Wednesday, December 30, 2009

*177. MANUEL CONDE: Kapampangan Khan of Films

THE ART OF KHAN. Manuel Pabustan Urbano Sr., better known as Manuel Conde, is recognized as one of the greatest Filipino directors of our time. He is credited for introducing Philippine movies to the world via his 1952 epic, "Genghis Khan", the film that took Venice Film Festival by storm. Rare autographed picture, ca. 1950s. Author's Collection.
When I started a career in advertising, one of the very first directors I met and worked with was Jun Urbano. It was the early ‘80s, and Jun’s reputation as topnotch director was already known in the industry, bagging plum assignments from major advertisers such as San Miguel Corporation, including the legendary Fernando Poe Jr. commercials for its beer brand. I was a fledgling copywriter for Magnolia then, and just had a series of TV ads approved for production. Jun Urbano was the one and only choice to shoot these ads. When I finally did meet him to discuss the storyboards, I was awed by the depth of his creative vision and artistic talent that obviously ran deep in his blood, being the eldest son of the famed director, Manuel Conde.

As we did more commercials together, Jun and I became fast friends. During shooting lulls, he would often talk about his father and how he was influenced by the cinema he created during the gilded age of Philippine movies. I was surprised to learn too that Manuel had Kapampangan roots, the son of an Italian mestizo, Dionisio Urbano, and Lucia Pineda, of Pabustan, San Fernando,  a Pampangueña who relocated to Daet, Camarines Norte in her teens.

It was here that Manuel was born on 9 October 1915. He was preceded by elder sisters Nena and Carmen. Lucia and Dionisio ran a zapateria and a bibingkahan to support their growing family, but they would meet early deaths, leaving their three children orphans. The siblings supported themselves by selling banana fritters in front of movie houses and that was where Manuel’s interest in movies began.

After graduating from the Camarines Norte High School, he left for Manila to enroll in geological engineering at Adamson University in 1931. He would play hooky and hang around Filippine Films and in 1935, he was signed up to work for the film outfit as an all-around production man, handling everything from spotlights to wardrobe and even doing stunt work. He also dabbled in acting, the job he came to love most. His first bit role was in the movie “Sa Tawag ng Diyos” helmed by Carlos Vander Tolosa, courtesy of a recommendation from Don Danon (stepbrother of Rosa Rosal, another half-Kapampangan actress).

Manuel ended his studies at Adamson and opted for a stable job with Marsman and Co. In 1938, he married Julita Salazar, a beautician, with whom he would have seven children, all named Manuel. The only girl in the brood was named Manuela. While with Marsman, he continued to moonlight as a performer, this time as ventriloquist with Borromeo Lou’s vaudeville troupe. He bought a dummy doll and renamed him Kiko Tolosa. Since it was difficult for the ventriloquist to say “Urbano”, he changed his last name to “Conde”, giving birth to a screen name that he would always be known for.

His foray into directing was a result of a missed opportunity, when, in 1938, he missed his boat to Java where he had been taken in to work as a mining prospector because he got drunk the night before. Director Carlos Vander Tolosa found himself an assistant director in the person of Manuel Conde, and in 1939, their film, “Giliw Ko” was released. Recognizing his worth, the producer Doña Sisang de Leon offered him his first directorial job, “Sawing Gantimpala” an LVN super production in 1940. Thus began a flourishing career as a successful director of renown.

He was well-known for his costumed fantasies for LVN, including “Ibong Adarna”, “Principe Tiñoso” and “Principeng Hindi Tumatawa”, which was based on a story by Doña Aurora Quezon. He struck out on his own in 1947 by forming his own MC Productions and came up with the very popular “Juan Tamad” series, which poked fun at the post-war Pinoy foibles. He worked with the future National Artist and good friend Carlos “Botong” Francisco in designing the look of his films. He followed his first “laffterpiece” with “Juan Daldal (Anak ni Juan Tamad)", but continued doing swashbuckling fanstasies like “Prinsipe Paris” and “Siete Infantes de Lara” in 1950 where he introduced a Mabalaqueña ingénue, Gracita Dominguez, the first wife of Dolphy.

