By By Ramonfelipe A. Sarmiento
Read and Buy Local, Second of Two Parts: Memories of Old Virac
posted 28-Jan-2010  ·  
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If somebody asks me for reading materials that could acquaint him or her about Virac, I will recommend two slim volumes namely Carmen Abundo Arcilla’s Treasures From My Memory Chest and Osita Go Abundo’s O Virac of My Dreams. But I will be quick to explain to the potential reader that the two small books do not offer empirical description or incisive commentary. Rather, they present a Virac reconstructed from the recollections of the heart. Being so, what is evoked is not the Virac of hard facts but the very soul of the place, which makes it no less real.  In fact, it makes it the more real.

Published ten years apart from each other (Ms. Arcilla’s in 1998 and Ms. Abundo’s in 2008), the two may be considered as twin books. Although they have their own distinctiveness, they have many things in common. They were written by women who inhabited the same period in Virac history (both were born in the 1920’s, although Mrs. Arcilla was a few years older than Mrs. Abundo). They were both teachers who taught English and literature, that is why they were steeped in the cultural aspects and had the facility to write. What else, they had Chinese ancestry and were sisters-in-law. Mrs. Abundo married Mrs. Arcilla’s younger brother.

              But the books being twins lie in their contents. Both are intimate autobiographical accounts of the experience that is Virac, albeit the Virac of their youth comprising the years within the vicinity of the war: before, during and after it. I particularly warmed up to the books because they contained stories and details that I heard from my own mother, she being the authors’ contemporary and in fact was repeatedly referred to by Mrs. Abundo in her accounts because they were neighbors and bosom friends. But what amazed me is that the world conjured up in the writings of the two women appeared very much the same with the Virac of the 60’s and 70’s that I knew in my own youth. Well, it happens that certain traditions indeed linger on period after period, but what I mean are not bits and pieces of aspects of the social and cultural life. I refer to the very spirit of the place itself. I have this conviction that if two decades from now I should write about the hometown of my own time, I will end up conjuring the same sort of Virac that the two women knew. Surely, the details will be different. But there is an essential and unchanging Virac that embraces us all, something real but is mainly a quality of feeling, yes indeed a soul. Honestly, if you ask me to take account of it, I will be at a loss for words. It is something yet indescribable; or perhaps will never ever yield to description: a sense of place is something lodged into one’s heart, to be felt wholly but never to be adequately talked about.

            But if the soul of a place defies straightforward definition, it has a way of filtering in through the stories we tell. The treasures in Mrs. Arcilla’s chest (could very well be that part of the body that cradles the heart) were stories.  There were twenty of them, which the author, according to his son (Dr. Caloy Arcilla) in his introduction, heard from her old folks and wished to tell to her own grandchildren. Grouped in three sets, the stories were about practices of old (“How They Lived Before”), folktales that teach lessons (“The Stories They Told”), and folktales about strange forces (“Believe It Or Not”).  

            Reading the stories, I barely noticed the classificatory scheme. The first set was supposed to be historical accounts and therefore more “realistic” while the last two were “fantastic” and to be enjoyed by suspending disbelief. But to me, they all appear to be of the same substance, namely episodes of how a people live their day-to-day lives in this town of our affections: their concerns, aspirations, fears and struggles, the devices they employ, the things that perk them up and put them down, the things they abhor and those they hold dear in their hearts. Mrs. Arcilla had woven the tapestry of a people and what made it compelling was that she wove her own thread into it. The tales she told were intimate and immediate. Like they happened in particular places that one knew (Eli, Talisoy, Gogon or Bato) and were about highly individualized persons, in quaint nicknames (Ulang, Eyoy Porong, Nang Dora) and sometimes complete with apelyido. They were not of the generic Juan-Maria-Jose-Ana types. In fact, many of the characters that populated the stories were connected with the author, people she actually knew.

