Tuesday, May 29, 2007


OX CARTS , PAMPANGA. Postcard caption at the back reads: “These carts are built on springless body and roofed over, some with shingles and others with straw and drawn by oxen, not yoked together, but harnessed like horses. They can travel a great distance.” C. 1905-1910.

Like all sleepy little barrios in Pampanga back in the early ‘60s, Sta. Ines in Mabalacat had only unpaved dirt roads connecting to the main highway. As a school kid, I used to walk this short stretch, dusty in summer and mud-caked during the rainy season, with just my trusty pair of Beachwalk rubber sandals to protect my feet from the gravelly, rutted road. To make things worse, we were neighbors to a farming family, and they too used the road, often riding to and from the Bundagul fields on bamboo garetas pulled by lumbering damulags (carabaos).Naturally, the narrow road was regularly “paved” with carabao poop, and if you were not careful, you would sometimes find your feet and sandals embedded in this messy, stinking trap!

Other than foot power, carabao-drawn garetas were a major mode of travel and transport for most Kapampangans early in the century. The carabao was the king of country roads, an all-purpose beast of burden capable of hauling heavy loads like lumber and agricultural produce and working long hours. Once on the main road however, the faster kalesa (horse rig) was favored, with lean horses quicker on their feet and a brightly-painted carriage more appealing to the eye. I remember catching a kalesa ride home on several instances, a butt-breaking but exhilarating experience nevertheless, marked with the occasional ringing of the kalesa bell and the crack of the kutsero’s (rig driver) whip in the air.

In the early 1900s, the calle reales (main streets) of the Philippines may have looked bewildering to foreigners with their assortments of caruajes (carriages) and animal-powered vehicles. As one chronicler, Rafael Diaz Arenas observed, Manila was “flooded with a multitude of carretelas and baroches rushing like a torrent everywhere and crowding off the streets the antique carriages that once lorded it over them”.

When the Philippine Commission passed Act. No. 1 appropriating $1 Million for the public works, the country went on a road-and-bridge building spree. In just over 2 decades, contractors led by Americans repaired damages wrought by the Philippine-American War, extended highways and created new routes. From less than 500 kms, in 1907, the Philippines had 20,300 km. of roads in 1934, so much so that Gov. Gen. Cameron Forbes crowned himself as “The Road Builder”.

Filipinos took to the new roads with more efficient ways of transportation. The motorcar first appeared in 1903. By 1912, 947 cars were registered in the Philippines. Cars—even 2nd hand ones—were rather pricey back then. A 22 Nov. 1931 issue of La Opinion boasts of “the best bargains in used cars”, advertising a Buick 4-Door Sedan Model 1927 for P1,000, and a “rakish-looking Chrysler sports roadster” for P2,700. If those did not fit your budget, you could settle for a used Essex Sedan for P400. On record, an unnamed Angeles resident drove home the first car in Kuliat on 10 February 1910, a hand-cranked Hupmobile motorcar, superloaded with acetylene lamps and rubber bulb horn!

Early mass transit like the tranvias (established by Jacobo Zobel in 1903) were available only in Manila. Originally horse-drawn, they were powered by electricity in 1905, with a top speed of 25 kph. Also an option to the more expensive taxi cabs were the 4 to 6 seater autocalesa, the ancestor of our modern day jeepneys, in operation from mid to late 1930s.

Family trips out of Pampanga were always exciting occasions for me as a child. Packed in our roomy 1950s Oldsmobile with real leather seats, we would go to Manila via the old highway, a trip that would start at the break of dawn. I would already be crying for a pee break at San Fernando but then Mother always came prepared with a tabo orinola (tin urinal) cum puke can. At Malolos, we would stop over to buy otap or ensaymada (local pastries). At Guiguinto, I would wonder if indeed the streets were paved with gold while at Meycauayan, I would strain my eyes looking for kwayan (bamboo). Then there would be those endless lines of wooden electric posts in Valenzuela topped with green-glass insulators that glistened in the sun, a source of constant fascination for me. The looming sight of the Bonifacio Monument in Caloocan signalled the arrival of our promdi (provincial) family to the city of Manila.

