Sunday, March 30, 2008


THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT. A traveling band of performance artists such as this group, made the rounds of Pampanga towns, especially during town fiestas, to mount kumidyas and sarwelas for the entertainment-hungry public. Sta. Rita, Pampanga. Dated 24 June 1915.

Show me a Kapampangan who does not like to perform before a crowd. At the drop of a hat, a Kapampangan will sing, dance, act and perform feats of daring, without so much encouragement. A natural born performer, a Kapampangan loves basking in the spotlight, making it a point to maximize his enjoyment of his 15 minutes of fame when called onstage. That has been true for the last hundred years or so, when colonial entertainment, which consisted largely of plays with roles essayed by actors, musicians, dancers and poets, became a national past-time.

The idea of leisure in old Pampanga was to socialize and gather together to fill up free hours. And so, to the poblacion or town center the whole family congregated. Here, they were treated to spectacular didactic plays culled from the epics of Medieval Europe or inspired by the life of the town’s patron saint. This was the kumidya—a play in verse that dazzled the local audience with choreographed battle scenes, stylized acting and fabulous costumes. Plays that carried royal themes were also called moro-moro, and soon, scores were being written in Kapampangan, led by Padre Anselmo Jorge de Fajardo (1785-1845). This Bacolor-born religious, a product of the University of Santo Tomas, wrote the famous kumidya Gonzalo de Cordova, based on the real-life story of the Spanish royalty and his affair with the Moorish princess, Zulema.

Moro-moro plays were often carried out after the Mass, thus guaranteeing a captive audience. Stories often told of controversial courtships between a Catholic princess and a princely moor, with the latter converting to Catholicism to win the princess’ hand. Characters like moros, cristianos and reinas wore expensive colorful costumes complete with jewelry, thus providing the crowd with a fantastic visual treat. Favorite parts of the moro-moro included scenes involving magia—or special effects: moving animals made of bamboo and abaca, manipulated from underneath the stage. Music was provided by a brass band which played marchas, pasodobles and Himno de Riego for war scenes.

Just as mesmerizing were the musical zarzuelas derived from the Spanish theater. Unlike the kumidya, the zarzuela dealt with reality-based themes such as family issues and romantic conflicts. Mariano Proceso Pabalan holds the distinction of writing and mounting the first vernacular zarzuela in 1900, with the presentation of Ing Managpe in Bacolor. Pampanga’s leading zarzuelista of course was Juan Crisostomo Soto, who wrote the frequently staged “Alang Dios”, last performed at Clark Air Base in 1998.

Pampanga was among the first provinces to have theatrical companies with resident actors, playwrights and directors. Artists received anywhere from P4-P15 per show while the author got P100. Travelling professional groups like the Bacolor-based Compania Sabina (named after Ceferino Joven’s spinster-sister) toured Pampanga, Tarlac and Manila performing the works of zarzuelistas like Pabalan, Gutierrez-David and Soto.

Other popular entertainment events include tertulias, intimate socials often held in large mansions, with hours of music, poetry and free-wheeling conversation. Bodas, on the other hand, were held during weddings, marked with dancing, orations and poetry recital. Schools on the other hand offered more professional theatrical performances called veladas—music and literary programs with rich production design.

The Kapampangan’s love for the performance arts shows no sign of waning. Turn on the TV, tune in to Channel 7’s Starstruck and you’ll find a Kapampangan star finalist there. Then change the dial to the other channels, and chances are, you’ll find another Kapampangan singer-contestant belting his heart out in those popular star searches. Open a playbill and you will encounter the names of Lea Salonga, Andy Alviz, Yolanda Tolentino—all Kapampangans—lighting up the marquees of Broadway and the world’s best entertainment circuits with their formidable talents, providing relief and momentary diversion to a country in turmoil. For these gifted Kapampangan performers--despite coup talks, peso devaluation, increased criminality and economic crisis--the show must go on.
( 6 December 2003)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

76. AGAPITO CONCHU: Kapampangan Martyr of Cavite

A KAPAMPANGAN AMONG 13 MARTYRS. Agapito Conchu of Guagua, made Cavite his home after his Manila education, settling down there and earning a livelihood as a musician and lithographer. Implicated in a revolutionary plot againt Spain, he was executed as one of the Trece Martires de Cavite on 12 September 1896. Picture from the book “Mga Anak ng Tangway sa Rebolusyong Pilipino by Emmanuel Franco Calairo”, from where most of the above information on Conchu were taken.

