Wednesday, August 22, 2012


BUT ONLY GOD CAN MAKE A TREE. A whole forest of balakat trees shade a camping site at sitio Mascup, a favorite resort of domestic tourists in Mabalacat, Pampanga. The tall, hardwood tree gave the town its name. Ca. 1920s.

The names of Pampanga towns are among the most unique in the Philippines—and leading in intrigue and mystery would be, to my mind, Mexico and Sexmoan. Mexico’s name, for instance, has always been a source of puzzlement for toponymists—researchers who study of place-names. One fanciful version has it that Mexicans (Guachinangos of Northern America) actually lived in the town and gave it its name. More controversial is the name of Sexmoan, which has, though the years elicited gasps of disbelief from visitors, due to its seeming sexual overtones.

No wonder, the town has reverted back to the local version of its name—“Sasmuan”—a meeting place—as it was known to be an assembly point for people around the area whenever Chinese insurgents threaten to overrun the region. Of course, there were other ways of naming towns, and the more common would be to name them based on their distinct geographical and natural features, including flora and fauna typical of the place. It was in this manner that many towns in Pampanga got their names.

 Apalit, for instance, got its name from the first class timber called ”apalit” or narra (Pterocarpus indicus Willd.) that grew profusely along the banks of Pampanga River. Betis was named similarly—after a vary large timber tree called “betis”(Bassia betis Merr.) that grew on the very site where the church was constructed. It was said that this particular tree was so tall that it cast its shadow upon Guagua town every morning. Another border town, Mabalacat, derived its name from the abundance of “balakat” trees (Zizyphus talanai Blanco) that grew around the area. The balakat tree is known for its straight and sturdy hardwood trunk that were used as masts for boats and ships of old.

The riverine town of Masantol owes its name to the santol tree (Sandoricum koetjape Merr.) , a third class timber tree. It may be that the place had an abundance of these popular fruit-bearing trees but another story had it that local fishermen bartered part of their catch with the tangy santol fruits carried by Guagua merchants that plied the waters of the town. Santol was the favourite souring ingredient of the locals in the cooking of “sinigang”, and soon, the town was overrun by santol fruits.

A tall rattan plant gave Porac its name, as we know it today. The red Calamus Curag can grow up to 8 feet and is known locally as “Kurag” or “Purag”, later corrupted to Porac. Nearby Angeles City was once known as Culiat (Gnetum indicum Lour. Merr.) , a woody vine with leathery leaves that once grew wild in the vicinity. Not only while towns, but countless barrios and barangays were named after trees, shrubs, hardwoods, plants and vines—Madapdap, Balibago, Cuayan, Pulungbulu, Mabiga, Sampaloc, Baliti, Bulaon, Dau, Lara, Biabas, Alasas, Saguin, Camatchiles, to name just a few.

Some of the trees that grew so thickly in different parts of our province are now a rare sight, with some considered as bound for extinction. For many years, the only balakat tree that could be seen in Mabalacat, were two or three trees planted in the perimeter of the Mabalacat church. Culiat is listed as an endangered plant and a few examples could be found in Palawan and in U.P. Los Baños, Laguna. Sometime in 2003, Holy Angel University in Angeles City made an effort to collect plants and trees that gave their names to Pampanga towns and barrios. Today, these can be seen growing in lush profusion around the school atrium. By saving these trees, we also save histories of towns for the next generation to learn, to value and to appreciate.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


GOOD TO BE HOME. The stately interior of an unidentified Sta. Rita house boasts of burnished woodplank floors, painted walls, large windows and furnishings including two grand pianos and a painted portrait of the family matriarch. Ca. 1920s.

Sta. Rita is one of Pampanga’s smaller towns, but it is big on charms and local attractions. The more apparent points of interest when one walks its streets are the many heritage houses, mostly well-preserved and still intact, right down to their interior furnishings and architectural details. After all, this ancient town, which became independent from Porac in 1770, was spared from the damages inflicted by the last World War, as well as by the 1991 Pinatubo eruption that caused much loss to the material heritage of its neighbor, Bacolor.

