San Juan River (1926) by Fernando Amorsolo
Ester Tanco Gabaldon Private Collection
Mandaluyon, San Juan, Deodato, Salvador and Juan Arellano
by: Salvador Arellano
March 2016--It was in the best of times, in a silence of pastures and green land. My father, the architect-painter Juan M. Arellano was born in the Tondo district of Manila in 1888. He was schooled at the Ateneo Municipal de Manila that was founded by Catholic Jesuits in 1595, eight years old when Jose Rizal was condemned to death in 1896, and twenty-seven at the end of three centuries of Spanish rule in the Philippines. He made his home in this town of San Juan in the early 1900s till his death in 1960 when he was seventy-two.
The eldest of five siblings, I was born to him in 1941 to a mother with a name not unlike his, Juanita, surnamed Claro, a kind and simple woman from Lipa, Batangas who was much younger than he. As a growing child in the span of those early forties, I was given tentative names by these parents. Baby to start with, Chinko, then Salvy, evolving finally in my early teens to Dodong, most gruesome of all, myself, to this day with no clue why. That aside, my mother and father lived with each other until he died, as enduring life partners, no less than that.
Our family lived in a fringe of my father's land property, off tangent at large property as the main feature of his large a distance from the main gate below the fringes of its forest lowlands if you were facing it from the street, the two-lane thoroughfare of Pedro Guevarra Avenue. Our living quarters adjoined to his painting studio with tall lead-paned windows to admit as much of daylight; that led, through an ornate iron gate under a roof span thick with bougainvillea to the library, a repository of architectural and art volumes that incuded, memorably, a vintage collection of the French periodical L’ Illustration. This sanctum served as my father’s principal work area as well, a hive of architects, draftsmen and artisans working on blue-printed plans and plaster cast scale models for his national building projects.
It was a grand manor, this home, built on high ground with a soaring medieval water tower overlooking magnificent sunsets in its western lowlands. Twin twelve foot female giants, caryatids, stood as guardians in its central portico, reached through a hallway supported by Egyptian-inspired columns with frescoes in its walls painted in the primitive manner of Rosseau. It had vine-trellised verandas without and a curtained balcony within. Arab alfombras in garnets and blues laid like random islands in the polished stone floors of this grand salon with tapestries and gold-tinted paintings lit by branched candelabrums across the soaring span of its walls. In his bedroom, an ancient Chinese bed inlaid with fierce ivory warriors and lissome maidens riding tandem on horseback, a rosewood figure of the sage Confucius, robed in green silk and leaning on a staff with bronze bells, watched over him as he dreamed of a cathedral spire in the shape of clasped hands in prayer. Four steps down from this bedchamber, an Incan stone bust and a bone-white fractured human skull had lain together in this studio, conversing quietly as he slept.
Other like oddities had filled this home. A Burmese death mask. A dismantled violin, Christian icons in wood, ivory, or stone; a kris blade from Kamlon's daughter, framed parchments of European medieval grotesques, metal figurines of a ram's head, a prancing satyr, the huntress Artemis. 'Venta de Aires, Toledo' hand-painted on a ceramic jug. Inert relics of that bygone time, some few of these still in my keeping to this day.
Massive eight foot plant jars with ornamental vines had stood in sloped concavities in the eastern wall of this home’s stately gardens in a green verdance of stillness 'where a goat face of a pan might appear'. Towering pine, bending windward to allow passage for traveling clouds reflected in a swimming pool with dark blue Japanese urns in its corners. There was a lotus pond beside it with age-encrusted gourami fish, that when come upon and startled, would churn with sudden force in its murky shallows. Once ballasts in the bellies of pirate Chinese junks, deckled-edged gray piedra china stone described random pathways in those gardens' lush carpets of Bermuda grass, and to trilling birdsong in that sylvan setting, erect or recumbent Greco-Roman statues posed half-naked gazing at each other. Why, a tableau of joyous dancing figures was even chiseled unto our concrete kitchen floor by my father.
In that childhood, this home was my own Rome where all roads began and ended, some two decades after it was built in that town of San Juan after an intriguing episode had occurred there, an operatic saga told in whispers, rife with marital discord, prideful vanities and perfidy, that sort of maudlin Victorian stuff. I will not elaborate, even while it may well be asked here, who else had lived in that big house? Truly, I would plead, that would matter little in this present account.
Well past his prime, retired with laurels from his building profession and minor trophies from golf, Papa painted in that sun-filled studio everyday, well loved and nourished with steaming soup from my mother that she had cooked for lunch, with the choicest parts like the tender liver and heart if it was chicken soup, the cream of a raw egg, and the variously small embryonic eggs as well if the fat hen had any.
