Iloilo: Spain’s Once, Loyal
and Noble City in the Far East
By Apolinario Villalobos
A mere mention of Iloilo would bring to mind the whole triangular island of Panay. In fact, for the Ilonggos (inhabitans of Iloilo), Panay is Iloilo or vice versa. The past has so much to do with this kind of esteemed treatment of the province, especially, during the early part of its Americanization which put it in the commercial map of the world.
Historians supported by archaeological diggings would say that the thirteenth century began the historical pages of Panay Island which was known then, as Madia-as. This century saw the arrival of the ten Bornean datu under the leadership of Datu Puti who escaped from the cruelties and tyranny of Sultan Makatunaw. On board ten sailboats called barangay, they landed at the mouth of Siwaragan River, southwest of Iloilo coast in what is presently, the town of San Joaquin. About a hundred persons including the families of the ten datus set foot on the new-found land which was ruled by Marikudo and his wife, Maniwangtiwan.
A peaceful negotiation for the exchange of the land with a “sadok” (hat) of beaten gold, a golden necklace and a basin made of gold for the wife of Marikudo, took place. In addition to the gold were some clothing materials, beads and trinkets. After the exchange, Marikudo and his people retreated to the mountains, leaving the lowlands to the new settlers.
A settlement was also established in Malandog on the eastern coast of the island by Datu Sumakwel who was instructed by Datu Puti to explore other parts of the island. When Datu Puti went back to Borneo to check the situation of those who were left behind under the tyrannical rule of Sultan Makatunaw, he designated Datu Sumakwel to assume the leadership. Datu Dumangsil and Datu Balensuela, and their wives went back with Datu Puti to Borneo. They sailed northward until they reached a mortar-shaped island, the shoreline of which they followed. They came upon a fertile land broken by a river which they called “Katal-an” due to the abundance of “tal-an” trees on its shores. Datu Dumangsil and Datu Balensuela decided to stay on this promising land while Datu Puti went on with the journey and nothing was heard of him ever since.
The seven datu who were left in Panay decided to divide the territory into three: Hamtik (Antique), under Datu Sumakwel, Irong-irong (Iloilo) under Datu Paiburong, and Aklan under Datu Bangkaya. The three were formed into the Confederaton of Madia-as with Datu Sumakwel as the Chief. The eastern province was named Irong-irong which means nose-like, as it looks like one when viewed from atop Balaang Bukid (Sacred Hill) of Guimaras Island. Hamtik on the other hand, refer to big black ants. For three hundred years, before the coming of the Europeans, the islanders lived in comparative prosperity and peace under organized government and the laws in Kalantiaw Code promulgated in 1432.
Further on its historical side, the mountain ranges of Manyakiya and Dumingding yielded mementos of a Neolithic civilization. The uncovered layer of the New Stone Age that dates back to the period between 8000 to 500 BC showed the beginning of sedentary village life and new techniques in making tools – all indications of an advance civilization. Recovered from the sites were hundreds of meticulously carved and figure-etched slabs which they believed constituted the floor of a courtyard. Etched on the slabs were geometric and human figures, ancient scripts, as well as, images of animals.
The year 1536 saw the arrival of Spaniards under Miguel Lopez de Legazpi from Cebu, and who established a settlement in Oton. One reason why Legazpi left Cebu was the frequent attacks of the Portuguese from the East Indies. In Oton, Ronzalo Ronquillo was appointed as deputy encomiendero who founded the town of Villa Arevalo in 1581. Villa Arevalo later on became the capital of the alcaldia of Panay which included half of Negros Island (northern) and all of Romblon Islands. To repel Moro attacks, Villa Arevalo was later on fortified. In 1583, the Spaniards moved to Irong-irong which they shortened to Iloilo for convenience of pronunciation, where they built more fortifications. Fort San Andres was constructed in 1616, but even before it could be completed, the Dutch under Admiral Spitzbergen tried to capture the town in 1617. Actual bombardment of the town began on September 16, 1616.
