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Once upon a time in Bulacan

The French traveler Jean Mallat in 1846 wrote that Bulacan was connected by beautiful roads – in two hours by land from Manila or in five hours by water going down the river which flows into the bay.


Travel is now easier, of course, with the North Diversion, and it takes just one hour and a half. The historical streets of Malolos, however, are too narrow with too many cars causing tremendous traffic.


Travel by water, well, that is a story of the far past.


If you’ve seen the photograph of the Barasoain Church at the inauguration of the Philippine Republic in Malolos on January 23, 1899, you may have noticed that numerous bancas rested on the river embankment by the foot of the bridge. This bridge was in fact beside the Cojuangco property built in 1867 or 1876 as a stone marker once proclaimed at its adobe entrance. The other is a kamalig built in 1893.


Having been invited to Bulacan State University’s 99-year anniversary brought me to the Cojuangco property at 540 Paseo del Congreso. Marisse C. Reyes McMurray, our family historian, wrote about that residence: "Melecio Cojuangco and Tecla Chichioco were married in 1894. They moved into one of the three houses built on Chichioco land in Malolos, Bulacan. One house belonged to Tecla’s brother, Bonifacio, who had a house of split bamboo. This was located at the far end of the property, outside the present fence. A second house was made of bamboo and wood roofed with nipa and cogon grass. The smallest and latest house on the property had a roof originally made of chalk tiles or tisa, commonly used for construction by that time. This belonged to Tecla Chichioco. It is now known as my grandfather’s ancestral house. When the chalk-tiled roof was destroyed, it was replaced by corrugated GI sheets."


Marisse continued, "On July 3, 1896, under the chalk-tiled roof in one of the small rooms of this house, my grandfather, Jose Cojuangco Sr., was born. His father Melecio was then a young man of 25, his mother slightly older at 27. That gentleman who was born in a 3x8 room adjacent to the matrimonial bedroom was Cory’s father.


To listen to the 48-year-old Susano Chichioco Bantigue is a trip to yesteryear and his own childhood when Bulacan was called the "Garden of the Philippines" and caused a swarm of bees and abundance of honey. Mallat witnessed this, as he wrote, "Apart from the fertility of the soil, its air is so pure that convalescents go there to recover lost strength. Most of its towns, numbering 19, are situated a short distance from Manila Bay, with which they are connected by rivers so numerous that during the rainy season they cannot be distinguished from each other. These are bordered by mangroves whose trunks are used by the natives for making oars and as fuel."


Similar information came from Susano or Sonny’s grandmother Trinidad Chichioco Bantigue who lived in the kamalig for years. That same kamalig was where the Cojuangcos’ palay was stored in the mid-1800s. While on the other side of the stone building nearer the river, the bancas unloaded bagoong, tinapa and tuyo which the Cojuangcos sold. By the stonewall were adobe steps and a tiny dock where Sonny played in his youth.


Sonny challenges my imagination when he says, "Right under the earth you’re stepping on, one may dig up who knows what antiquity and the remnants of the old stairs leading from the river to the kamalig bearing stories of riverine life."


The original stairs from the former architecture were situated in front of the house, which led immediately to the second floor living area. We are discussing this in the garden and he points to broken stones. The kitchen was up there but now we see a few limestones and flintstones that look like debris. They tell of an abundance of these stones long ago. The garage where caruajes and horses and then very big dogs were harnessed was under the kitchen.


Having been remodeled in 1977, the house had to be pushed back from the road to the center of the 1,800 square meters property to make space for the road expansion. The bakery across the house was where Lola Puring Chichioco Villegas sold hot pandesal. It is now a bank. Every Christmas, Lola Puring and her sister brought my in-laws in Manila homemade pastries.


That generation is now gone and so are the nipa-roof houses and the practice of turning the sap of the nipa palms into spirits, vinegar and sugar.


Mallat’s memoirs read, "The environs of Bulacan are extremely pleasant and very picturesque, just like those of all towns of the province, which can be traversed one after the other without ever having to pass twice by the same road." Today, one mustn’t attempt to make a U-turn and pass any road twice on these narrow strips crowded with banks such as Allied Bank, Orient, and Metrobank; hardware stores, glass and aluminum shops, tires stores, fuel centers and paint shops. Bikes and pedicabs add to the pandemonium.


Gone are the trees such as yakal, guijo, dungon, tindalo, narra, saplungan and molave; and the subordinate species banaba, kalumpit, mangachapuy, calantas and oak that grew abundantly in 1881.


These beautiful trees are appreciated in hindsight; if people had foresight back then, they wouldn’t have been cut. The barren main roads are probably an inherited disaster of Governor Josie dela Cruz. What relief from the heat these trees, with their magnificent branches and leaves, could have given motorists and pedestrians.


Just imagine, even the cultivation of coffee in 1793, when Manuel Piñon, mayor of the province, ordered each inhabitant to plant several coffee plants and assigned superintendents to supervise the implementation of this measure in this historical town then known for its abundance of amethyst, topaz and emeralds.


Not to be ignored, for not everything is about trade and commerce, is Bulacan State University which has educated young Bulakeños from their youth to manhood on moral values and college courses to live on.


An invitation to the Bahay Saliksikan ng Bulacan, which advocates Bulakeños’ cultural legacy and nationalism, was precisely what brought me to Malolos. This state university reminds the young to be productive for Bulacan and for national development. Those who shared my appreciation that day were: Congressman Wilhelmino Sy-Alvarado who spoke of lobbying for additional teacher items, Vice Governor Plamenco, Chief Superintendent Vidal E. Quirol, Councilor Antonio Tengco, antiquarian Fr. Domingo Salonga whose family has indulged in collecting Bulakeño paintings and Spanish porcelain artifacts. Fr. Salonga said, "Such items must remain in Bulacan and in the Philippines." Rightly so.


Mayor Dominador Gonzales of Paombong, Bulacan, and his predecessor arrived, Justice Jose dela Rama and Atty. Pip Principe, both not physically robust but with notably big hearts, were entertained by our host, the inspiration of Bulacan State University, president Rosario Pimentel with his able assistant Ray S. Naguit and beautiful young Bulakeñas as distinct as every artist’s paintings by Reynaldo Salamat, Philip Victor, Mario Santiago, Angelina Janet B. Simeon, Cris Velasco, Ernie Velasquez, Gliff Victor, Mark Villanueva, Reynaldo Villanueva, Nestor Adriano, Renante S. Alejo, Jhun C. Alvarez, Andrew A. de Guzman, Philip R. de Guzman, Nards Gomez, Raymond S. Libiran, C.B. Manarpiiz and Christopher E. Pasco.


I marveled at the spirit of cooperation of the Bulakeños to preserve their culture, history and language identity through brotherhood.

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