Iloilo: History’s Charming Companion

It would be difficult to look back at Philippine history and culture without taking a closer look at Iloilo’s unique role in nurturing and preserving fragments of the country’s rich colonial past. Once dubbed “La Muy Leal y Noble Ciudad” (The Most Loyal and Noble City) by Spain’s Queen Maria Cristina, Iloilo, in the Philippines’s Western Visayas region, became an important port of call in the mid-to-late 1800s due to the booming sugar and textile industries. This propelled many of its early citizens to untold wealth and gave rise to the island’s genteel haciendero culture. In the early 20th century, Iloilo became one of the cosmopolitan centers of the country, carrying luxury items from different parts of the globe and rivalling Cebu for the title “The Queen City of the South.”

Although the province itself is home to many unheralded treasures and many of the Philippines’s firsts, it is, perhaps, in the homes of its early inhabitants where Iloilo’s real history resides. Our trip to la muy leal y noble ciudad showed the quiet nobility of its people and structures, reflecting the dignity which time has not erased.

In the district of Jaro in Iloilo province, for instance, stands the Lizares Mansion. It was constructed in 1937 by Don Emiliano Lizares for his family and designed by Andres Luna de San Pedro, grandson of one of the Filipino maestros in the visual arts, Juan Luna. When World War II broke out, the Lizares family hid in the municipality of Pototan and the mansion served as a Japanese army headquarters. Stories of how the basement became a “mute witness of atrocities against Filipinos and Americans” spread. After the war, the mansion underwent several transformations. It was turned into a casino until it was sold to the Dominican Order in 1962. In 1963, it was converted into a house of formation for young Dominicans in the Philippines. Today, the compound is occupied by the Angelicum School of Iloilo. The Lizares Mansion, standing stoutly before a large manicured lawn, is one of the many wondrous sites in Iloilo, not only because of its beauty but also because of its story.

In the same district is a 200-year-old residence aptly called Casa Mariquit (marikit being a Tagalog word that means “beautiful”). It is a picturesque and charming property once resided in by a lovely lady, Maria “Mariquit” Javellana-Lopez, wife of former vice-president Fernando Lopez Sr. Inside it, you will find photographs of her family, paintings, furniture, and remnants that tell you what their life and their time had been like. Robert Pena Puckett, great grandson of Fernando Lopez, began restoring it in 1993. The wall finish on the ground floor was chipped off to reveal the original red bricks. The Iloilo Tour Guides’ Cooperative notes that “Casa Mariquit could very well serve as a metaphor for the bigger setting that is Iloilo today—a rich inheritance of a grand past that continues to hold meaning today.”

Enduring testaments

The Ilonggos are a religious lot. In each municipality stands at least one church that is a testament not only of enduring Hispanic influence, but also of the Ilonggos’ religiosity and deep faith.

The most famous of these, perhaps, is the Miag-ao Church, built in 1787. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993, the church’s pediment bears an image of a big coconut tree with St. Thomas of Villanova carrying the Jesus on his shoulder right in the center. Around it are papaya trees and guava shrubs. The interesting juxtaposition of religious images with pastoral element shows the strong marriage of religion and the Ilonggos’ everyday lives. It is also because of this that the Miag-ao Church has been dubbed a “truly Filipino church.”

Rivalling the grandeur of Miag-ao Church is San Joaquin Church, built in 1869. On its pediment is an army of horsemen and foot soldiers led by St. James, the Moor-slayer. This carving commemorates the victory of the Spanish over the Moroccan forces in the Battle of Tetuan in North Africa. According to Erlyn Consorcia Alunan, Municipal Tourism Officer, this is the most photographed site in San Joaquin. If you take a closer look, you will see very intricate details carved into the bas relief, which make you want to examine the piece even more. Because of its unique militaristic motif, the San Joaquin Church was declared a historical landmark in 1974 by the National Historical Institute.

Another church of note is the Jaro Metropolitan Cathedral. Here, the statue of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria (Our Lady of Candles) was canonically crowned by Pope John Paul II during his visit in 1982 and it is the only religious icon in the country personally crowned by a Pope. In the Philippines, folklore is closely interwoven with religious beliefs, and it is said that this particular statue of the Virgin Mary was found on the Jaro riverbed and could not be lifted by 10 people although it was only 12 inches tall. But along came the parish priest and carried the statue alone.

Of all the churches that I had seen during my trip, the one that impressed me the most was the Tigbauan Church, founded in 1575. Enter it and your eyes will move from one stunning vision to another. The Way of the Cross, rendered in stone mosaic, lines the walls. All the way to the altar are religious images including those from one of Dante Alighieri’s immortal work, Dante’s Inferno, done in delicate mosaic work. It is difficult to fathom how much effort it took to create this now-immortal piece of art. And the painting, whether you are looking up close or from afar, brings each vision to life.

Even non-religious visitors will find something magnificent within these walls. It may not be the divine spirit’s power, but they will marvel at the sight of what mortal men can collectively build so elegantly and so strongly that these edifices last for centuries.

Weaving culture

Another enduring legacy of Iloilo is its weaving industry. Although it existed in the Philippines even before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, many believe that Iloilo’s economy bloomed with the development of large-scale commercial weaving. By the 19th century, Iloilo was dubbed “the textile center of the Philippines.” Women found weaving a practical job, because it was something that could be done at home or in their spare time. It is an art that has once flourished, was deemed lost, and is now being revived particularly in the district of Arevalo.