That same year, Manuel started “Genghis Khan”, a result of his fascination with the great conqueror of Asia. He played the title role, supported by Elvira Reyes as Princess Lei Hai. Manuel shot the movie on a modest budget of P125,000, renting puny calesa horses to save money and shooting in Guadalupe for the rocky mountain scenes. It was premiered at the Times Theater in Quiapo on 7 November 1950 and turned out to be a dud, closing after 4 days. It did win the “Most Popular Motion Picture Award” in a 1951-52 poll conducted by The Herald and Manuel himself would reap a slew of acting and directorial awards, that earned him a Hollywood trip as part of his prize.

This led to a screening of Genghis Khan in Hollywood and the reaction to his film was very positive. In August 1952, the film was submitted for consideration at the Venice Film Festival. From among 780 film entries, Genghis Khan was chosen as one of 20 films to vie for awards at the prestigious film fest, a first for the Philippines. Though it did not win, Genghis Khan made waves and emerged as one of the most popular movie of the annual festival. The movie would be exhibited later in Salzburg, and in 1953, was screened at the Edinburgh Fil Festival where, once again, it thrilled audiences.

United Artists bought the film for distribution around the world, where it would later be dubbed in 16 languages and earning 17 million dollars.

Returning from his triumphant conquest of Europe, Manuel made more hits for LVN and for his own film outfit like “Ikaw Kasi”, “Handang Matodas” (starring Nestor de Villa and Nida Blanca), “Bahala Na”, “Krus na Kawayan” and “Bayanihan”. But it was his second series of Juan Tamad movies filmed from 1959-63 that would prove his mettle as an effective political and social commentator through films. The 3 Juan Tamad classics, “Juan Tamad Goes to Congress”, “Juan Tamad Goes to Society” and “Juan Tamad at Juan Masipag sa Pulitikang Walang Hanggan” entertained audiences while making critical statements about local Philippine culture, challenging traditions and taking swipe at political and laughable social practices.

Two years after his last Juan Tamad film, Manuel ran unsuccessfully for congressman of the 3rd District of Manila. In 1973, his son Jun Urbano directed him in the remake of “Siete Infantes de Lara”. He was forced out of his retirement in 1974 to direct the Lapu-Lapu episode of the NMPC-produced “Tadhana: Ito ang Lahing Pilipino”, but the historical epic meant to flag the Marcoses’ New Society was never shown to the public.

“Juan Tamad” was resurrected briefly as a TV series in 1979 and the following year, he appeared as the elder Juan Tamad to Niño Muhlach in the film “Juan Tamad Jr.”. He was inducted in the Filipino Film Directors’ Chapter of the Artists Hall of Fame for his lifetime contributions. He likewise was given the “Patnubay ng Kalinangan Award” from the Mayor of Manila in 1984. Manuel Conde, the Filipino movie great who showed the way for Filipino films to win international acclaim, passed away at age 69 on 11 August 1985.

POSTSCRIPT: After a successful stint as a commercial director, Jun Urbano reinvented himself as Mr. Shoo-Li, the Mongolian TV character from “Champoy” that was obviously inspired by Genghis Khan. Like “Juan Tamad” before him, Mr. Shoo-Li made wacky commentaries about the Philippine socio-political scene and gained nationwide popularity just like his father’s creation.

(Source: The Cinema of Manuel Conde, Nicanor Tiongson, University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2008)


LOYAL SENIORS CLASS OF 1948. Mission accomplished for this post-war batch of graduates of Holy Angel Academy. Included in this group is my mother, Estrella del Rosario, and the daughter of the school founder, Teresita Nepomuceno (Wilkerson), the class salutatorian. 1948, Author's Collection.

It is said that no Kapampangan home is complete without a Holy Angel diploma hanging somewhere on a wall. For over 75 years, the school has educated, nurtured and inspired generations of Kapampangans thirsty for knowledge, changing not just their lives, but the life of their communities as well. In an extraordinary way, Holy Angel has become larger than its walls can contain, impacting the city’s history while contributing to the advancement of affordable education in the region.

The school started as Holy Angel Academy in 1933, founded by Don Juan D. Nepomuceno (1892-1973) and Msgr. Pedro S. Santos. Don Juan’s son, Javier, had been sent to La Salle in Manila for his high school education, but homesickness drove him back home to Angeles. He enrolled at the town’s only high school—Angeles Academy—but soon found himself facing problems such as the high cost of school supplies and the daily ten centavo commute via calesa to the school.

