku also posted at NaHaiWriMo facebook page under the prompt ‘nine-eleven’)

Copyright © 2001 by Alegria Imperial

If unstopped SM to sit beside the San Nicolas Church,IN soon

San Nicolas Catholic Church


We, the undersigned Catholics of the Parish of San Nicolas de Tolentino and other concerned Catholics respectfully bring to Your Excellency our serious concern about the seemingly imminent lease or probably sale of a southern portion of the lot on which the Catholic Church stands. We only came to know this from some concerned Catholics of the town. Although we do not have a direct knowledge about this rumor, we are convinced it is true.

Visualizing what may happen next, this is the scenario we believe will transpire: that the southeastern portion of the Catholic lot immediately adjacent to the Catholic Church will be leased or maybe sold to SM, a giant commercial corporation that operates malls in different parts of the Philippines. How big the land to be leased is only a matter of our imagination but it could be the site of the convent and probably to include the eastern side of the original building of Santa Rosa Academy.

The size of the land rented or leased whether small or big is not important to us. What concerns us is the desecration of a sacred ground and the invasion of the privacy of our Catholic Church and Sta. Rosa Academy considering the fact that the commercial building will be built just beside the Catholic Church on its southern side and adjacent to the old building of Sta. Rosa Academy on its eastern side.

Please note Your Excellency, that the said place to be leased constitutes the most prominent portion of the lot of the Catholic Church. It is, to us, of sacred significance. The prominent location of the place is the reason why Father Fidel Albano, a parish priest of San Nicolas, selected the place as the site of the present convent. That was in the twilight of the 19th century. The construction of the present convento was necessary after Father Fidel Albano handed the old convento (now the main building of Sta. Rosa Academy) to the religious sisters who were asked to administer the school.

The present convento was constructed by the Catholics of San Nicolas under the leadership of the parish priest, Father Fidel Albano. We object to its being torn down and relocated.

True, renting the site of the convento and some buildings of sta. Rosa Academy on its eastern side will generate millions of pesos in revenue. But for what purpose? And at what expense? Will the end justify the means? Does the Catholic Church of San Nicolas, which comprise the Catholics of the town, need that money badly? Is the revenue of the church as of now failing so badly? On the contrary, the revenue of the church is sound. It is good!

It is worthy to note that while a house of worship and a school should be insulated from the material world, at San Nicolas a design is in the making to define the sacredness of the church by building, a mall just beside it and pollute its spiritual atmosphere with materialism. The presence of the mall just beside Sta. Rosa Academy will destroy its academic dignity. This will scandalize us, the Catholic faithful.

Relative to the operation of a mall, just beside the church, we are reminded of the scene when Jesus witnessed repulsive materialism that corrupted a church of god (temple). He saw people making money right in the temple of God, and in anger, He protested and cried aloud, “Take those things (referring to the objects sold in the temple) and do not make the house of my Father a house of business.” (John 2:16). Is not placing a mall for the sake of money, just beside the church a desecration of the church of God?

At Laoag City business establishments are indeed located around the Cathedral and this situation maybe used as justification for the building and operation of the mall beside the church of San Nicolas. However, the situation at the Cathedral of Laoag and the Church of San Nicolas are two very different things. The business establishments such as Chowking, Jollibee, McDonald’s etc operating on land owned by the Cathedral are at a decent distance from the church. At San Nicolas, SM will be sitting just beside the Catholic Church. The very thought of it is not only shocking but obnoxious and repulsive to the decency of the concerned Catholics of San Nicolas.

The undersigned would have no opposition to a mall built on the church property on the vacant lot north of the church as long as it is built at least at a decent distance of about 30 meters away from the northern wall of the Catholic Church. The Catholics of San Nicolas however desire transparency and involvement in the project itself.

In case the needs of the church for repairs is made as an excuse for the lease. Throughout the centuries when the church was destroyed by typhoon, fires and earthquakes, the Catholics of the town were forthcoming in producing the funds for such repairs.