At the Sinamay House in Osmeña Street, Arevalo, you will meet Mrs. Cecil Villanueva, a thoughtful grandmother who will be happy to show you the fabrics they produce and sell, a well as her stories and worries about the trade. She relates how, during the 1870s, Western Visayas embraced the sugar industry that it eclipsed the textile industry until the latter completely waned. Newer technologies have also made it easier and cheaper to produce materials like cotton, threatening the production of handmade textiles. The younger generation of Ilonggos is also losing interest in this age-old art, threatening to drive the practice to extinction.

Fortunately, the government is determined to revive and aggressively promote the craft by organizing livelihood training seminars and supporting trade fairs. But even by itself, the Indag-an Weaving Center in Miag-ao is a busy place. Its weavers create clothes, bags, and even wedding gowns for their clients. Near Indag-an, weaver Connie Fagarita-Atijon has set up shop for clients who patronize her unique and inspired designs. Named the Outstanding Ilonggo Entrepreneur of 2009, Connie comes from a family of third-generation weavers and continues to do so, not only for herself but also to create work for other weavers. To her and to the rest of the weaving community in Miag-ao, an unmistakable mark of support and belief in the craft is when famous fashion designers use local textiles in their creations.

When you realize the amount of time, skill, and patience it takes to weave, and when you see the end product of all this painstaking work, you cannot help but gain newfound respect for both art and artist. To buy a sinamay mat, then, is to support the craftsmanship of a woman who has spent seemingly countless hours carefully weaving by hand a measure of cloth.

Gastronomic gifts

When Mother Nature bestowed bountiful blessings on this part of the world, Iloilo seemed to have received a fair share. Much of Iloilo’s land is agricultural, and its 17 types of soil are mostly fertile and suitable to almost all types of agricultural crops. Meanwhile, a good number of municipalities have easy access to the sea’s bounties. With the incredible abundance of ingredients at their disposal, it has been second nature for most Ilonggos to create delicious food and become known for it.

Some of the most popular Filipino dishes, such as La Paz Batchoy, Pancit Molo, and Pinasugbo all come from Iloilo. However, there is one dish that has not yet made its way into the consciousness of cosmopolitan Manila yet is iconic in the Ilonggo town of Cabatuan: the Tinu-om. Tinu-om is a way of cooking using chicken with banana leaves, after marinating it in such ingredients as onions, ginger, tomato, lemongrass. It has become such a part of Cabatuananon life that a Tinu-om Festival is held in this part of Iloilo every first week of September. When in Cabatuan, it is imperative to sample authentic Tinu-om where it was invented: at Leah’s Tinu-om beside Cabatuan Church. The daughter of its creator now owns the place that has been serving customers for 50 years.

Aside from its first-rate fabrics, the Sinamay House in Arevalo is a must-visit because on the ground floor is Mama’s Kitchen, which offers delectable mango chewies that are perfect for pasalubong fare. Baked by Mrs. Cecil Villanueva’s daughter, Corona, the cookies (along with other specialty foods) are made from products locally grown and harvested in the Visayas.

For those with a really sweet tooth and who want to savor their snacks in a leisurely pace, another must-visit is Deocampo. Located in Sta. Isabel Street in Jaro, Deocampo has been producing top-quality barquillos (wafer rolls) since 1898, and their store even has an inviting garden with a fountain, where guests can relax while snacking.

Indeed, Ilonggos enjoy leisurely dining. One of its famous seafood restaurants, Breakthrough, in Arevalo, not only serves fresh seafood, it also offers fresh air, as the restaurant is right beside the sea.

If you want to get closer to the sea, the Magpatao-hay Eatery in San Joaquin is only a couple of steps away from the water. The place offers a vast view of blue—nothing but sea and sky; the tables and chairs are made of bamboo and on two corners are hammocks—a clear statement that eating is not about simply filling an empty stomach, but is also an occasion to appreciate the food, the environment and, if you’re lucky, the fact that you have good company to share these with.

Tattooed traditions

Iloilo gives off a predominantly laid-back vibe, but once you attend the Pintados de Pasi festival in Passi City, you will see Iloilo come to life, sometimes in heart-stopping ways. The performers are tattooed with intricate traditional geometrical designs that have different meanings depending on which body part they are placed. The costumes are flamboyant, the movements aggressive, the drumbeats loud.

Pintados de Pasi is one of the most popular festivals in the Visayan region, patronized by both locals and tourists. The dances depict the life and customs of the Passinhons’ ancestors. In the recent festival, there was emphasis on piña (pineapple), one of the town’s major crops.

It is an enduring expression of the city’s pride in its roots. As with the scenic structures in Iloilo, the festival is not only about witnessing a visual spectacle, but also about learning a part of its city’s rich history.

A natural museum

Mario Lazarito of the Iloilo Tour Guides’ Cooperative shares that tourists enjoy the diverse experiences that they can enjoy in Iloilo. The adventurous will love the Bulabog Putian National Park in Dingle. Known as a living museum of flora and fauna, the park is home to various forms of wildlife and more than 30 caves. It was used as the revolutionaries’ hideout during the Spanish period. At close scrutiny, you could read on the cave walls texts inscribed by war heroes.

On a good afternoon, as you trek, you will hear the non-stop buzzing of insects. Curiously enough, it will not bother you, because you know this sound means that the rainforest is alive and healthy. Look up and the skies are a mere backdrop to the towering trees. And in every few meters or so are trees that are much older than you, or even your parents.

Iloilo is the heart of the Philippines, and although it is located at the center of the Philippine archipelago, this has little to do with geography. In tasting its food, discovering its natural and man-made treasures, listening to the Ilonggos’ sweet chatter and watching the province’s festivals, you will be reminded of what is great about the Philippines, why you visit, why you stay, and why you return.