The trip to the Philippines confronts the past

By Juan Escandor Jr.

(Last of the Two-Part Series)


Donald Pribor, an American who traced his roots in Bicol, finally decided in the spring of 2011 to set a journey to his grandmother’s hometown, accompanied by his Filipino-American mother who wanted to confront her past---before, during and after the Second World War---and reconnect to her kinfolk in Gubat town in the province of Sorsogon.


“At first, I was going to travel alone, but one morning I woke up and realized that I needed to take my mother with me, back to the land of her birth and her childhood. Our family left the Philippines in March 1945, after the Battle of Manila, and no one ever returned. Lola never saw her Filipino family again---she never spoke Bikol again,” Pribor shared his primordial thoughts about the homecoming.


In May 2011, without any hint of the destruction his mother saw when the Robb-Camara family left Manila 66 years ago aboard an American troop ship, Pribor and his mother Diane set foot again in the homeland of his grandmother who never came back and died in the United States in 1998.


His mother left the Philippines as an 11-year-old girl and she came back as a 77-year-old grandmother who had to cross the abyss of time, the abyss of the ocean and the abyss of leaving behind her Filipino self in Manila, coming to the United States and making herself be a White American, leaving behind her Bikol and Spanish languages and only spoke English.


“We spent two very emotional weeks together in the Philippines. Five days in Manila to visit the places she remembered from her childhood, and to exorcise the ghosts of the war. Several weeks before the trip, she told me over the phone that she was afraid to return to the Philippines because of the terrible memories of the Second World War,” Pribor disclosed.


While in Manila, he and his mother went to Intramuros to see what little had survived and Vito Cruz Street in Malate where Diane had spent her childhood. Then, they visited St. Scholastica’s Catholic school for girls in Malate where his mom had gone to grade school before the war. They found out during their visit at St. Scholastica that Cory Aquino, who had been born in the same year as Pribor’s mother in 1933, was one year ahead of her in school.


They visited the University of Santo Tomas (UST) where the Japanese imprisoned his grandfather in the internment camp for American civilians and other nationals of the Allied Forces.


Pribor said his mother remembered the terrible conditions of the camp at the UST and the sufferings of the inmates as they walked down the beautiful university campus in 2011, with no traces of the destruction of the war that they saw in pictures in the museum.


But his mother Diane’s memories of war are still vivid in her mind


Pribor’s mom and aunt Antonia escaped Manila before the advancing Japanese troops arrived.


They took the last train of the Manila Railroad Company (MRRCo), the forerunner of the Philippine National Railways (PNR), out of Paco station in Manila and made it safely to Gubat.


But because of the mestiza appearance of his mom and his aunt, Pribor’s Lola and her parents decided that it would be better to hide in the remote rice fields and coconut plantations that the Escandor-Camara family owned in the barrio of Tiris. Elvira, his grandmother, mother Diane, and aunt Antonia and his great-grandparents, Don Santiago Camara and Aquilina Escandor Camara, lived in a nipa hut in Tiris for a year and a half, until his Lola heard from the Filipino resistance fighters about the Santo Tomas internment camp in Manila.


After Pribor’s Lola found out about the existence of the Santo Tomas internment camp from Filipino guerrillas, she resolved to take the family back to Manila to see if her husband was still alive. Because the Bicol train no longer run, his Lola had to find other ways to return to Manila from Gubat. According to his mother, Elvira with his two young daughters rode the banca and carabao sledge to reach Manila again for the sake of his grandfather.


“Mom says that a carabao would have a plank placed on its back and she and my aunt would ride on it while Lola walked alongside. Lola took her remaining jewelries with her and sold them off along the way to obtain rice so she could feed her family. During the war years, it must have taken weeks going to Manila, and their travel was compounded with the fear of being caught by the Japanese,” Pribor narrates.


