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July 11, 2003

REINERIO A. ALBA

‘Friendship is always a sweet responsibility, never an opportunity.’-Kahlil Gibran

            A Philippines-Spanish Friendship Day? By virtue of R.A. 9187, principally authored by Sen. Edgardo J. Angara, June 30 of each year will now be celebrated by the country as the Philippines-Spanish Friendship Day. The law essentially recognizes the friendship and shared historical and cultural values between the Philippines and Spain.

          The first time visit of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on June 30, 2003 to the quiet town of Baler was an experience for the town. Being part of a province (Aurora) that was named after the wife of a past president (Manuel L. Quezon, was born in Baler), could give the impression that they would have been used to such ‘presidential’ visits. But like all Filipinos in the countryside who could only hope for a peek at the incumbent president of the land, the people of Baler flocked to the Baler Church where the President was scheduled to lay a wreath in commemoration of the Siege of Baler. Prior to that, the road (that is, after surviving the merry-go-round-like road cutting through the Sierra Madre mountain ranges) leading up to the town was lined intermittently, mostly by grade school students in their uniform (considering that it was a Sunday), waving the Spanish flag, or at least what nearly resembled it, and flashing their smiles, their teachers waving along in the background at the convoy of five buses carrying some Spaniards and several other people gathered by the National Historical Institute for the affair (NHI being the main implementer of R.A. 9187). At some point, it rained, and what came into view were children trying to wave their soaked paper flags, smiling at the visitors, bravely fending off the rain with their arms. (I wonder if such a show of welcome at the expense of the children is really necessary.) When the President finally came into view, many attempted to push their way into the inner circle where she was, followed by comments like ‘Ay, ‘yun pala sya.’ When the President finished with her speech and laying of wreath, a chopper, on cue, came overhead the church area and began showering the place with petals of white and red roses. ‘Kahit mahirap ‘tong bayan natin, talagang nasa history na tayo. Di na tayo mawawala (Even as our town is poor, we really are now part of history. We will not be erased.), was one comment heard from a woman picking up some petals.


Baler

        The town of Baler was founded in 1609. Its original name was Kinagunasan and its first inhabitants were the Angara, Bitong, Carrasco and Lumasac families.

In December 1735, a tidal wave struck and completely engulfed Kinagunasan. The wave struck the town without warning at 2 a.m., and within an hour the entire town was gone. The parish priest of Casiguran, who was then visiting Baler, managed to survive by swimming to the hill of Point Baja. Other survivors included the families of Angara and Bitong. The sudden onslaught of the wave and the fact that the nearby towns of Casiguran, Dipaculao and Dingalan were left untouched has turned the catastrophe into a folk legend of biblical proportions.

By 1737, Franciscan priests had established a barangay form of government in the area. A revolutionary government then took over Baler from 1898 to 1901.

On November 1, 1901, the Americans established a municipal government in Baler.

Baler Church

        Baler Church is situated south of Quezon Memorial Park, with the Mount Carmel College within its vicinity. Baler’s patron saint is San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, or St. Louis, Bishop of Toulouse, 13th-century Franciscan saint and grandnephew of a king and another saint, King Louis of France or San Luis Rey. He was popularly depicted as the ‘boy bishop’ (he died at age 23) in paintings and sculptures with a royal crown at his feet, signifying the earthly power he gave up to become bishop.

The church is built largely of stones and bricks. This is also where the La Campana de Baler, an ancient bell, was used and later stored as a relic. It existed until the end of 1939 when the foundation of the new church was laid to replace the deteriorating old church. The present church was built through the initiative of the late President Quezon’s wife Doña Aurora, their family and friends along with the townspeople.

The Siege

        What made the Baler church historically significant?

In June 27, 1898, about 50 Spanish soldiers made their last stand against the Filipinos by holding out inside the stone church of Baler, exactly 15 days after the proclamation of Philippine independence from Spain. They were to surrender only on June 2, 1899, after almost a year of battling the equally relentless Filipino troops that barricaded the church while staving off starvation, diseases, among others. As the massive door of the church opened, the trumpet of surrender was sounded and the Filipinos who laid siege to the church shouted, ‘Amigos! Amigos!’ as a total of 33 survivors filed out into the churchyard.