In the 70s, the rise of the North Expressway linking Pampanga to Manila irrevocably altered our travel experience, making trips faster, more comfortable and efficient. Now, instead of the roadside carinderia, there are convenient full-service gas stations and fastfoods lining the super highways, complete with restrooms, souvenir and pasalubong (take-home goodies) shops. But these have also obliterated from our scenic landscape the pitter-patter of colorful kalesas and the sight of itinerant peddlers in ox-drawn garetas, rendering extinct our quaint, old ways of the road.
(25 January 2003)

Thursday, May 24, 2007


LORD OF THE RINGS. A champion basketball team from an unidentified Kapampangan school with their teacher-coaches. Circa 1920s.

Next to arithmetic, P.E. or Physical Education was my least favorite subject in my elementary days. As a child, I was rather sickly, but that didn’t deter my teachers from pushing me into joining those energy-zapping exercises like chinning bar (using the metal rails of our school water tank) , running, baseball and calisthenics. Field demonstrations were always a part of important school activities like the annual Foundation Day. Here, we were required to perform mass calisthenics in front of an uninterested crowd, who preferred the more colorful folk dances than our uninspired knee-bending, arm-twirling, waist-twisting, low-impact exercises, done with blue ribbons on our fingers and in synch with the instrumental beat of “Shine Little Glow Worm, Glimmer”. How I hated those moments under the hot, searing sun!

Blame the Americans for incorporating Physical Education classes into our school curriculum. As a U.S. colony in the first part of the 20th century, American officials revamped our educational system, introducing such concepts as agricultural schooling, “pensionado” scholarships for Filipinos and importation of teachers known as “Thomasites”, who established the public school system with success.

School experience was never the same when the first American teachers, who were actually soldiers, traded their guns for text books. Wanting to infuse new interests previously unknown, they first introduced baseball to their students. Boys and girls alike took to the diamond easily, and soon, baseball—the pioneer of all ball sports and considered as America’s national game in 1872-- became a popular campus activity. Basketball (invented by James Naismith in 1891), track and field, volleyball, Indian clubs were other major sports that caught Filipino students’ fancy.

As if those were not enough, Americans cooked up events to showcase the results of their cultivation of physical culture. Mass calisthenics were always a staple performance during Garden Day celebrations. Inter-school athletic meets were also held yearly, which eventually expanded to include provinces and districts. The annual Manila Carnival (1908-1939) often featured sports competitions, which promoted pride and loyalty to province and country. The Misamis Indoor Baseball Team, for instance, won the championship in the 1915 edition of the Carnival. The team from Olongapo also were winners in previous baseball outings.

American teachers further emphasized the importance of physical education on the ordinary student by requiring a grade of 75% in order for him to be promoted above third grade. Other than calisthenics, favorite P.E. sports included marching drills, group games and folk dancing.

It is exciting to think that because of physical education, many Kapampangans took to sports and became masters of their game. Pampanga’s list of sports heroes is short but respectable: In basketball, we have Hector Calma, Charlie Badion, Ato Agustin, Hall of Famers Gabby and Fely Fajardo, Ed Ocampo, Yeng Guiao and 1936 Berlin Olympian Fortunato Yambao. Of course, Pampanga Dragons were the very first grand champions of the 1998 Metropolitan Basketball Association held right in San Fernando. On the distaff side, the Girls’ Little Leaguers of Pulung Masle, Guagua were Philippine champs in softball from 1994 to 1997 while the Juniors’ Softball Team from the same town figured prominently in the world championships. Even the sports that once was associated with istambays (hangers-on) and students playing hooky—billiards—gained legitimate respectability with the triumphs of Kapampangan Efren “Bata” Reyes and Francis “Django” Bustamante.

On a personal note, after showing indifference to countless school meets like PRISAA and CLRAA (Central Luzon Regional Athletic Association, held since the 1920s) and avoiding all kinds of sports in college, I became a sports jock of sorts when I turned professional. I swam competitively, raced in track and field meets, taught aerobics and lifted weights, sometimes twice in a given day. Belated though my interest in sports, I am sure that the Ghosts of our American P.E. Teachers Past must be very pleased.
(18 January 2003)

Monday, May 21, 2007


CARVING A NICHE IN HISTORY. The retablo mayor of the Santiago Apostol Church in Betis, is one of few surviving examples of rococo art, characterized by profuse rocaille ornamentations. While funeral rites were going on, it appears that the church interiors were being repainted, dating this photo bet. 1939-1949, during the tenure of Fr. Santiago Blanco.

