Penman No. 382: Southern Gothic in Sugarlandia

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Penman for Monday, March 2, 2020

 

THE LAST time I visited Bacolod was more than a decade ago, when I was writing the centennial history of the De La Salle Brothers in the Philippines and had to look into their work in that southern city, an enterprise that began in 1952. Before that I had made occasional sorties to it, on short ferry rides from Iloilo and once, memorably, on a long pre-martial law ride across the mountains to Dumaguete with a busload of fellow activists, expecting to be stopped any minute by the paramilitary forces then lording it over the countryside.

Last week I returned on a far more civil mission, on research for another book I’m writing on a sometime icon of the sugar industry. That part of it was interesting enough—interviews with history’s participants and witnesses can be exhausting (especially in the transcription) but always fascinating for me—but as often happens on these out-of-town excursions, the sidelights proved no less engrossing.

Bacolod and its environs, of course, have always offered stellar attractions for visitors and tourists, and indeed my wife Beng and her high-school barkada of four lovely ladies were flying into town with me on their own itinerary. I was there for work, but the women had booked a day tour of the fabled old houses of nearby Silay. (You can find these heritage tours on Klook, among other places online.)

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While Beng’s party enjoyed Silay’s architectural treasures—among them Balay Negrense and the Ramon Hofileña ancestral home—I was many kilometers away in Bago City, treading carefully on the crumbling ruins of the Ma-ao sugar central. Opened in 1919 on a 56-hectare estate, the central was typical of the enterprise that turned Negros into Sugarlandia, creating fabulous wealth for an elite that held sway over the region’s history and politics over much of the 20th century. Over my three days in Bacolod I would learn more than I ever imagined I could know about sugar, its production, and, inescapably, the society it fed and bred.

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Indeed, from the airport in Silay on to the fringes of the city, the landscape is dominated by swaths of sugarcane greening at the foot of Mts. Mandalagan and Kanlaon, broken only by the occasional mall or hardware store, the signposts of the new commerce. “This is the best land for sugar in the province right here,” said my guide and driver, “and it’s owned by the Lacson family. There are two main streets in Bacolod, named after two generals of the Revolution: Juan Araneta and Aniceto Lacson, who forced the surrender of the Spanish forces through a clever ruse. They had nipa palms cut to resemble guns from a distance, and the Spanish general surrendered to avoid what he thought would be a bloodbath.”

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Such stories roll easily off the Negrense tongue, on this land watered by blood and champagne. As we drove on the highway, I recalled a passage in a biography of Rafael Salas—another native son, from Bago—that I had co-written last year with Menchu Sarmiento, about the horrific murder in 1951 of Moises Padilla, who had found the gall to run for mayor against the local kingpin: “They toured from town to town beating and torturing Padilla, displaying him in a public square while one of the boys announced: ‘Here is what happens to people who oppose us.’” At the same time, I couldn’t help recalling the story of that period’s loveliest and yet also saddest bride, the legendary Susan Magalona, at whose star-crossed wedding it was reported that champagne flowed from a fountain. (Millennials who’ve never heard of this story would do well to Google it, if only to learn something about the virtues of “non-consummation”.)

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In American literature, which I used to teach, these bizarre but also compelling comminglings of decay and grotesquerie on the one hand and beauty and the fantastic on the other took on the label of “Southern gothic,” a genre with such writers as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers among its avatars. Somehow I felt that I was in its presence here, too, in the rusted machinery and the tall grasses, out of which you half-expected some apparition in gauzy white to emerge. In the very middle of Lopez Jaena Street stands perhaps the quaintest cemetery in the country: the mausoleum of the Luzuriagas (photo below from steemit.com), where the traffic of life, you might say, comes to a perfect standstill.

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Inevitably I would hear a story about ghosts, in a place that would have been incomplete without them: the celebrated Daku Balay (“Big House”), Bacolod’s first and largest Art Deco mansion built on Burgos Street by Don Generoso Villanueva in 1936. We were lucky to get a private tour of this exquisitely sculpted home, thanks to our friend the American writer Craig Scharlin and his wife Lilia Villanueva, Don Generoso’s granddaughter, who have taken it upon themselves to preserve it for posterity. Craig told me how visitors who had strayed into the upper floors had found themselves being escorted by a charming couple—none other than the long-departed don and his wife Paz.

These specters were, at least, benign, and if I had lived in Daku Balay, with its helical staircase, nautical motifs, and Scagliola floors, I would have wished to inhabit it forever.