In the construction of the floor of the church and other projects, did not the Catholics of San Nicolas (with help from other people) make the projects a reality? No less than Father Danny Laeda said so during the closing ceremony at the Plaza during the feast of Christ the King on November 2010. Therefore, there is no need to lease the site of the present convent and its surroundings to SM just to produce money.

Premises considered the undersigned and all other Catholics who may not have signed this Manifesto but support its cause voice their strong objection to the lease of the lot where the present convent stands and adjoining lots. They strongly oppose the transfer of the convent to the lot north of the Church.

Truly yours in Christ:

Ma. Cielito Valdes-Lejano (Quezon City, Philippines)
Leonardo B. Lejano (Quezon City, Philippines)
Alegria Albano-Imperial (Vancouver, Canada, formerly of Bacarra, Ilocos Norte and Manila)
Elizabeth Medina (Chile)–granddaughter of the late
Gov. Emilio Ortega Medina of Dingras, Ilocos Norte

Victoria Rosario Albano (Vancouver, Canada, formerly of Bacarra, Ilocos Norte)

If you support this ‘plea’, you may want to add your name in this manifesto by leaving it as a comment and I’ll add it here.

Dios ti agngina ken sapay koma ta denggen ti Apo daytoy a dawat tayo.

Also posted at

Iliw (The Trudge: A memoir on my growing up in Bacarra)

the South China Sea in Natba beach, Bacarra, Ilocos Norte: sand dunes and silver sand, a rough roiling sea photo borrowed from Raymond Ramos

Iliw, Iluko for longing or nostalgia

Where I was born, a town the shape of a mallet in the Ilocos provinces that hug the northernmost edge of the Philippine archipelago, sky, landscape and things that breathe appeared lush, wild and poignant all at once. Wedged between a ferocious river, which ate up chunks of earth when it swelled, and a pastoral spread, which yielded rice, garlic, onions and tobacco, Bacarra—after a fish—that is its uncanny name, seemed charmed.

Or so I remember as I trace my childhood in roads laid out in a grid, marking out memories, making landmarks out of them. The horrendous WWII had just ended and the Philippines just gained independence from the US: we were dubbed ‘Liberation Babies’.

Life wove in and around our families, neighbors and schools, in rituals, routines and events set against rambling landscapes. Wildwoods fringed our playgrounds and schools. Nights and moonlights came as they should. We studied in the gas light; we played under full moons.

Such moments have not ceased to haunt me. Fifty years after my family left town, their spell still grips me especially those last years, my high school years. I had just stepped off childhood and in to transitory teenage-hood, those rainbow-bright years. My story is about those years.

The Move West

A kilometer stretch from our house to school posed quite an ordeal for me during my freshman year in Bacarra High, the public secondary school. We had just moved west to live with my maternal grandmother in a house close to the rice fields, leaving my paternal grandfather’s estate central east along the camino real within sight of the school’s eastern boundary.

That summer of 1957, life for me took on a sudden turn. After ten years of my being her only child, my mother had become pregnant; who but her own mother could best take care of her and the baby? My paternal grandmother, had so weakened with age she had to be sent off to a daughter in Manila

Emptied, our house had to be torn down; I watched it as our tenant-farmers took it apart, plank by plank and beam by beam. Mama had to send my grandfather’s tinted crystals to a cousin for safekeeping. The rag dolls I sewed button eyes on I had to box and give up for space.

Rafael Albano, my grandfather

Across our gate under the shadow of her father-in-law’s ruined stone house, my grandmother rocked softly in her wicker chair, waiting for the only bus trip to Manila. Her butterfly sleeves sagged on her white shoulders; her peppered chignon left wisps on her nape that flailed in the breeze. Uprooted from everything she had ever known, Capitana Canra looked forlorn— capitana being a sobriquet she gained, like all others did as wife of the presidente municipal, called capitan, during the Philippine Commonwealth Government of Governor General Leonard Wood’s time.

As Mama and I walked toward the sunset, I too, felt like dying especially when we reached the house of the Aligas—children of a doctor and a nurse, who met at the American-established University of the Philippines. Here, I spent most of my growing up years tussling at play and even eating meals with seven of them, swapping school anecdotes on the dining table.

