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Pila: A book and a plaza

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By Bea Zobel Jr.
ALL4ART, Lifestyle, Philippine Daily Inquirer
December 20, 2004

One of the loveliest town squares I have ever seen is that of Pila, Laguna.

Unfortunately, when you mention the town’s name, most people are at a loss to locate the place.  Some vaguely think of long lines or even of athletic supplies (Ok, so that’s spelled with an F!)

I can assure you that the trip to Laguna is worth it.  Pila is a beautiful town.

Standing in the middle of the plaza, one sees houses from the early American era and even Spanish period clustered around a grassy mall.  Going there early in the morning when it is still all rosy and dewy, one truly feels transported to another era.

On one end of the plaza is the municipal hall (built before World War II) with its NeoClassical architecture.  At the other end is the huge brown mass of the church, which, together with the old school house, is a precious example of Spanish colonial heritage.

The latter building now holds Pila Museum.  Exhibits include pottery found in Pila during archaeological excavations led by the Locsin couple, National Artist for Architecture Leandro and his wife Cecile.

This same building was the venue for displays on the town’s traditional resources created by the local youth as a result of a workshop on heritage organized by the Met Museum.

Of course, one of the joys of visiting this town is the chance of being invited inside one of the stately houses.  In one particular home, I remember seeing gracious pink interiors and a colored glass window that even featured a nipa hut.

In the quieter section of the plaza is a modest and yet pretty dwelling.  This is the home of the Relova family.  One of the daughters of the house is my friend, Cora Relova.

I have written about her and how she treated us to the most delicious lunch which includes dulong, pako salad, bibingkang hipon.  Ay!  I can never forget that gastronomic delight!

Lovely compound

But part of the pleasure of the meal was the setting of Cora’s lovely compound just outside of Pila.  Our hostess entertained us in a open-sided pavilion set off from its surroundings only by screens.

Cora works with famous designer Budji Layug, so something of his unique style is evident in the house.  Along with very contemporary Budji-style pieces, one sees touches of the past.  I loved the way bunches of dried pandan or anahaw were hung from the eaves to form a kind of curtain.

Cora is known to many people as Pila’s heritage advocate.  Together with Monina Rivera of the Pila Historical Society, she has been mobilizing her neighbors to protect the vestiges of their town’s proud past.  Cora had lived for many years abroad and, having come home just a few years ago, she found herself drawn to heritage advocacy.

When she first arrived, the town plaza was not as beautiful as it is today.  It was messy and burdened with concrete structures.  Cora managed to convince everyone to remove what was superfluous.  Working quietly but with determination, she and her friends were able to get the National Historical Institute to declare the area around the town's center as historical zone.

She has not looked back since.  Almost every year she has to fight threats to undermine the integrity of the plaza.  She is truly a valiant woman deserving of our praise.

During our lunch with Cora, I recall here bringing out a big yellow book.  This turned out to be a reissued edition of an old Spanish-Tagalog dictionary compiled by a priest, Fr. Pedro San Buenaventura.  The original book was printed way back in 1613.

Apparently, as scholars like Ricky Jose have explained to me, there were never really enough Spanish people to teach the native Filipinos the language of the colonial masters.  So it was agreed that it would be better for the priests to learn the local tongues instead, hence the need for the dictionaries.

They also relied on the help of young children who grew up naturally speaking Spanish and a Philippine language.

What I found remarkable was that the book was actually produced in the town of Pila itself.  In fact, it is one of the first works in the Philippines printed with movable type.

The text on the cover even refers to the town as “…la noble villa de Pila..”  It is this impressive phrase that has always inspired Cora.  She loves to recite the words as we walk around the town.  It is an ancient title that gives substance to her labors.

Looking for the book

Little did I know that I would soon be enmeshed in this same dictionary.  A few months later, while in Madrid, I casually asked a good friend, who was back in the Philippines, if he wanted anything from the general neighborhood of the Iberian peninsula.  The answer was one that I would soon live to regret:  He wanted a copy of the reissue of the San Buenaventura dictionary.  Thought I was taken somewhat aback, I told myself, what could be so difficult about finding an old book?  Yes, my innocence was actually quite charming.

The first place I checked was our local parish church.  Of course, they thought I was some kind of nut case.  I would later learn to my embarrassment that San Buenaventura was Franciscan while our parish was run by Augustinians.

So I went to the biggest bookstore in Madrid.  Again my sanity was questioned.  What year did you say? 1613?  Couldn’t I interest you in something a bit more current?

So that was it.  I turned to an expert in lost causes, my aunt Rerre Basagoiti.  If there was anyone who could find this book, she could.  She began calling – of course – the Franciscan mother house in Madrid.  Now, why didn’t I think of that?

Unfortunately, the woman she got hold of probably just had an unproductive manicure.  She wasn’t in a helpful mood.  She airily dismissed my aunt by telling here to call Villa de Aranzazu in Guipuzcoa in Northern Spain.

I would have given up at that point simply because the names I was going to be working with had far too many letter Zs!  But not my aunt.

A wonderful man by the name of Padre Arregui of Villa Aranzazu said he could only help by giving the number of a lady named Miriam, who lived in San Sebastian.  I do not understand this part of the story.  Perhaps Miriam was one of the founders of www.amazon.com.

At any rate she told my aunt (I had already fled by that time and my aunt was on her own!) that she was looking for was the Archivo de los Indias, which had just been transferred to Calle Narciso Serra 21 back in – yes – Madrid!

When my aunt finally made it to the Archivo, she was met by Father Pedro who, it turns out, had just come back from doing research in – can you believe it – San Antonio in Makati!  He then bought out a copy of my dictionary – at long last!

So was it worth it?

In the introductory essay of the new edition, there is mention of how the scholar William Henry Scott explains the value of the many wonderful words in the dictionary.  He explains that we can pick up from the various terms the complexity of technologies already in use by the ancient Filipinos even before they were exposed to Spanish culture.

Scott discusses the expertise of our ancestors in such fields as agriculture, metalwork, weaving, architecture and the like as evidenced by their wide vocabulary.

Somehow it is so comforting, when you open the pages, to see familiar words like bakal, bahay and even baboy.  It is nice to know that 400 years ago, our grandparents spoke the same language.

Thinking back on Pila and its plaza and the issues that Cora and her friends must constantly address, one begins to understand that heritage is many things.  It involves buildings, and artworks, weaving, food, books and plazas.

But it is also the work we do, the words we use, the feelings we express and yes, the ideas we cherish.

Email beatrist@filipinaslibrary.org.ph or address letter to Filipinas Heritage Library, Makati Ave., Ayala Triangle, Makati City.

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