As painter, he was trained in that discipline by the Filipino Masters Fabian de la Rosa, Toribio Antillion, and Lorenzo Guerrero, a relation who had also instructed the fiery artist Juan Luna. In a fit of passion, this mustachioed Ilocano painter would slay his unfaithful Castilian wife in France in 1892 -- and her conniving mother as well for good measure.This other Juan, my sire in time to come, barely eighteen and wounded by a cutting remark from his older brother Arcadio, spared that brother and sailed to America instead at the turn of the 19th century to accomplish the study of architecture and the Beaux Arts, reaping in a five-year period academic honors for himself, his institute of learning and his land of birth. He proceeded thereafter to other parts of the known world, principally Europe and the Middle East, to ponder and imbed in memory images of the grand edifices and monuments he had found there, its airs and inhabitants, its land and seascapes, in masterful sketches and watercolors inspired by that experience.
Returning home, he built this imposing villa in those virgin highlands of San Juan as a prime example of his acquired skills and large-scale vision. Doubtless, an august congress of his ancestors smiled from above and nodded in benign approval; including one Deodato Arellano who had been the first president of the illustrious Katipunan Brotherhood. Who was, moreover, husband to the sister of Marcelo H. del Pilar, whose writings, it is said, had incited the Philippine War of Independence from Spain in the mid-1800s. In this light, I was plainly a circumstantial adjunct to my father’s ancestral pedigree and large presence. Begotten in the later years of his union with my mother, I basked in the warmth of his favor anyway, living daily by his side and loving him fiercely with a fatal knowledge that he would die sometime soon and leave us, as he was born in another century and already old from the time I knew him.
Though consistently elusive of sequence, what fugitive memories I recount here now of that family life are largely that of myself alone, in the secret places I had found or invented there, in the peripheries of the big house.
So I grew up in that gothic moorish enclave of storied walls and tended lawns, learning early of the larger world beyond San Juan. Of Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah; Germany's Hitler and his conquest of Western Europe; Russia’s Stalin, after whom a house dog was named; Churchhill of his war-ravaged England; Joan of Arc who became Ingrid Bergman; the Roman Emperor Caligula, his horse Incinatus that he had made senator; Alexander's war horse Bucephalus; the Aga Khans, the profligate elder and the dapper son with his Rita Hayworth and English thoroughbreds; Hemingway, of his Spain and Cuba, who blew his head off when the final bell tolled; the Norseman Heyerdahl, his thunderous first name and his raft Kon-Tiki, so I knew him already before Easter Islands' monoliths; the boy Dalai Lama who didn't climb trees; Rasputin, too, Russia's bearded Embodiment of Evil. And what rhinoceros horn was made of -- hair. And who would care to know about that? Various data of no practical application from a musty storage room above the garage that housed a black English Hillman and a green American Oldsmobile, where dusty volumes of stacked back issues of Time and Newsweek, National Geographic, Life, that kind of reading material, had accumulated to fill my idle time and mind. From the library were books about art and architecture, varied enough about those fields of study to be of some interest to me, too. No Pageant Magazines there though where representations of the female form appeared. Those were in another Arellano relative's home in Tuberias near Pinaglabanan, to be perused with keen interest with my cousin, Boong, whenever found.
I was born during the Second World War, when my father's gardens had not been tended for a long time, the living nature there allowed to grow unheeded over and upon itself since the start of that great Pacific conflict. It was soon restored to its previous form of order and harmony after the American Liberation in 1945. I would sleep in those grounds in those boyhood times, camped-out at night as a pretend cowboy or Indian, Apache or Sioux but more often as an errant son who had not come home for days, lain in a bed of fragrant pine needles under frangipani trees, what we called kalachuchi, or beneath a Chinese bamboo grove alit with fairy dust and dimming blurs of fireflies. Tethered close by was my stallion, the noble Ebony, entirely black and thoroughbred no less, a gift from the patriarch for completing my elementary schooling. I would have a wood fire to read by,Tasty bread, and a can of Hunt's pork and beans. And lurking there, always, were malevolent intimations of the holy terrors, hair-raisers, witches and ghouls that owned and wandered those grounds at night which could manifest themselves like the wakeful ghosts in a forgotten poem that ‘tap and sigh upon the glass and listen for reply'. Still, there was no finer place for a boy to sleep.
Here, outside iron gates arched with a matched pair of fierce canine figures (Cerberuses!) lay Guevara Avenue, the passageway that defined the boundaries of San Juan, then still with the appendage ‘del Monte’ like the canned pineapple. 'Monte' implying it to be, in that reference and language, a verdant place. And, truly, it was that.
