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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Sunday, September 13, 2015

entry arrow4:46 PM | Being Blind to the Value of Old Things

It’s the blindness to things of historical value that sometimes bothers me—and it is all around us, a kind of cultural malaise that has remained a constant in this forgetful country.

I see this happening in Dumaguete, with the wanton destruction of many beautiful but often dilapidated old buildings that if properly restored would not just raise the cultural cache of the city, but also open it to untapped potential of immense economic significance—like heritage tourism, or like the wise commercial use of retrofitted old houses in the way old European cities like Paris and Rome and Barcelona are able to tie contemporary demands with historical appreciation.

Vigan managed to wise up to this just in time, and now it is a UNESCO Heritage City—but still one remembers the horror story of how many of those old Spanish colonial houses now totally definitive of that city almost ended up crushed under the claws of bulldozers.

In Dumaguete, many of the beautiful sugar houses lining the Paseo de Rizal—the Boulevard for those who prefer to call the stretch that way—are slowly disappearing under the weight of misguided progress. But that’s fodder for another column.

A few months ago, I went on a literary tour of Carcar, a historical small city south of Cebu—a place that seemed to know how to put value on their cultural and historical heritage, given the matter-of-factness of their preparations, and given the evidence of meticulously curated museums that sought to put a firm claim to the importance of the city’s contributions to the cultural and political development of the province of Cebu.

The fact that such a tour could exist—something cooked up by the good folks over at the Cebuano Studies Center of the University of San Carlos—was testament to that foresight by the administrators of Carcar. And so we visited a few of the old houses of its prominent Cebuano writers, and a few of the settings of their short stories and poems and novels. One such was the old watchtower that figured prominently in a chapter in [the Sillimanian writer] Renato Madrid’s novel Mass for the Death of an Enemy: it was the old Spanish era lookout located in Tuyom, a beachside barangay of Carcar that historically figured as the tower from which the townsfolk could keep watch for invading Moro raiders that used to ravage the town on a regular basis.

The watchtower at Tuyom, Carcar

When our tour group got to see the tower itself, it had become a pitiful sight: much of its high coral walls had tumbled down in utter neglect, and its interior was overrun with what looked like the beginnings of a small jungle. One part of its historic walls had become just another structure in an intricate system of shanties that were leaning against it. Somebody had made use of part of its structure to build a pig pen, and another one a post for a clothesline.

It was heartbreaking. Here was a structure of deep historical value, and it was sharing space with pigsties and laundry.

The entrance to the house where Leon Kilat was assassinated.

Going back to the center of the town, we went over to the old house where Leon Kilat was assassinated. It was falling to horrific ruin. And the thought occurred to me: why do we let this happen, and why do we refrain from doing things that could help preserve part of the nation’s patrimony? Why do we allow hapless politicians to destroy a part of the Banaue Rice Terraces to make way for a parking lot? Why did the City of Manila allow a condominium to tower over the Rizal Monument in Luneta? Why is it that until now, Dumaguete has yet to have a museum to preserve its cultural heritage?

I do understand a little bit the source of this blindness or short-sightedeness: the historicity of things is usually a value that is uncomprehended by those who cannot fathom the vital ways with which an understanding of the past contributes to an acute assessment of the present and the future. What people see are just useless old stones; they don’t see the ruin for the historical gold that it is. It takes great education, and a deepness of the soul, to see this kind of value.

In a recent article by Ambeth Ocampo occasioned by the release of Jerrold Tarog’s film Heneral Luna, we get the story of how Juan Luna’s paintings were snubbed by the Philippine government in the 1950s, and how Antonio Luna’s papers were stored improperly and eventually lost in a fire.

“When Andres Luna de San Pedro, son of Juan Luna, passed away in Manila in 1952, his American wife Grace offered to sell the paintings in his estate to the Philippine government,” Mr. Ocampo writes. “The government refused the offer either from lack of funds or lack of interest, and Mrs. Luna packed everything and returned to New York. When she died, the estate passed to a friend named Beth Troster, who eventually also passed away, leaving all the Luna material in a New York attic. One of the lawyers handling the estate remembered the name Juan Luna from a Philippines postage stamp and contacted the Philippine mission in New York, which responded with the same indifference displayed by the government in 1952 that led to this treasure leaving the country. Next the lawyers approached an auction house to dispose of the paintings, and were told that these had ‘no commercial value.’”

Mr. Ocampo also writes about Juan Luna’s papers and memorabilia, and also that of Antonio Luna’s, which he found neglected in some miserable corner of the old Heritage Art Gallery many years ago when he was still a college student: “While everyone was busy going over the Juan Luna paintings and speculating on the scads of money these would command in the art market, I was allowed to examine the boxes of papers and personal effects of which nobody took notice. In one box, for example, I saw the painting frock of Juan Luna as well as his brushes and palette. In another box, I saw the bloodied uniform of Antonio Luna that was preserved by his mother as a grisly reminder of his tragic death. In another box were architectural plans and all sorts of plaques and awards that once belonged to the famous architect Andres Luna de San Pedro.

“I focused on a box that contained Antonio Luna’s papers—his student notebooks (which came complete with fine drawings of specimens he observed through a microscope) and the papers of his mature life: letters (including a batch of racy love letters from a woman named ‘Paquita’), parts of a journal, official military papers, etc. Since I was then a student on an allowance, I asked to borrow some papers to photocopy. To my surprise, Mario Alcantara, without even asking me to sign a receipt, let me cart home the whole balikbayan box of papers.

“That weekend, I sorted out what I felt were the most important papers and had them photocopied. I had to wait a month for my next allowance to have the rest photocopied. And since I didn’t want to be responsible for the whole lot, I returned it to the Heritage Art Center, where everything was eventually destroyed in a fire triggered by a lightning bolt. It is all quite sad when you think that these papers survived the Philippine-American War and the Battle for Manila in 1945, as well as being consigned to the trash in New York in the 1980s. So much history lost in a freak accident.”
Again, another heartbreak.

When we were doing Handulanataw, the history of art of culture in Silliman University that I edited three years ago, one of the things that constantly made my heart break was getting told that the art pieces and book collections and papers of cultural pioneers we were researching on were gone or were scattered to the proverbial wind: photographs destroyed by flood water, paintings burned and lost or stolen, papers eaten by termites, books relegated to dusty corners of stockrooms where they were being eaten by god-knows-what and pooped on by rats. I found old books owned by Albert Faurot that way. I asked for the manuscripts of one local playwright who had died many years back and was told by the family: “We burned them. We thought they were just trash.” And Sendong, of course, destroyed many, many old photographs.

I have to wonder how come no plucky young local historian is doing some initiative in scanning the old photographs of old families here in Negros Oriental? How come we don’t have a museum that would showcase the works of Jose Laspiñas and Francisco Verano, before they’re eaten away by more termites and neglect? How come no local theatre groups are producing the plays of Bobby Flores Villasis, Amiel Leonardia, Elsa Coscolluela, Ephraim Bejar, and Roberto J. Pontenila Jr.? How come we don’t make concerts of the music of Zoe Lopez and the collected Visayan folk songs of Priscilla Magdamo-Abraham?

Are we really this short-sighted as a people?

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