Somehow, Elvira and her young daughters, Diane and Antonia, got to Manila and to the gates of the Santo Tomas camp. Finally, his Lola and Grandpa were reunited. By the time his grandfather Robert reunited with his daughters, Antonia no longer spoke English and didn’t recognize her father. Pribor said his grandfather wrote about that moment when he reunited with his family years later and felt happy to see his children while it made him anxious that Antonia did not know who he was.


In 1943, when Robert was still held at Santo Tomas camp, the Japanese were still not too harsh to the prisoners there. He said his grandmother found an apartment on Catalunya St. (now called Tolentino St.) just two blocks away from the university. The Japanese would allow his Grandpa out of the camp on weekends to be with his Filipino family. It was in this way that his uncle Roberto was conceived.


“Lola used to tell us that when she was going to give birth to my uncle, she had to share a bed in the hospital with two other women because the war had left medical staffs without adequate facilities,” Pribor said.


Before the war, Elvira had continued to work, teaching English at Mapa High School in Manila. When she returned to Manila to be with Robert, her colleagues at the high school could not get her hired again because she was married to an American. To earn money to sustain the family, she set up a little sari-sari store on Catalunya Street. His mom remembers that she and his aunt would sit at a little table on the street and sell eggs, rice and knick-knacks.


Eventually, when the Americans and the Allied Forces achieved the upper hand in the war, the Japanese began to mistreat Filipino civilians. It also became dangerous for Elvira and her daughters Diane and Antonia to be outside the apartment. The blue eyes and mestiza features of Pribor’s mother and aunt made them even more targets for Japanese cruelty. In the last years of the war, his Lola kept his mom and his aunt inside the apartment at all times.


“Mom says that she was terrified that she was going to go to hell because she could no longer attend Sunday mass. Lola brought the parish priest in to talk to my Mom to assure her that she was not going to hell and that she had to stay inside to stay alive,” he recalls the instance his mother told him unabashed of the influence of Filipino religiosity to her.


It did not take long for the Japanese to begin mistreating the inmates of the Santo Tomas internment camp. They reduced their food rations drastically and no longer allowed inmates to leave the camp to be with their Filipino families. The prisoners began to get sick from food deprivation and malnutrition. Towards the end of war, Robert became ill with Beriberi, and almost died. The Japanese constructed a bamboo fence around the perimeter of Santo Tomas. Pribor’s mom remembers peering in through the bamboo slats to look at the prisoners’ make-shift huts on the university grounds and maybe catch a glimpse of his Grandpa.


Robert wrote a narrative on March 21, 1945 about the unfolding of the Liberation of Manila that he sent to his mother in the US and discovered by Pribor in his grandparents’ house. In his grandfather’s words, here’s what transpired when the Japanese were finally defeated in Manila:


When American soldiers led by big tanks made a surprise attack on the Japs at the Santo Tomas internment camp at 9:00 p.m., Feb.  3, I watched them roll into the grounds from the balcony of the Education building where I lived with about 250 other internees. About half of the building was occupied by Jap soldiers and members of the Jap commandant’s staff. The internee quarters were separated from the Jap quarters by bamboo-sawali (reed) partitions.


As we Americans cheered the soldiers from the balcony, the Japs stole in behind us in the corridors. They were heavily armed. And then the 250 internees found that they were hostages. The Japs wanted safe conduct from the building.


As hostages, we were held there even though the rest of the Santo Tomas internees were free. We thought we were “goners”. By the morning of Feb. 5, I had given up hope of ever getting out of the place alive, for apparently the Americans and the Japs inside the building could not reach an agreement.


However, about 7 a.m.  on Feb. 7, the Japs who had held us prisoner, began to pack up their belongings. And soon after, they marched out of the building, and we were free men and free women and free children at last. I believe that was one of the worst experiences I’ve had since the start of the war.


As soon as I was physically able to be up and about, I started a search for the family, and finally made contact with them. Those were hectic days in Manila, with fighting almost everywhere, and Jap snipers a constant menace. I tried to arrange to have them enter the camp.