At times, we went ‘back-riding’ in the doctor’s Oldsmobile when he drove to Laoag (the capital town) ten minutes away to play tennis or made house calls in the barrios. Once, we slipped through the car windows and dipped in a shallow stream, dripping from hair strands to clothes hem when Dr. Aliga rounded us back to the car. We had endless rounds on the Chickering piano or on the swing, and turns tearing off pages from their mom’s Home and Garden, Good Housekeeping and Saturday Evening Post issues. I, too, teetered as a patient in the ground floor clinic where either doctor or his wife treated my bruises, relieved me of allergies, or gave me anti-rabies shots; I was often dog-bitten, picking gardenias.

When I wasn’t with the Aligas, I would have walked to or been fetched by a maid of the Albano-Pilars; their father was town judge, their mother my elderly cousin on my father’s side. We played games of make-believe and staged our own version of Ziegfried Follies on the bed to their mother’s horror: what if we tumbled off throwing a leg, and broke a bone? Some evenings, as if we sat in a music hall, we listened to impromptu Chopin concerts by another cousin when her family came down from Baguio, the American-built summer city in the Cordilleras.

What Could Have Been

If we didn’t move west, going to school would be for me a breezy walk past homes and grounds I knew blindfolded. Right off our creaky gate, I would sashay to the corner looking across Lola Nena’s house. It sprawled amid a fruit yard of mango, star apple, and chico trees—so old they had branches splayed close to the ground; I used to haunt them like a leprechaun. A few paces on and I would be peeking into a granary curious about treasures hidden only to find sacks of un-husked rice that brooded like petulant giants.

Close to the granary would be the house of their grandfather on a lot the Aligas and their other cousins shared. Both houses opened through a driveway that the ‘sour-drop’ tree (karmay) shaded—it bore fruit we coveted like birds, tiny coronet-like clusters with yellow crunchy flesh—and tucked to a corner, a wooden swing over which we tangled for turns.

Once on the other side of the street, I would be peering at the mansanitas (golden lemon minute apples) we hardly let ripen. We would pick them, imagining callow suns in our palms; this wild tree grew sweetly close to the kitchen window of the Vers—yet another playground.

After this first block, I would stride past the Philippine Independent Church, and then come to the imposing two-story house of the chief of police, also an Albano relative. There often sat an old uncle by its wide capiz (shell of the gloria maris) windows—a retired priest who often raised a right hand to bless me. Across from it stood the Protestant Church which a weathered picket fence set off and clumps of bird-of-paradise curtained. I would take the gravel road bounding its western side, passing by a bakery, eye scrunched and nose pinched so I could resist the lure of sugar-topped, margarine-heaped ensaymada buns.

This unpaved stretch ran alongside the fenced-in wild woods at the ruined rear end of the centuries-old Catholic Church. If I could but scramble through a wire fence visible from the windows of the classroom building, I would be seated sooner in class.

Bacarra parish church, St. Andrew's today as repaired, another photo by Raymond

The Kilometer Trudge

But as it happened with our move west, I had to trudge a kilometer span of asphalt road and some gravel four times a day, including going home for lunch, then back again. First, I had to shamble through the dirt road from our house, passing by homes of Mama’s kin. This short span ended in between shades of giant breadfruit and acacia trees and the artesian well in front of the house of Lola Sepa, nurse-midwife, who seemed to cause babies to get born on her routes.

From here, the asphalted main road began: a singed black ribbon that unfurled on my steps. Soon, it would wind past the walls of Lola Loren’s house. I often paused right off its gate by a stream, which was really an irrigation canal, to breathe in some fresh wind or listen to bamboo trees hiss and groan. If she sensed me prowling, Lola Loren would bring me a glass of fresh sugar cane juice or a bowl of peeled pomelo slices.

In a few yards, I would be gaping at Lolo Pidel’s gabled attic, looming over giant fronds of China beetle nut palm trees. Once, I spotted two boys picking from a bunch of ripe nuts: I liked those sweetish nuts. Creeping by the fence, I yelled and sent them scrambling down and out through the back fence, leaving only unripe green nuts on the tree. Lolo Pidel could have been napping; he was by then, retired from teaching the long division and addition.