I soon learned that its lowermost part ended at the corner of Lawson Street in Shaw Boulevard in the town of Mandaluyon -- named after Bill Shaw of Wack-Wack, the golf club -- of yummy hamburger sandwiches, apple pie, both with a wedge of cheddar cheese, please, and ginger-spiced ‘Cock ‘n Bull’ soda meriendas. (That funny name, Wack-Wack, according to Papa, a founding member who may have designed the club and its playing course, was derived from the squawking caws of crows that had flourished there.) You arrived at Shaw from Guevarra Avenue over a stone bridge past Hoover Street, underneath which, if you cared to peek as I strain to do again now, were winsome lavanderas doing their wash, exchanging singsong banter knee-deep in the clear stream's running water. On that street on Sunday mornings, you would run right smack into the lusty roar of the town sabungan if you crossed Shaw Boulevard. But if you did not, given the free will of a growing boy, there was always Lawson Grocery's wares on that corner to re-inspect, owned by a Chinaman who eventually married his dusky Visayan kahera. Sometime later the chic Manhattan supperclub came to be in that boulevard, too, with the Katindig brothers’ breast-thumping syncopations of Afro-Cuban and Latin-Jazz rhythms, the sultry Dulce Din and other lipstick-ed sirens who gazed at you ever so longingly as they sang -- ‘Night and day, you are the one . . .’ and of course the ever attentive waiter, Pete, to provide the gin and tonics in napkin-wrapped glasses.
From Mandaluyon, P.Guevara Avenue would bring you to its opposite end of N. Domingo Street with Quezon City to your right and Manila to your left. Mandaluyon at its other extreme won out as the shorter route to the capital city, with, by far, more movie theaters than my hometown's only two, the Ace and Rainbow with its Tagalog and American features.
This discovery of Old Manila's movie theatres was like finding buried gold -- in the grainy angst of black and white European films that told of human frailty, carnal sin and murder told in gutteral ungraspable languages. As a guilt-ridden truant I had seen Sylvana Mangano at the Embassy in Santa Mesa perspiring in ‘Bitter Rice’ (!); ‘Two Women’ and ‘Rocco And His Brothers’ in Mussolini’s post-war Italy at the Palace in Raon, the French femme fatale Brigette Bardot in ‘And God Created Woman’ (!!). Deeper still into the narrow alleyways and crowded streets of Manila was the Escolta's Lyric theatre with Bergman's dark Nordic tales; then back to the Palace posthaste for its spicy sidewalk lumpia and the magnificent Japanese Blind Swordsman therein -- Zatoichi -- who, beset under unseeing duress by a horde of ninja assassins, would tense, disembowel the lot of them in a flash, re-sheath his katana, then calmly sip tea . . . profundity! In contrast to the mindless inanity of those Technicolor-ed Hollywood song-and dance movies with grinning heel clicking nice guys. Yech.
Papa, you have lost this first-born. You may not retrieve him. He will henceforth reside in this familiar darkness with sweated palms, in this dark magical places that smell of urination. How, in all prevailing reason, could he not belong here?
These days, memory does not always speak clearly; had I really read Black Orpheus, too; and was that other one a movie or a book? But with patience it may come to me . . .
Through Mandaluyon, via clip-clopping karetela on Kalentong Street by the roadside town market there, up and over the Lambingan Bridge above an alluvial parade of lilies on their way to sea in the brown Pasig River, past a decaying stone church and into a maze of narrowing side streets, I found the Santa Ana racetrack. Befriending the grooms there, sota's, I ingratiated myself into that company to be with the horses. O, the wet gleam of eye; tremulous ripples along its satin flanks; impatient pawing and firm thud of hoof -- born of Arabians, Breathers Of The Wind, beloved creatures of Allah! I would travel with this carefree company across the city to the San Lazaro racetrack, too, in ponderous heavyweight trucks with canvas canopies that conveyed these splendid creatures, coming to ground with tails aloft, snorting and chomping at the bit, high-strung prancing bays, chestnuts, grays and blacks. My life was clearly before me and there was still so much to do. So, as matters stood, under scrutiny from an unsmiling lady mind doctor flashing funny picture cards, some remorse and my guardian angel weeping, high school in its second year in a private military academy was finally given up with a midnight leap over the cofines of its walls in favor of those wondrous forays into Manila. But wait, a devious trap had been laid for the Incorrigible One. Schooling for him was to resume immediately. In Spain, wherever that was -- as an exile! But I had only to disappear again, and, as with other confrontational crises in my evolving life, nothing came of that too.