 As a result, the town has retained much of its colonial structures, ranging from the modest to the magnificent, certainly contributing much appeal to Sta. Rita’s landscape. Noticeable still are a number of native houses constructed in the style of bahay kubos, constructed with nipa roofings, pitched high over a wood structure, elevated by a framework of posts.

The Malig-Lansang House is one such residence that began as a bahay kubo, as seen from its very high pitched roof, thatched with layers of dried nipa. Ceiling-less like a kubo, the house shows transitional features as it was being transformed into a bahay na bato: from its covered zaguan to its rich wall panellings of Philippine hardwood.

Similarly, there are many bahay na bato examples here complete with features like zaguans (ground floor housing processional carriages or storing grains), entresuelo (a sort of a waiting room), caidas (receiving area, from the Spanish word, “caer”—to fall, as this is the part where women let fall of their saya trains), comedors, cucinas and oratorios (prayer rooms).

The Carpio House, with a commanding view of the Santa Rita Church, is a two-storey structure that is noted for its expansive receiving rooms. An exterior cement and tile staircase, added later, takes one to the upper floor which boasts of opulent interiors, with wooden wall panels, oversized windows and floors hewn from redwood planks.

The nearby Maglalang House, built on a spacious lot dotted with greens and trees, reeks of rusticity, what with its wooden capiz windows and wooden banggerahan. Once inside, there are traces of its luxurious past—a pair of Venetian glasses on the wall, a grand piano, an altar-full of ivory santos and sacred art, even a wooden refrigerator from the turn of the 20th century!

 Then there’s the house of grand dame Irinea Pineda, whose brother, P. Braulio Pineda was a prominent religious figure of Sta. Rita. Half of the house has been converted into a school, but the residence has been wonderfully preserved by her descendants—from the sliding capiz windows, calado transoms (woodfret cut-outs panels that allow air to circulate from room to room) and intricate iron grills.

There are also notable houses belonging to two great clans of Pampanga, who are in fact, relatives. The De Mirandas keeps a beautifully-maintained heritage house that is characterized by its capiz windows, hardwood floors and polished wooden walls displaying heirloom art. Although now modernized with air conditioning, the De Miranda house reflects the relative affluence of the town with an economy built largely by farming. A distinguished member of the De Miranda family is Don Angel Pantaleon de Miranda, who, together with his wife, Rosalia de Jesus went on to found the town of Culiat, now Angeles City.

Equally-impressive is the stately house of the De Castros, relatives of the De Mirandas. Upon entering, one is drawn to the art nouveau arch that graces the portal of the house. One ascends a richly-burnished wooden staircase to reach the commodious top floor which houses the sala or living room. The wide double windows of capiz and persiana affords one to see the different vistas of the town. Grilled ventanillas circulate air freely around the house. The walls are handsomely painted with art nouveau floral motifs and on the house posts are mounted old shadow boxes with hand-made assemblages inside showing allegorical wooden figures of the four seasons labeled as Verano (Summer) Primavera (Spring), Otoño (Autumn), Invierno (Winter). The De Castro home used to be a favorite venue for film productions, but the loss of some heirloom items in a shoot starring Aga Muhlach prompted the current caretaker to stop this practice.

Indeed, for most Sta. Ritenos--whether his house is a tiny kubo or a European-style mansion-- there's no place like home. It is good to know that there is a growing consciousness for heritage conservation among the residents, with many original owners opting to preserve their homes than sell them, which speaks well of the locals' pride of place. As one philosopher wrote: "the strength of a nation derives from the integrity of a home"--and when one walks around Sta. Rita to marvel at their well-preserved heritage homes, you can't help but agree.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

*305. CATSTUFF: The 'Pusa' in our Pop Culture

WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT? Muning, Kuting or Miaoww--a caterwauling cat by any other name would has enough endearing traits and behavior to earn a special place on our laps, in our homes and in our pop culture.

