Vigan: A Journey Through The Heartland




(By: Arnold Molina Azurin)

A trade post in Ilocos since precolonial times, Vigan is often mistaken for Villa Fernandina, the short-lived pueblo founded in 1572 by the conquistador Juan de Salcedo, grandson of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi.

This misimpression is just one of several fictions embedded in the historic scenery of Vigan. For the moment, however, the stolid, brick-faced structures of the town have caught the fancy of antiquarian cultural czars in Manila and travelers longing to bask in Vigan's ante bellum aura.

Enthralled visitors often say that an afternoon of stroll through the narrow streets of Vigan - with the old houses" eaves casting shadows on the gently winding lane - seems to lead the traveler to a palpable colonial past. Writers, artists, and ordinary excursionists flock to Vigan to see whatever they wish to see, which is invariably a quaint and genteel pueblo where they can indulge their nostalgia for a romantic past and escape the pressing realities of the workaday world.

Vigan does offer a vista of another time and clime. This is precisely why it is a favorite of movie moguls like Fernando Poe Jr. who seek an exotic, colonial ambiance. The Cultural Center of the Philippines and the Philippine Educational Theater Association filmed Jose Rizal's Noli Me Tangere in the town’s ancestral houses. In the 1980's, American actor Tom Cruise pretended he was in Mexico while filming Born on the Fourth of July in Vigan. Three decades earlier, Hollywood movie outfit descended upon Vigan to film The Day of the Trumpet, starring John Agar. Vigan's ancient allure has become invaluable to set designers and to the townspeople hired as extras who appreciate the work as a source of extra cash and showbusiness gossip.

Piety and commodity

In the mid-1970s, however, Vigan acquired a significance for a reason other than its veneer of Old World charm: it became a tool in the cultural revivalism of the dictatorship of former President Ferdinand Marcos.

The "Vigan house" emerged. The architecture and interior decor of the town's ancestral houses were replicated in newly-built school buildings and government edifices. Under the Marcoses, cultural resurgence was marked by the prominence of colonial artifacts, appropriately enough, as the rulers and their cronies had "colonized" the country's natural resources, including the national coffers, transforming them as it were, into their private encomiendas (fiefdoms).

The moneyed developed an appetite for relics and antiques not just from Ilocos but also from any town with old mansions. Gaggles of Blue Ladies--Imelda Marcos' retinue of wealthy women, mainly wives of the Marcoses' friends and supporters--would flock to Vigan on weekends and gobble up the wares of local antique dealers.

Churches all over Ilocos were increasingly robbed. Young antique dealers were dragged to court for stealing church relics. In one parish, the faithful suspected a couple of aging priests of illicitly trading in old statues. In the early 1980s, a worshipper who witnessed two men hauling down a figurine from a side altar of the St. Paul's Cathedral alerted a policeman who, when he promptly responded, died in a hail of bullets.

Why was there such a craving for old relics and statuary? An antique dealer told me: first, whatever Imelda Marcos had on display in her houses, the Blue Ladies would covet something similar; second, the buyers liked to boast that they inherited the antiques from their grandparents. Such was the overweening fantasy of the Marcos cronies and nouveaux riches at the time.

One former top provincial official found an ingenious way to indulge this endless desire for pseudo-heirlooms. A local sculptor claims that the official had commissioned him to carve replicas of old santos-- "enough to fill a viray (trading sailboat),"he admitted with pride--that found their way to Manila boutiques. The trade in ersatz artifacts satisfied everyone: the craftsman of made-to-order "antiques" was paid for his talent and the timeworn wood, and the entrepreneur turned a respectable profit from selling a steady supply of "santos" to interior decorators of the rich. Piety had little to do with this commodity.

However, the Blue Ladies' "family heirloom" fantasy did do Vigan artisans some good. For instance, enterprising carpenters started crafting reproductions of old furniture, giving birth to Vigan woodcraft, which is no longer passed off as "antique."A Bigueño craftsman and artifact collector, Melanio Andino, persuaded certain clay potters of the town to diversify into making the dark red flooring known as "Vigan tile." He also got them to make terra cotta medallions and small figurines, which he used in his brisk macrame business. Meanwhile, the Vigan stoneware burnay jar became a ubiquitous ornament in plush Manila houses. The rich buyers even developed their own aesthetic, paying even more for the over-fired factory defect jars that had collapsed into grotesque shapes than for perfect ones.