In that time, this township of San Juan was also referred to as 'Addition Hills'. Except for the hill beside the house and a steep cliff with a sweeping view over Santa Lucia, I had little awareness of those heights when I lived there. As to 'Addition', if one cared to dwell on that, might it suggest that those hills could actually be added on to, who knows anymore? There were various friends of my father, ghosts now who had lived there of whom I knew as little or nothing about; well-groomed gentry who were collectively urbane and soft-spoken, true to what appeared to be the norm, the Post War social disposition of those times. One might think that anxiety as we know it now might have had no place in that genteel society. Some twenty years later, during the communications revolution of the 70’s, the futurist Alvin Tofler had rightly declared that tension had become world property, laying a tombstone on that Ante Bellum era’s terminal end. Meanwhile, before that advent of mass media, the spoken languages at home were Spanish between Papa and Mama; English from my father to us; and the native vernacular to address the various household minions. Such as it was in that time.
There were foreigners who lived in the tree-lined course of Guevara Avenue, in newer homes with brick-tiled roofs and high walls, transient or transplanted expatriates who were mostly White Caucasian. Among them a Czech gentleman with a handsome wife in that corner house in Wilson Street where my first-ever-true-love had later lived too; she for whom I had scaled those walls, my own fair Justine of Durrel’s lost Alexandria, she who remains nurturing, beauteous and wise.
In Guevarra Avenue as well was a certain Lednicky in the business of mining with a street there named after him. As for his friend my father, for him the narrowest side street abutting St. John's Academy and the church of Pinaglabanan. And there as well was the jovial Italian sculptor, Signor Monti with a pronounced nose and thinning hair who worked with my father in his building projects. When he found time, at my father's behest, he had tutored me about the human form in wires and clay. "Porcelino bello!" he would exclaim in an outburst of Sicilian mirth, referring to me there, I found later, as a piglet. That gentle man had accomplished the statuary in the home gardens, as those heroic figures, filigreed scrolls and arabesques in the facades of government buildings that my father had built in the national capital -- to leave a Roman imprint there, if it were to matter at all, in the romance of that time in that part of that Far East.
Visitors who called at home included the Philippine Presidents Quirino and Magsaysay; courteous men of honor in sharkskin americanas who were gracious to my mother, whose heels, according to my ever observant old man who was also a professed Free Mason, were tinged with pinks of the makopa fruit. And once, Indonesia's own Bung Karno strolling briskly across the lawns, whatever was he doing there? Dashing and handsome in person, he wore his same khaki military uniform and brimless hat with a single tassel just like in the RKO news pictures. Of course I had already met His Excellency in that room above the garage. In that privacy, we had shared the company of the alluring Japonesa, Dewi, whom, it was said, was erstwhile of Tokyo’s luxuriously decadent Copacabana nightclub in her teens. There, I will tell, later in the 1960’s, at least ten butane lighters would detonate in your face from knelt waiters at the instance you thought of smoking another cigarette. Dozo, shacho san!
Coming to call as well to pay homage to Don Juan, and indeed he was called that, were artist painters like the handsome son and pretty daughter of the late Fernando Amorsolo, and the strapping figure of a Filipino, Botong Francisco. Some forty years later, I was greeted by a well-aged oil study of our Cerberus gates done by this artist in the foyer of Marot and Raymond’s Forbes Park home. I had also met the elderly Guillermo Tolentino when my father visited him with me in tow. This unsurpassed Filipino artist, bespectacled with granny glasses and of diminutive physical stature, seemed a modest person who was quite unlike my father's more effusive friends. I had sensed a kindred fellowship, a comfortable respect between them, during their quiet conversation in the sculptor's home somewhere in old Manila's Oroquita.
Some years later, arriving home drunk near dawn, I found myself in the unexpected company of Papa in his studio, his own whiskey bottle and pack of Chesterfields near at hand as he worked. And how frailed he was, how very old he seemed in his loose pajamas in that anemic pall of fluorescent light. The subject on his easel in dark umbers and blues was of a robed priest on a wind-swept promontory heaving a treasure chest into a raging sea tempest, the vessel’s lid open in mid-air, spilling forth its silver and gold contents against a storm-filled sky; but the spiked glitter of the jewelry and coinage there seemed to me, against the steady drone of Papa's voice, static and frozen in that dramatic depiction. As he worked, he lectured patiently on my wayward ways, filled enough with drink but lucid, inspired by reason and eminently wise as any father. I listened to his for-your-own-good words as I stared at the painting, as he, somehow able to read minds, proceeded to obliterate it entirely with deliberate and emphatic brush strokes. Many years later, I would find myself in that moment again when I met that priest in the painting in Rizal's second book.