He had allowed the use of fingers to count to the thrill of the numbers-handicapped like me. (Lolo is from the Spanish term for grandfather, abuelo.)

The house of the mayor would be visible shortly and across from it diagonally, Silver Theater (named after the chemical symbol from his initials, AG, Antonio Guillermo)—the town’s movie house. In its fragile darkness, I watched ‘Silver’ of those early Westerns gallop as if coming off screen, trampling on me. Faces turned grotesque at times, when a wind escaped through seams on the walls and caused the screen to heave.

The main road forked a yard later and where it widened, spilled to the public market, going straight again by the town’s only tailoring shop and one of two general stores. I would be walking by now under windows that stayed wide open to the street—those of an uncle, Tata Gil’s house. (Tata, father in the Ilocano dialect, is also used for an elderly male kin. Tata Gil was another second degree cousin of my father.)

Serafin Albano, my father taken when he was in the seminary in Vigan

During most of Papa’s home visits from Manila where he worked, he would be Tata Gil’s frequent guest; sometimes we dined with his family and feasted on a special dish—sliced medium rare beef dressed with minced ginger and onions, ground pepper, and digestive juices, strained and blended with Ilocano black vinegar. About the same time, the Laxamanas from San Fernando, La Union would also be visiting—Tata Irineo was married to an aunt, a cousin of Tata Gil.

A few steps ahead to my left behind hibiscus shrubs and horseradish trees, was Tata Milio’s house, still another Albano uncle and later, my English literature teacher. On the next block would be Dr. Bonifacia Albano’s Bacarra Clinic. I used to be shuffled here quaking from high fevers for quinine shots or some other bronchial infections she had treated me that, as stories about me unraveled, began some days after my birth which she assisted.

And then, the landscape spanned out —a square composed of the plaza, public theater, municipal hall, and the Gabaldon Elementary School, which the fractured tower and baroque church clinched. The tower, once the tallest in the country, fell to its knees by degrees from earthquakes. I always shrank into a dwarf once I slipped into this broad embrace.

Bacarra tower, once the tallest in the Philippine archipelago humbled and battered by earthquakes, its head and two windows crumbled as it looks today from a photo also by Raymond Ramos

By the Tower’s Shadow

School was far from near. I had yet to go past the East Central School, the Puericulture Center and on a clearing under the tower’s shadow, the tienda where three spoonfuls of seeded-plantain or green papaya pickled in black vinegar can be had in a banana-leaf cone for a nickel. The pickles in clear glass tubs lined on a ledge so tempted me always I had to wheeze past.

I had to speed through the shade of what seemed a commonplace tree, holding hard my breath to avoid the stench of its blossoms. This bangar tree between the crumbling walls and base of the tower had a crown said to look like witches’ wings at night, when spirits it harbored were also known to transmogrify. With my back to it, I would be passing by the church gate.
Across the street, banana trees crackled in the heat, their hearts peeling prematurely. Next to them sat the only photo studio in town, which I hardly glanced at, or I would rather dash in and scan old portraits than track the rest of the distance along the vine-humped church wall that ended where the road slid into Bacarra High grounds.

Waylaid by a Prince’s Lamentation

One humid noon on my way back from lunch, I darted for some shade under the acacia tree fronting the public theater. Usually deserted at this time, a small crowd milled about while on stage, figures shuffled reciting lines; I had walked into a comedya rehearsal (a medieval mock battle wherein costumed characters said their lines in sing-song and danced their fights). I stayed through a scene where a listless prince detained in some mysterious kingdom by his rival for the hand of the princess begged his jailer for water, a ruse to escape. Naturally, I lost track of time.

When I came to my senses, I jerked and half-walked half-ran to school, sliding into a hush—class periods had long begun. Up the Home Economics building stairs, I bounded to our classroom just when Lolo Valentin, another cousin of my grandmother, was erasing a quiz in long addition on the blackboard. As I crept to my desk, invoking a veil from the clouds of chalk he had stirred, he turned to me wordless at first, and then, simply asked, easing my trembling, “Naggapgapuamon, apoc?” (Where have you been, child?)