Piqued by his son’s predicament, Don Juan realized the need for a high school (like Angeles Academy) that could provide Catholic education (like Holy Family Academy) with high academic standards (like Pampanga High School). Above and beyond this, he also envisioned a hometown school that offered affordable, accessible education, so that children need not be sent to Manila, to live away from their families, like what Javier experienced.

The Commission on Private Schools approved the application for the opening of the high school. Except the proposed names—either St. Joseph Academy or Holy Rosary Academy—which had already been taken by other schools. Fr. Santos recommended “Holy Angel”, after the town patron, which was approved. Thus Holy Angel Academy, the first Catholic school administered by laypersons was born, temporarily housed in a building on the side of the Holy Rosary Church.

The tuition fee for 1st year students was 4 pesos monthly, 5 pesos for sophomores and 6 pesos for junior and senior year level. The first students of Holy Angel were transfer students from Angeles Academy, including Javier. Ricardo Flores, former history teacher of Javier at Angeles Academy, was taken in as part of the faculty and he would later play a significant role in running the affairs of a growing school. The first teachers also included Miss Encarnacion Aranda, who multi-tasked as a physics, biology and math teacher. Don Juan taught a special Spanish course, free to all students of Holy Angel. Holy Angel Academy also offered Night School to accommodate Clark Air Base employees who wished to earn a high school diploma.

In October 1941, the school moved to its new building with its signature columns, designed by architect Marino Valdes. The coming World War forced the closure of the school, re-opening after the liberation in June 1945. The first collegiate courses—Normal (Teacher Education) and Commerce—were offered in 1948, paving the way for the institution of Holy Angel College in 1961. Twenty years later, it finally achieved a university status. In 8 March 1982, the Archbishop of San Fernando, Oscar Cruz, named Holy Angel University a Catholic University. The Commission on Higher Education cited Holy Angel as one of the top universities of the country in 2001.

In more recent years, Holy Angel University faced challenges from all fronts, including student unrest, boycotts, faculty strikes and a volcanic eruption. Through it all, Holy Angel survived and thrived, upgrading services and expanding facilities that included the organization of the Center for Kapampangan Studies (2002), the opening of the College of Nursing (2002), the inaugurations of San Francisco de Javier Building that houses a world-class theater (2007) and the new Chapel of the Holy Guardian Angel (2009). Still under construction is the multi-storey St. Joseph building, the state-of-the-art future home of the College of Arts, Science and Education and the College of Information and Computer Technology.

Among Holy Angel’s outstanding alumni are Sec. Rizalino Navarro; the Very Rev. Silvestre Lacson, OSB, the first Filipino Benedictine prior; Right Rev. Tarcisio Ma. H. Narciso, the third Filipino Abbot; and Atty. Cesar L. Villanueva, Dean, College of Law, Ateneo de Manila University. But there are also thousands of ordinary Kapampangans who benefitted in more ways than one from their Holy Angel experience.

One of them was my late mother, Estrella del Rosario. As I sort out her old photo albums, I picked out this picture, the Loyal Seniors Batch of 1948. She was among the 458 who graduated that year, the biggest number thus far, in the school’s history. There she is on the front row, the first young lady on the left, proudly clutching her diploma. She would recall her days at Holy Angel, how they would escape to the fields at the back of the school with her friends, how her sister Gloring became Miss Sophomore, stories of endless soirees and programs, all fond recollections of her youth.

Many, many years later, as senior citizens, she would attend her annual high school reunions without fail, often hosted by their batchmate and salutatorian, Mrs. Teresita Nepomuceno-Wilkerson. She was looking forward to her 2009 reunion until she was felled by a sickness from which she would not recover. The Holy Angel family tradition was continued by my four siblings who chose to go to college in the city: Mike, Susan (Commerce), Eric (Political Science) and Momel (who, after finishing Med Tech from UST, enrolled at Holy Angel for a commerce degree). I, too, remember taking up summer classes at Holy Angel, a cross-enrollee from a Baguio school, a brief but an enjoyable period of my student life.

Holy Angel University has just celebrated its Diamond Year. Through good times and bad, it has remained true to its mission of providing quality yet affordable Catholic education for all. Mindful of its founders’ precious legacy, Holy Angel University today forges on, continuing what it does best: molding minds, shaping destinies, and making history.