Betis was already a prosperous settlement when it was accepted as a visita of Tondo in 2 May 1572, making it as one of Pampanga’s oldest towns. In 1591, together with Lubao, Betis had 4 convents and a population of 20,000 souls. Because of its accessibility, Betis was ministered by various priests from Guagua, Bacolor and Apalit. Mention Betis today and you would most likely get the following associations: a reputation for producing the most number of priests from a single place, a major woodcarving center of the Philippines (the other being Paete), and the home of the famed Betis Church, dedicated to Santiago Apostol, named as one of 26 treasured heritage churches of the country. The church and its interiors have survived revolutions, world wars and lootings, to remain a showcase of baroque art that was popular in Europe as early as the 16th century. The art style was noted for its sweeping energy, asymmetrical forms and use of elaborate, swirling patterns.

Fr. Fernando Pinto, a visiting priest from Lubao (on assignment from 1596-1604) is credited with constructing the first buildings of light materials. It is said that the church stands on grounds once abundant with quality lumber tree called "betis" (Bassia betis Merr.) Later, while still a parish priest of either Candaba or Mexico, Fr. Jose de la Cruz constructed a church of stronger materials with the help of the locals headed by Santiago David Tindo, between 1660 and 1670. The transept and façade were completed around 1738.

Rococo —a later baroque style that flourished in France, Germany and Central Europe-- also gained favor in Portugal and Spain, and soon, rococo motifs were being incorporated in Philippine churches in Tanay, Cebu and all over Luzon. Eventually, rococo found artistic expression in the retablo mayor of the Santiago Apostol Church, which, without a doubt, can be considered as one of the country’s finest.The uppermost storey is shaped like a lunette and is replete with folksy heavenly motifs—sun, stars, clouds and 6 musical instrument-wielding angels. The rest of the altar prominently features effusive rocaille (hence, rococo) carvings—twisting columns, irregular designs, shell, garland. leaf and foliage patterns. As expected, Augustinian saints in the nichos outnumber saints from different orders, 9 to 7.

The Augustinians, who left due to some ecclesiastical problems, turned over their posts to the secular clergy around 1773. In a 1790 church inventory, the retablo was described as having been newly installed, still unpainted and ungilded. We can surmise then that the construction of the retablo may have started with the Augustinian’s departure—making this altar the earliest example of rococo decorative style in the Philippines. If validated, this would also make the Betis retablo one of the rarest examples of religious art initiated by the secular clergy. In fact, a secular priest, Fr. Don Thomas Phelipe Gozum was responsible for the restoration of the church at the turn of the 19th century, regilding the retablo in 1812.

Subsequent repair and restoration works were ordered by Fr. Fernando Cuadrado (1855), Fr. Antonio Bravo (1857) and Fr. Manuel Camañes (1868-1898). The latter priest also built the cemetery and dug an artesian well at the plaza center, which still exists to this day. The retablo was last gilded during the Spanish times (1895) by Don Mariano Henson. Fr. Santiago Blanco (1939-1949) is credited with the interior re-painting of the church as we see it today. In 1980, on the eve of the town fiesta, the silver frontals and accoutrements for the altar were stolen. Despite these unfortunate desecrations, the Betis Church still stands today with most of its material heritage intact, a splendid monument to God’s glory and a tribute to man’s boundless artistic skills.
(11 January 2003)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

29. Most Rev. PEDRO P. SANTOS, D.D.: The Archbishop from Porac

TWO AGES OF HIS GRACE. Most Rev. Pedro P. Santos D.D., of Porac, Pampanga as he looked in his younger years and at a later stage of his religious life. He rose to become the Archbishop of Nueva Caceres, making him one of the highest ranking and powerful figures of the Philippine Catholic Church.

One of the highest-ranking religious figures in the Catholic hierarchy is a humble Kapampangan from Porac, the Most Rev. Pedro P. Santos, D.D., who rose to be come the Archbishop of Nueva Caceres in 1951. True, while another Kapampangan Santos gained more national prominence by attaining the higher rank of a Cardinal—Rufino Santos—the achievements of Pedro P. Santos as Servant of God, especially in the field of Christian education, are no less significant, a legacy that continues to benefit Kapampangans of today.