It never got better for me in that class, even after Mama had me noon-board with the Aligas so I could get to this first period on time and more so, to absorb their diligence—all siblings finished top of the class. But nothing it seemed helped; I had to face the inevitable—a final grade of 78.

A President’s Handshake

A twin event to my sister’s birth was the visit of then President Carlos P. Garcia to our town—both happened on October 10, 1957. (He was vice president on the death of President Ramon Magsaysay in a plane crash.)

I wakened to a confused household that morning: the hens cackled so because Inay (Tagalog for mother which is what I called my maternal grandmother), who failed to feed them first was ironing my Girl Scouts uniform; routines had to stop about the time Mama started having labor pains. Inay had squatted on the floor, plunging the iron she packed with live coals on my uniform, which she laid over the lid of a wooden box layers of blankets padded. Where breakfast of rice fried in garlic oil would have been served with fried egg, she told me to eat my egg with pan de sal (salted buns). Inay reminded me to take a peek at my sister before I skipped off.

We, Girl Scouts, assembled in school at the softball field before we marched to the main road. The whole town had almost filled up both sides of the road by the time we took positions. I spotted a fringe of shade from a mango tree by Lola Nena’s gate, my old neighborhood, where I hustled my troop.

Two hours later, our necks already stiff from gazing east, we still could not make out any sign of the president. We had started soaking in our sweat and our temple flower garlands had turned limp in our hands, when the motorcade rolled in. Mr. Garcia stood on an open jeep as he floated through the throng the sun to his back—a small burnt-skinned man like an Ilocano. I supposed he had noticed my garland because he held out his hand to shake mine.

The Big Event: My Baby Sister

Mama gave birth to my sister at 3 o’clock that morning. After the euphoria of shaking the president’s hand, I should have gone to Bacarra Clinic to see them both. But I passed by it concerned about how I reeked in my uniform. Next morning afraid of being late, I walked past the clinic again merely glancing through lacy clusters of banaba flowers at the second-floor windows.

At our HE class Nana Idad, a sister of Dr. Albano and Senior Class adviser, came to see me as I gathered the apron I was sewing turned rag from a dozen re-dos in my clumsy hands. (Nana, mother in Ilocano, is also used to address elderly women kin.) She told me that my mother had been expecting me; everyone in the family—Doctora Pacing included—had thought that I felt jealous of the baby.

I proved them wrong when on the afternoon of the next day after school I asked to be excused from our cleaning group. I turned over to our leader five red candles, a gin bottle of petroleum gas, and the tin can in which we melted the candles on a stove—three stones we planted on the ground under the main building. Once liquefied and poured over with petroleum gas, the candles became our floor wax.

As I approached the clinic near the yellow bells climbing the walls across the clinic, I broke away from my friends, ran up the stairs my hands cold with anxiety and huffed toward the bed by the window. Mama was sitting up a bundle to her breast. My sister stopped sucking when I stood over her as if she knew who had come. How she met me was a sight I have not forgotten—marble eyes on a robust angel face a full head of fat curls framed.

my sister at 5 mos, her first ever picture a snap shot by an uncle who happened to drop by one morning

Her effect on me surprised my mother the most: one day I came home with a composition about it, which our English teacher gave a grade of 96.

While my piece remained posted for a week on the bulletin board, its worth lightened beside an incident that had started to preoccupy me: someone inserted a love letter signed Lonely Heart in my assignment notebook. Disturbed by its declarations, I vowed to unmask the coward who wrote it and turned into a spy, picking suspects in class everyday. And then one day, someone spotted a comics-like cover among notebooks left on the steps of the HE building. We fussed over the thin volume of love letters—five of us reading the letters we got from five cowards, or was it from the same coward? We never knew.

my sister with Mama

A Magical Moment

Then came the extremely cold year—the Siberian cold front that swept the Ilocos during our sophomore year, and which had sent us to school wrapped in knit sweaters and woolen coats, some too big for our size. It was also the year my seatmate and I witnessed with bare eyes how grass grows—a slight miracle at the softball field during the Monday flag-raising ceremony.