During the mild economic boom generated by the "Vigan house" and the Manila culturati's antiquarianism, more Bigueños began awakening to their cultural heritage. Ironically, they were spurred by non-Bigueños, the first of whom was a priest from Leyte, Leonardo Mercado, who formed the Ilocano Studies Association. As administrator of the Divine Word College of Vigan, he brought together teachers from various schools to publish a scholarly journal--a rare and vital intellectual adventure at the time.

The National Museum under Godofredo Alcasid then organized a conference in Vigan, after which the Ayala Foundation bared its plan to turn the ancestral house of the martyred Padre Jose Burgos into a museum.

If the Vigan intelligentia welcomed this move at the beginning, they were less appreciative when the Ayala Foundation declared it would move an important painting collection from the National Library branch in Vigan to the Burgos Museum. The collection was a series of 14 paintings of the Basi Revolt done in the early 1800s by Esteban Villanueva.

Was the Ayala Foundation bent on laying its hands on these rare naif paintings? The Bigueños suspicions were bolstered by Manila-based art reviewers and art historians who churned out essays about the paintings as though they had been "discovered" at the same time the Burgos museum was set up.

In fact, they had been on display at the National Library branch in Vigan since the 1950s. When local historian Pablo Ramirez (who had first been offered the management of the Burgos Museum) expressed diffidence over the possible transfer of ownership of the paintings, he found himself suddenly left out in the cold, and snubbed by the museum's eventual managers. A great grand niece of the Basi Revolt painter filed a court case as an heir, muddling the scenario further, and the issue remains unresolved.

Once in a while I come across fragments of the phantasmagoria of the recent "discovery" of Villanueva's paintings by Manila's culture experts. At my ethnological exhibit at The Cultural Center of the Philippines entitled "Beddeng" (tracing the cultural confluence of the Ilocanos and Igorots), which included six of the original Basi Revolt paintings, David Baradas revealed that it was he who had "discovered" them for the Ayala Foundation, still rolled up in canvas parchment in a Vigan bodega.

Taken aback, I asked him when he had found them. "Sometime in the mid-1970s," he replied. "Too late a discovery,"I told him, incensed. "I was staring at them in the same narra frames displayed at the local library way back in the 1950s!"

His claim immediately brought to mind the disclosure in the early 1970s by Ursula Villanueva, a niece of the painter, of a questionable act of an art restorer from a Manila cultural committee. He had repainted certain figures in a couple of paintings instead of repairing the slightly damaged spots. The male figures were originally garbed in tight-fitting war pants, but the restorer replaced them with thick, loose, floor-length garments with elaborately embroidered hems similar to the vestments of sacristans (altar boys).

Dismayed, Ursula asked the painter why he had changed the costumes so drastically. His astounding reply was, "So they won't look primitive. The victorious Ilocanos must look better than the defeated Tingguianes."

The significance of this counterfeit "restoration" job cannot be exaggerated or glossed over, especially now that self-styled culture experts from the metropolis have rediscovered a Vigan so stimulating to their imagination and neocolonial impulse. Certainly there are but a few like Fernando Zialcita of Ateneo University undertaking earnest research on the Vigan houses, with the help of some residents such as architect Fatima Rabang and Marjo V. Gasser, manager of the beautifully restored Villa Angela.

"Pedigreed house" Like it or not, the heirloom-hunting safaris of Imelda and her courtiers brought Vigan a great deal of publicity. The antics of the Marcoses also focused the cultural spotlight on the Ilocos region as a whole. They constructed the palatial Malacañang Ti Amianan beside the scenic lake in Paoay. They formed their houses in Batac and Sarrat into grand mansions exuding the attenuated aura of Vigan's ancestral houses, complete with plaster artfully peeling off the walls.

More significantly, Imelda acquired a historic house on a corner of Plaza Burgos in Vigan. In the mid-1970s, it was a favorite tale among Vigan's gossipmongers that Imelda's interest in acquiring a "pedigreed" house impelled the National Museum and the National Museum to undertake a cultural restoration program for the municipality's mestizo (half-breed) section.

