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Old Houses Tell Tales

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The Philippines, having been colonized by Spain from 1521 to 1898, is replete with houses and edifices reflecting Spanish architecture. In fact, many old houses belonging to the old rich can still be found throughout Iloilo and Bacolod, two neighboring Visayan cities that used to be the seat of economic affluence up until the early 1980s, the era of the “hacienderos,” or plantation owners.

Iloilo City was the Rice Granary of the Philippines and Bacolod City was its Sugar Bowl. The rice and sugar industries in these former queen cities declined towards the end of the Marcos presidency following the advent of more competitive prices of rice from Thailand and Vietnam, and sugarcane from South America.

Indeed, the industries have long since withered, but the grand old mansions, bequests of these economies, still stand. They were built of stone cut from nearby mountains and wood from trees in the surrounding forests. Incorporating Filipino and Chinese style elements to the Spanish designs, the houses were called “Bahay na Bato,” or stone houses. The owners were landed families mostly of Spanish descent. With wide windows and verandas to let in as much breeze, the mansions were built overlooking panoramic views of verdant plains made lush by the tropical sun and the abundant waters of the islands.

In contrast, huts and shanties that sheltered the families of farm workers were of light materials such as palm leaves and bamboo. These dwellings were usually scattered along the fringes of the plantations. Oftentimes, members of some of these families would serve in the manors as servants—“muchachos” and “muchachas”.

Nowadays, many of these houses are now museums and open to whoever wants to peek into the lifestyles of the rich and aristocratic hacienderos from long ago.

Being a lover of history and culture, I literally dragged my partner, PJ, to a couple of these old houses in the sleepy city of Silay one rainy afternoon. Silay City is a thirty-minute ride from Bacolod City. Up to this point, the images of those old structures are still vividly etched in my mind. We entered the gate of one house and I panned my eyes on gnarled, ancient trees surrounding the manor. The women in the family must have spent lazy afternoons under their shades, drinking juice from the fruit trees around while watching the workers cutting sugarcane and loading them into horse carts.

I imagined how it would have been to be one of those women as I climbed the antiquated steps leading inside the house. I feasted my eyes on the sight that greeted me. An old grand piano stood at the center of the living room; around it were wooden sofas and armchairs where the parents must have sat while their daughter was playing a tune on that piano and their son was playing with his toys on the floor.

To my right was a room which must have served as the sugar baron’s office. A big wooden desk occupied one side of the room. There were shelves of dusty books, some of them ready to fall apart, framed photographs, and vases.

One room must have been a little boy’s. Toy soldiers in faded red and blue were standing at attention on a smallish wooden bedside table.

Another room had a wide canopied bed and a large wardrobe faced with a mirror. On the floor, beside the bed was a glazed porcelain urinal embellished with pink flowers. Back then, everyone in the family shared the toilet and bathroom; it posed a problem when one needed to relieve oneself in the middle of the night.

The next room was the dining room showcasing a table that sits six. On one side was a glass cabinet where one could see glasses, trays, plates and platters bought all the way from Spain and Germany. The chandelier overhead was from France, we were told.

What was the family talking about while they were eating? Did the husband discuss plantation matters with his wife? Did the brothers and sisters fight over who would get the largest piece of chicken? I mused.

Located further towards the back of the house were the main kitchen and the dirty kitchen which was annexed to it. Unlike the main kitchen, which was filled with appliances considered modern at that time, the dirty kitchen was pervaded with clay pots and pans, bamboo and wooden cooking utensils, as well as benches and a long table which served as a working table and dining table for the servants of the house.

If one looks out of the kitchen window, one could see what looks like a humongous iron cauldron. We were told that this was where the servants cooked rice for the innumerable farm workers during harvest. Imagine the cooks sweating while stirring rice with extended ladles as the ravenous workers clamor for lunch. Now, it’s just a really big flower pot!

After seeing all of these things, PJ must have wondered about my thoughts as I wondered about his. To me, those were not just old houses, scratched tables, dusty books, mildewed dolls nor rusty pots. In my mind’s eye, I saw the people who used to own them not only laughing, crying, talking, bickering, but also praying, hoping, and dreaming …

One day, when I, too, am gone, I hope I would leave not just the things I used or owned. I pray that through the deeds that I have done and the words that I have uttered or written I would leave something more lasting behind.

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