What defines a person? So many answers, but I think I was shaped in large part by the neighborhood where I grew up. Pandacan is a district of the city of Manila in the Philippines. Its history is rich in song, valor and honor. Its air is filled with the breath of hardworking men and women. It is beloved by the Pasig River. Imagine my surprise when I found out I have lived in an island all my life!
I found out much about my town when an elder from one of its prominent families lent me a book on local history. I was surprised (and honored) to find out how strongly my own family influenced the town’s growth. We were teachers, public servants and athletes. Our sports center is named after a great uncle who played basketball in the Olympics.
Once upon a time, my town was like paradise on Earth. People traveled on boats along the river and canals lined by pandan, palm-like trees and shrubs with aromatic leaves. The air was fresh. Food was plentiful because there was fish in the river and the land was fertile. The men and women wore elegant loose clothes, similar to those worn in India. The script was called Baybayin.
Then the Spaniards came and introduced Christianity. Churches were built. Arts and culture thrived. For a time, Pandacan became renowned as a birthplace of literary and musical geniuses. Franciso Balagtas, creator of the epic poem, “Florante and Laura,” lived in Pandacan. National hero Jose Rizal traveled to Pandacan to seek out renowned composer Ladislao Bonus.
The streets were named after the particular trade or quality of the people living there. “Industriya” means hardworking; “Labores” labor; and “Fraternidad” brotherhood. Other streets were named after characters from “Florante and Laura” and distinguished local families.
The town went through tribulations just like any other town. During the Spanish times, Pandacan sheltered revolutionaries and almost got blasted by Spanish cannons if not for divine intervention. According to legend, the Spanish captain was about to order to shoot the canon into the town when he saw a child playing along the huge barrel. He got goosebumps and retreated.
The martyr Father Jacinto Zamora, falsely accused of mutiny and executed by the Spaniards, received his early education in the town. We have a park dedicated to him.
And when the Japanese bombed the oil depot during the Japanese occupation of World War 2, Pandacan’s residents rallied each other to create a dam made of banana trees across the river to prevent the spread of the fire to other parts of Manila.
I grew up on marching bands, baranggay-sponsored singing and beauty contests, the sound of the early morning (Angelus) and evening church bells (Evangelus), and early morning street sweepers. The grandmothers would wake up at 4am and start cleaning and sweeping. The sound, together with the crows of roosters and bird chirping was comforting. In January the town’s key people would don traditional Filipino attires and dance graceful steps on the streets together with school children. We call this the buling-buling.
Neighbors used to hold pulong-pulong, sitting in groups on benches in front of houses to relax and enjoy each other’s company. I don’t see this anymore, unfortunately. Security became an overriding concern, prioritized over the support for camaraderie.
There was a time when reading komiks was the craze. Komiks are illustrated serial stories printed on newsprint. Komiks owners would string up in front of their houses a laundry line of the latest issues. We would rent an issue for a peso, then hang it back on the line when done.
During fiestas (yearly celebration in honor of a town patron saint), there would be games on the streets where blindfolded kids would try to hit a hanging sack filled with goodies with a stick. I don’t see this anymore. Perhaps the kids now are too busy with internet games?
The book was published in 1979, but even then the tone of nostalgia for good things lost was strong.
Ang Pandacan nagisnan ko’y kakaiba kaysa ngayon,
Lalawigang-lalawigan ang anyo ng aking nayon.
Malinis ang mga ilog, ang agos ay tuluy-tuloy;
Doon ako naliligo, doon ako lumalangoy….
The poem’s author V.V. Mendoza is saying the Pandacan she knew is different from the Pandacan of her time. Before it was like in the province where the river is clear. She could bathe in it, swim in it.
Pandacan actually used to be called the “Little Venice.”
Indeed my town today is not so much the picture of nice things. It still looks historical but the townsfolk are not as disciplined with cleanliness as people used to be. The rivers are polluted. Street-sweepers could hardly catch up with litterbugs. Schoolkids in uniforms would shamelessly and carelessly drop their candy wrappers on the streets, and adults would ignore this practice. I don’t, but it gets tiresome being in beast-mode all the time.
Lately, I have been paying more attention to my community. I have been to other countries but I now feel like I have never been to my own hometown. I’m afraid I had been too busy with making a living that I forgot to enjoy being part of my home. Now that I am looking around and listening, I know there is much to be done. This book strengthens my concern.
In the Philippines, corruption starts at the level of the baranggay (cities are divided into neighborhoods or baranggays). But I believe that great and wonderful things could also start at the baranggays that could help transform the country.
When my grandmother died three years ago the plants at my house got neglected and many wilted. I intend to surround my home with calamansi, tomatoes, chili and gumamela (hibiscus) plants. Later I will meet neighbors at an NGO-sponsored open-house to share with them about the origins and history of Pandacan. I hope they will be inspired.
So many of us are not aware of our history, which is a shame because knowledge of our past inspires us to glorious things for our future. I think schools should teach local history first before national and world history. It’s important to know one’s roots, right?
Kaya nga ba ang panahon kung naging aklat nga lamang.
Mga daho’y ibabalik sa Pandacan kong nagisnan.
The poet concluded: If time were a book, I would turn the pages to the Pandacan I used to know.
Maybe we can’t return Pandacan to the way it used to be. But we can clean up our rivers and streets, and plant green things again. That’s very much achievable. There is much hope. Pandacan’s arts and culture society is still actively promoting music, dance and theater among the youth. I met a few of the senior officers and they told me the group actively lobbied to evict the giant oil companies from Pandacan. Now they are pushing for a cleanup of the oil depot and a creation of a park and community center in the now empty areas beside the river.
It would be awesome to help make this happen. We need more trees to combat global warming! The Philippines is among the most vulnerable countries to climate change. We’re not among the top producer of harmful emissions contributing to global warming but the country is in the top 5 of polluters throwing trash into the ocean.
I want to help promote composting, recycling and proper waste disposal in my community. I also want to educate my neighbors about vaccinating and spaying/neutering their pets . I’m already heavily involved in animal welfare (check out CARAPHIL.org). I aso help an NGO that conducts street libraries.
I can do more but I wish more people will volunteer to help.
Who knows? Today’s concerned citizens could actually be the heroes of our time and 100 years later the history books would acknowledge it.
This year is very crucial to the future of the country as it’s election time. Among the candidates running for president and vice presidents are a person with a number of graft and corruption filed against him and the son of a dictator who refuse to apologize for the human-rights crime and plunder of his father.
They have very thick skin on their faces and their souls.
But I must continue to be optimistic, for my loved ones’ and my home’s sake.. To my fellow Pandacan residents reading this, let’s do it! 🙂