Simplistic mass media writers refer to this quarter as the "colonial" or, worse, "Hispanic" section. It was simply called the "Kasanglayan" or "Kamestizoan" district during the American colonial period. Both terms denote Chinese ancestry. It was customary then to be called Kastila even if one could not speak Castilian, so long as one displayed traces of Iberian blood. But the Spanish crossbreed was a rara avis in the Kasanglayan district, and even the Hispanic-sounding surname "Syquia," which some visitors too quickly presume to have come from Seville or Barcelona, comes from Sy Kia, the Sanglay (Chinese) who made a fortune in overseas trade.

His portrait in the Syquia Mansion shows him in a flamboyant mandarin robe, his hair in a braid; he was clearly proud of his roots in an era when the Spanish friars held sway. And he spelled his name the Chinese way. Why his descendants chose to Hispanize it is an enigma of interest to cultural historians keen on studying the colonial gentry's dialectical somersaults between political camps.

There are other Spanish-sounding names--Florendo, Florentino or Formoso--that have no Iberian origin, but are directly traceable to Chinese forebears. Bigueño folk historian Damaso King points out that a careful reading of the Libro de Bautismo shows that surnames starting with F refer to Chinese bloodline. Those beginning with A belong to the naturales (natives). One may hypothesize that the distinction was a code to make it easier for the friar or parish priest to determine who should pay more or less for the sacraments.

Breeding ground for patriots

A glance at the family tree of the poet Leona Florentino is instructive. The memorial plaque of her house states that Leona was a distant cousin of Jose Rizal. It is widely known that Rizal's family tree sprouts from Chinese roots on both maternal and paternal sides. Old documents bare that Leona and Rizal had a common ancestor in the person of a Chinese tax collector from Laguna. Efficient and loyal, the tax collector was appointed provincial treasurer of Ilocos. He became one of the wealthiest hidalgos (chiefs) in Vigan and built a house overlooking the main plaza. In a dialectical turnaround, his wealth sent Leona's son, Isabelo de los Reyes, to schools here and abroad where he imbibed progressive ideas. With his sharp wit and lucid language, de los Reyes reviled the colonial powers and championed the cause of Filipino sovereignty.

At the turn of the century, the historical current that turned colonial wards into anti-colonial fighters swept through Vigan's gentry as they resisted the American invaders. Leona's grandchildren were at the forefront of this struggle, which took place not in the hills but in their neighborhood. The local Katipunan members helped the brigade commanded by General Manuel Tinio sneak into some houses before attacking the Americans at dawn, hoping to capture their armory.

The message the American signal-men sent to their naval units offshore reads: Troops at Vigan attacked at 4 am, enemy penetrating city through, between outposts. Heavy fighting in buildings in public square..."

Although the Filipino freedom fighter's attack was repulsed the following day, their valor was recounted by an American soldier, William Oliver Trafton. Her wrote in his diary:

We did not get back to quarters as everyone was buying burying the dead and treating the wounded. Those around quarters fared worse than we did, for the main object of the attack was to get our ammunition and supplies. Some 300 natives had gained the old brick hospital and were pouring a deadly fire into our quarters . Bullets were coming in the doors and windows.

The officers were afraid that they would hit the pile of cartridges and explode them, so the natives could see them. All of them were killed before they went 100 yards. One other got shelter behind a statue. Then all the rest of the boys centered on the hospital, and they almost shot it to pieces.

They soon silenced it, and the survivors fled the backway. Epps and I never seen our comrades anymore; they were all wrapped in their blankets and buried before we came in late that eve.

I have quoted extensively from Trafton's memoir because it is dramatic and because it mentions old buildings figuring in the revolutionaries" fight for freedom. It is a fitting end to my discussion on certain Vigan houses as breeding ground for patriots like Burgos, de los Reyes and many others, as well as poets, painters, and political leaders of national acclaim. In other words, there is more to the Vigan houses than exoticized Old World, ante bellum. Colonial charm that turns tourists" eyes misty.