Pedro P. Santos was born in Porac on 29 June 1889. At age 11, he enrolled at the Ateneo de Manila in June 1900. Four years later, he was accepted at the Central Seminary of Saint Francis Xavier. On 15 March 1913, he was ordained priest by His Excellency, Archbishop Jeremias Harty, at the age of 24. He was immediately assigned as Assistant Priest and at the same time as sub-secretary to the Archbishop of Manila.

Just a few months into his job, he secured his first parochial assignment in his own province as Assistant Priest of Mexico, Pampanga in October. On November 1914, he was appointed chaplain of the chaplaincy of barrio Calulut, San Fernando, Pampanga. There, he undertook the construction of a church enabling the chaplaincy to become a parish. He then assumed the post as its first parish priest.

On 9 July 1917, he was assigned to Bacolor by the Most Rev. Michael O’Doherty, Archbishop of Manila. It was in this town that he set up the first of the schools he would organize later in his life: St. Mary’s Academy, founded in 1922. The high school closed in 1925 when a branch of St. Scholastica’s College opened in San Fernando, but the elementary level operation continued, interrupted only by the war. During his long tenure in Bacolor, he also repaired the church and constructed a rectory.

On September 1932, Rev. Santos took on the parish of Angeles as his next assignment. Here, he left his mark with the establishment of catechetical centers in Angeles barrios. He also encouraged the practice of spiritual retreats. Likewise, he fostered the growth of the Solidarity of the Children of Mary and published “Ing Cuyug”, (The Echo), a missionary newsletter that he circulated to thousands of subscribers. He organized fund-raising programs for the restoration of the old convent occupied by the Benedictine Sisters, thus re-invigorating the Holy Family Academy, originally founded in 1910 by Augustinian Sisters. In 1933, he also co-founded Holy Angel College (with Juan Nepomuceno), later to become a university, the biggest in Central Luzon. With his track record, Rev. Santos was appointed Vicar Forane of the northeast district of the province.

Bigger things were in store for the Reverend, for on 21 May 1938, he was named Bishop of Nueva Caceres (Naga) by His Holiness, Pope Pius XI. he was solemnly consecreated at the Manila cathedral on 15 August by the Apostolic Delegate, Msgr. Guillermo Piani, with hundreds of Angeleños in attendance. A banquet in his honor was held at the Colegio de Tiples. On 16 September 1938, he was installed in his Diocesan See. It can be said that Rev. Santos reached the zenith of his religious life when he was named as Archbishop of Nueva Caceres in 1951, at that time, a venerable title reserved for the privileged few.

Though uprooted from his beloved province, he continued to keep a special eye on Pampanga’s spiritual growth. In 1956, he went back to San Fernando to lead the canonical coronation of the Virgen de los Remedios, the holy image that became the guiding light of the Cruzada de Caridad y Bena Voluntad. In 1965, His Grace, Most Rev. Pedro P. Santos, D.D., departed this life at age 76, a dedicated Servant of God and Porac’s very own son.

Monday, May 14, 2007

28. PANUNULUYAN: A Christmas Drama

KNOCKING ON HEAVEN’S DOOR. The cast of this Panunuluyan in Sta. Rita includes the Narrator, the 3 Kings, a choir of Angels, Shepherds, town children, Jose and Maria, carrying a celluloid doll Jesus. Dated 1924.

In schools all over the country, one of the highlights of Christmas is the dramatization of the birth of our Lord Jesus. On stage, we are treated to charming performances of kids with cotton beards and wings, paper mache props, all swathed in colored fabrics taking on the roles of shepherds, kings and angels. The best roles were that of Mary and Joseph’s, and the prettiest girl and the meekest boy in class were often chosen for the honor. Always, a plastic baby doll on a hay-strewn manger stood in for the Child Jesus. Back in my elementary school days, when teachers started casting for the roles, I would wish I would land the role of Joseph, which I would have played with aplomb worthy of an Oscar, but, alas, I was too short, so I had to be content being a shepherd, a bit player, destined to blend with the painted scenery the background.