I learned of his other friendships long after he was gone, as that with General Carlos Romulo some three years before his own passing in the mid-80s. I was at his 'Kasiyahan' home one evening with his grandson while he was having a haircut in his own barber chair. "Arellano" he muttered with a start (I thought he was asleep) "your father and I went to the Santa Ana kabaret." That lucid recollection, formed from the dimmest corner of his memories, lit his eyes with warm pleasure and I was glad for the small joy that it had given him. The first exhibit of my paintings was held in this home graced by Manila's Diplomatic Corps and elite society, invited by his wife and daughter-in-law in behalf of the General. He had stayed on, well past midnight in his infirmed age and I had thanked him again. He answered absently from a faraway place he had yet to visit. "I am doing this for Johnnie." And there, so far removed from the past, I longed for my father again.
Families of Spanish descent had lived in San Juan, too, born there by rightful heritage of conquest, by virtue of the Galleon trade, the specter of the Christian cross and the blood-stained espada. In my time there, a motley group of these Conquistadore species had remained in San Juan, light-skinned boys of my age who appeared sullen and proud by nature, speaking their own language and keeping to themselves whose slouched attitudes resembled that of the American actor James Dean. As somewhat confused indios in that cultural context, we simply dismissed them as conios. And what was that latent animosity all about? You tell me.
We were surrounded by a scarcity of neighbors, as the homestead was large, six or more hectares if I recall correctly, vastly larger than that to the eyes of a small boy then and my even dimmer recollection now. There was my jolly Godmother Donya Carmen Varela's home across our gate with her playful apple-cheeked grandchildren; and Diana, her retired chestnut carriage mare with a white blaze, that, before I had my own, I had horse-napped at every given chance by every devise and means, much to the Grand Dame’s fuming consternation and indignant complaints to my father -- who had soothed her, his comadre, with cooing smiles and chuckles. Her Spanish dish of olive-oiled pork hocks with red beans and Bilbao chorizos that she had bequeathed to Mama remains the best meal that I enjoy and share to this day.
The de la Cruzes had lived there, too, behind the hill beside the house. Their father, a strict University Dean, had three smiling sons, Jimmy, Joe, and Monching, friends all gone now. Another neighbor was Virginia Ty-Navarro, who painted, like her husband, Jerry. From the couple came encouraging words about my first watercolors of horse heads and game fowl. That they were vignettes, according to Mr. Navarro, was nice.
Mid-way up Guevara Avenue was a mango-shaded lane where my father's older brother, Manuel, had lived. My Tio Maning, gentle artist and my birth Godfather whom I adored, knight-champion of my mother, his brother's chosen woman for the briefest period of time, and then he died. Close by was the Anonas family, too, my sister's namesake and Godmother among them, Gloria, benign doctora to our brood.
Entrenched throughout the rest of San Juan Del Monte were families of four eventual national presidents. The Moreno's lived there, too; Valdes; Ordonez; Gutierrez; LaO; Tambunting; Gil; Perez; Light; Poe; Laurel; Sycip; Quiogue; Buencamino; Schlobaum; Hua-Tong; Teehankee; Recto; Abello; Whittaker; Taylor; Muhfeld; Nakpil; Tuason; Manglapus; Vargas; Lovina; and the Pedrosa’s of Hoover Street with a son of my age who did not escape exile to Spain. Who else -- many others assuredly, some who abide as friends to this day. They had all lived in San Juan’s old streets of Ortega; Paterno; Liege; Alfonso Trece; Tuberias; Lloyd George; Valenzuela; and Waterous. Waterous, what inspired poet had named it that? And Pinaglabanan, site of the first battle of Katipuneros against the Spaniards one hundred years ago. Beneath its cogon-covered surface were connecting arteries extending to unmeasured distances, a labyrinth of tunnels built in wartime by the Japanese occupying forces. Surely another place to discover, but the large rats and the dumped rot of refuse there, the clammy dampness of those dark tombs, made it much too dreadful to fully explore.