But before the family could enter Santo Tomas and stay with me, the entire district where they were living was set afire by shell-fire, and our house, with all the possessions we had left, burned down. And the family forced to evacuate and seek shelter somewhere in the city -- I could not locate them. I was frantic, not knowing whether they were alive or dead, whether they had perished in the fire.


Finally, on Feb.  11, I made contact with them (they had forcibly been evacuated by officials to a distant section of the city), and on the following day, Feb. 12, they entered the internment camp and have been here ever since.


As I wrote you in my first letter, it was fortunate they got here when they did, for they were badly in need of good food.


*******


After spending several days in Manila, Pribor was excited to go to Bicol to return to their roots since his mother had been born in Sorsogon and spent vacations in Gubat and then hid there from the Japanese for the half of the war years. They flew from Manila to Legazpi City and then took a taxi to Gubat.


“We arrived in Gubat, not knowing where to find our Camara relatives, Mom’s first cousins. We spent one night at a hotel in Rizal Beach, but the next day, thanks to a wonderful chance meeting with Monsignor Monje, the pastor of Gubat’s Catholic church, we found out that our relatives were traveling to Ilocos . However, their friends were in Gubat and they had my aunt’s cell phone number. Right away I called Mama Pining Camara (wife of Pribor’s mom’s first cousin Eddie Camara), and she immediately insisted that Mom and I stay at her and Papa Eddie Camara’s


house on Panginiban St. She called the caretaker there and we moved our belongings from the hotel to their house,” he said.


Pribor said when they arrived at the Camara house, they found that the letter that he had sent them from California six weeks before, announcing their arrival in Gubat, had arrived in the mail the very same day, so that, they were not expected by them.


Even though their closest relatives were not in Gubat, their more distant relatives took them under their wing.


Pribor and his mother explored Gubat and reconnected with their relatives and then they visited the village of Tiris where his grandmother, mother and aunt Antonia hid from the Japanese forces upon arrival from Manila.


His relatives also took them to their family property in Barangay Balud where the big house of his great grandfather once stood and his mom had spent many vacations there as a child. Though his great-grandparents’ house no longer exists, the property still belongs to the Camaras. A new house has been constructed on the same place and one of their Escandor relatives lives there.


After they toured the house and the property, Pribor’s mom said that she wanted to go down to the beach in Balud, because she remembered playing there as a child. Their relative said there no longer was a beach, but a sea wall along the ocean shore.


“Mom said she wanted to see it anyway. As we started walking down the short road to the sea wall, we heard someone call out my mother’s name:  “Diane! Diane!  (but with a Filipino accent


Die-ahhn! Die-ahhn!). We turned around and were astonished to see a very old Filipina woman, missing several teeth, come running down the road as she called out my mother’s name. She came up to my mother, touched her shoulders and began telling her in Bikol that she remembered my mother, my Lola Viray (Elvira), my aunt Antonia and my uncle Roberto. And of course, she knew my great-grandparents, Lolo Tago and Lola Quili Camara,” he narrates.


Their relative translated for them what the old woman was saying, because his mother no longer remembers how to speak Bikol. The old woman’s name was Luz Flestado and she had lived across the street from their family property all her life. She remembered seeing his mom as a child when she came with Lola and Grandpa from Manila to spend vacations with his Lolo Tago and Lola Quili. Luz was nine years older than his mom.


In May 2011, Pribor and mother Diane visited the ancestral home of some of his friends from California in Camalig, Albay.


They were able to visit the ruins of Cagsawa church, which is very close to Camalig. When they approached the ruins, he saw a ruined tower, covered with vegetation, sticking up out of the earth. He noticed the tops of the church walls were still visible, but most of the church was buried. He also took note of the ruins being covered with luxuriant vegetation against the blue sky as he started to feel the searing heat.


“Here was the church of my dream when I was 22 years old. I walked through the ruins, touching the ruined walls, assuring myself that this time was not a dream, that I was experiencing the church in my waking life, with my mother nearby,” Pribor mused.