My father used to tell us that during the war, whenever he would visit a barrio with his fellow soldier Roming Honasan, looking for enemy positions, the barrio folks would ask him if the American forces have already arrived. That is because Roming, a tall mestizo from Sorsogon, who joined my father’s Tankongvaca Guerrillas, looked every inch American.
In an All Ateneo Alumni Conference held at the Sheraton Hotel in New Jersey several years ago, while waiting for the night’s conference program to start, I had a great time bonding with my fellow alumni from High School in the hotel’s bar. With me were Danny, Wacky, Vic, Joe and Gab.
In the corner of my eye, however, I could not help noticing the bartender shake his head each time we cracked jokes and laughed out loud. He would be visibly confused especially each time the word oragon escaped our lips.
While we were about to leave the bar to proceed to the conference room, the bartender pulled me aside:
“You guys are driving me nuts! What the heck is that language, where do you guys come from?”
It suddenly dawned on me that Danny was of African American descent, Wacky’s father was British American, Vic was Filipino Chinese, Joe and Gab were both of Spanish descent, and I guess that included me because my grandmother came from Toledo, Spain.
“From the United Nations of Ateneo de Naga,” I told the bartender. “It’s a school somewhere in the Philippines.”
We walked past a large mirror and noticed how we all looked different, and I understood the bartender’s confusion.
In the early sixties the Ateneo de Naga could well be described as an International school. The school rector was American, the principal was American and so were several of the teachers.
As for the students, we represented many nationalities. Apart from the familiar Chinese families with Chinese surnames, we had Bicolano classmates with foreign features and last names: Sellner, Wakefield, Polo, Fabregas, Yrastorza, Kookooritchkin, Centenera, Yllana, Manly, Caballero, Smiley, Jordana, Singh, Banks, to mention some.
The wonder is we never minded nor treated each other as foreign. We were all Naguenos singing the same songs, eating from the same plate, so to speak, in our lovely Maogmang Lugar.
I do not know much how it is in Naga now. I have been away too long. The last time I went home, many of the families I mentioned were no longer in Naga. Some have moved to the US and other parts of the world. Many have moved on to the Pinakamaogmang Lugar for their just rewards.
“Todo lo bueno tiene fin.” Although I have accepted that a long time ago, I still miss the old Naga of my youth.
The calesas are almost gone. A few original establishments remain like Quality, Moderna and the New China.
The malls have taken over and the population has doubled, nay, tripled. Tagalog is spoken almost everywhere instead of our very own Bicol.
What matter. Naga is still the ideal United Nations in microcosm. We are united differently. One heart, one soul, one Naga. And we intend it to be that way.
This is the reason why we Naguenos wherever we are try to make the best of our company and turn our surroundings into “Maogmang Lugar.”
Even if it causes the bartender to shake his head in visible confusion.