Cats have always played second fiddle to dogs, but by sheer profligacy, they outnumber and outlive the canines. Like dogs, they were a common presence in many Kapampangan homes, and their scavenging instincts were often put into service to rid houses of vermin, rodents and snakes. Western observers who arrived with the American military forces at the turn of the 20th century were quick to note of the crooked tails of local cat breeds, a feature that was seen as undesirable. As such, racists took the cat as a metaphor for the “inferiority”of our brown race.

In other countries such as Ancient Egypt, the Felis Catus held a revered place in the country’s religion, and a cat-headed goddess—Bast—was even venerated with deep respect. Cats were mummified and buried with the dead to accompany him to the afterlife.

In the Western world, cats found their way into popular culture, inspiring authors to create literary pieces (T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum”, Dr. Seuss “The Cat in the Hat”) , nursery rhymes (“Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, where have you been?”), fairy tales (Grimms’ Puss in Boots”)”, and even a long-running Broadway rock opera (“Cats”). Cat-related words, expressions and phrases found their way into the English language. To be “catty”is to be sarcastic, to be a “sour puss”, a bad loser. A secret revealed means “the cat is out of the bag”. When one suddenly is at a loss for words, he is asked if a “cat got his tongue”. Kapampangans have also embraced the ways of the cat—regardless whether it’s a stray cat (pusang layas) or civet (musang), musk (diris) , a mountain cat (lamiran) or a purebred Persian or Siamese.

Our language has been enriched with descriptive expressions certainly inspired by our feline friends. ”Lupa kang musang”(You look like a civet cat) is how one describes someone with a dirty face. The same breed of cat also gave us the word “mangusang”, meaning to have an asthma attack, in reference to the cat-like gasps an asthmatic emits.

When in heat, cats can often behave in a wild, crazed and noisy manner during their mating ritual, hence the term, “pusa lampung”. An early definition of “lampong”as collected by Bergaño is “to smash or break plates or tiles in a hearth”. Could that refer to the cat’s ear-breaking wails while in the throes of passion? When one wanted a bratty child to stop crying, one would utter the threat—“Oyan na ing pusa lampung! Kunan na naka! Myaooww!”(Here comes the wild cat! Meoow! He’s coming to get you!). The term “lampung” has come to mean making flirtatious, sexual moves between a man and a woman, as in “makipaglampungan”. It is also interesting to point out that there is a Lamphong region in Indonesia—could it be that a cat was a bred there and came to this country via the land bridges as a feral cat?

There are also cat-associated descriptive phrases that are now part of our everyday expressions: a dead person’s temperature is “marimla ya pa keng arung ning pusa”—colder than a cat’s nose. “Mitindag”, which means “like the bright eyes of a cat”, is a term used to describe the brilliant personality of a person. Certain beliefs about the cat’s peculiar behaviour also abound. For instance, a cat standing by the front door portents the arrival of a visitor while a cat wiping his face (“manimu ya”) forewarns of rains. In the Visayas, to laught a cat during thunderstorms is to invite lightning. And, there is a pervasive belief that a fishbone in one’s throat can be unstuck by brushing a cat’s paw across one’s throat.

An old saying recorded by Bergaño -- “Nanan me man ing pusa, suclab ya lalam dulang” (No matter what you do to a cat, it always gets under a table)—refers to the unique behavior of the animal to attach itself to a place, rather than to a person. Figuratively, it is also a reference to the natural attachment of Kapampangans to their native land.

Crooked tail or not, the cat will always find a welcome place in Kapampangan homes—as a furry pet, a loyal household companion or even as a natural pest control agent. In a way, cats remind us too of our distinct Kapampangan personality; like our Kuting and Muning, we have a deep attachment to our province and we have proven survival instincts. Most of all, we can be cunning, crafty and—catty!

(SOURCE: Many thanks to Mr. Joel Pabustan Mallari, for his Singsing article,"Anac Pusa: The Cat in the Life of Early Kapampangans" , p. 115, Vol. 4, No.2., on which much of this feature is based.)