Monday, December 21, 2009

*175. ROSA DEL ROSARIO: A Kapampangan Flies High as the 1st "Darna"

ROSA STAGNER, known to Philippine movie fans in the 40s and 50s as superstar Rosa del Rosario, the first 'Darna' (Filipina super hero). ca. 1930s.

In the 1960s, when my homework was done, I would go to the TV room with my pillow, and settle down to watch classic movie re-runs on this program called “Mga Aninong Gumagalaw” (Moving Shadows). The black and white films that enthralled me most were the “Darna” action-fantasy series, based on the hit comic character created by Mars Ravelo. The central character was a frail little girl named Narda, who, with the help of an enchanted stone, magically transformed into a high-flying, butt-kicking female nemesis of evil—Darna!

I was fascinated by this wonder woman, a smashing figure in a sexy outfit and a winged cap, ready to defend and protect the populace from every conceivable danger—from a plague of snakes led by Valentina to petrified tree trunks, impaktas, birdwomen and alien beings. She was cool, she had spunk, a rare personification of an empowered Filipina. And who else could portray such a larger-than-life super hero than a pretty Pampangueña—Rosa del Rosario?

The pre-war Queen of the Philippine Movies was born in Bacolor, Pampanga on 15 December 1919 as Rosa Stagner, the daughter of Agustina Del Rosario and American Frank Stagner. Frank brought his growing family to Manila and it was in the bustling city where they settled. One of her children set up a dress shop business where 12 year-old Rosa would spend her idle time.

Her discovery was purely accidental. A foreign film director and her nurse dropped by the dress shop to inquire about the presence of a movie production outfit in the city. Rosa and her sister told the director about Malayan Motion Pictures, a leading Philippine cinema company at that time. Malayan was founded by Jose Nepomuceno, acknowledged today as the “Father of Philippine Movies”. The sisters volunteered to arrange an appointment with the Nepomucenos in their behalf.

When Mrs. Nepomuceno saw the Stagner girls, she was immediately taken by the budding beauty of Rosa. She immediately obtained Rosa’s permission to cast her in her very first movie—“Ligaw na Bulaklak”. The next day, Rosa was fetched by a car and driven to a location shoot to meet her co-star, Carlos Padilla, who was cast as her father. For her screen name, she took her mother’s surname and was billed as Rosa del Rosario. Her long and legendary movie career had just started.

In the next few years, Rosa del Rosario enthralled movie fans with her presence, appearing in hit after hit with debonaire leading men that included her kabalen, Lubeño Rogelio dela Rosa and Leopoldo Salcedo, the great profile. She made a number of movies with Leopoldo: the zarzuela-based Walang Sugat (1939), Kundiman ng Luha (1950) and historical bio-flick, Tandang Sora, which she considers her favorite.

Rosa also became one of the early Filipinos to break into Hollywood. She was so famous in the Philippines that when an American director came to cast an Asian for his Hollywood movie, it was Rosa whom he sought out. She appeared in the film classic, “Anna and the King of Siam” in 1939 (to be redone as the musical “The King and I”, as one of the king’s wives. She also appeared in the “The Border Bandits” and “The American Guerrila”.

But it is her role as “Darna” that is invariably associated with her—even if other actresses—Liza Moreno, Vilma Santos, Gina Parreño, Anjanette Abayari, Nanette Medved, among others-- have also essayed that part through the years. As the first “Darna”, she learned to “fly” suspended from a helicopter, doing her own stunts and choreographing her own fighting moves. She shot her physically-demanding scenes all over Manila, in Quiapo as well as in scenic Bulacan. Her famous hand-to-hand combat atop a mountain with Valentina, the Pinay medusa played by American-bred Cristina Aragon, was one pivotal and spectacular scene I will never forget--it was not just a case of good triumphant evil, but also a dramatization of beauty with a purpose!

In the late 50s, Rosa chose to move to the United States with her husband, John Samit, and her two daughters, Geraldine and Teresa. She settled in San Francisco, California where she lived for many years. She returned to the Philippines in the early ‘80s to accept the “Walang Kupas Award” (Unfading Luster Award), the ultimate recognition for movie personalities who have made their indelible marks on Philippine cinema. Rosa lived to see the role she originated, immortalized as a blockbuster TV serial, as a musical and even as a ballet show. Rosa del Rosario, the half-Kapampangan star who rose above the rest as the first Filipina superhero on the silver screen, passed away on 4 February 2006, in Modesto, California, age 87.