Families had lived in margins of what is now Green Hills in San Juan, a far greener place in an earlier time before it was known as Little Baguio, an Arcadian province of pastures and farmland where skimming blues of kingfisher birds dipped over milky rice paddies that concealed mottled quail eggs, harmless water snakes and bamboo shafts of bird snare in its grass embankments. Untended work carabaos with clouds of insect swarms, wallowed in mud holes in purple shades of acacia and mango trees, chewing cud and well-content in that abject order of life. Farther down a sloping bank of acacia trees below what was later Horseshoe Village was a spring pond teeming with minnows and tadpoles. What pure joy it was to swim in this secret waterhole -- to enter its placid surface butt-first from overhung tree branches in a somersaulting splat, and idly pass there, treading ripples on your back with the most trivial concerns in those summer days. Those wide grass plains where no one went extended westward from P. Guevara to an expanse of a gravel-surfaced Highway 54, now concrete-paved EDSA, with an overhead rail transport system, poison-choked vehicular traffic and a curious political history of its own. But in the early 50’s, progress was fast-coming to this plain in the form of staked barb-wired fencing put up randomly there. Unknowingly, I ran my horse Ebony directly into one such sudden boundary at almost full gallop, tearing his flank to expose pink musculature and inflicting profound pain to this rider's reproductive area, which had, as he flew, slammed against the protruded pommel of the horse's saddle -- !!#@+*%!! nesters!
Not too far from those plains, off a dirt road in Santolan, was a small forest of lauan and ipil-ipil saplings and trees overgrown with vines and foliage where Sampaguita Pictures, LVN, or Premier Productions would film their black and white moving pictures. Finding another ‘shooting’ in progress in that secluded glade was a recurring treat for me. Once, close to nightfall there, a well-known elderly actress, Carmen R., had posed a query after a small conversation with this charming boy on horseback. "Hijo," she had prodded teasingly, "would you perhaps like to do this yourself someday, act?" And I, ever mindful of my uncharted future, had surely said yes. Or had at least nodded grimly, reminded once more of my father's imminent heavenward ascension to join his ancestors. And true to my word, I have acted out my life ever since.
To provide shade and capture cooling breezes in the tropical interiors of our haven my father had thought to plant many fruit trees, planted those seedlings to see them grown. Birds and bats, and myself as well, were nurtured in that tropical plenty of seasonal fruit. I had known when and which tree to climb for the ripened and sweetest among them -- varieties of mango; santol; duhat; kaimito and strains of bayabas. Guyabano; sampaloc; avocado; kamachile; makopa, and cashew, too -- kasoy to you, that succulent sweetly sour yellow fruit with a heart-shaped nut that would swell your mouth to overlap your whole face if you ate it half roasted. Be warned.
Appropriate to those storybook times, scenes for the movie ‘Siete Infantes de Lara’ was allowed to be filmed in my father’s gardens. Thick black cables snaked out from idling trucks to feed blazing klieg lights. Pomp and pageantry in the lawns with a native cast of dozens in a gay confusion of colorful period costumes, wooden weaponry and heraldic banners. Oh, but the morning all too pleasantly surprised. Papa introduced me to its leading man. Caped and swathed in the resplendent regalia of his role, Manuel Conde was just as dashing as President Sukarno, but with more teeth showing when he flashed his movie star smile. Years later, I learned that he had embarked on a lifelong search for General Yamashita’s buried war treasures.
That meeting with Mr.Conde inspired a brief skirmish of fencing lessons at the Manila Hotel from a visiting English instructor, Dale Potter, who had famously crossed swords with the actors Errol Flynn and Cornel Wilde. (‘The foil is not gripped like a broadsword or broom -- it is held firmly with the fingers . . . with a hollow space in the palm of the hand . . . thus.’)
The towering pine and other larger trees, like the ancient house, had seemed to have always been there as permanent features of the land, primordial throughout its own changing seasons in those never ending succession of days. The formal gardens presided in the higher part of the property, tranquil and jasmine-scented in the moonlit witching hours, its pale unmoving statues with sightless gestures defining grace on an arched foot or settled haunches against a moving canvas of night skies, stone-blind and mute witnesses to a many an amorous declarations made there by a confused juvenile delinquent with raging hormones.
The larger part of my father's land tract was in its lowlands, dense forest with its own unique forms of plant life and vegetation. The land provided. There was a small herd of goats for fresh milk and births of their offspring to attend; a motorized deep water well strapped with a thick canvas belt around its rusted metal contraptions; tame deer with lambent eyes that inquired frankly into your soul; neck-deep mud ponds over-brimming with the African tilapia fish; and rows of smelly poultry structures for the fast-multiplying flocks of ItalianWhite Leghorn table chicken -- at a good sanitary distance from my own aggressive breeds of fowl bred for the pit, White Cubans and imported American Blacks, if you know them. Airborne hawks, suspended like golden kites in the thermal currents was a daily sight, and all color and shape of other bird life resided and visited with us in this blessed land -- of the morning, child of the sun returning. I had seen hornbills, multicolored finches, kuagos, and Bleeding Heart doves in the shallows of marshes there and had promptly built me entrapment devices . . . And once, I swear, an eagle. There, golden brown, perched high in the bamboo groves -- against the wind, balanced, supreme.
