Having just disembarked from the ferry that connects the island of Iloilo to the main town of Negros, we went straight to lunch at a buffet with traditional food from a shopping center in Bacolod.
We were famished and, accordingly, immersed in what we had brought on our plates. Betsy Gazo, the native guide who would accompany us throughout the days, was unfazed. Betsy, is – we have no doubt now – one of the most proud citizens of Bacolod in her city and eager for visitors to admire her for the much she had to praise.
Even so, armed with maps and pamphlets, Betsy serves us the thoughtful suggestion of the itinerary she had outlined. We make an effort to keep up with their cascades of reasoning, all too often in vain, lost among the gastronomic delights of the meal and successive and inevitable thematic detours.
We didn't see Betsy disarm. As we never saw her lose the focus of the mission to reveal to us what in Bacolod most dazzled her.
Negros is the fourth largest island in the vast Philippines. By far the supreme of the Visaya sub-group we continued to explore.
The Families and Historical Mansions of Negros
Outstanding among its historical treasures are the mansions built by wealthy families, some of these families with Hispanic names, others pre-Hispanic: the Lopez, the Ledesma, the Locsin. Still others are the result of strategic mergers carried out, such as Locsin-Ledesma.
Over the decades, several of its old homes have been restored, improved and turned into small museums. On the opposite pole, many others found themselves doomed to an abandonment that Betsy was hard to see.
After lunch, the guide took us and Michael – the guide who accompanied us wherever we went in the Philippines – to one of these last cases. "Well, I'll just give a little push here and it should be resolved, this has owners but I'm sure they wouldn't mind our visit, quite the opposite."
Visiting Malacañang Palace
We pass through a badly closed iron gate. In front, a mansion with a base of bricks with carved stone ornaments shines. Malacañang Palace, as it became known, is considered the first Presidential Residence in the Philippines.
It was erected by General Aniceto Lacson during the 1880s, in a style called “bahay na bato", with the simple translation of Casa de Pedra.
At a time when many Filipinos had had enough without returning to the impositions of the Spanish Crown, Aniceto Lacson took the dissatisfaction to another level. Part of a regional group of insurgents, led the revolt katipunera (anti-Hispanic) general of the Isle of Negros against the colonial garrison of Bacolod, November 5, 1898. Spanish forces were quick to surrender.
During the hangover, Aniceto Lacson was appointed president of the newly formed República de Negros. He established his presidency's office in that same mansion that we admired, first from the outside, shortly afterwards, in its unfurnished interior and from the panoramic balcony that goes around the upper floor.
Throughout the 1970th century, until XNUMX, the mansion was inhabited by a succession of children and grandchildren of Aniceto Lacson. That year, as happens every year in the Philippines, the typhoons came into action. One in particular ravaged Negros and damaged the building's roof.
Lacson's descendants still pondered his reparation but, faced with the magnitude of the damage, were forced to abandon him. The Malacañang Palace entered a process of degradation that devastated Betsy.
To his satisfaction, in 2002 a foundation of co-owners bent on raising funds for restoration was formed. When we went around, it was far from finished.
The Victor Fernandez Gaston Ancestral House…
Betsy's plans dictated that, until the sun settled on her bed off the Strait of Guimaras, we would still visit another old but resplendent home, the Victor Fernandez Gaston Ancestral House.
Victor Gaston was the son of a Norman named Yves Leopold Germain Gaston, who proved to be one of the pioneers of sugarcane cultivation in these parts of the Philippines. The construction of the house took place in 1897, when Victor Baston was still living in his father's house, a certain Hacienda Buen Retiro.
During this same period, his wife died. The house was completed in time to accommodate the widower and his twelve children from 1901 until his death in 1927, the year in which the family no longer lived there. Completely abandoned in 1970, it began to deteriorate.
Unlike what happened with Aniceto Lacson's Malacañang Palace, its restoration has generated one of the most valuable cultural heritages in Negros. One of the heirs, Father Monsignor Guillermo Ma. Gaston, decided to donate it to the Philippines Tourism Authority.
This Authority used its national fundraising capacity, including state-owned funds, and invested five million Philippine pesos (around one hundred thousand euros) to repair and furnish it with period props and furniture. That purpose achieved, he transformed the mansion into the Balay Negrense museum, which we entertain ourselves to examine.
… Now, Balay Negrense Museum of Bacolod
The museum displays a near-living example of the home and lifestyle of a Negro sugar baron. It rests on Filipino hardwood foundations. balayong, and the long, wide, and thick floorboards were cut from the same material.
The upper floor appears covered with a roof of galvanized iron instead of tiles, according to indications released by the authorities in Manila, in the wake of the earthquakes that devastated several locations on the mother island of Luzon.