Christmas dramas have always been part of our rich holiday tradition since the Acapulco galleons reached our shores in the early 19th century, bringing the practice of religious theatricals, or posadas. These were later modified and transplanted by Spanish friars into provincial parishes, transformed into live street procession-performances known as Panunuluyan.

The Panunuluyan dramatizes the search for lodging of the Holy Couple, Jose and the very pregnant Maria. Originally, the images of the two, atop decorated carrozas, are processioned on Christmas eve and taken from house to house, in re-enactment of that event in Bethlehem. The images are preceded by altar boys bearing ciriales (cross and candles on poles) and devotees. Eventually, real people, instead of santos, were cast to assume the roles of Jose and Maria, almost always respectable citizens of the town. The dramatis personae expanded to include the 3 Magis, Melchor, Gaspar and Baltazar and even a Narrator and a Koro, a Chorus of singers who sang and delivered verses for the Holy Couple.

Four or five houses are selected as “inns”, to be visited by the Holy Couple, who either walked on foot, rode a gareta (bull cart) or in some cases, rode the back of a large animal like a carabao or donkey. The yards and balconies were often spruced with Christmas décor like lights and lanterns. At the first house, San Jose begs the “innkeeper” for a room, chanting the verses in octo-syllabic quatrains. The “innkeeper” sings his response, claiming his house is full, thus turning the couple away. The couple moves on to the next house, and then to the next, meeting the same cold response. Finally, the procession winds back to the church plaza, where a stable has been constructed. It is here that Maria delivers Jesus, amidst the ringing of bells and the celebration of a Misa de Aguinaldo, the last of the Simbang Bengi (nightly Masses).

Biblical dramatizations such as the Panunuluyan often were enacted to teach catechism and caton during the Spanish times. Pampanga too, adopted this seasonal custom, although in this day where religious rites and instructions are broadcast on TV daily, the quaint but colorful Panunuluyan has become a rare sight to see in most Kapampangan towns.


(28 December 2002)

Wednesday, May 9, 2007


THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS. A gathering of priests and seminarians celebrating noche buena at the de Jesus residence in Porac, with all the trappings of Christmas around them.Dated 1939.

Our multi-cultural traditions are very much evident in the way we celebrate the holidays. This 62 year-old picture, showing a group of priests and seminarians celebrating noche buena in the spacious grounds of the prominent de Jesus family of Porac, is an illustrative example of the rich tapestry of our Christmas customs, a mix of borrowed, adopted and localized elements from Spain, America, Mexico and even Italy.

The focal point of the picture is an altar featuring a Bambino, an iconic representation of the Infant Jesus as he lay in a manger in Bethlehem. It was St. Francis of Assisi who introduced this creche tradition, locally known as “belen”, and the practice of displaying the infant Niño was propagated by Franciscan missionaries.

Christmas is undoubtedly the brightest of the holidays, and in parts of Europe, the Festival of Lights—St. Lucia’s Day , Dec. 13—heralded the season. As one can see, the whole Nativity tableaux is lit with lights—from the figural Angel light holders called “portaciriales” to the more modern string of lights in vogue in American homes in the 1920s-1930s. General Electric is credited with introducing the first popular cone shaped lights in 1922 and it was not long before Japan improved on the idea, creating figural lamps molded in milk glass. Most Filipino homes during the 1930s period had Christmas trees lit with commercial lights manufactured by NOMA Electric Corporation.

However, outshining them all is the singular symbol of Kapampangan Christmas -the “parol”- which comes from the Spanish “farol”, meaning a lamp or lantern (“Farol”, on the other hand, evolved from the Greek word Pharos, an island in the Nile famous for its lighthouse and hailed as one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world).

Early Philippine parols were nothing more than candles or coconut oil lamps encased in paper shades shaped like fleur-de-lis and crosses held aloft on bamboo poles. Soon, the parol acquired a 5-pointed star shape and a tail of papel de japon (thin Japanese paper) mimicking the trail of the star that guided the Magis to Bethlehem. Today, San Fernando parol makers are the undisputed masters of this art with their elaborate, animated and electrified parols, earning for their city the title--“Lantern Capital of the Philippines”.