For my National Heroes’ day article, I decided to have for a subject, a little-known Kapampangan hero whose noble deeds—and even his name--have been blurred by time and forgotten in most history books. My rediscovery of him began in one of my visits to my favorite antique dealer who resides along a narrow street that cuts across the busy Zobel Roxas in Makati. Conchu Street, that’s how it is called, and if you don’t pay attention to the street signs, it’s easy to miss. When I asked for directions, people would scratch their heads and ask in return, “Conchu who?”. Just like them, I never knew who this Mr. Conchu was, until I later found out through the internet that he was, in fact, one of the 13 Martyrs of Cavite, and more significantly, a Kapampangan. Agapito Conchu, like the street named after him, is largely unknown to many Kapampangans but his role in the revolutionary history of Cavite and needs to be told and recognized.

Agapito Conchu was born in Guagua, Pampanga on 18 August 1860 to parents Saturnino Conchu and Nemencia Hocson. He obviously had Chinese mestizo roots judging from his parents’ surnames and his extant picture that shows him with distinct Sino features. His paternal aunt, Leonicia Conchu brought him to Manila, together with his two brothers to pursue their studies. Agapito attended Ateneo de Manila where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree.

It was also in this Jesuit-run school that Agapito began his love affair with music, an interest that earned him an assignment at the Binondo Church where he moonlighted as a church organist. Occasionally, he would also conduct the local orchestra which provided music during fiestas and other events. His brothers, Deogracias and Candido opted for more practical courses, becoming a seaman and a tailor, respectively.

Looking for a more stable job, Agapito worked in the printing press of Salvador Chofre. Here, he learned another trade: lithography printing. Having mastered this art, he set up his own printing shop at Calle Real in Cavite in 1890. His studio, established next to the pharmacy of Victoriano Luciano, was called Foto-Litografia Moderna de A. Conchu. Here, he printed colorful labels for medicines, cigars, perfumery and pharmaceutical products.

It was also at this time that Agapito settled down with Isabel Basa with whom he had 9 children. To supplement his income, he returned to his first love, music. He taught piano to children of government officials and other prominent families. When Agapito Escacio, the music teacher of the local elementary school, passed away, Agapito Conchu took his place.

Agapito lent his talent to the social events of the town, organizing orchestras for both young and old. He launched La Compaña del Trueno, a band which included Francisco Osorio (drums), Victoriano Luciano (bass, violin), Dr. Hugo Perez (fife, triangle), Basilio Borromeo (violin, piano, cantor). Agapito himself, aside from the organ and the piano, played the violin. Julian Felipe became its famed Conductor. On certain occasions, Agapito also sang at the Church of Porta Vaga, and as if his services to the church were not enough, assisted in painting the reredos of the Church of San Pedro. His main source of income however, was his burgeoning printing business. In 1892, during a regional exposition, Agapito’s lithographic prints won for him a Silver Medal and a Certificate of Honor. The winning works included paintings and artworks.

In the Revolution of 1896, Cavite and its towns actively participated in the revolt against Spain. A plot was hatched by the principalias in the province but was twarthed when Victoriana Sayat of Imus told Dña. Victorina de Crespo, the wife of military governor, of the suspicious moves of Severino Lapidario (jail warden), Alfonso de Ocampo (asst. warden) and Luis Aguado (connected with the arsenal).

On 3 September 1896, Agapito was arrested on the basis of the testimony of de Ocampo, who, under torture named him as one of the cabecillas of the revolutionary association of Cavite. He, together with 12 others (Victoriano Luciano, Maximo Inocencio, Francisco Osorio, Antonio San Agustin, Hugo Perez, Jose Lallana, Eugenio Cabezas, Maximo Gregorio, Feliciano Cabuco along with Aguado, de Ocampo and Lapidario) were arrested and executed at the Plaza de Armas at the Cavite arsenal on 12 September 1896. Thus one brave Kapampangan—Agapito Conchu of Guagua-- joined the pantheon of noble heroes collectively known today as the Trece Martires de Cavite.
(29 November 2003)

Monday, March 10, 2008

75. PAMPANGA'S RICE: Ing Kakanan Mi King Aldo-Aldo

POUNDING RICE IS NEVER FUN. Husking rice entails the pounding (“bayo”) of rice using a wooden lusong (mortar) and pestle.Rice is then winnowed on a “bitse”, where the white rice grains are separated from the husk. In this staged photo, music accompanies the rhythmic pounding of rice. The subjects are identified L-to-R: Carmen Nava, Filemon Nava, Luding (?), Jose Ganzon, Jose Alejandrino, Teodoro Viray. Dated 3 March 1925.