THE GATHERING. The Del Rosario siblings, children of Emilio del Rosario and Josefa Valdez, Felicisima Castro and Florentina Torres, pose with their families in the 1956 Del Rosario event of the year.

This picture of the large Del Rosario clan used to hang in the living room of our old Mabalacat home before it was torn down and the contents packed and stored away. My mother was sure proud of this picture as she had it framed, a reminder that she was once a genuine Angeleña, born and raised in Kuliat, until circumstances led her to live for a few years in Zaragoza, Nueva Ecija (as a companion to her priest-brother) and in Hermosa, Bataan (as a nanny to an American couple). But it was to Angeles that she would always return, comfortable around his many brothers and sisters and always proud of her Del Rosario roots.

The earliest Del Rosario in our family tree is one Anacleto del Rosario (fl. late 1790s) , who became the second husband of Maria Arcadia Henson. Maria Arcadia was the youngest child of Severino Henson, a Chinese mestizo, and Placida Paras of San Fernando; an elder brother was Mariano, the first Filipino lay Doctor of Laws and a husband of Juana Ildefonso de Miranda, daughter of the founders of Culiat, the future Angeles.

Anacleto and Maria Arcadia had 6 children, and the eldest, Pablo del Rosario married Luisa de Ocampo. From this union, seven children were born, and the fourth son, Cornelio, married a relative, Juana Henson de Ocampo. Cornelio and Juana would populate the family tree with 10 children, one of whom was Emilio del Rosario (b. 2 Sept. 1878/ d. 7 Sept. 1947), my maternal grandfather.

My Ingkung Milyu married not once, but three times, siring a family that totaled to about 20 children, including those who died in infancy. The Del Rosario kids were thus identified as products of pregnancies from the “mumunang atyan” (Josefa Valdes), “pangadwang atyan” (Felicisima Samia Castro) and “pangatlung atyan” (Florentina Torres).

Fifteen survived to adulthood and raising all of them was a supreme challenge for my Ingkung Milyu whose only source of income in the 1930s was a parcel of land in Sapa Libutad, which he tilled and planted with rice and sugar. The early deaths of his two wives (Apung Sepa and Apung Simang) further complicated matters as the children were left motherless at a young age.

My Ima only has haze memories of her mother, Apung Simang, who died of a heart ailment. She was just about 3 or 4 years old then, so she and her siblings were “loaned” to kind relatives who took care of them as if they were their own. But it is to my Ingkung’s credit that all his children grew up with a strong sense of family; when the eldest brood finished their studies and became professionals, they took over in supporting their younger half-siblings, treating them no differently, and always with love and affection. Even as adults, and with their own families, the Del Rosario siblings were always ready to lend a hand to a brother or a sister in need, be it in the form of financial help, moral guidance or a a piece of wise advice.

This particular picture, taken possibly in mid 1956, shows the Del Rosarios gathering in full force for a grand family reunion, although I remember my Ima saying that it also coincided with her older brother’s birthday-- I can’t recall who that was. In any case, here we see the Del Rosario siblings almost complete, many in their prime with careers flourishing and families established.

My five uncles, children of my Ingkung’s first marriage with Josefa Valdez are seated in the middle row, starting with the third bespectacled man from the left, Tatang Dadong, followed by Tatang Curing and a brother -in-law, Patrocinio Feliciano. Tatang Maning, Tatang Pabling and Tatang Anding complete the eldest set.

Second wife Felicisima Castro gave my Ingkung the following children: eldest son Tatang Carling (seated after T. Anding) and next to him, Tatang Ato, the youngest. Their sisters are standing on the back row. Ninth from left is Mang Susing, Mang Maring and Mang Glo. My mother, Mang Ester (or Ecteng, as she was fondly called), stands rightmost, flashing a big smile.

The final set of offsprings with Florentina Torres are likewise here, Tatang Andy, the 2nd man seated from the left, and Mang Baby, the young lady standing leftmost of the picture. Tatang Norli and Redentor are not in the picture.

Sadly, the original Del Rosario brood has diminished in number over time. The first children of the first marriage have all gone to the Great Beyond, with Tatang Maning’s passing in 1987. All missed too are the children of the second marriage—my Ima joined his siblings only this year (2009) in June. The third and last set of children remains intact, with four Del Rosarios left as keepers of the flame.

