Bacong, Negros Oriental, the Philippines
June 25, 2011
“Fierce as a lion, quick as a lightning bolt” – that was Leon Kilat (lion and lightning, respectively). The nickname may suggest the stuff of legends, but the man was a real revolutionary hero, a katipunero named Pantaleon Villegas. He led a successful revolt against colonial Spain in 1898, the first Katipunan uprising in Cebu, or perhaps even in the Visayas. Shame on me; I had never heard of him and only learned about his place in history when I visited his hometown, Bacong, with my family. The world was indeed my classroom.
Before the history lesson, we had a short time window to take in the sights and delights of the town we had not known about. Road-weary and sun-smothered, we almost skipped this last stop in our day tour around Dumaguete, but the driver had already parked the van in front of St. Agustine of Hippo Church, no relation to the safari kind.
Freshly-laid bricks updated the facade. Only the claw-marked and vandalized wooden front doors, topped by the niched statue of St. Agustine, looked sufficiently ancient. They were not bolted, but the pitch black interior was not welcoming. It was the stone belfry, its masonry laid bare and its top disappearing above the acacia trees, that stood out even more. The tallest belfry in Negros Oriental doubled as a watchtower back in the day when seafaring Muslims invaded the island. The church, facing seaward, was just meters away from the beach.
As a National Cultural Treasure, Bacong Church had another claim to fame: the pipe organ from Spain installed just before the revolution in 1898. Alas, I missed the chance to see it. I could only hope that the brick overlay provided a protective layer for the original limestone wall, as other colonial-era churches had their facades painted over for the same purpose. I wondered about the impact of sea breeze salinity on the church’s structural materials, but shrugged off the nerdy thought as I angled shots of the church.
Around the belfry we found a street canopied by a row of giant acacia trees, bidding us to take shelter from the afternoon heat under their mottled shadow. Pillars of acacia trunks leaned overhead frozen as in a statue dance, providing the parishioners a cool and pleasant promenade to church for well over a century.
Hedges of corazon de Maria plants, their heart-shaped leaves so big I could high-five them, were thriving in this damp shadow. These usually wild plants had been tended to lushness. I found various kinds, their umbrella leaves variegated in striking reds and two-toned greens.
Every tour usually wound up in a tourist trap, except that in Bacong it didn’t feel like one. Negros Oriental Arts and Heritage, aka NOAH, a workshop-cum-shop housed in a quaint wooden cottage showcasing an array of the province’s handicrafts and woodwork, was as much an art gallery for me as it was a souvenir shop.
All things considered, the centerpiece of this quick stopover was the monument of homegrown hero Leon Kilat a few strides from the church. I had to google his name to learn that Pantaleon Villegas was a man of such valor that his exploits for the Katipunan movement were attributed to some anting-anting (amulets) he was known to keep. Despite his legendary courage at charging better-armed Spaniards and lightning speed whereby he evaded capture, he died at a young age of 24, not in a battle with Spanish forces, but, more tragically, at the hands of a Filipino traitor, one of his close aides. His nationalistic fervor threatened Filipinos who deemed it a lost cause. In the morning of his assassination, his corpse was paraded down the streets of Carcar, Cebu as townspeople, in an act of self-preservation from a rumored Spanish retaliation, chanted, ¡Viva España! Pantaleon Villegas met a worse fate than death, and that was betrayal.
It took decades before his remains were laid to rest in his hometown, which had rightfully honored his sacrifice for our country’s independence. More than a hundred years on, Filipino traitors who put their self-interests above that of the country still held sway. I hoped that Leon Kilat’s death was not in vain, that his spirit of nationalism would live on for generations of Filipinos.