Smaller winged creatures found refuge here too. In the gardens were bulged-eyed dragonflies with brittle gossamer wings, wisps of tutubing karayom, and the largest ones of the sap green variety, that, when caught from behind by its tail, would curl itself into a vibrating ball and chomp down to devour you wholly -- O, serrated stab of remembered pain. Papa, look back upon the deeper pain of that son, the yellow fur of a dying Oriole in his hand with a lead shot buried in its breast that he had let fly.
Beryl blues, citrine and orange-tinged flying dragons they were. Shimmering brilliances of verdigris green, alizarin and blood-red dots and commas winking and spiraling in dappled sunlight, hovered in mid-air or crouched without motion on a faintly quivering stem -- flitting pictures dancing in my brain pan like the suspended hummingbird flights in my small garden now. Matanong ko po, do you see them there anymore? Salagubang, kuliglig and salaginto, and the largest and most pugnacious of the species, the horned uwang beetle that would hiss out in threatening menace if you poked it. But you poked it again anyway. Salagubang would be shaken like aratiles from trees, roasted to a crisp dark brown, dipped in bitter vinegar and popped to the mouth with crunching relish by the Ilocano Benjamin, to the cringing chagrin of the other hardineros. Gone now those hardy men who had tended the gardens and the forestland below. Gone the heady scent of pine sap curling from damp piles that they had gathered and lit at the end of every day. Gone too the unseen hordes of cicada gathered in those afternoons of imposed naps, stridulating in a choir of piercing metallic notes, building wall upon wall of soaring hypnotic decibels that would rise and ebb, rise and ebb, and, at the flick of an eyelash from a sleeping wood spirit that they had disturbed, abruptly stop. An eternity of eerie silence would pass. And they would start over again.
There as well, in that childhood forest of hidden places, the alert bubuli lizard scurried about its business in the undergrowth in kinship with the occasional bayawak and the reticulated sawa. Rarely seen, this giant serpent would shed its silver skin of scales among dry leaves for you to discover where it had been, for you to marvel at its breadth and length. Hard as I looked though, there were no fins in the water, crocodiles, wild boar or unicorns. In their stead were stray cows or carabaos, not ours, who arrived and left as they pleased. In a like environment, you may pet the nice cow with random pleasant thoughts twice or more times over its soft brown coat, but I would caution you not to mount the carabao, as this beast may bolt with murder in its heart and run you directly into thorny bamboo thickets.
In the summers of that time, to Wagner's Ride Of The Valkyries, were the epic brush fires to replenish the land, overlooked by my father on higher ground in his pajamas. Lit at strategic fringes by grim-faced hardineros, the set fires, you see, were intended to meet and converge at a center point and die out. But the winds would not always cooperate, and the fires would soon rage out of human control, an inferno of driven snapping and crackling flames fast multiplying in every direction flushing out every living creature in its path. A truly perilous moment, for venomous things hissed and slithered underfoot -- one skipped and scurried about at a snappier tempo there, very quickly to get out of the way. Then the fire trucks would arrive again with mournful sirens with no evidence that anyone had sent for them. The patriarch had not moved from his perch. Presently, a voice among the coughing huddle of yellow coats and helmets would announce gravely: "Don Juan, patay na po.", ignoring the black-sooted boy who had found refuge at his father's side.
Bent on utter annihilation, howling typhoons from the Siberian Steppes and China arrived in the monsoon months. It rained and rained and assemblies of slime-coated frogs clambered hastilly upon toadstools to convene like earnest lawyers to ponder upon the grave matter at hand, croaking away into the night, imploring the heavens for reason, invoking habeas corpus and debating strategies of defense or terms of surrender to save the land. Mayhem ruled. Braying wind lamentations and klaxon sirens wailed forth, air masses lifted and heaved orgasmic aswangs impaled on broomsticks as rolling thunder resounded in the lightning-streaked skies. Window panes vibrated thinly, cracked in migrating patterns then shattered. Shrieking mice and house lizards darted out of the house rafters as gusting sheets of rain lacerated on the rooftops demanding entry; and the onslaught continued, unabating with no negotiated truce in sight. The frogs, clearly, had failed again. Timbers of the grand manor groaned out, settled deeper in its foundations and held ground as best it could, resigned to its fate . . .