In our grade school geography class, our books often clustered provinces into regions and assigned them fancy monickers. Hence, Mindanao was labelled as “The Land of Opportunity”, Palawan as “The Last Frontier” and the Central Plain provinces of Luzon, to which Pampanga is a part of, had the imaginative title of “The Rice Granary of the Philippines”.

Indeed, long before Pampanga became the country’s 2nd largest producer of sugar, it had rice for its main crop. Rice agriculture after all, started in Southeast Asia, where monsoon rains are conducive to its growth , and today, rice remains the staple food of half of the world’s population. Governor de Sande, in his 1576 report, writes: “The province which in all this island of Luzon produces the most grain is that called Pampanga…Manila and all the region is provided with food—namely rice, which is the bread here by this province; so that if the rice harvest should fail there, there would be no place where it could be obtained”.

When the Spaniards surveyed Pampanga towns, they found rice growing predominantly in riverine towns of the south, where the ground was lower, thus allowing the Rio de Pampanga to supply the soil with much-needed water needed to grow and nourish the crop. In fact, only in southern Pampanga was it possible to grow two crops of rice a year, unlike northern towns which had drier, sandier soil. The Frenchman Le Gentil writing in 1766, marveled at the fertility of Pampanga and its ability to produce more rice crops than other provinces. Pampanga’s rice belt included Apalit, Minalin, Santa Ana, San Simon, Candaba, Santa Rita, Floridablanca, San Fernando and Lubao.

With the realization that Pampanga could be important to the Spanish administrative center in Manila with its abundant rice harvest, Spaniards lost no time in demanding rice sustenance from the province. Manila’s dependence on Pampanga’s rice supply often had terrible consequences. In 1583, when Kapampangans were forced to go north and work in Ilocos gold mines, Pampanga’s rice fields were neglected, resulting in a great famine for the country. This turned out to be the last straw for 2 native elites, Don Juan Manila and Don Nicolas Managuete, who led a failed uprising and invasion of Manila. In 1589, an issue was made of the agricultural slaves kept by Kapampangan chiefs. The chiefs came to plead in Manila, negotiating successfully for the continued use of Negrito slaves by using the importance of rice to leverage the merits of their case.

The peak months for planting rice are May, June, July and November, when monsoon rains prevail. The initial wet-field process begins with preparing the soil by plowing, using the trusty damulag. The seeds are sown in the wind or are dropped into holes punched by digging sticks. It takes from 90 to 120 days for the grass to mature, depending on varieties. Working together in the fields gave rice to the spirit of comradeship—the bayanihan. When the rice plants are a foot high, they are transplanted accompanied by rhythmic singing. However, the long wait between the planting and harvesting season often built up a debt relationship between tenants and landlords.

For many years, Pampanga, with its expanding population, found it hard to satisfy the country’s demand while meeting its local needs. Finally, in 1910, Pampanga produced a surplus of rice. In 1917, Pampanga ranked 4th in national rice production with an output of 1.422 million cavans. In 1919, a new rice crisis developed. Sugar found favor when new demands in the world market caused a shift from rice to sugar production.

Though cultivated not as extensively as before, the wonder grain continues to sustain us in our daily life, feeding our hunger while contributing to the economy. Of course, rice has also enriched our culinary heritage. Our language is filled with word references for rice in its various states. Unhusked rice is called “pale”. When husked, it is called “abias”. And when cooked, it becomes “nasi”. Ground in a stone gilingan, glutinous rice becomes "galapong", the main ingredient for our mouth-watering bibingkas, suman, sapin-sapin and palito. For Kapampangans, rice is, and will always be the staff of their life.
( 22 November 2003)

Monday, March 3, 2008


CLASS SUIT. Teachers participate in a “normal” school class in Guagua to hone their English skills, learn new pedagogic techniques and update their knowledge on advanced teaching methods. American teachers often provided the training. Dated 1930.

