The thing that I remember most about my visit to Unisan, Quezon early this year was seeing how the old town is beginning to look increasingly deprived and lost. I should be writing something nice (the hospitality that Familia Evora-Alas extended has been nothing but a pleasure) for the town still have that old Filipino spirit, the one that you normally see in provincial towns. But its sad state just won’t make me do it.
It’s not new that most of the ancestral houses these days of old Filipino families are gone. We have been very good at tearing them down, anyway. Some still lie in rubbles which are really painful to see for someone like me. The first bahay na bató (Antillean house) in Unisan, the Maxino house (said to be haunted because the family members of the original owner were massacred in the 19th century), was salvaged by the God-sent group of Architect Jerry Acúzar in Bataán. The house was praised for being one of the most elegant casas in the country. Although the house rests outside its home province now, at least it still exists somewhere which is better because not all Antillean houses are as lucky.
There really is nothing new in seeing the old removed as this has been a common experience for me. What bothers me more these days is that, all too often, neglect is becoming an increasing problem in the Filipino society. Our attitude towards these heritage structures mirrors that. In Quezon, there is illegal logging but you don’t hear people crying about getting rid of it. For some reason, all of these are accepted occurrences. Life goes on as usual.
A friend of ours, San Pedro, La Laguna Mayor Calixto Catáquiz, whose great grandfather was once the town chief of Unisan, frequently visits the said town and stays with the Alas clan. Speaking of politicians, the town’s congressman, who made a name for himself after proudly announcing to the world that it was he who paid for Arroyo’s multimillion dinner in New York sometime last year, built a castle-like mansion that sits next to some of the most poorest people in that town. These seashore villagers defecate and clean themselves in the surf where their small fishing bancas are docked close to what appears to be the solon’s yacht. There can be no higher contrast in Filipino social order –the filthy rich living side by side with the poorest of the poor — you’ll see this here in Unisan. And yet, just a couple of days ago, the owner admitted hosting a sumptuous million peso meal to politician friends.
But this is our society today: we complain about our past, how the colonialists corrupted it. But as days and years roll by, we only manage to sink deeper and deeper — and that hated past seems to get brighter and brighter. Our society undeniably is more corrupt than ever. But we don’t seem to mind this as we carry on putting old time crooked politicians from old elitist clans in the helm again and again. I’m quite certain that a few years from now, after electing these crooks, we will still be demanding change. But once we have achieved it (or get fooled into believing that we have finally achieved it), we’ll slide back not to where we once were but in a much worst position. Well, it is fun, isn’t it?
As Pepe and I were taking pictures of what remains of vintage Unisan, we got apprehended by the provincial police and were detained for about two hours. No violence was committed against us by the police who were just paranoid about the recent communist incursion. They have a reason to be anxious because the communists have just raided a neighboring barrio, murdering some of their colleagues. My friend, sporting his peculiar rocker-slash-pro-wrestling style, probably did appear to be an insurgent to them. I was waiting for the good-cop, bad-cop thing, for them to bring the whoop ass to him but it never did happen. They were surprisingly polite. My friend’s family is well-known in Unisan; the current mayor was actually an uncle of his. Perhaps that was a good deterrent for police cruelty but Pepe have had bad history with the local police. The police station, if I’m not mistaken, was a dispensary during the American years. Unfortunately, the police barred me from taking pictures of it. It had rooms that appeared to have served as bed quarters. I wanted to reach the old bridge, visible near the Alas residence, that was said to be destroyed during the Japanese Occupation, but we ran out of time because of what happened.
One house here was said to have been fitted with materials that came all the way from Europe. Now, you start to wonder how rich Unisan was and how its residents lived. And the case is the same with most towns all over the country during the Spanish era: affluent and sophisticated families were products of what were then prosperous provincial societies. They once dominated everything there is about the community. These families, whose ancestors will be immortalized by the lapidas you now see inside old yglesias, are testaments of what Filipino life was once like. It is sad that we often hear people talk down on how this period in Philippine history is nothing more but Spanish history in the Philippines…
Another interesting edifice in town was the church that looks more like a contemporary chapel in a new housing development. Aside from the stone marker, placed near an obnoxious corner, reminding people of its founding, it has no trace of history and tradition. The church, a Franciscan mission, was completely renovated losing its historic charm that makes our churches unique. We went up to the campanaria and saw a magnificent vista of the coastal town.
After going around town taking photos of its ancestral houses, we later decided to visit one of Unisan’s caves called Bonifacio Cave. It is located about two to three kilometers from the town proper. We were waiting for one of Pepe’s cousins to take us there. We decided to buy some refreshments when we spoke to the old tindero who knew Pepe’s grandfather. He later offered his tricycle to bring us to the Bonifacio cave when my friend’s cousin failed to arrive on the designated time. It is true what they say about our old barrios: everyone knows everybody. Unisan was once a tightly knit society, I was told, and I believe to a certain extent it still is (just like in other provincial towns in the Philippines).
We never really went deep inside the cave as we were ill-equipped to do so. We’re not really spelunkers, but the experience was fun. Sadly, there were some signs of vandalism and garbage. If only the local government could conserve this precious cave, it will definitely be an exciting attraction for Unisan’s tourists. I’m not sure if the local government is interested in tourism. Never really felt they were. But it is never too late to start. Those picturesque stone houses, the warmth of the people, cultural heritage, and the natural attractions –- these are all ingredients of a Filipino tourist spot. But it takes vision and constructive creativity to achieve that, something that is lacking these days among our leaders.
Unisan, its history and natural beauty, made the trip worth it (I think 5 hours) — even if many of the things I saw did not appeal to me much, the dirty seashore, poverty and sorry state of some of the old houses, I have to admit that I felt relaxed and inspired by Unisan’s bucolic and serene life.
more photos of this trip here