Silay, Negros Occidental, the Philippines
October 1 – 2, 2018
Young people, I found, were not only the hope for the future but also of the past. Silay, home to some thirty ancestral houses accredited by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, could stand a chance against unbridled development because her sons had enough respect for the tangible legacies their forefathers had left behind. Their inheritance, in other words. The number of preserved heritage houses in Silay likely exceeded that of more famous “museum cities” in the country, such as Vigan and Taal.
It was my first solo trip, never mind that it was to my hometown, Bacolod. A visit to the graves of my parents called for solitude. A day before my flight out, though, I sought company in the neighboring city. I boarded a Ceres Liner at the relatively new Bacolod North Bus Terminal to Silay. I had booked a night at Richmond Inn for the sole reason that I loved the name; the hotel turned out fine and conveniently located along the road leading to the airport.
I was a social climber for a day, rubbing elbows with the landed gentry of Negros, specifically the Locsin lads and a Ledesma lady. Blogging got me acquainted with Dr. Ledesma whose mother, we later found out, was also acquainted with mine back in the day. El Ideal Bakery was an appropriate EB place being an institution of food heritage in the city. The good doctor was busy that day; she entrusted her guest to the Locsin brothers for the afternoon.
Our first stop was at the shared legacy of both clans. Sugar baron Don Jose “Pepe” Ledesma, also a Locsin, was the primary sponsor in the construction of San Diego Pro-cathedral in the 1920s. Lucio Bernasconi’s Renaissance structural design, such as a cruciform layout and a dome, however, had been overshadowed by our conversation about his soap operatic lovelife. The headstones at the side aisle of the nave read like a list of who’s-who in Silay society. I walked on eggshells in deference to the dead as the brothers were casually talking about the names under their feet.
Solo Locsin, the most vocal about heritage preservation among them, decided to give me a glimpse of the golden era of Negrense society. The 1938 ancestral house of a branch of their clan was a perfect choice. The two-story, four-bedroom German Locsin Unson Heritage House had been opened to the public as a B&B. Guests could experience living in an era long gone for the duration of their stay.
The house of German Locsin Unson and wife Fe de la Rama Ledesma (my hosts’ last names intertwined more times than I cared to count) was restored to its original Neo-Spanish design by the patriarch’s granddaughter, an interior designer. Indeed, heritage preservation lay in the hands of younger generations.
I posted a photo of the house on Facebook and captioned it with a song lyric, “And I feel like I just got home.” The house reminded me of my family’s recently torn down ancestral home, though ours was less opulent if it was at all. The caption continued, “I miss living in an airy, spacious house. You can stay home and not feel caged. We should preserve ancestral houses like this to let condo-dwellers know what they’re missing.” Another point of connection was the fact that this house was occupied and left undamaged by Japanese troops during WW2, as was our house.
Old world furniture and fine china, vintage fashion and personal effects still filled the house, even its bathroom was decorated with a shelfful of seashells. Solo demonstrated how a seemingly innocent brass flower on the coffee table turned into petals of ashtray. Such was Negrense nostalgia: looking back at a time when even ash was stashed in art. It was also a tiny remnant of the social life of Silay back in the day.
By mid-afternoon, the boys wanted me to try fresh lumpia (spring roll) they swore by. We turned a corner to another old house of a family of more meager means. Solo led me up the back stairs to the “dirty kitchen.” Ingredients were laid out on the countertop and lumpia filling on the table in this small scale lumpia factory.
As Solo was chatting with the workers, we helped ourselves to some of the snack recently prepared. Recently, supposedly. Hours later, I would be stricken by the nastiest intestinal flu. Just my luck, I must have gotten the sole spoiled lumpia.
After merienda, the brothers escorted me to the grand old house of their grandfather, the late Jose C. Locsin, doctor and senator, whose family was originally from Iloilo, as were most Negrense buenas familias. Halfway through the 19th century, the diaspora of affluent Ilonggo sugarcane planters to Negros paved the way for the rapid development of the sugar industry in the island.
Silay-born Locsin lived in this house, now called Jose Certeza Locsin Ancestral House, with his family of 19 children (he was twice married) plus orphaned nephews and nieces he took in as his own. Such a large household once filled this now lonely two-story 1930s mansion.
Senator Locsin was a family man who generously opened his home. Small wonder that his grandsons were just as hospitable. Despite the short notice from Dr. Ledesma, they toured me in the first floor and grounds of the house still lived in by their elderly aunt who was resting upstairs at the time.
The brothers pored over yellowed family photos on frames and in old school albums, remainders of lives lived in this once-lively home. Save for our hushed voices, nothing stirred in the shadows of the late afternoon. The living room, well appointed as it was, felt empty at first, much like a museum, but as the Locsins started reminiscing about their childhood and relations long gone, their stories and memories gave life to the room. The shell of a house was imbued with the spirit of home once more.
We walked back to the young Locsins’ house a few paces across the street. Construction was ongoing at the front. Wooden planks and rustic Asian decors littered the almost-completed annex that would become Cafe Larga by The Mansion. Solo and Enzo envisioned their business venture as a homey hangout for people before boarding their flights at the nearby airport, larga being “to leave” in our native language.
The “mansion” referenced in the cafe’s name was not their grandfather’s. It was Balay Puti next door still boarded up for renovations at the time. I could only crane my neck for a glimpse of its loped-off top floor from the front gate draped with tarpaulin. What I missed in visiting the mansion itself was not as interesting as the story I heard of it.
A poignantly tragic love story allegedly unfolded through a lifetime within its walls. The stately mansion was inherited by Emilio Ledesma (and wife Rosario Locsin) from his father, sugar baron Don Jose “Pepe” Ledesma, the major financier of the construction of the church we visited earlier, who commissioned the same Italian architect to design his residence, ensuring its place at the center of Silay society.
A family drama of love and despair imploded within this elegant setting. Adela, their only daughter known to be dressed to the nines daily, would become the recluse who refused to speak. Rumors swirled that she maintained a clandestine relationship with – I gasped – a man of lower stature in society against her parents’ wishes. Unable to straddle the best of both worlds, the dignified daughter traded romance for family even after the death of her parents. Her lover eventually married her best friend and lived across the street. What cheek!
The accepted assumption was that she tore down the mansion’s second floor to avoid looking out to the tantalizing love and life beyond her reach. Or she was simply too old to negotiate the stairs. The heiress reached 97 years of age isolated and confined in her white mansion.
Poverty could not afford the price of freedom, but, as Adela proved, neither could affluence. Our station in life, whatever it may be, could very well be our prison if we let it.
It was one thing to preserve the stone and wood of these ancestral houses, but their soul and history lay firmly in the stories and memories that their walls – and sons – could tell. The Locsin brothers had paid their dues by taking an active hand in heritage preservation efforts, both in government and as private citizens, within their turf. The story of Silay did not start and end with her founding fathers but continued to be lived through generations.
Damo gid nga salamat to my hosts – Solo, Enzo, and Keeno Locsin – and my hostess, fellow blogger Dr. Ledesma, for an afternoon well spent. My heart was full, so was my grumbling gut.