This semester, I will be going back to school after 15 years. No, not as a student, but as a week-end instructor at the Holy Angel University in Angeles where I will be handling Advertising and Communication Arts classes—this on top of my full-time advertising job in Makati. Friends say I am crazy to subject myself to additional stress but I have done this before. In 1985, I accepted a 7-to-5 Saturday only teaching position at Angeles University Foundation for 4 semesters! My star student then was Tonette Orejas, now Pampanga’s topnotch newspaper journalist.

I have always loved teaching, never passing up the opportunity to lecture in schools on subjects learned from my craft: visual communications, advertising, copywriting, design, even history and culture. Teachers ruled my schoolboy life, and my early inspirations were Mrs. Eleuteria Paquia (Grade 6), Mrs. Salud Manarang (Grade 3), Mrs. Paula Alfaro (Grade 5)—beacons of knowledge all whom I looked up to for guidance and disciplined enlightenment.

More recently, I lectured at the University of Asia and the Pacific, sharing my knowledge and experience in integrated marketing communications with smart, senior students always eager to learn, inquisitive minds who are just about ready to take on the challenges of the corporate world. And, with all the high tech instruction aids available today---notebooks, CD Roms, power point presentations, audio-visual presentations, Mac computers—classroom sessions have become a more convenient and enjoyable experience for both students and teachers. Gone were the brown Bureau of Education notebooks that we once used; instead, students now take down notes using their laptops and palm pilots.

Teaching conditions were far different in Pampanga schools a hundred years ago. One need only to look at the journal of an American teacher, Will M. Carruth, a young Cornell University graduate who came to Pampanga as one of the 25 civilian volunteers from the U.S.A.T. Thomas in September 1901. Just days after his arrival, he was in Betis assigned to teach English. But to his horror, he found out that all the books he was supposed to use were in Spanish! Carruth also wrote of the shortage of school supplies. In one instance, he had to order the required books from Manila--a mere 40 miles away-- with the materials arriving only after 55 days. As if this ordeal was not enough, he had to contend with fluctuating number of students, with enrollments often being cut in half as a result of the demands of the harvest season. Carruth labored in Sta. Rita, San Fernando and San Simon, solving administrative problems—from dealing with incompetent teachers to contending with meddlesome town officials—until deciding finally he had had enough. At the end of his contract in 1904, he went back to the United States.

Luther Parker was another Thomasite who took a great interest in Pampanga and its people. It was he who initiated the compilation of the town histories of the province from the Spanish period onwards, a valuable source of information for researchers of local history. In Arayat, teacher Alfred Arnold put up entertainment programs to win over native officials to the cause of public education. In Candaba, supervisor G.N. Anderson used his own money to finance a new building, while in Magalang, Kilmer O. Moe helped build classrooms with his own hands.

Obviously, Americans alone could not cope with the demands of public instruction. The next course of action was to train local instructors who were often steeped in the old, outdated ways of the Spanish school system. A Teachers’ Institute thus was established in San Fernando, run by American supervisors, with the intention of upgrading the teaching skills of native teachers. Classes were held in between semesters in February and March in order not to disrupt the regular school schedule. In other towns, local “normal” schools held classes for Filipino teachers every afternoon for English lessons and advanced pedagogical techniques.

Education was apparently not a popular choice by Kapampangans at the University of the Philippines in the 1920s. Only 16 enrolled in the 1918-19 schoolyear, dwindling down to just 9 enrollees five years later. Agriculture and Medicine were the more preferred courses. Blame it on the horror stories that abound about the rigors of teaching that continue to hound the image of this “noble profession”: low pay, low motivation, long hours, a thankless job.

So, what keeps a whole legion of teachers—including me—going back to the classrooms? I guess it’s the still the same reason that prodded the Carruths, Parkers, Manarangs and Alfaros of this world to leave the comforts of their home and stand in front of bright-eyed students for hours every day. It’s got something to do with the intangibles, that ultimate feeling of fulfillment that comes from having enriched a person’s life through knowledge shared, from having led the way in opening new windows of opportunities, from having made a difference. Not everyone is given the privilege to do that every day.
(15 November 2003)