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Memorizing a Municipio

A nearly faded photo of a municipal building was posted online - on Facebook and received numerous and varied responses. The person responsible for the image was Popai Montilla, actually a nom de plume, who informed netizens about how the original structure was donated by Don Jaime Serra, her great-grandfather, who left the country when the new colonizer, the Americans, took over the old ones, the Spanish.

As expected, a wave of nostalgia appeared to overcome those who still remembered the building - its gracious form and what it recalled. An age of elegance and gallant politicians who ruled an island of, to use the common terms applied to the masses then, as “no-read/no write.” Illiteracy was the norm rather than the exception and, it would be interesting to know how many of the citizens of the town of San Fernando, to which the municipio belonged, had the ability then to vote their leaders into office. I say this with utmost respect and also candor because some of those leaders were also related to me.

As with anything you posted on Facebook, the reactions and responses were not only quick but enlightening. From far away (it sounded as such), Francisco Serra stated his relation to Jaime Serra (his grandfather) and explained the origin of the grand old man - Jaime Serra y Miguel was born in Cataluña (in Spanish; Catalonia or Catalunya in Catalan). Serra was a Catalan and we know the implication of that origin - he came from the region where Barcelona is, the area that nurtured the “Filipino” propagandistas abroad. Think of Rizal, Arejola of Nueva Caceres (Naga) and other patriots. Think also of the artists the place would eventually produce - Salvador Dali, Gaudi et al.

We can only conjecture this Serra’s own intellectual openness. The material proof: he donated the property and structure that would house the ideal of government and governance in this municipio of San Fernando, in Ticao, Masbate. It was to be the site from which leaders could be developed. Interestingly, while municipio referred to the town or pueblo, the word would become the name for the building that governed the township.

The building is gone. This was apparently the purpose of Montilla when she posted that photograph - to remind those who recognized the building that it was dismantled or left to rot until there was no wiser move than to wreck it, and a new building - not necessarily more imposing - be built.

What followed then were not only memories about the structure but what could have been done to the building.

First, there was the clarification of how the decay of the municipio began: a strong typhoon blew off its roof. Then came the question why no one ever thought of preserving its form, or, at least, to save what could be saved. Some talked of the hardwood used for the beams and post, the wide planks of wood that were so thick people wondered where they sourced the timber.

The forest on the island could have been a great source of wood. But were there forests in Ticao at the turn of the century, the relative dating of the building? A scientific paper written by John E. Dupont in 1972 for NEMOURIA, Occasional Papers of the Delaware Museum of Natural History, entitled “Birds of Ticao,” gives us a glimpse of Ticao and its woodlands at the turn of the century. In the said paper, du Pont, mentions R.C. McGregor, an American ornithologist who had been with the Bureau of Science since its inception. McGregor, according to du Pont, visited Ticao in 1902, where the said trip was preceded “by large-scale settlement and logging there [in Ticao]. Despite the expected deforestation that happened, McGregor reported in 1903 the island to be “well wooded.” It should be noted that by the time of du Pont’s exploration in 1971, “Ticao was only about 20-30 percent forested! (exclamation mine).”

Still, the dominant voices responding to the vanished municipio were all about preservation or renovation. No one mentioned retrofitting, where the building is fitted with parts or elements that could help it adjust to the current period. Where retrofitting is concerned, one also could bring in the idea of repurposing or creative reuse - the municipio, for example, could be transformed into a museum. And more significantly, the building itself can be considered as a prime artifact of governance.

I have my own memories of the municipio. An aunt we fondly called Manang Fe would always be the first to respond to the sound of the bells coming from the building. The ringing of that bell meant someone was stabbed or killed and the corpse was already there at the municipio. I still recall how she would drag me to the municipio as we ogled at the mangled body or peeked through the bars the face of the murderer.

Lolo Pidio (Elpidio Alindogan Genova), the first Sanitary Inspector of the island, used to tell us of the time they had to form a male chorus that would perform for the visiting General Aguinaldo, who asked them to kiss the flag he brought with him. In the middle of it all, someone from the crowd shouted: Who killed Bonifacio? This happened in the old municipio.

More magical than all these memories was my amazement at the “buson” (from the Spanish “buzon”) or mailbox on the ground floor of the municipio, near the jail. Whenever I went with my Lola Miling, she would always ask me to be the one to insert inside that small gap on the wall the letter. I imagined the envelope entering a long pipe that traveled under the sea until it surfaced through another buson, from where it was picked up by the brave Mailman.


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