I had quivered in the wind, a light punishment for disobeying Mama who told me not to use the tangerine sweater that looked good on me. She had told me to wear instead the coat of brown plaids which hang a little past my wrists (a hand-me-down from a cousin in Hawaii). It didn’t help that Elena and I, being the tiniest in Section One, stood at the head of the line, facing the morning sun; the administration building would have blocked
its rays by the time we sang the National Anthem.

Everyone seemed sluggish those cold mornings, including me. Still, I kept turning my head for someone to talk to or laugh with. That week’s emcee had just called one of the guys for a declamation piece when I noticed Elena smiling—she always had a serious mien. What puzzled me more was that her eyes were transfixed on the grass.

Inching closer, I asked in a whisper, “Why the smile?”

Without turning her head, she whispered back, “Look at the grass.”

Imitating her, I suddenly saw it! A blade moved: first, a quiver, and then an abrupt flick like the kick of a newborn.

For the next two years, Elena and I those Monday mornings waited for the magical moment, half-minding the class trio’s growing repertoire of songs—a fixture in those morning’s programs—the last of which were “Volare” and “Fools Rush In”. We were seniors by then.

A Silver Medal

Before we graduated, I won reluctantly a Silver Medal in an oratorical contest. Papa had come home for a long vacation shortly after I topped the school-wide competition to represent Bacarra High in the province-wide contest. Tata Milio talked him into writing an original piece for me—something on Jose Rizal’s (our national hero) thoughts on the youth, the contest theme. He did and he also coached me on delivery: I felt like I had been dipped into a crucible. I woke up nauseous from an acidic and nervous stomach everyday.

I also had to give up my afternoon forays in the bushy northern edge of town to Lola Annit’s house—where I could pick as many purple star apple fruits as I wanted—to get home early for supper. After an hour or so, I would stand atop the stairs on our porch, a Coleman lamp flood-lighting our yard or the full moon washing my face to deliver my oration. My voice rang through a neighborhood of maternal cousins, aunts and uncles, grandaunts and granduncles who must have suffered through those evenings that lasted for three months.

Two days before the contest, I practiced before an afternoon assembly in school, receiving a cymbal-applause that only upped my nervousness. Afraid I would disappoint Papa, I threw a tantrum and threatened to quit if he did not leave for Manila the day before the contest.

Inay, who did not understand a word of English, accompanied me to the contest in Laoag because Mama could not leave my sister for the night. Toward the middle of my delivery, a commotion broke out in one corner of the Ilocos Norte High School quadrangle but I finished without a stammer. Was I ecstatic over my medal? I felt simply relieved the pressure on me had been lifted. (Emmanuel Bonoan of Ilocos Norte High won the gold.)

First and Last Dance

Within three months, we faced the final exams but we were more excited about the Seniors Prom. Two rooms of the Main Building, its walls knocked down, became our dance hall. A generator that whirred by the stairs kept the hall lit and the music going. Most of the girls either giggled or sat frozen out of nervousness. I sailed on a cloud as pink as my empress cut dress, silver dust outlining the roses. No one came for me until the third piece.

Just then, the first strings of “Fascination” floated, easing up the stifling air. I did not see him but before I knew it, he stood before me holding out a hand. His hands were clammy, and he held me rather loosely; it felt strange. I realized only then that it was the first time we touched even if we had known each other as children. That dance was to be our first and last.

Last Visits

I went home only once during my college years on my first semester’s break; I had enrolled at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila for journalism. I returned just twice years later—first in 1974, to interview homecoming Hawayanos (town mates who sailed to Hawaii in the 1900s as sugar cane gatherers and pineapple pickers) for a magazine article; and in 1982, to attend the installation of my maternal grandfather’s monument—Ceferino Acosta—for his heroic deeds during WW II.

My sister and I went back in 2002 for what perhaps could be the last time to turn over my paternal grandfather’s lot to the buyers; the family had decided to sell it.