Then President Emilio Aguinaldo went a step further when he issued a decree in June 30, which honored the ‘uncommon valor’ of the Spanish soldiers. Aguinaldo also gave them safe conduct passes and allowed their immediate transport to Spain. This was the first official gesture of reconciliation between the Philippines and Spain after a long and bitter war.

This decree of June 30, 1899, is the anchor of R.A. 9187, highlighting the Siege of Baler as the event for the renewal of the long-neglected historical and cultural ties between the Philippines and its former colonial motherland for more than 300 years.

The siege began on June 28, 1898, after the demolition in May of the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay by Admiral George Dewey’s armada and the opening on June 1, 1898 of hostilities between Filipino revolutionary and Spanish troops. Five months earlier, a detachment of 50 Spanish soldiers arrived in Baler to replace another detachment killed by Filipino troops. Historian Carlos Quirino said that the old detachment had been quartered in several houses in Baler, including the nipa house of school-teacher Lucio Quezon, father of Manuel Luis Quezon, who was to become the president of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935.

Following the attack of June 28, the Spanish commander, Capt. Enrique de las Morenas, ordered his troops to retreat to the Baler church, where they fortified themselves. Quirino said the Spaniards had the foresight to store supplies including flour, 70 cavans of palay, chick peas, sardines, olive oil, wine, coffee, sugar, bacon, beans and corned beef. The supplies lasted up to six months. Within two months, the troops were ravaged by scurvy and dysentery. The commander, Captain Morenas died from disease. Lt. Saturnino Martin Cerezo, with his iron will and strict discipline, took command. Several demands were put for the surrender of the garrison. The Filipino commander sent newspapers to the garrison reporting that the Spanish government in Manila had surrendered to the Americans on Aug. 13. The Spaniards refused to believe the reports, with the much-harassed Lt. Cerezo destroying the newspapers.

The Filipinos, in trying to break the Spanish morale, even went as far as exhibiting women in ‘lascivious postures’ in front of the garrison. ‘In plain view of the sex-starved troops a man and a woman were made to copulate,’ Quirino noted.

In May, Lt. Col. Cristobal Aguilar appeared in the church with an order for the garrison to surrender, saying that Spain had lost the war to the United States. Lieutenant Martin expectedly did not believe, regarding it as a trick. Lt. Col. Aguila, however, left a newspaper on purpose, through which Lieutenant Martin realized that the war had really ended. Lieutenant Martin had originally planned to abandon the church in May, since defending it was becoming more difficult, especially with dwindling supplies. The newspaper report only hastened his decision to surrender.

Amigos Para Siempre

        Filipinos will, undeniably, always have the ‘Spanish’ in them: in our surnames, first and foremost; in words that enriched our language; in our food; in our arts; in the very name of our country. Why it took us years to recognize this affinity with Spain is a subject in itself.

José “Pepe” Rodríguez, a veteran Manila-based journalist and writer and president of the Academia Filipina de la Lengua Española, the Philippine branch of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, is himself quite saddened that most Filipinos still carry with them portraits of the ‘black Spain:’ Noli’s Padre Dámaso, Sisa, and the brutal Guardia Civil. ‘It is clear that for generations of Filipinos, the stereotypes are the ones remembered, the caricatures used by the propagandists to demonize the enemy and further the revolutionary cause,’ Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez has pointed out that such a mindset has prevented most Filipinos from moving on. ‘This is the inanimate but real obstacle which, I think, must be hurdled before our two countries can wholeheartedly ‘embrace the past,’ as the 1998 Centennial Commission aptly put it, and move on, in full stride, as equal partners in the present.’

Spain has already acknowledged the mistakes committed during the days of Empire. And in case you missed it as news, there was the landmark visit of King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofía of Spain in 1995, the first ever by a Spanish monarch. If these are not efforts at establishing friendship, then what is?

It would definitely be quite a future for the country if this ‘Amistad Duradera’ would really flower forth and, as the slogan puts it, ‘endure’ as it should.