For administrative convenience and also due to the remarkable increase in population, the alcaldia of Panay was again divided into three provinces in 1703, namely: Iloilo, Antique and Capiz; in 1734, Negros was made as a military district and eventually became a separate province.
Iloilo has earned the title, “La muy leal y noble ciudad”. Unfortunately, the autocratic rule of the Spanish crown masked by the seemingly noble activities of the friars pushed the Ilonggos, who for a long time had been tolerant, to the edge of their temper. A secret revolutionary movement of the elite was formed in March 1898. Rising to prominence as the sower of nationalistic ideals was Graciano Lopez Jaena who founded the La Solidaridad. Santa Barbara was the seat of their revolutionary government which was inaugurated on November 17, 1898.
As the Spaniards felt the strongly brewing rebellious activities, Governor-General Diego de los Rios was ordered to leave and evacuate all that remained of his forces to Zamboanga. Don Vicente Gay became the first civilian alcalde when the Spaniards left. Three days after his installation, however, the Americans under General Marcus Miller arrived but were not allowed to land. It was at this time that the Treaty of Paris was being ratified by the American Senate. The treaty had a provision for the turnover over of the Philippines to America.
Finally, when the treaty took effect, General Miller took over the city by force. Don Vicente Gay continued his duty as the mayor with Matias Ybiernas as the vice-mayor. The Ilonggos in the meantime, fought from their lines of defense from Balatang to Tacas, Sambag and Jibao-an. Their surrender initiated by Col. Quintin Salas took place on October 24, 1901.
The period under the Americans saw Iloilo heading towards progress. Roads were constructed and the railway system was improved. The sugar industry which was “fathered” by Nicholas Loney further pushed the economy of the city. It was also Iloilo that played womb to the country’s airline industry with the opening of the first air service between Iloilo and Bacolod in 1925. The first full blown commercial air operation, however, began on February 2, 1933 by Iloilo-Negros Air Express Co. (INAEC) which was established in late 1932 by Eugenio and Fernando Lopez. The march to progress was hampered only by the invasion of the city by the Japanese on April 16, 1924, during the WWII.
The province’s 5,324 square kilometers area is sprawled on the southwestern side of Panay Island. It includes several islands and islets that dot the southeastern coast from the Visayas Sea to the Panay Gulf. Among the islands, Guimaras is the biggest, with its highest elevation towering at 252 meters. It lies between Negros and the main island of Panay. Mountain ranges provide natural boundaries between Iloilo and Antique on the west and Capiz on the north. Wedged between the hilly northern and mountainous western sections and extending downward towards the coast is the largest lowland area of Panay. Draining the Iloilo plains are Jalaud, Jaro and Sibalom rivers that flow out toward Guimaras and Iloilo straits.
Tactful, yet, insistent, the Ilonggos are noted for their social flair and discriminating taste. Aside from their ways that are oftentimes misinterpreted as arrogant, their dialect, the Hiligaynon, evinces their kind of pleasantness which earned for them the popular reference – “malambing” (romantic). Hiligaynon is a mixture of the ethnic Malay words and a sprinkling of Spanish and spoken in a very soothing accent. A popular joke about this dialect is that, for those who are not familiar with it, spoken invectives may sound more like names of French dishes.
Another thing which may intrigue strangers while in Iloilo is the diversity of dialects. For while Hiligaynon, is popularly used, other dialects, are also spoken by those in the west and the north. The most prominent, is called “karay-a” which is spoken with a rolling accent.
Iloilo has Hispanic buildings that still stand as tangible manifestations of western influence. These edifices constitute one of its come-ons to attract visitors. Aside from those, all that one has to do is visit the countryside to discover and appreciate more of what it offers.
For a start, suggested is the nearby Guimaras Island, known for its caves, waterfall, springs and islets. The island is just fifteen minutes away on a ferry. Its significant landmark is the cross atop Balaang Bukid (Sacred Hill) which dominates the southern skyline of Iloilo. A chapel was built on the Bundolan Point, from which several hundred footholds were carved for the convenience of pilgrims who would trek to the crest of the mountain as a sacrifice during Holy Week. On the same island, Nueva Valencia with its coral-rich waters, especially, those of Naburot, Ave Maria, Igang and Tandog, is a haven for snorkelers and scuba divers. Unfortunately, its caves that are of archaeological value have been abused by guano collectors. Equally popular among sea lovers is the Puting Balas Beach. Also on the same island, is Daliran Spring. The town is well-remembered too, for the stay of General Douglas MacArthur, when he was yet, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, and whose significant accomplishment was the town’s wharf.
