The first church I ever visited here in downtown Iloilo is the well-known Iglesia de San José de Placer. Its storied town square, the Plaza Libertad (formerly Plaza Alfonso XII), is perhaps one of our most underrated historical gems – here the Ilonggos witnessed the surrender of Diego de los Ríos, the last Spanish Governor General of the Philippines. It is here where the sun had finally set on the Spanish empire, making Iloílo City the last Spanish capital to be ceded by the once mighty Spanish empire. The Spaniards were temporarily held in La Paz as “guest” before being deported. de los Rios has the distinguish experience of battling two fronts, the revolucionarios resistance and that of the Americans. A strange coincidence was the departure of de los Ríos’ – he left Manila for Spain on 1 January 1899. Indeed, it signified the dawn of a new chapter in our history.
Right beside the church sits the Lacson ancestral house. It is a massive Antillean house with intricate designs and which is solidly built. Although not as well preserved compared to the other ones that I’ve seen in town, it has still retained its grandiose and gracefulness. Undeniably, it is one of the finest houses during its heyday. That the house is located right beside the church tells of the power and influence of La Familia Lacson. Not only was this family prominent in Iloílo, it all has numerous members. All the Lacsons of Iloílo and Negros come from a single family line that can be traced here. The generations of this Ilonggo family after the Spanish rule were scattered all over the island – either by migration or by other human activities. Regardless of who and where they are, one thing that has been the signature of the Lacsons is their admirable and spirited leadership. From revolutionary general Aniceto to Manila Mayor Arsenio, from fugitive Senator Pánfilo (popularly known as Ping, whose father was a jeepney driver in Imus albeit a direct descendant of the famous Ilonggo clan) to the young Lacson entrepreneurs of today – the clan has definitely left an indelible mark not only to the Hiligaynón-speaking islands of the Visayas but to the country as a whole.
The tree-laden plaza is a great starting point to explore the heritage sites of downtown Iloílo. Plaza Libertad is surrounded by the church of San José de Placer, the imposing white Masonic building (which oddly sits right across the aforementioned church), Casa Lacson, and the old Iloílo Hotel which is now occupied by a commercial bank. The ruins of the Botica Lacson is at the corner lot facing Calle de la Rama, adjacent to the proprietors house. A few blocks and one will find Muelle Loney, named after Englishman Nicolas Loney who pioneered the province’s sugar industry. His nephew would later establish the provinces’ first shopping bazaar. Reading Iloílo’s old history reveals that there was once a sizable English community in Iloílo that was engaged in different trades. Another illustrious English visitor is the English Governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, who gifted us with his amazing book “A Visit to the Philippine Islands”.
In a report by John Farren in 1855 to the British parliament he said, “The British trade in Las Islas Filipinas exceeded in value that of Great Britain with several states of Europe, Africa, South America (Colombia, Mejico and Guatemala)”. The opening of the Iloilo port (and that of Zamboanga) by the Spanish authorities was intended “to give development to the local interest”, and this has proven to be the greatest event in Iloilo’s economic, not only did it opened it to world trade, during these rich days they’ve achieved a cultural and economic peak unmatched by any ciudad in Filipino history. The Hong Kong Governor Bowring said of Iloilo, “the province has, no doubt, been fixed on as a seat of the government, from the facilities it offers to navigation”, commenting on the state of the province (mid 1800’s), “perhaps, the most advanced of any in the Philippines”.
And life was sweeter then: the ciudad and the entire province can thank this money mill of an industry – from this port, Iloílo traded sugar to different nations around the globe.
Ideally, it is better to walk rather than to hire a ride. This way, one can better observe the colonial-styled buildings. The then undisputed sugar capital also became the center of style and culture; the industry spilled its riches on its houses, edifices, and infrastructure. The architectural wonders here are among the finest examples of Filipino architecture that I ever laid my eyes on. The public market, for example, is in art deco style and done with the highest considerations. An amazing mix of colonial Spanish and American structures can be seen around town.
I sure hope that young people in Iloílo can do a much better job in promoting their province – the city’s inhabitants actually needs to start promoting its heritage. Being part Ilonggo, I’m mighty proud of its great heritage and culture. A tour of Calle Real or even Calle Sto. Rosario, where many antillian houses remains, would really be an interesting walk. Tourism should not just be a monopoly of government officials.
There exists a bountiful number of heritage sites waiting to be explored and promoted. The past mayor had launched a very commendable project, a promotion called “Heritage Zone” – major streets, plazas, monuments, and churches were placed under a conservation council. Its aim is to conserve the heritage structures. Hopefully, it works towards the full restoration of vintage buildings around the old center.
Here is a list of some of the most recognizable heritage buildings along JM Basa Street: Celso Ledesma; Dominican Sisters Pilar; Javellana II; Iloílo Lucky Auto Supply; S. Javellana; Villanueva; Divinagracia; Iloílo Central Trading; Regent Arcade; Commission on Audit Office, and; the Magdalena, Cacho, and Villanueva buildings
Heritage buildings along Calle Iznart are: Villanueva; S. Villanueva; Iloílo Public Market; J. Melliza; Tayengco; LJ Hormillosa, and; the Celso Ledesma buildings.
Calle Real is the site of many old structures that are now being utilized as shops. As long as it is useful, it will continue to exist. Improving its structure and its appearance should be planned. It had seen better days but judging on what I’ve observed so far, the conditions of these old buildings are much better compared to those in Manila which, of course, were not only heavily bombed by its “liberators” but has been the victim of its people and leaders’ ignorance and ungrateful attitude towards their ancestors heritage.
The northern tip of Calle Iznart is where one will find the old provincial capitol: Casa Real. In front of it is the abandoned Casa Ledesma, owned by one of the foremost families of the Ilonggo aristocracy. Another attraction in this area is the city’s iconic fountain decorated with maidens and gargoyles dedicated to Sen. José María Arroyo (grandfather of ex-First Gentleman Miguel “Mike” Arroyo) in the early 1900s. He was the initiator of the first waterworks scheme in the city. The fountain comes to life after dark, lighted by a soft lamp. Probably the smallest Rizal monument located within a capitol or municipal office can be found in the center pedestal of the rotonda in the vicinity of the capitol. It is a bust of the hero’s head, the size of a small watermelon. Why is it small? I don’t have the answer.
The new Iloílo capitol was built behind the old one. A few steps away from the present capitol building is the Iloílo museum, a very artful and intriguing building that houses some of Iloílo’s priceless heritage pieces and art works. It is said that it has a wide collection of Santos and antiques items. Unfortunately, it was closed the last time I visited it. I lodged somewhere in Gen. Luna, in front of San Agustin, one of the foremost educational institution in the region. It was the first school in Western Visayas to be granted a university status. It is still being administered by the oldest of all Catholic mission in the first and only Christian nation in Asia, the Augustinians, whose membership includes one of our founders, the great Andrés de Urdaneta y Cerain.
My room in Luna overlooks the beautiful wide river of Iloilo which produces a breeze that’s cool and, surprisingly, pleasant. On a clear day, I could see the bell tower of Jaro. The suburb where I’m headed next…
(End of part I)