As the new owners and I talked, I would glance at the wild growth where once was a tomato patch I used to stray into, Lola’s hoarse cries stopping me, to pick red globules off the low-lying vines. The sun that morning swept through crowns of mango trees now slouched from age and neglect; I had often watched Ka Iban, who also grew the vegetables, trim its branches before the rains. Across the street where I used to lurk waif-like, nothing but a gaping space remained of my great grandfather’s stone house, the moat surrounding it and the stables he bred horses now mere tales—Don Benito Cab-caballo who traded his horses they say from Vigan to Pangasinan.

The town I knew had so changed by then: most of our kin had died; the Aligas, the Pilars and the Albanos with their complex web of cousins had left for Manila and the Americas and Europe. My sister and I long orphaned, had since migrated to Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Summer in Mission, BC, my sister at right

Copyright © by Alegria ‘Guia’ Albano-Imperial and Kannawidan Foundation, 2007
Published as a slightly edited and expanded version in Ili a Nasudi, The Kannawidan Foundation, Inc., 2007
Published in part in Timeless Spirit Magazine

Cartography of the Heart–a letter
July 12, 2010, 4:03 pm
Filed under: essay, history, memoir | Tags: , , , , , ,

all that remains of Bacarra tower that used to 'hold up the sky'. Photo which has been passed on to me was taken by kapidua Raymond Ramos

Dear Lito,

Is the past descending on us like a sudden storm? Recollections, memoirs, archives, monuments and biographies seem to have multiplied by degrees these past years as if people were scrambling to hoard memories. Is it merely a perception or perhaps, indeed, the world is spinning too fast we’re afraid we might just lose our histories soon?

Some are lucky, like you, in that you still can tell your stories as juxtapositions of the past and the present. Or am I luckier because I’m telling my story from a vivid past discounting the changes I’ve noted in my few visits back home in Bacarra, Ilocos Norte? For instance, it was quite painful to see how that imposing fractured tower which loomed like a petrified giant all our lives has been reduced to a stump. But instead of groveling, which I first felt like doing, I wrote and I am still writing about my memories, even asking others to join in for a collective memoir.

In history, Bacarra is apparently one of the most powerful towns in Ilocos as the Spaniards found it and early on in colonial times. Neighboring towns like Vintar and Pasuquin, in fact, were part of it. (I know this for a fact, having read it in frayed documents.) Apparently, there was gold somewhere, as well, and its rivers were teeming.

I once stumbled on a picture of our tower, in a blog and it unleashed images of childhood spent under its shadow. That tower loomed overwhlemingly in our lives in both reality and legend. No Bacarreno is without a treasure box.

This is my favorite: Legend has it that its people reflected their pride in their town by constructing a tower so high it ‘could hold up the heavens’. It is said that a Spanish soldier on horseback, holding a pennant up could ascend the steps in the tower and wave the pennant from the second window. And when the bells were rung, it could be heard as far the edges of Pasuquin and Vintar. That the first earthquake sometime in the 1930s happened on the feast of St. Joseph, the humble patron of all churches, could have been a bold and loud message.

I grew up toward the end of the first half of this century, going on to adulthood when the world began to slowly change. In my childhood, Bacarra was still an idyll—wildwoods still fringed a lot of places, darkness and moonlight still came as they should, not half-lit or half-black. We studied in the gas light, we played under full moons.

My walk to school had since turned into something like a, ‘cartography of the heart’. I had not realized since I began charting my past how each detail, each small turn on the road, each tree and vine that climbed walls, events that were routines, that first love letter and first dance were so vivid it felt like looking at myself in a snow globe.

In your recollection, I feel like I’ve known you though we may never meet: you could very well be one of my playmates who watched out for summer bees—those abal-abal and aruaros whose wings we used to tie with a thin thread like a leash and let fly, listening to the roar of their wings, cruelly without knowing it, tracing how they circle around searching for their freedom.

Childhood, the past—aren’t we rich with a clear globe of innocence and glee? If there was some still-unfound-wind to wash out some of the gray sometimes black cloud hanging over our much-too-troubled days, your recollections and mine as well as a growing mass of others might yet be the magic wind.

