I was born in Cebu but left for Manila when I was just two years old. My parents weren’t obsessed with explaining who was who and how we were related to so and so, and with the added disadvantage of being the bunso or youngest of five kids, I think I got the least amount of verbally passed on family history. Nor was I interested at the time, so I grew up oblivious for the most part. On our maternal side, our grandparents were hunted then brutally executed by the Japanese at the end of WWII, and any mention of ancestors on that side of the family was limited to larger gatherings of the clan and an emphasis on much better times. Stories of being belles of the balls and wonderful weddings and parties still hold a special place in the memory banks of some of my aunts and uncles who were alive in the early 1900’s. For my mom’s family, the comfortable and socially connected pre-war days came to a fairly abrupt end. On the paternal side, my grandmother hailed from Mactan, and was always convinced she was related to Lapu-Lapu which is actually plausible given that her ancestors for eons were from the one little town on the island, true “natives” as it were. My paternal grandfather came from outside Legaspi, Albay and the little I now know about him, his old photos, and the area he came from has me seriously wondering if we don’t have a little bit of Indian blood somewhere in our history as well. So as with most pinoys, we are mongrels, a mixture of mostly native islander, with drops of portuguese, chinese, spanish, indian blood and gosh knows what else… :) But in the last few years, several articles and books have piqued my interest about Cebu and some of my ancestors more than it used to…
The book “Glimpses of Old Cebu – Images of the Colonial Era” by Lucy Urgello Miller is a coffee table book published earlier this year based on antique postcards that the author collected over decades from shows all across the United States. Lucy Urgello was one of Sister’s high school classmates in Cebu, who later moved to teach California and along the way she collected antique postcards as a hobby. The postcards/photos from Cebu during the colonial period are FASCINATING. Truly FASCINATING. Her book contains nearly 600 photos spanning a period of 75 years from around 1870-1945. The photos at the turn of the century are particularly interesting. Shots of Colon Street, like that on the cover above, are personally meaningful as our paternal grandparents owned a hotel on Colon Street (the oldest “street” in the Philippines) from the 1930’s onwards. Other shots of a beautiful tree-lined Mango Avenue in the 1930’s were shocking to see, as those same grandparents had a modest home and large lot on Mango Avenue, which then WAS LINED WITH MASSIVE MANGO TREES and decades later the avenue is now an ugly, urban nightmare… Photos of Jones (now Osmena) Boulevard and the stunningly imposing white capitol building at the end of it show glimpses of the empty hills and mountains beyond, now all heavily populated. There is even a photo where you can make out the exact place we are cooking Zubuchons today, but taken some 80 years ago!
But browsing through another book, “Life in Old Parian” by Concepcion G. Briones and published in 1983 held even more fascinating personal discoveries… The Parian district or enclave was for several hundred years the section of town for Chinese merchants/immigrants from the late 1500’s until the early 1800’s. After a few unpleasant “cleansing” episodes, the area in the early 1800’s onwards became the neighborhood of the “mestizo-sangleyes” or Chinese-Filipino elites, and later, the epicenter of much of commercial activity and wealth in the islands. What went from the equivalent of a Chinese ghetto, I gather, turned into the prime address for a segment of the merchant population.
In Ms. Briones’ book, I was surprised to find a list of “twenty eight families that composed Parian’s elite in the early 19th century:” and the list included, among others, the “Borromeo, Climaco, Espina, del Mar, Osmena, Sanson (Samson), Singson, Velez and Veloso families” and many of these names remain prominent to this day. My maternal great-grandmother came from one of these extended families (how far from the main root I do not know) and it is really only now that I realize they were part-Chinese; they always seemed to focus on the Spanish/Portuguese connection… Also cool is the fact that Mrs. MM’s ancestors also appear in the same book, from a list of families from the late 1800’s. And that there is a possible “baptismal” relationship some 5-7 generations ago, when one of her ancestors possibly took on the name of one of my ancestors during a baptismal rite… though they were not blood relatives. No wonder one of the older Cebu matriarchs at our wedding 18 years ago whispered to me that we might be cousins, how freaky is that? She was teasing, of course… Not such a farfetched claim, as counting all legitimate AND illegitimate relations, one could certainly be marrying a relative on a small island without realizing it. :)
Finally, in a Metro Society magazine issue dated October-December 2006, there are several historical pieces of various families from various parts of the country, and one of them focuses on the move “From Parian to Principales” and how the members of that enclave’s elite later went on to dominate many aspects of business and politics on the island of Cebu. The piece was written by Gavin Sanson Bagares, himself probably a descendant of one of those original 28 families that were counted as part of the Parian elite. The article describes one of the richest Chinese-Filipino families in the Visayan region at the time and outlines the speed with which one can rise up the ladder if your commercial instincts were superior. It also, unwittingly shows how quickly such wealth can be lost in subsequent generations if improperly managed. In the end, all of this is of no consequence other than to provide historical context… yes, it’s nice to know where one comes from, even if it has little impact on where one challenges himself to go in the future. Next up, a 1960’s style meal right in the heart of modern day Parian.