As I stare at the familiar smiling faces of my Del Rosario uncles and aunts, mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters, and cousins at this reunion 53 years ago, I am struck with a realization that what I have is more than just a souvenir photo; in my hands, I am holding tangible memories of several Del Rosario generations, some dead, some living, bound by blood and history. Each face remembered and recognized triggers a rush of fond and pleasant recollections, in a time when our cares and fears seemed a world away, when all that mattered was being one big and complete family. Long live and prosper, Del Rosarios!


ASSUMPTIONISTAS OF PAMPANGA. Alumni of Assumption Academy gather for a post-war reunion at the hallowed school grounds of the school that would be the pre-cursor of the St. Scholastica's Academy. Dated 1947.

The school that would be the predecessor of St. Scholastica’s Academy in San Fernando was founded as a parochial high school in June 1925 in the house of the Singians. The Singians were prominent Fernandinos that intermarried with the similarly extended Dayrit and Hizon clans. They generously offered their residence to the school that was known as Assumption Academy of Pampanga, under the auspices of Msgr. Prudencio David. The school was administered by Benedictine sisters and offered primary and intermediate general courses for Kapampangan students.

Five years later, the school produced its first graduates, and soon, Assumption Academy found favor among Fernandino families for its quality of education. Enrollment was brisk and in 1931, the school was relocated to its second site in Barangay Sta. Teresita (at the back of the church of San Fernando).

By 1933, the Academy was offering special courses like Music, with Piano as its field of specialty. Modern languages like Spanish, German and French were also taught. Typing and clerical subjects popular choices too, and so were the Art courses that included Painting, Drawing and Embroidery. Meanwhile, kindergarten classes continued to be open for both boys and girls. In 1938, the ownership was transferred to the Benedictine Sisters, making it the third school in the province to be ran by this order, after the Holy Family Academy of Angeles (formerly the Colegio de la Sagrada Familia) and Saint Mary’s Academy of Bacolor.

During World War II, the school was used as a military hospital, and so remained unscathed. In 1966, Assumption was renamed Saint Scholastica’s Academy and has been known by that name since. Floods in 1972 caused major damages to the school, prompting the transfer of St. Scholastica to higher ground, along McArthur Highway, where it has become one of the city’s landmarks.

Fondly called by its nickname, “St. Scho”, it counts well-known “kulasas” like Myrna Panlilio (the very first “Bb. Pilipinas” 1964), Anicia del Corro (Kapampangan language expert) and Ma. Theresa “Cherith” Dimson Dayrit-Garcia (honor graduate-turned militant killed in an NPA raid in Isabela) as among its graduates. Today, St. Scholastica’s Academy of San Fernando continues to operate and provide well-rounded education to a new generation of Kapampangan students, molding their Christian character while equipping them with knowledge and skills to meet the exciting challenges of the future.

Monday, December 14, 2009


SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME. A Kapampngan yaya holds one of the newborn twins of an American military wife stationed at Camp Stotsenburg, ca. 1924. From a private album.

Our family was a big one; we were eight in all—six boys and two girls. My paternal grandfather too, lived with us in a big house with a big yard that demanded regular cleaning and upkeep. My stay-at-home mother was an excellent cook and a thorough house cleaner, so in those departments, she was pretty much self-sufficient. But in hushing crybabies and running after unruly kids, my harassed mother needed obvious help, and so the family decided to hire ‘yayas’ for high maintenance babies, that included me.

As a baby, I had delicate health and was very fussy, and that’s how Atching Daling came into my life—my own personal nanny or simply, my “maningat”. I still have a couple of pictures of me and Atching Daling, although I can’t recall our first meeting. In one taken in Baguio, I was a 10 month old baby in her arms, looking very much like a hyperactive child who can’t keep still. I was told by my late Ima that I was a sensitive child, prone to tantrums and crying fits, and I could only imagine the stress and torture I subjected my Atsing Daling to. I must have tried her patience to the bones, for she left right after I learned to walk. But she would come back periodically to our old Mabalacat house and check on me, until grade school.

Then, as now, househelps with specialized “children” skills were sought after by large families of means. Chinese ‘amahs’ offered their services to take care of infants and toddlers, and some even worked as nursemaids. Expatriated American families stationed in Camp Stotsenburg employed not just local ‘yayas’, but also live-in Japanese and Chinese maids who traveled with them wherever they were assigned.