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Penman No. 285: A Scavenger’s Finds

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Penman for Monday, January 8, 2018

 

 

LAST WEEK’S piece on my “passion for the past” apparently struck a positive chord with my readers—including a couple of friends who also happen to be professional historians, the eminent professor Bernardita Churchill and my UP neighbor Maris Diokno, who’ll be returning to teaching this semester after her stint with the National Historical Commission. Both messaged me to say that they enjoyed my column (many thanks!) and to invite me to speak to a group of history enthusiasts or to a class about my obsession and my forays into collecting historical memorabilia (I will).

To both friends, and to those who will be listening to me, I once again affirm that I am not a historian or a scholar. A true scholar of history will seek to palpate and to understand the full context of things—not just of objects but of actions, decisions, and ideas; he or she will be guided by some workable theory of human and social behavior, and a disciplined commitment to the truth; and the past could be important less for its own sake than as a window on the present and the future.

I appreciate and respect all these considerations, which is why I know and acknowledge that I can’t live up to them, at least not at the moment. For now, my most honest self-description would be that of a scavenger (“fetishist” also comes to mind), not unlike a dog who drags in interesting objects off the street—sometimes gruesome, sometimes delightful. I rummage through other people’s leavings (as an impoverished grad student in the States, I happily went dumpster diving), finding and retrieving objects of wonder. The material object is my prize; whatever else it leads to—some story, some insight, some unforeseen discovery—is pure bonus.

That’s applied to my vintage pens and books, some of which turned out to have been owned by famous or important persons. But some of my most interesting finds on eBay have involved the most common people and the most ordinary—and therefore the most plaintive and often poignant—revelations.

This is no truer than in the letters I come across on eBay, likely seen by many as the leftovers of estate sales, after all the valuable furniture, silverware, and knick-knacks have been carted away. I’ll admit that reading them feels a little voyeuristic, because there’s nothing more intimate than seeing into someone’s heart and mind, even when it doesn’t involve endearments or estrangements.

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There were these letters, for example, which I saw last November, written by a teenager named J. R. Oyco (at least that’s what I can make of the signature, but I could be wrong) from Bacolod to Forrest J. Ackermann (1916-2008), whom sci-fi fans will recognize as one of the pioneers of the genre. What’s amazing is that the letters are from 1933-34, when Ackermann himself was no more than 18, so these were two teenagers chatting across the ocean in longhand about what today would be speculative fiction. “Three days ago,” Mr. Oyco writes, “I finished reading the April Astounding Stories and enjoyed the swell stories it had—from H. V. Brown’s cover to the advertisement on the last page…. As I noticed, Astounding was in the market for some years but stopped, and again covered the field just last October. However, from mere weird tales they published on that said issue, the editors, by the present time, have achieved a great if not astounding achievement by their thought-variant narratives. By publishing these kinds of stories, they give authors a chance to show their talents and imaginations and stimulate interesting reactions from the readers themselves.” Apparently Ackermann had responded to an earlier letter because J. R. thanks him for the gift of a magazine.

A letter dated June 14, 1898, comes from a soldier named Humphrey Sullivan, who’s in San Francisco on his way to war in the Philippines, to his brother-in-law in Massachusetts. He’s trained in Georgia and has more drills to do before shipping out, but in the meanwhile, he writes, “I don’t know when we will go it will be a long ride I guess the war will be over before I get there. I would like to get the chance of killing a few Spaniards as I come so far…. I am writing this letter where mass is celebrated every morning it is a blessing for the Catholic to have this society [the Catholic Truth Society in Camp Merritt] here. I am in a hurry I will have to go to drill.”

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On Aug. 15, 1945, a WAC nurse writes “My Darling, Sweet” from San Fernando, Pampanga: “Happy V. J. Day!… Today is the 14th Aug. back home isn’t it? Have a grand celebration honey! Tonite is one nite I’m really going to celebrate—only wish it were with you!!!! Darling, do you realize what this means—what we’ve waited for so long…. So, Sweetie, “I’ll Be Seeing You” and we’ll have a “White Xmas.”… I’ll give you a run for your money, honey—won’t let you out of my sight—and I’ll see to it that the neighbors are out!”

And so on go the letters and the stories, many of which read better than fiction, written by the Parkers, Sheaffers, and Esterbrooks now lying still and silent in my collection. In many instances, I haven’t even had to buy these documents—it’s enough to read them online and save them for posterity on my computer. (But I’ll need some help soon with two letters written in French, from 1794 and 1798, coming my way.)

These objects affirm, for me, that the past happened, and more than that, that the past will be remembered. It may not matter to me when I’m gone—which, in my darkest musings, could mean that I will no longer have any sense of “me” or of time itself—but it matters to me now, to know that our words and deeds bear consequences, and that we will all leave some trail behind. And so I should write and act with that trail aforethought—so someone, a century hence, will be happy to find a book I wrote, or some note I scribbled, and smile at the memory.