Extolling patriotism

And yet consider how the more intelligent and cosmopolitan visitors perceive the town's legacy. Architect Augusto Villalon wrote in the Manila Chronicle: "Vigan has become the generic term for anything old and Hispano-Filipino. Today's most extensive collection of colonial architecture stands in Vigan elevating the quiet Ilocano City as the unofficial national symbol of Spanish Colonial Heritage....."

While Villalon's rhapsodic opinion is partly true, particularly as it rest on the clusters of ancestral houses, it would make Padre Burgos and his compañeros bravos turn in their graves or shock Leona back to life and into reciting her satirical verses about the prudery and vainglory of colonial-era social life.

Beyond a doubt, Vigan was a bastion of Hispanic power and rituals for several centuries. But it was also the setting for the Free Ilocos Revolt in the 1760s led by Diego and Gabriela Silang. A century later, it gave birth to a generation of anticolonial fighters. Even the town's Major Seminary (just a pile of rubble now) had molded the minds and ignited the fervor of Fr. Gregorio Aglipay and several other priest who later comprised the hierarchy of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente.

To regard Vigan as a "national symbol of Spanish colonial heritage" at the very least repudiates the historic fact that many who dwelled in the old houses fought colonial domination and cast away the subjugated consciousness that perpetuated injustice. Villalon might revise his retrogressive view of Vigan history and legacy if he reads what the Bigueños engraved on the marker of Padre Burgo's monument, which curses all oppressors and extols the patriotism of all who fought for freedom. Bigueños also made clear what they think when they transformed the Spanish-built monument of the mercenary Vicos, Silang's treacherous assassin, to immortalize instead Silang's bravery.

Obviously there is much more than meets the eye of transients and passersby, even as they revel in artifacts and colonial-vintage scenery. It is myopic and naive to reduce a people's heritage to brick-wood-stone structures while utterly disregarding the beliefs, traditions and self-destiny-what is often called the "soul"- of a community. It is a gross insult and a grave act of injustice to exploit the legacy of material culture for a self-indulgent fantasy that mythologizes valorously a regime repudiated by the townsfolk since the Silang-led revolt more than two centuries ago.

Pan-Asia trade

Bambi Harper, culture columnist for The Philippine Daily Inquirer, waxed lyrical when her interest in Vigan leaped beyond the visual and into the imaginative realm: "The clip-clop of horses" hooves punctuates the silence in the same way they did 400 years ago when Juan de Salcedo founded the town, christening her Ciudad Fernandina.

Such extrapolative vision amounts to nothing more than a travesty of history and continually way of life. It is another extravagant exotization of the past, if not lavish idolatry of the conquistadors, to make them the founding fathers of thriving precolonial settlements that they pillaged and razed.

What is aggravating in Harper's single paragraph is the multiple errors of fact, never mind the lack of cultural context. For one, a traveler in Vigan may hear the horse's hooves clip-clopping if he were riding in a calesa; but in the ubiquitous tricycle, he would be deafened by the motor's roar, even before dawn. Second, Salcedo founded a villa, not a ciudad, which was of course an impossibility at that time. Third, he did not establish Vigan; he conquered it. Fourth, it happened 424 years ago; a duration of one generation matters much historically.

The chronicles of Chau Ju-Kua (1225) and Pigafetta (1521), and historical writings from de Morga to O.D. Corpuz and Zeus Salazar document that pre-Hispanic trade settlements were already thriving along various coasts of the archipelago, interlinked with the pan-Asian trade via sailboats. Pigafetta noted that in Cebu, the scales for weighing gold were similar to those used in European trade posts.

Even a cursory reading of Corpuz's The Roots of the Filipino Nation yields these vital facts: Juan de Salcedo had to give chase to Sanglay sampans off Ilocos before plundering the trade settlement of Vigan; that Vigan existed before the Spaniards raided it is self-evident; it was the modus operandi of conquerors at the time to take over prime settlements that would serve as their sanctuary and base for expansion. In brief, being a conquistador is unlike being a pilgrim aboard the Mayflower.

Corpuz cites a document in the Mexican archives expressing grave concern over Salcedo's violent raids against the Ilocos villages and the ability of the decimated population to replenish itself by the next generation. The colonizers were worried about who would provide the Spanish forces their subsistence, who would pay tribute to the King, who would work the gold mines.