With quiet and secure Negros, we enjoyed the upper hall of the museum house in all its fresh splendor. A couple of lovers who were visiting her simultaneously arrives at the arched triple window and peers at the lushly landscaped Silay scenery in front of them, under a centuries-old lamp with warm light.
Outside, the sun was about to go out. We were already using the last energy of the day so, moments later, we retired to the modernized shelter of the hotel where we were staying.
The Masskara Festival and the Real Life of Bacolod
We arrived on the Sunday determined for the Masskara Festival, a kind of Carnival created to liven up the city and the island after the tragic sinking of the M/S Don Juan ferry. Little by little, Bacolod comes to life.
As the participants prepared for the masked and bouncy madness of the event, we followed Betsy on yet another series of surgical twists and forays into local life. Under the archway of one of the city's streets, an elderly healer sees patients of all ages.
We have slight back pains, almost unavoidable from time to time due to the weight of the photo backpacks we carry.
More curious about that open-air office than in need, we put ourselves in line, beside a bench used by the weakest patients and a stall full of vials of oils, homemade medicines and the like.
The lady is mainly a pediatrician, but she assists one or another adult with ailments that she dominates. When he finds out what we were complaining about, he enlists the services of a chiropractor who, for the sake of our sins, shies away from radical treatments.
The Taj Mahal of Blacks
Next, we visit the Talisay Ruins, called the “Taj Mahal of Blacks”, what remains of a mansion built by Philippine sugar baron Mariano Ledesma Lacson in honor of his Macanese-Portuguese wife Maria Braga Lacson, who died in a domestic accident while pregnant with the couple's eleventh child.
On the way to what is left of this other mansion burned down by the Filipino resistance to prevent its occupation by the Japanese in World War II, we crossed one of the sugar cane plantations as far as the eye can see of the island.
A group of young workers cut cane under the tropical sun. Others carry it on top of a lorry box already half full of withered stems.
The Historical and Artisanal Production of Sugarcane
Betsy is moved: “Incredibly, sugarcane is still cut like this around here. And we still have people like them: so poor that they accept to work from sunrise to sunset to earn a measly peso.”
Centuries after the introduction of sugar cane on the island into the hands of Arab merchants who brought the plant from the Celebes, some time less since the expansion and improvement of the cultivation enriched several of the island's owner families, Negros' economy has evolved. and diversified.
Still, Negros is the largest producer and exporter of sugar in the Philippines, the nation, in turn, the world's ninth producer of this raw material. But it's not just sugar. A large refinery located in Cadiz, guarantees the production of a good series of derivatives: acetylene, fertilizers and even rum.
Later in the afternoon, we return to Silay. Betsy takes us to the top of a building that houses the city's state services. We pass through a series of rooms and offices.
Panoramic Expedition to a Bacolod State Terrace
On the terrace that closed the floors of the building, we admire the green urbanity of the center of that kind of sub-city of Bacolod, with the silver dome of the San Diego Pro cathedral, well highlighted from the life below: that of the conductors of t.Ricycles who roam it without rest.
That of teenagers engaged in a basketball game, that of gardeners who water and trim the vegetation at Silay Public Plaza.
Since early morning, we have been given over to the cultural and historical criteria of Betsy Gatso. Possessed by a beneficent spirit of mission, Betsy asks us to use our last energies, to use them in a last trip to a place completely different from the previous ones and that promised not to disappoint us.
We traveled about 20km to the south, almost always on the edge of the Strait of Guimaras. In three-quarters of an hour, we moved from Silay to nearby Victorias City.
At Betsy's orders, the driver drops us off at the door of a St. Joseph the Worker Chapel which we find empty. “I've come to realize that they aren't exactly devout Christians, much less blessed. Better that way. Get ready, you're going to have a big surprise.”
Victoria City's Controversial Angry Jesus
We entered the church's modern nave. Immediately, we only realized that the altar would be the most colorful and exuberant we had ever seen. We calibrate the view and approach.
Before our eyes, scarlet hands hold with open arms a Christ with fulminating blue eyes and a heart tormented by thorns and fire. Angry, as we didn't know was possible, that messiah seemed to judge us ahead of time.
We confront him for a moment, until Betsy gives in to her anxiety again and clarifies for us how much there was to clarify.
“If you want it to be honest, I'm not even sure how this was possible in Negros and the Philippines in general, where the Church is so conservative. The truth is that it is here and I have enormous admiration for this work.”
The painting in question, created by the Filipino-American abstract artist Alfonso A. Ossorio did justice to the sacro-modern and anti-earthquake architecture of the Czech architect Antonín Raymond. Both were ordered by the largest sugar company in the Philippines, Victorias Milling Company.
The company's relative religious autonomy from the Church gave rise to artistic whim, but, as Betsy confirms, “the strictest Catholic faction in Manila was not amused and tried worlds and funds to have the painting removed. To date in vain.”
In the Sugar Philippines, open-mindedness and the sweetness of character have been above all for centuries.