It is the glow of the Parol that has become synonymous with Pampanga, an artful testament not only to Kapampangan creativity but also to his devout spirituality with his use of the Star as a fitting symbol of a starlit Babe, the one who would one day become the Light of the World.


(21 December 2002)

Sunday, May 6, 2007

26. FINDING UNCLE BOB: Bob Razon, Dean of Philippine Portraiture

BOB RAZON IN THE 1950s. This world-class portraitist is a native son of Pampanga, whose parents are Andres Razon (Mabalacat) and Antonia David (Floridablanca).
VIRGINIA WARNE, was an 18 yr. old ingenue and winner of the “Covergirl” contest. Her prize included a portrait sitting with Bob. She also had a bit role in the movie “Tani”, but her biggest role was becoming Mrs. Bob Razon.

While I was doing research on the Castro genealogy, I was stumped with the Razon side of the family. My paternal grandfather—Gerardo Castro y Razon—was the son of Mateo Castro with Florentina Razon—and that’s about the only information I had. When the libros canonicos of Mabalacat became available at the Center for Kapampangan Studies, I dug up a few more Razons with links to our family, like Valentin Razon, the brother of Florentina. The names of their parents also cropped up: Mariano Razon, married to Simona Supan.

Knowing my interest to learn more about the Razons, my aunt Elsie Castro de la Cruz casually mentioned that my grandfather used to go to the renowned Adriatico studio of Bob Razon back in the 50s and 60s because “they were magkamaganak (relatives) of some sort”. Armed with that scant lead, I wrote a letter to Mr. Bob Razon, asking him about my late grandfather’s visits. To my surprise, he responded with a telephone call and conversed with me in fluent Kapampangan. Since he could no longer remember my grandfather’s visits, I decided to drop a few Razon names from my genealogical list, and when I came to “Tereso Razon”, his voice perked up and said—“That’s my father’s brother!”. I felt a sense of elation as we established the connection at long last!

Last 24 November 2002, I finally met the Bob Razon, hailed as the “Dean of Philippine Portraiture” for many decades. Our familial ties became even more apparent as we talked together in his studio-cum residence along Adriatico St. in Malate. As it turned out, Valentin (d. 1928) is Bob’s grandfather. Valentin and 1st wife Faustina Galiardo begot Tereso (b. 13 Oct. 1883), Apolonio (b. 10 Feb. 1886) and Andres Razon—Bob’s father. (2nd wife Fausta Dizon produced another son, Emilio (b. 7 Dec. 1898, a stepbrother Bob does not even know!) Since Valentin’s elder sister Florentina is my great-grandmother, that makes me a nephew of Tatang Bob!

Pablo Razon (nicknamed "Pab", mispronounced as "Bob" by Americans) is one of 8 children of Andres Razon (of Mabalacat) and Antonia David (of Floridablanca). His siblings include Elisa, Aurora, Clodualdo, Pablo, Felipe (whose grandson Daniel Razon is a GMA 7 TV personality), Francisco, Leocadio and Pedro. Andres was a Staff Sergeant, and so he led a peripatetic life, and it was in Iloilo that Bob was born on 25 January 1913. They would shuttle back to Floridablanca and Guagua, Pampanga and move again to Balanga, Bataan in the next few years. As a young boy, Bob was fascinated with a flicker locket that would reveal the image of a woman when tilted at an angle—his first brush with the magic of image-making. Already keen with a paint brush, he was asked by his American boss in Escolta to take pictures for a change—and he surprised him with snapshots that looked so professionally done.

By the “pistaym” era, commercial photography was enjoying a boom. Venus, Rialto, Triangulo, Sun Studio and C. Valdez & Co. were some of the eminent studios in operation at Escolta and along Avenida at that time, taking glamor shots of Carnival Queens, debutantes, politicos and professionals. The war years temporarily halted the business, but when it was time to rebuild, Bob Razon picked up from where others had left off and put up a studio along Rizal Avenue near the Manila Grand Opera House. Here, he had a captive clientele—the stars of the Opera, headed by Katy de la Cruz came to Bob’s for their photos.