A short distance from the town proper of Jordan is a Trappist monastery. Visitors are allowed to visit the premises at certain times. An optional feature for the island-hoppers, are the Seven Islands, more known as Siete Pecadores, and the Roca Encantada.
Iloilo has its own “hundred islands”, scattered like jade beads from north to southwest, with Sicogon as the most developed. The elongated island has mountains and pockets of forests distributed in its area of 1,104 hectares. The island is accessible from Estancia, a northern border town, from where pumpboats can be hired. Other frequently visited islands are Gigantes, Balbangon, Isla de Caῆa, Calagnaan and Agho.
The most popular old district of Iloilo is Jaro, once the enclave of the elite. It was known as “Salog”, derived from the name of the river that runs through it. The pre-Spanish Salognons were elaborately tattooed and lavishly bejeweled, and theirs was among the only advanced cultures in the region. For reasons not yet known, Salog was renamed Jaro during its Christianization in 1534. During the reign of Queen Isabela II, Jaro became a diocese and elevated into an archdiocese not long after, making it the religious capital of western Visayas. Despite the reversal of roles with Iloilo city, Jaro with its several schools and public utilities, is still and by tradition, a cultural hub of the province. One of the prestigious universities in the country, the Central Philippines University is located in Jaro. Its once five-storey bell tower that has been leveled almost to the ground by man-made and natural calamities, still stands. It has become a marker of Jaro plaza. The tower which once sent solid peals of the bell far and wide has now only about twenty feet as a solid remnant.
A little farther away from Jaro is the Villa Arevalo which was once the seat of the first Spanish mission on Panay Island. It is also known as Iloilo’s garden. Front yards of quaint homes are abloom with flowers throughout the year. During the pre-Martial Law days, Arevalo was also famous for all kinds of fireworks. The district is also famous for its high-quality, handwoven jusi, piῆa and jablon cloths. The district is also known for its bibingka (rice cake).
Molo, about three kilometers from Iloilo city is the Parian of the old, being the Chinese quarters of Villa Arevalo. What catches the attention of visitors is the district’s classic church whose slim spires seem to pierce the sky. It is also the home of “pancit molo”, an Ilonggo soup whose distinct ingredients and piquant flavor earned for itself the adulation of gourmets throughout the country. Aside from the “pancit molo”, the district is also famous for its bakeries for their tasty breads and biscuits. Another district known for its distinctive Ilongo dish is La Paz, with its “batchoy” whose counterpart in Manila is “mami”.
This writer was lucky to have talked to Ms. Liza Ydemne, a self-taught Ilonggo dish “chef” and foodie enthusiast, who told me that other Ilonggo delicacies are “pinasugbo” (banana fritter) cooked in brown sugar, “barquillos” (rolled rice wafer), “binakol”, chicken cooked in young bamboo tube, “lumpia”, strips of young coconut pith and bits of meat rolled in egg and flour wrapper, and “achara”, green papaya pickled in spices. She also mentioned about the “KBL” or “kadyos (beans), baboy (pork), langka (young jackfruit)”. The KBL is a rich dish that is always part of festive fare of Ilonggos, according to Ms. Ydemne. For an authentic Ilonggo soup, she mentioned the “lagpang” a soup preparation consisting of shredded broiled freshwater fish, spring onion, garlic, and chili. As for veggie soupy dishes, she mentioned the “laswa”, which is a combination of “saluyot” (hemp), eggplant, squash, stringbeans, onion, garlic, ginger, flavored with “ginamos”, a condiment that the Ilonggos use to make their dishes savory. Another authentic dish she loves to cook is that of “tambo” (bamboo shoots), “saluyot”, native young corn, shrimp, flavored with onion and garlic. “Ginamos” is made from krill, pounded into fine consistency, salted and set aside for several weeks before being used to flavor dishes. Ms. Ydemne confided that her mother, as a young woman, was an expert in preparing “ginamos” not only for home use but also for patrons. She added in her input the batchoy and siopao of Roberto’s, which has become a byword among the Ilonggos, the world-famous mangoes and pastries of Guimaras, as well as, the dried fish, especially, the “pinakas”(sun-dried deep sea and coral fish) from Estancia.
