Water has always been the lifeblood of ancient communities. Early settlers set up homes near rivers, brooks, lakes and streams for convenient reasons. Water gave life, served as means of travel, nourished plants and spawned abundant marine produce that fed people, gave livelihood and caused whole towns to grow and flourish. Kapampangans, like the Tagalogs, thus settled by the banks of a great river too, and the riverine settlements that grew along its pampang (river bank) and its tributaries would define the Pampanga region and its people.
Rio Grande la Pampanga, as the great river of our province is called, is one of the longest rivers in the Philippines with an area of 9,520 sq. kms. snaking through Pampanga, Bulacan, Nueva Ecija and portions of Zambales, Rizal, Quezon, Tarlac and Nueva Vizcaya, The Rio Grande originates from several rivers in the southern slopes of the Southern Caraballo range, in mountains Lagsing and Mingolit opposite to the Magat River of Cagayan. It flows in a southerly direction to its mouth in Manila Bay, joining its major tributaries, Rio Chico Talavera near Mt. Arayat and the Angat River at Sulipan.
On this fabled river sailed the Malayan pioneers from the Malay Peninsula and Singarak Lake in West Sumatra, discovering dwellers along its banks. Henceforth, the inhabitants of the riverside communities were known as “taga-pangpang”, giving Pampanga its name. As a rich source of livelihood and as means of commercial transport, the great Pampanga River has become inextricably linked with the province’s economic, political and social history through centuries. It was no wonder then that our forebears considered the river as sacred, its ebbs and flows dictating the course of life along the banks and the towns beyond.
Rio Grande and Rio Chico (or Chiquito) provided wide access from south to north of Pampanga until the 18th century. Back then, travelers would find sailing the waters of the river very smooth, nothwithstanding the rainy season. One can actually go upstream in a small boat from Manila Bay to Lingayen Gulf without seeing the sea! The course starts northward via Pampanga River, to the Chico River, then rounds off the east of Arayat and along the Tarlac-Nueva Ecija boundary, up to Canarem Lake, then northwest along Tablang, Quiniblatan and Mangabol Rivers, roceeding to Tarlac River which empties downstream to Bayambang River and into Agno River which is the main tributary of Lingayen Gulf.
At the start of the Spanish colonial period, all major settled areas of the province were mainly situated in the south near the great river and along its tributaries further north. Apalit, Arayat, Bacolor, Betis, Candaba, Guagua, Lubao, Macabebe, Mexico, Porac and Sexmoan were the towns of principal importance at this time, due to their proximity to the river. Merchants from these towns would sail south in bancas and cascos towards the esteros of Quiapo, Tondo and Binondo where they would unload zacate, sugar and other local produce. Mexico’s role as a major commercial center would soon diminish when the tributary on which the town was located, was silted up; commercial traffic moved elsewhere.
Through the years, the Pampanga River has been dammed, silted up and polluted by man. And as everyone knows, the Pinatubo eruption of 1991 caused untold havoc to its tributaries. The disastrous repercussions are most felt during the rainy season, when water from the oversilted river channels and estuaries, which have risen higher than the land around it, flood whole towns and plains, a yearly encroachment that seems unstoppable.
Yet, remarkably, Rio Grande has shown an amazing ability to heal and renew itself. Today, the mother of all rivers flows smoothly still and it often comes as a surprise to the occasional water traveller that the rippling waters have remained pristine in some areas and the scenics similarly well-preserved: from the lush mangroves jutting from the river’s navel, the flock of migrant birds that have come to commune with nature to the magnificent townscapes visible from afar. What other magical sights could our forebears have seen from this river?