At first, Bob was just happy shooting pictures of vaudeville stars and “hanggang-pier girls” who gave their portrait souvenirs to their American GI boyfriends. Later, his association with Society Editor Cita Trinidad put him in touch with high society personalities, including the rich and powerful at the posh Manila Hotel. There at the Fiesta Pavilion, he set up a makeshift studio where he plied his business. Word soon got around of the classy portraits he was making and Bob started to make a name for himself in salon photography. Two women who sat for their official portraits would play significant roles in his life: Imelda Romualdez, the Rose of Tacloban and Virginia Warne, and 18 year-old ingenue and winner of “Covergirl”, a contest to promote Rita Hayworth’s movie of the same title. Virginia later would become Mrs. Bob Razon, and their marriage would produce children Robert or "Bo", an accomplished international musician, Richard, Pearl, Minette and Raymond. (Mrs. Razon spends half of the year in the U.S. while Bob has forsook his green card to spend his life in the country he loves best).

The golden age of Bob’s salon photography spanned the years 1950s-1960s. He has shot presidents—from Quirino, Roxas, Magsaysay, Garcia, Marcos, Ramos to Aquino. His nuptial assignments included the weddings of Ninoy Aquino-Cory Cojuangco, Jose Concepcion-Marivic Araneta, , brides Vicky Quirino, Rosemarie Jimenez Arenas, Gretchen Oppen, among others. National queens Gemma Cruz, Christina Matias, Cynthia Ugalde, Edita Vital and Bessie Ocampo had their royal sittings at Bob’s. Leading fashion houses like Ramon Valera, Slim’s and Tres Chic sent their models to his salon for pictorials. And showbiz glossies would always have Bob’s portraits on their covers, whether it be the handsome profiles of Rogelio de la Rosa and Leopoldo Salcedo, the demure beauty of Delia Razon (who used Bob’s last name, upon the suggestion of director Gregorio Fernandez), Tessie Quintana, Rosa del Rosario or the luminous presence of Rita Gomez and Rosa Rosal. Likewise, Bob has captured the beauty of society girls like Minnie Osmeña , Susan Magalona , Chito Madrigal, Ditas Lopez, Luz Puyat Martel, Lucy Pamintuan and Celia Diaz Laurel.

To further his craft, Bob went to Hollywood to study make-up at Westmore Beauty Salon, an institution that served Universal Studios. When his interest expanded to movies, he hied off to Rome to observe cinematic techniques. Since 1958, he has been a member of the esteemed Professional Photographers’ Association of America. As a leading name in portraiture, Bob has very few equals. While other photographers seek to present the truth, Bob’s aim is to beautify it, and this is his differentiating edge, evident even in his early works—“where the glow of history combines with the warm patina of nostalgia to create an enduring fantasy in soft focus”.

Today, at age 89 going 90, Bob continues to reign supreme at his Bob’s Studios, still full of vital energy for his work--orchestrating his staff, supervising photo shoots and managing the business all by himself. “I think I am happiest when I’m working,” he says ”You say that I have become part of history, but I only feel that way when I look at the portraits that I have taken. Otherwise, I’m always looking for the next beautiful face, the next pose, the next portrait challenge.”

Just recently, he launched his coffee table book, Bob Razon: A Life Devoted to Salon Style, a rich visual documentation of his very best works and of his life and times. This definitive book has successfully captured the very essence of his life passion—“making memories since 1946”. I am thrilled to have found Tatang Bob, and I left his studio warm with the thought that I have finally rediscovered the long-lost Razon ties that bind him with our family, a connection that has now become clearer, and definitely stronger than ever.
(14 December 2002)

 Update: Bob Razon passed away on 14 August 2013, at age 100.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007


MAG-KODAKAN TAMU! A young boy in smart sailor suit pose with an old camera on a wooden tripod with a hand-written sign: “Ligon Studio, Centro Fotografo, Lubao, Pampanga”, 1920s. This must also have been used as an advertising trade card.

My memory of my first official portrait sitting is kind of hazy now, even with a reproduction copy of that close-up picture I still have, taken in some musty Mabalacat studio along Sta. Ines Road. I must have been around 3 or 4 then. What I do remember was the accompanying terror, as I sat alone on a stool in a darkened room, dressed in a smart polo shirt with white collars, embroidered with a sea lion on the left chest. The photographer then started coaxing my body to assume a certain pose, manipulating my shoulders, tilting my shaven head, asking me to hold that smile. I think my Mother was somewhere behind the camera, the large kind with a tripod, reassuring me that all would be well if only I follow the photographer's commands. Suddenly, the photographer’s head disappeared under a black cloth. He continued giving muffled last-minute instructions to look at a certain direction, God knows where. Then came a shock of blinding flashes that added to my horror, but it was too late to react, for in a few seconds, my ordeal with the camera was over.