Iloilo is noted for its centuries-old Hispanic churches, spread throughout the province that even laid back towns have one to boast, such as the one of Dingle’s, where Moroboro’s Bulabog Puti-an Park is also found. Barotac Nuevo has its neo-classic church featuring Ionic and Doric pilasters. Uptown Leon which is a little more than 28 kilometers from the city boasts of reputedly one of the largest churches built in the 1800s in the country. Although, the original structure has been destroyed by natural calamities, the ruins are enough to tickle the imagination on how such a quaint and quiet town, named after the city of Leon of Spain, could have had such massive church. Bruised but still intact are the coat-of-arms of Leon, stone sculptures of Pope Leo XIII, St. Mark, and the Blessed Mother of the Holy Rosary. Janiuay and Pavia made use of the simple, yet durable brick combined in moderate proportion with coral stones to make austere-looking structures that hide surprising copious collection of religious artifacts.
The most historically significant church in the whole of Iloilo is Sta. Barbara’s. It was here where the first cry of Ilonggo Revolution was raised. Its convenient distance from the city which is 19.9 kilometers made it an advantageous outpost for the revolutionaries. San Joaquin church on the other hand, cannot be outdone with its military-inspired façade. Portrayed in a relief of white coral stone by Father Tomas Santaren in 1869 is the historic battle of Tetuan in Morocco in 1859. Forty kilometers from the city is Miag-ao whose church has been the favorite subject among culturalists due to its twin towers which, except for the first two tiers, are not similar to each other at all. Its massive build could easily make one understand how it played a dual role – as a house of worship and a stronghold during piratical attacks. Very Filipino in every aspect, Miag-ao church even has indigenous plants as backdrop of the relief sculpture of St. Christopher carrying the Child Jesus. Awarded with a plaque by the Philippine Historical Commission in 1953, the baroque church was built in 1787 by an Agustinian friar, Father Francisco Gonzales. Two other churches which played a defensive role against the marauding pirates are those of Tigbauan’s and Guimbal’s. While Tigbauan’s has a watch tower near the seashore, Guimbal’s just like Miag-ao’s, is strategically and heavily built near the shoreline and is of yellowed coral stone.
The centerpiece of Iloilo’s tourism industry is its Dinagyang Festival. Just like Kalibo’s Ati-Atihan, Roxas’ Halaran, and Antique’s Binirayan or Ati-Biniray, the Dinagyang also revolves around the homage paid to the miraculous image of the Holy Child Jesus. It was known before as the Iloilo Ati-Atihan to distinguish it from Kalibo’s Ati-Atihan. The use of “dinagyang”, an Ilonggo term for merriment is attributed to the Ilonggo broadcaster and writer, Pacifico Sudario who first used it in 1977. It got stuck in the memory of visitors who henceforth, referred to Iloilo’s festival as “dinagyang”. The festival began in 1967 as a joyous expression of the Ilonggos when a replica of the Holy Child Jesus was brought from Cebu to the San Jose Parish church in Iloilo City. In 1977, the festival was made colorful and more significant by the participation of an authentic Ati tribe from the mountains of Barotac Viejo. Later on, it caught up with its neighboring provinces in the celebration of the homage during the month of January.
The new airport of Iloilo is located at Sta. Barbara. Just like the airport of Roxas City, Iloilo’s is also used as an alternate during the peak Ati-Atihan festival of Kalibo. For a memorable holiday on the island of Panay that should include a trip to Boracay, it is suggested that one should spare a whole week, or a few days more, to prevent having regrets for not staying a little longer.