By By Ramonfelipe A. Sarmiento
Postscript UK: Reflections on Old Virac
posted 11-Nov-2011  ·  
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Thisis not one more exercise in belaboring my UK adventure; this is about home,about Virac specifically, as my modest contribution to the recently concludedcommemoration of the provincial foundation day. But I will take off through arealization derived from my UK experience. It occurred to me that Britishsociety, and most of Europe, had resisted the itch to destroy the materialendowment of the past, especially the buildings and monuments, even while theiroutlook became modern. But it seems to be the reverse in our case, theFilipinos: we are overeager to level to the ground our old structures in orderto put on the appearances of modernity but remain hopelessly antiquated in theway we think.

Perhaps,what we see are two models of priorities as to what to retain from the past andwhat to change. I do not wish to fault the Filipinos for seeming to prefer toreproduce the intangible heritage of ancestors, such as values and beliefs. Butthe European model can be instructive. Their particular sense for the pastaffords them an advantage: their reminders from history are concrete items oftimeless beauty in the form of well-preserved buildings, monuments, and suchother artifacts contained in numerous museums, all of which provide yet anotherpremium: tourism.

Sotherefore, with some exceptions like Vigan, the entire Philippines is bereft ofmaterial cultural heritage, including our own province Catanduanes.  There are historical factors that explainthis. In the first place, we did not develop early in history the sort ofnation-statehood, typically tyrannical, that was necessary to be able toproduce monumental architecture. Our building tradition was largely fordomestic purposes, not an exercise in wielding power by the wealthy rulingclass. Think of the pyramids of Egypt or the Great Wall of China which werebuilt on slave labor or through unfair and heavy taxation. Near home, we havethe cases of Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia. The tradeoff is that we don’thave these impressive structures of antiquity but our ancestors were spared thetrauma of repressive and cruel regimes. Of course the Spaniards belatedlyinflicted on us their imperial enterprise, which produced the walls ofIntramuros and the baroque churches. Perhaps, in the second place, our propensityto destroy old Spanish structures is a way to shake off the bitter memory ofcolonization. When after World War II our country became free (like many othernewly independent third world countries), we went on a frenzy to build newstructures (and destroyed old ones) in order to demonstrate to the world thatwe are worthy of independence and capable of progress.  It was a pressing need to prove ourselves;our propensity to get rid of old structures seems to be expression of ourcolonial hang-up.

Whilewe should not feel any misgivings if we don’t have the pyramids (we must behappy we didn’t have to build them), we must admit lack of hindsight in ourtendency to destroy old structures that could have been part of our growingheritage as a people. Virac is a case in point. I am just about fifty years old but the Virac I knew in my childhood isbarely recognizable in the present-day Virac. Surely I would not be happy if itstayed as it was; but I am sorely missing a sense of connection from the pastthat defines my identity as Viracnon. Progress must be a good balance betweenattaining increasing convenience and comfort in life, and an anchor, a sense ofcontinuity from the past, an identity about who we are. As a growing child inVirac, I saw how the old people agonized over the destruction of the old parishchurch. Back then, I did not understand it yet, but later in life I knew how itfelt to see familiar landmarks with which you have developed fond attachmentbeing leveled to the ground. It was such cruelty. I would later relocate inManila and every time I heard of a Virac landmark being torn down, I felt thata part of me was being ripped off.

 What are some of Virac historical structuresthat have succumbed to “progress” (read: mindless destruction)? First, there isthe old Central School, the one last authentic public building from the Spanishera. Then there is the old municipal building and the fountain.Architecturally, the old munisipyo hadreal classic elegance, as opposed to the present nondescript block that lookslike a third rate mall. And the fountain! What have they done to this beautifulart-deco landmark that was part of childhood bliss of generations? Then toothere is the old Rizal monument that has been replaced by the present-day less-than-heroicstatue (the Great Malayan on a diet?) that looks like some cheap trophy boughtin Quiapo. Last April, my elementary classmate came home for the Pilot Schoolgrand reunion. He was inconsolable upon seeing that the Cristo Rey at the patio migratedto another location a few meters away. My friend exclaimed “Ano an ta baging bisitang dai biga padagos?”During the aleluya, my companionremarked that it looked like the Lord had come to conduct the singing tocelebrate His rising from the dead! Apparently, somebody from the Hierarchy isplaying chess with the santos. Check!

Ifwe need to learn from other countries, what they do with old buildings is torestore and refit them to suit contemporary needs and standards. The oldCentral School for example could have been preserved and refurbished to servenew purposes for present-day society. As for the old munisipyo, the fountain and lawn could have been retained and theneed for more space could have been addressed by extensions to make it aU-shape building.  In the same way, theall-white Rizal statue could have been enhanced by landscaping; it sure wouldhave made the national hero happy. 

Butall that is like crying over spilled tuba.What do we do now? First, we must be happy that the American era oldcapitol building has been properly restored. We have to commend this effort tothe highest degree. It will appropriately house the provincial tourism officeand space has been allocated to serve as museum. It is a good start. Taking cuefrom this, the local government must endeavor to launch a program ofpreservation and restoration of identified heritage sites. One candidate wouldbe the numerous ermitas. They arereally one-of-a-kind in the Philippines, truly a unique feature of ourprovince. Some of the gems in this regard are the chapels of Antipolo, Hawan,Buyo, Gogon, Sta. Elena, Rawis and Sta. Cruz. Local legislation can be passed to declare these structures as part ofheritage, and that a program for preservation must be put in place. But it mustnot cover only public sites. There are a few private properties that can formpart of this endeavor. Consider the Abella house in barangay San Jose. It is agood example of restoration of a private residence but converted to serve newpurpose. Some candidates along this line would be the old Catanduanes Inn, theCavada residence and Ariston Sarmiento’s house. Then too there is the Guerrero warehouse which is still being used bythe NFA. This program must be replicated in all of the municipalities of theprovince.

Ican imagine that this kind of program will face rough sailing in localgoverning councils. In this country, culture is way down the line-up ofpriorities. I can hear these jaded politicians saying “Kultyur-kultyur, nakaon man an?” Perhaps they mean, “Igwa man ning madelehinsiya dyan?” Evenwhen they mean well, they would argue that the economic consideration shouldtake precedence. But we are not saying that culture and heritage be given theprime consideration; we insist that it be afforded the attention it deserves.Progress must be reckoned with in terms of total human development. The needsof the soul must be equally addressed as that of the body. Otherwise, we becomemindless, heartless robots.  And wecannot wait, ta kung bako ngonian, saarin pa?


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