The world has been fascinated with photography ever since Nicephore Niepce gave us the first photograph in 1827 (Greek word for “light” and “writing”), when he successfully exposed--after 8 long hours--a picture of a building on paper, which unfortunately was temporary. His partner, Louis Daguerre improved on this invention by developing photographic plates, which reduced exposure to 30 minutes and made the image permanent by immersing the paper in salt solution. The “daguerrotype” process however, did not allow for photo reproductions, and it was only in 1835 that William Henry Fox Talbot invented paper negatives.

Our love affair with photography began in the mid-19th century, when the first commercial cameras were introduced to our islands. World traveler Sinibaldo de Mas was supposed to have taken pictures of members of the Spanish community while travelling in Manila in 1841, to supplement his dwindling spending money. The earliest surviving picture of a Filipino was a stereoscopic image (reproduction of images in 3 dimensions) of a Tinguian native, dated 1856.

With the coming of the Americans, new products and technologies reached our shores, and among these were commercial cameras and the latest photographic equipment. This set up a frenzy for photo studios, and early shops like De Berri and International Studio were already taking snaps of people and events in the early 1900s. In pre-war Manila, the Escolta and Avenida districts were lined with photo shops like Sun, Venus, Rialto, Juan de la Cruz (with a Kapampangan proprietor) and Triangulo Studios, which were active in the 1920s-30s.

Pampanga was not to be left out, however, for creative Kapampangans photographers too hitched their cameras to the studio bandwagon. A certain Jose Ma. Piñon had a studio in Pampanga that specialized in “carte-de-visite”—small visiting card portraits that were the rage during the Victorian era. He photographed ilustrado women in baro’t saya, and the thin paper portraits were mounted on cardboards with Fotografia de Jose Ma. Piñon, printed at the back. He also took photos of the historic events in Malolos at the time of the Revolution.

Other photographers include Ramon Nemesio Dizon (1882-1956) and Julio Valenzuela (1883-1940), who both came married into the big Nepomuceno and Henson families. They were especially active in the first 2 decades of the 1900s. Predictably, they became “official” photographers of their relatives and their extended families, documenting their gatherings, reunions, excursions, weddings, funerals and birthday parties. Dizon was especially creative as he also made personalized real photo birthday and Christmas cards. Like Julio, his studio was equipped with different painted sets that served as fanciful backgrounds for his subjects. It is easy to identify their works as these were stamped with their names (R. Dizon and Julio Valenzuela Fotografo). A lot of their commissioned photos survive to this day in old family albums and scrapbooks.

Studios sprouted like mushrooms in Pampanga towns during the 1910s-1930s. San Fernando had its Baluyut Photo Studios and Pampanga Moderna. There was a Stotsenburg Studio which took mostly souvenir shots of Americans stationed at the military camp to be sent back to families in America. Also in operations during these decades were the Santos Studio (Lubao), Angeles Studio, Reymon and White Star Studios (Guagua), Leonor Art Studio (Macabebe). Loanzon Studio in the 1930s had many commissioned photos for elementary school class pictures and graduation. In nearby Tarlac, local folks flocked to the Razon Studio and Tarlac Art Gallery for their photos. After the war, the most renown salon was Bob’s , established in 1946 near the Manila Grand Opera along Avenida by Kapampangan Roberto “Bob” Razon, hailed today as the “Dean of Philippine Portraiture”.

Though trimmed and faded, I am glad I still have my childhood photo, now in a silver frame on top of my living room table. Photos not only served to celebrate moments but also immortalize people at their very best, and boy—do I look cute in my first portrait-- buzz haircut, pudgy cheeks and all—thanks to that one patient photographer in Sta. Ines, who worked his magic with a flash of light, a click of a button and a cheery command to “Smile!!”. I have been holding that smile for over 40 years.
(7 December 2002)