My father himself, had his own ‘maningat’, a thin, dark but feisty old woman he called Atsing Buru (short for Ambrosia), who looked like Aling Otik, but whom we addressed as Ati Bo. My father’s family recognized the invaluable years of service Ati Bo rendered and so she was rewarded with a home of her own at the back of our house when she got married. Even with her own two daughters to care for, Ati Bo would always be on-call, ready to assist the household in whatever capacity. When our parents had to go to Manila, Ati Bo would be asked to look after us in their absence. She would also be tasked to help in the cooking and preparation of fiesta food—stirring inuyat (molasses), wrapping bobotu (local tamales) and serving guests.

On the other hand, my Ima also had a short stint as a nanny of an American toddler, a child of a military couple based in Bataan. She hardly spoke of this phase in her life, but I am sure it prepared her for her life ahead as a mother, equipping her with skills to care for a brood of whiny children. But then, a super busy mother could only take so much.

And so, the nannies continued to come. We had Belen, our chubby yaya from Tarlac whom we sincerely loved; she was not just an excellent all-around help, but was also a nice playmate, always willing to take on the role of a captive hostage while us Cowboys roped and terrorized her. We also had a male nanny, Boy by name, the son of another househelp from my mother’s side of the family. His basic duties were to bring and fetch us from school, feed our meals and look after our toilet needs. Come playtime, he was expected to play with us, and I remember him gathering spiders and insects for our amusement. Poor Boy was also in charge of rocking our hammock to make us sleep, but more often than not, he would slumber first.

When you are young and self-absorbed, you can never fully realize how cruel life could be for some people, ‘yayas’ included. Looking back now, our ‘yayas’ led difficult lives, victims of circumstances, of poverty, trapped in an eternal cycle of debt and servitude. Boy’s three siblings for instance, were dumped in our house by their mother, forced to work for us to pay for her debt. They were only kids just like us, but instead of enjoying their childhood, they ran errands and worked odd jobs for long, lonely hours. In the case of Belen, she was uprooted from her family at a young age, out of a desperate desire to help her parents. Transplanted in Pampanga, she worked for us while battling homesickness.

It’s not too far a stretch, but somehow, my ‘yaya’ stories remind me of the same personal sacrifices that modern-day OFW domestics go through in their search for greener pastures. Each day, thousands of would be-yayas leave their own children behind to care for somebody else’s babies in strange, distant lands, sometimes, under a punishing work culture that can drive anyone to the edge.

Looking back, if only I had that kind of heightened awareness then, I would have been kinder to our house helps. I would have cried a little less, curbed my tongue and made fewer “sumbongs” (telling on adults) to my father, who was rather severe with them . But then I was just a little, bratty kid, who believed that the world should be designed me and me alone. Every now and then, I often wonder what had become of Atsing Daling, Belen and Boy and all the other househelps who spent a good part of their lives in our family’s service. I hope it’s not too late for me to say “Dakal a salamat kekongan” (Many thanks to you all) and I sincerely wish that you found the good future you have all been searching and woking hard for.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

*171. Where The Treetop Glistens: A HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS

O CHRISTMAS TREE. O CHRISTMAS TREE. This native home is spruced up for the holidays with Christmas symbols like the ornamented Christmas tree and a Santa Claus cut-out, introduced by America, which in turn, were adapted from Europe. ca. 1920s.

One of the holiday traditions we observe is decorating the house to give it a festive look and liven up the merry season. We only started getting serious in the late 60s, when our mostly wooden house underwent a major facelift. While our house was still a far cry from those featured on the pages of Country Living, we felt it deserved a better “interior decoration”, especially for Christmas.

Before that, our holiday décor were all home-made—the lopsided parol hanging in our front window was just my brother’s industrial arts project, while I did the wall treatment. One year, I fashioned anahaw fans into the Three Kings, following the instructions from a craft magazine, to deck our living room wall. My eldest sister took care of the Christmas tree, which she always made from found objects—chicken wire, tree branches, crochet strings.

Christmas of ’71 was truly special to me because for the first time, we finally had a tinsel Christmas tree bought from Clark Field. It was a 4-foot tree with silver metal branches that you stick into a central pole. It came with a plastic angel tree topper and assorted ornaments, but the piece de resistance was the string of lights that my Father arranged around the tree, blinking , twinkling and dazzling the branches with rainbow colors. The only drawback was that the metal tree conducted electricity and once in a while, you get jolted by mild electric shocks. I think that tree lasted for years!

