By Elizabeth S. Timbol
Metro, May 2002
Driving down the South Superhighway, the signs lead to many popular provincial destinations. Turn into one of the side roads slightly off the beaten track, and you will find yourself in one little town that has more to it than meets the eye.Pila
, in the heart of Laguna, has been the center of restoration effort spearheaded by families that trace their roots to the town. The project was inspired by the declaration of the Pila town center – bordered by Gen. Luna St. in the North, M.H. del Pilar in the East, Mabini in the South, and Bonifacio Street in the west – as a National Historical Landmark
by the Nationa Historical Institute
(NHI) in May 2000. Included in the declaration are the Pila Elementary School or escuela pia
and some of the houses surrounding the area. One of the town’s unique features is the use of the Spanish colonial town planning system, which has been maintained to this day. “Every time the Spaniards put up a town, they had pattern, a standard called the Recopilacion de las leyes de las Indies,
prescribed as early as the 1600s,” says Cora Relova, president of the Pila (Laguna) Historical Society Foundation. “Everything is in a grid
. The town is built around the church, which is the center. It was called bajo de la campana
, or under the bell. You should be able to hear the bells for the mass, the orasyon.
Right in front is a square where town activities take place. Before the Spaniards came, the settlements were scattered, and this pulled it together. The municipal hall is also within the grid.”
Relova’s family house is located right in the Plaza itself, so she could see for herself what needed to be done. After spending 14 years living abroad, and seeing the beautiful parks and clean town square in New England, she thought to herself, “Wow, how nice this would be for Pila.” So when she came back to the Philippines in 1993, she decided to take a sabbatical and pursue her vision for Pila. “I grew up here. It was our ancestral town. When I came home, the plaza was horrible, so dirty. Not that people wanted to make it look derelict, but it was more a lack of vision. The mayor, who was my cousin, just wasn’t into beautification. He was focused on running things. There were stalls there, and people were urinating. There was a water tank that had been converted into a garbage dump.” Thus, the efforts to clean up the Plaza had to come from within.
To Pila’s benefit, the beautification effort got started in 1994. Relova and a number of equally dedicated resident families formed the Pila (Laguna) Historical Society Foundation Inc.
for that sole purpose. “The people who are restoring the place are not doing so because it was declared a historical site. It was really just ‘to beautify the town plaza of Pila as the center of the town’s activities,” she says. Relova admits that it took a while for some of the town folk to warm up to the idea of fixing up for aesthetic reasons. “You cannot force people to fix their house because there is no money coming from anywhere. But they understand that it’s historical landmark, so they have to. Being in a square, if you see your neighbor’s house na maganda, tapos ikaw pangit
– but it’s not pagandahan,”
After a few false starts, the group decided to incorporate as an NGO to broaden their scope “to preserve the town’s heritage, cultural, and environmental landmarks.” Relova was elected president, and the foundation began to ask for pledges to finance their projects. The declaration by the NHI just added fuel to the already burning flame.
With all signals go, the foundation embarked on their first project, which was to rehabilitate and relocate the Pila Museum, but not without encountering some roadblocks. “We thought it was going to be easy. We forgot there was the Sangguniang Bayan, who was against all our steps. After over a year, we were able to achieve our goal and remove the building and the water tank. Even the basketball court was removed. Slowly were were able to develop,” says Relova with pride. Over the course of four years, there was some support from various sectors. Not all promises were kept, though. “They wanted to make Pila the pilot project for the Laguna Lake Development Authority
, then the Department of Tourism
. So we met, then it was approved, but the funding never came,” she adds.
As the saying goes, “Slowly but surely wins the race.” That is the philosophy that Relova and the rest of the members of the foundation live by when working on projects for Pila. “Now our project is the beautification of the Town Plaza. May magbibigay diyan
, P1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 500, so I have money, we can do it. Any little thing really helps. It’s portion by portion, inch by inch,” she says. “We are in the Philippines where we have no laws on preservation, restoration. I don’t want to depend on government.” Luckily for the group, the awareness of the program has grown and the support group is growing. “I have a lot of help from John Silva, a consultant for the National Museum, and Ino Manalo, the director of the Metropolitan Museum,” she adds. The National Museum
has been instrumental in the identification and authentication of the artifacts found all over the town. These pieces are on display at the new Pila Museum
, which is open to the public.
For Cora Relova and other members of the Foundation, the restoration of Pila to it’s resplendent glory is “a labor of love. There is no material gain. The gain is verging on spiritual. Gumaganda ang bayan
. On Sundays, children come to play at the Plaza. It’s really personal satisfaction.” For Relova herself, the project holds an even greater personal significance. “Pila was a hacienda
town founded by my great grandfather, Don Felizardo de Rivera
. I’m a direct descendant. This is my life mission. It’s like honoring what my ancestors did.”