When day broke, with the fish ponds overflowed to the ground with gasping glass-eyed tilapia, with the rain-soaked land lain shimmering in silver-streaked greens amid strewn riots of branches and leaves, I would find another tree uprooted and felled there by the storm. And the black crater where it had stood to bear its own great weight would smell so pungently of the disemboweled dark soil and the putrid scents of the centipedes and earthworms that had burrowed there. I would climb barefoot among its familiar branches for a last time, its cast shadows and vertical dimensions altered to the ground permanently like that. A foretelling of that time of final reckoning, patiently planned over years and foreseen by those ghosts in San Juan, when this lowland Paradise would be parceled out and sold after my father had gone. And not one tree of my childhood stands there now.
In a part of the heart remains a comfort that remembers San Juan as home, that country town of the late 40’s and 50’s where simple folk had lived and trusted there were surely better times in store for them, having endured and survived that long war. It was all of mine then as some of us who had lived there might claim. But you would return to it now with a sense of irretrievable loss, of this place of memories so changed and different now that prefers not to disclose all that you ask it to remember. Perhaps not for us who had left it for other times and places, putting us to mind of our own last years as well.
A watercolor pastoral by Juan Arellano hangs in a wall of this distant place where I live now. It may describe these random recollections best. Our family is portrayed there with my mother beside him. It is a completed thought, not a croquis of a passing notion put to paper, but a mortal man’s testament to an idyllic life in a nurturing land once upon a time. Why not, it truly did exist. The painting is signed, to count the artist as one more romantic interpreter of this wistful timeless concept. No date is inscribed beside his name but I find no fault or need for that.
To this day, I continue to paint as my father did before me, with no abiding concept of my own to define and with no clear recollection if he had encouraged this early compulsion in me. As my son does now, sprawled on the floor there, drawing and drawing with that same compelling urgency since he could wield pencil or brush. Luis, my glorious last child whom I will not see grown to manhood; named after his great-grandfather and my late brother, Boloy; born to a kind and simple woman much younger than I with heels tinged with pinks of the makopa fruit.
I call him by that name only. Luis. That will suffice. And I look at him there and ask sometimes, you know, is his grandpa smiling down at this little boy?
Salvador Arellano has lived in Southern California with his wife Monina, sons Pablo and Luis, since 1987. A daughter and son, Analise and Juan, reside in Europe. He enjoys a reputation as a painter of portraits and equestrian subjects. Owners of his work include H.R.H. the Prince of Wales; H.R.H. the Sultan of Brunei, and Hollywood personalities like Sylvester Stallone, among others. A commissioned portrait was presented by the artist in 1998 to Baroness Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of England. He counts prominent names in American thoroughbred racing as clients and old families in Manila as collectors of his paintings, notably that of game fowl. Examples of his equestrian paintings may be viewed at www.sarellano.net. A comprehensive collection of his work is recorded in the book ‘Salvador Arellano, Gamefowl Art & Other Works’.
March 2013--Magkalinawan na tayo sa simulat simula pa. Hindi ito ang last full show ni Danilo Dalena. At lingid sa kaalaman ng karamihan, naging abala naman siya gayong tila...
January-February 2017—Lito Mayo was a fixture in the Philippine art scene since the 1970s and his relevance in the history of Philippine art has never been questioned and ignored...
December 2016--This ancestral house was built circa 1870 by Domingo Ilagan and Maria Martinez (who died both in 1903). They had six children: Aniceto Ilagan, Rosario I, Villanueva,...
Restless, daring, imaginative he blazed new paths in his chosen art. A protean innovator in a craft which demand high skill, he is the weather vane of contemporary sculpture, planting the seeds of...
September 2016--Leo Abaya has an enviable sense of timing. In 1993, his student plate of a collage study of images from magazines, Views and Points of View won the Jurors...
August 2016--Juvenal Sanso (1929, Spain) is a seminal Philippine modernist. His works have been collected in museums in Philippines, France and the United States. He studied Fine Arts...
July 2016--ifferent Island of the Philippine archipelago had bad various names in history. The native inhabitants had their own names, but as each wave of foreign voyagers touch these...
June 2016--Known for his textured abstract paintings, Raul Piedra, still a college student in 1970, staged his first solo exhibition at the University of the East where he featured...
July 2016-- Carcar has been established a component city of the Province of Cebu by virtue of Republic act 9436 which passed into law on April 15, 2007, and ratified by the people...
June 2016--The construction of this beautiful Baroque Rococo church was begun in 1734, the year after the parish was established by the Augustinian Order and was completed in 1788. <...