The many symbols of Christmas that we use to decorate our home are mostly of Western origin. The decorated tree for example, originated in Germany, where evergreens were used. This tradition found its way to America and the practice was cascaded down to its colonies and our Islands. Baguio had the advantage of having evergreen trees, but lowland Filipinos improvised by making do with what was available, oftentimes resulting in unique, reinvented trees.

I remember my sister fashioning a Christmas tree from twigs on which soapsuds were applied and allowed to dry to give it a fake “snowy” look. I also remember a year when “walis tingting” tree became the rage. Spray-painted and put in a pot, the “tree” was stringed with paper chains and decorated with old Christmas cards and palara stars. On the other hand, to make string Christmas tree, one had to trace a circle on a piece of plywood, the outline of which was marked with thumb tacks. A white gantsilyo (crochet) thread was tied to one tack, looped around a hook on the ceiling, then pulled taut to be tied on the next tack, until a conical shape was formed. Usually, before the process is completed, a paper belen (the pop-out variety available from a commercial bookstore) was set inside the circle as a centerpiece.

Jolly Old Saint Nicholas—or Santa Claus—had his beginnings in Europe. The Dutch speak of a hoary, thin man in red and white named Sinte Klass. Washington Irving create the image of the chubby, pipe-smoking gift-giver, but he gave it the size of an elf. In 1822, Dr. Clement C. Moore wrote the poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” which further bolstered the popularity of this Christmas figure. It took the cartoonist Thomas Nast to define the look of Santa that we all recognize today: roly-poly, rosy-cheeked, with a long, white beard, in a costume trimmed with fur, topped by a red hat and with a bell in hand.

The figure of Santa Claus easily captivated Filipinos and eventually became part of our pop culture. I remember the Christmas motorcades that originated from Clark Field, which were always highlighted by a candy-throwing Santa Claus—actually, a fat military man dressed in a red and white costume. There have been attempts to make a Pinoy version of Santa, but the idea never took off. Santa’s European alter ego, however—Kris Kringle—gave its name to the practice of secret gift-giving, popular in many schools, also known as “manito-manito”.

In the West, the Star of Bethlehem as a design motif was used on early greeting cards as well as on trees as tree toppers. But it is here in the Philippines that the star was successfully translated into native décor that has become Pampanga’s signature: the parol. Parols for the home were simple enough—five pointed stars made from bamboo sticks wrapped in papel de japon and trimmed with palara (metallic paper). The characteristic tails were made from the same, thin strips of fine Japanese paper. When one didn’t have the time or the budget, a paper lantern from colored cartolina would do. Cartolina circles were stapled together to form a simple, boxy parol which was accented by a single tail that rustled in the wind.

The most complex and spectacular parols however are the legendary star lanterns of San Fernando—virtual psychedelia in motion. The ingenious lantern makers also introduced the innovative “dinukit a parol”—in which cardboard layers were designed to give the illusion of an ornately carved lantern. In Angeles, expert kite makers dabbled also in lantern-making, creating therare and quaint fish-shaped lanterns with movable fin and tails to captivate the crowd during a procession.

The Christmas belen tradition in the country dates back to the Spanish times. St. Francis is credited with making the first manger scene in 1224. The idea spread to other European countries, and French became instant fans, creating wooden ‘creches’ for their homes. Back here, Filipino families had little Nino Dormidos carved, sleeping infant Jesus either of wood or precious ivory. The Nino was brought out from its altar and laid on a straw-lined manger to mark the days of the Nativity. In churches nationwide, the figure of Baby Jesus is held out by the priest, to be kissed by devotees right after the Christmas Midnight Mass.

Despite trying times, people continue to go on decorating sprees during the holidays, perpetuating a tradition that goes back ages. I need only to peek out from my 14th floor office window to see sculpted belens gracing building facades. The NLEX exits are once again bursting with the kaleidoscope colors of parols for sale. Christmas trees of twigs, Santa’s lighted silhouettes, wreaths and poinsettias, tinsels and tassels—all scream “Pasku na, pasku na…nananu ko pa?”. My heart sings. The sights fill me with the joyful spirit of the Season.