To cut through the maze of misimpression regarding the "founding" of Vigan by Salcedo, it is helpful to refer to an economic survey done by Loarca, one of Salcedo's soldiers, which noted that "not far from Vigan is the settled town of Fernandina."Another early document --"Report of Saleable Offices" (yes, colonial administrative positions went to the highest bidder)--further described the relationship between Vigan and Salcedo's Villa. The Villa had become so "unhealthy a region" on account of a plague. Although it was the main garrison for the entire encomienda of Salcedo, and the hub of the gold trade with the Tinggians, few cared to stay there. Its officials preferred Vigan where creature comforts and a variety of goods were more available owing to the traditional trade among Ilocano naturales, Tinggian or Itneg settlers, and traders from China, Japan and other Asian emporiums.

The decadence of the Villa was confirmed by Loarca when he noted that " the coming of Limahon, Fernandina was plundered, and there remains now one alcalde mayor with 20 or 30 Spaniards who usually dwell there as if in banishment." Hence, the Villa, plundered and ravaged by the plague, was eventually annexed to the older and more flourishing town of Vigan. Vigan had caught Salcedo's interest precisely because it was lucratively and strategically positioned as an entrepot between maritime commerce and the retail trade with the hinterlands via the Abra river.

Reckless fantasy

Perhaps this roundabout incursion into the chronicles of the past will allow the present generation of travelers, advocates and kibitzers a full, lively and contextual awareness of local and national heritage. For if the intelligentsia's resurgent obsession is to consolidate the longings and plans for a cultural renaissance--for the sake of our self-esteem or for cultural tourism or even just to deepen our awareness of our artifacts (so as to cherish them better or price them higher) --we must, first of all, know the past as a continuous contention of forces leading to the present. Otherwise, we end mythologizing our relics, distorting history or deluding ourselves, in the same way the cultural "experts" of previous generations handed down to us more enigmas and less enlightenment.

It is not entirely the fault of the advocates of the Vigan restoration program that they discern mainly the colonial fact encrusted in brick walls and statuary when, in fact, the houses, heirlooms and traditions of the Bigueños have evoleved slowly and steadily out of the coupling of cultures, as well as diverse economic and political forces.

For instance, the Itnegs brought the gold dust; the Ilocanos and Chinese artisans crafted them into fine jewelry, and filigree for church decor. Chinese artisans introduced burnay stoneware manufacturing techniques; the Ilocanos supplied the clay and labor; and the Itnegs bought them for storing rice, seeds, water or for fermenting basi, the sugarcane wine. Even santo woodcraft, according to the files of the Sadidaya group of artists and researchers, was first done by settlers from China. As for the ancestral houses, most of the ancestors were Sanglay merchants.

This concourse of forces and settlers can easily be misconstrued as "Hispanic" or "colonial" not only because it occurred in that era, but also because the Manila culture czars imposed their self-delusion on the history and landmarks of Vigan. For instance, the marker placed on St. Paul's Cathedral by the Philippine Historical Committee in 1949 states in part"...a chapel of wood and thatch erected on this site, 1574, by order of Juan de Salcedo, the conquistador and founder of Villa Fernandina, after which Vigan was first called..."

And thus was an outright lie enshrined as official truth for all time. Documentary history was supplanted by the reckless fantasy of the Philippines Historical Committee which implied that Vigan did not exist before the conquistadors plundered the settlement. The bewildering assertion of the Philippines Historical Committee plaque is the source of various tall tales in Vigan, inspired by either colony-centric self-mystification or plain sales talk.


A prominent Bigueño regaled art historian Regalado Trota Jose with the story that the expertly carved santo in the family altar had come from Europe, although he could cite no artist's name, no date of creation and no place of origin. Jose's careful research revealed that the exquisite statue was by Isabelo Tampinco, the Sanglay-Filipino sculptor whose fame rose at the turn of the century.

Is the statue a lesser part of Filipino art and heritage if authenticated as a Tampinco original and not of European provenance as claimed by the Bigueño owner?

Maybe there is a lesson here for visitors and researchers who wish to know the real memories and cultural dynamics of Vigan, who wish to help restore what is worthwhile, and who wish to clear away the cobwebs, including those befuddling the mind.

*From "Sulyap Kultura,"a publication of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (second quarter, 1996).