And speaking of characters, the stories carried substance mainly through them, as indeed good stories should.  They were real people with real problems. As they face their ordeals, the results were variously victorious, tragic, comic, or a combination thereof, like they happen in real life. One striking thing about Mrs. Arcilla’s tales was the prominence of the women characters. This was unmistakable, and not surprisingly so because being a woman, she saw things through the female lens.  Mostly, it was the woman who carried the burden of the situation, as if indeed they carried the weight of life itself. The tales were illustrations of the contradictions and anxieties of the womanly enterprise in this world. But they were too demonstrations of their strengths.

I was particularly delighted at the story of “The Colegiala” which I also heard from my mother. It was about Nang Dora (Tia Dola in my Mom’s version) who had engaged the cura in a long-running contest of wits by singing at the top of her voice (she was from a family of cantoras) during masses and by making loud igham at the bayaw. I saw this as her way of contesting the patriarchal world (what else could be the height of machismo than men lording it over in the realm of the sacred?). The story seemed to have ended sadly with Nang Dora withdrawing from the fight, supposedly in shame. But I do not see it that way. I thought she was silently basking in triumph: she had made her point, and with dignified humor. When my mother told us this story, there was in her this subtle sense of admiration for Tia Dola’s deed and I knew that what moved her to relate it was a recognition of what it represented. In Mrs Arcilla’s opus, one realizes that the author made such a selection of stories not so much because of their shock value but because of their capacity to distill one or the other facet of the soul of the people called Viracnons.  

Mrs. Abundo’s book on the other hand is not a collection of stories as such but a straightforward taking account of her hometown. The title indicated this, but then it also clearly qualified that it was a personal account: O Virac of My Dreams. But it is not a dream that might come true because it is about the Virac of the past. Decidedly an exercise in nostalgia, Mrs. Abundo, now in her eighties, dreamed of the Virac of her youth through this book. Although she still actively participates in the present, she does not seem to care about what goes now; it is merely the ephemeral vicissitude of time, things that will soon come to pass. But she offers us in her book the essential Virac, the timeless spirit of Virac, as she experienced it in her own lifetime the critical mass of which belonged to the past.

To achieve that, the approach to the writing was an alternation between the objective and the subjective mode, the latter mostly her own, but she even called in other voices to speak as when she included accounts of the war by the participants themselves (the group of war veterans and the “Phantom” himself, Col. Salvador Rodulfo). The book thus started with a short introductory part that established the setting by breezing through bits of history and some socio-economic and geographic facts. Then the writer shifted to personal mode describing at length the Virac of her days. It was mostly about an idyllic life by the sea, laidback and intimate, where she spent time pursuing dragonflies in day time and being allured by fireflies at night. She spoke of how the huge dita tree by the church patio would assault the entire Ilawod with a pungent fragrance during its blooming seasons, or of how incomparable the native coffee sold at Mameng Bagoy’s was. These and many more details were the same features of the Virac I would know a generation later.

Then the writer did a run-down of the various cultural and social aspects of the town: religion, music, family life, beliefs and values, etc. But it was not some description of a distant observer. She presented them according to her own participation and involvement, making them truly alive and real. But mostly she painted an idealized picture, the belle époque of the Virac she obviously loved. Things became grim only with the war. But even then war seemed to have acquired a place in Mrs. Abundo’s Virac only as means to demonstrate the people’s heroism. And speaking of heroism, the writer made sure there would be enough of this stuff, especially the sort that is engendered during peace time. So, as if to say that the Virac she loved is cradle of great people, she capped her book with an appreciation for Viracnon achievers via a list of “firsts” and the biographical sketches of selected leaders in the community. As for the latter, notable was her inclusion of El Maestro Teodulo Publico and the pioneering woman politician Maria “Ling-Ling” Francisco. In them Mrs. Abundo, like Mrs. Arcilla, revealed her partiality for culture and the arts, and for women.

In sum, the twin volumes are a delightful read, not only for the inveterate Viracnon but surely too for the Catandunganon to whom Virac is an inescapable part. So get a copy. Hopefully, these two books can make a second edition. What is beautiful about reading materials such as these is that you are privileged to get into somebody’s personal world but recognizes it as your own.

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