All the best,

also posted in

The Philippines: Its Hard-fought for Independence

If it were not reverted to June 12 in 1962 by the late President Diosdado P. Maca­pagal with the passage of Republic Act 4166 by Congress, Filipinos to this day would still be celebrating Independence Day on July 4, twelve hours before Americans wake up to it.

The Philippines gained independence from the United States on July 4, 1946 as promised on Aug. 29, 1916 in the Jones Law, which was amended in March 24, 1934 by the Tydings-McDuffie Law. Were it not for the outbreak of World War II which drew an unprepared Philippines, the Filipinos would have gained yet another independence from foreign rule earlier.

For it did gain its independence from Spain after a revolution that began in 1896, which in truth turned out to be a mere culmination of a series of 41 recorded revolts from 1574 to 1888—not including a revolt waged by Princess Urduja in Pangasinan whose army fought the Spaniards from 1680 to 1692. This is according to Bobby Reyes who claims in his blog that “July 4 is the Philippines’ true independence.” Going by his account, the Filipinos hardly submitted to foreign rule, and that includes the brief British occupation.

It is a known fact that fifty years before America granted the Philippines its independence, the country has already proclaimed it on June 12, 1898. This happened on the balcony of General Emilio Aguinaldo’s house in Kawit, Cavite; among the revolutionary leaders who had died in the wake of separate fierce fighting, General Aguinaldo survived with an even bigger following. The Philippine flag was first raised on that day and the national anthem, played.

That day supposedly ended 300 years of foreign domination by the Spaniards. But apparently, in an event larger than the sphere of politics the Filipinos could grasp, Spain in its defeat during the Spanish-American War waged in Latin America “ceded the Philippines to the United States in the 1898 Treaty of Paris, in consideration for an indemnity for Spanish expenses and assets lost.” The Americans controlled the Walled City of Intramuros after their May 1, 1898 naval victory at Manila Bay, also called the Battle of Manila Bay but more commonly dismissed as a ‘mock battle’.

Still in January 1, 1899 Aguinaldo was declared President of the Philippines — the only president of what would be later called the First Philippine Republic. He later organized a Congress to draft a constitution. But tensions between the Philippine and the American governments continued because of the conflicting movements for independence and colonization, aggravated by the feelings of betrayal on the part of Aguinaldo. The Malolos Congress declared war on the United States on June 2, 1899, with Pedro Paterno, President of Congress, issuing a Proclamation of War.

The war officially ended on July 4, 1902. However, remnants of the Philippine Army, and other resistance groups continued hostilities against American rule until 1913. The U.S. conquest of the Philippines has been described in some accounts as “a genocide” and resulted in the death of 1.4 million Filipinos (out of a total population of seven million).

During that two-year period, U.S. President William McKinley reiterated “the intention of the United States Government to establish and organize government—essentially popular in form—in the municipal and provincial administrative divisions of the Philippine Islands. In line with this, he confers upon the Second Philippine Commission, headed by William Howard Taft, the authority to exercise the legislative power of government beginning 1 September 1900.”

In the Letter of Instruction dated April 7, 1900 sent through Elihu Root, Secretary of War and transmitted to the Congress on the December 5, 1899, McKinley said, speaking of the Philippine Islands: “As long as the insurrection continues the military arm must necessarily be supreme. But there is no reason why steps should not be taken from time to time to inaugurate governments essentially popular in their form as fast as territory is held and controlled by our troops. To this end I am considering the advisability of the return of the commission, or such of the members thereof as can be secured, to aid the existing authorities and facilitate this work throughout the islands.”

In the wake of World War II where Filipinos and Americans fought a fierce war against the Japanese, representatives of the United States of America and of the Republic of the Philippines signed a Treaty of General Relations between the two governments. The treaty provided “for the recognition of the independence of the Republic of the Philippines as of July 4, 1946, and the relinquishment of American sovereignty over the Philippine Islands.”

To this day as America’s skies blossom, boom, and pop with pyrotechnics, debates often rage among Filipinos as to which date—June 12, 1898 or July 4, 1946—marks the Philippines’ true independence.