BizNews Asia/December 13 – December 20, 2004
The Town Where Time Stands Still
If at times in sleepy but balmy Baler time seems to have stood still, blame may be heaped partly on the late Manuel L. Quezon. The first Commonwealth president was vehemently against the construction of any road from the lowlands, says a folio on the “Land of the Golden Sunrise”, which is Baler.
The Castillian feared the plunder of Aurora province’s vast forests, especially by businessman and foreign commercial interests. He wanted the region remain pristine paradise for inhabitants. Quezon wished that Baler could only be reached by sea.
Sprawling over 57,000 hectares, Baler stands proud on the shore of a horseshoe-shaped coastal valley overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the east. It lies exactly opposite Acapulco City in Mexico on the west. It is just opposite of Manila which is why the region is called “contracosta”.
Quezon, it now seems, had vision. Half of Aurora’s forests are estimated to have vanished, thanks to decades of despoliation. The impact of denudation was felt and seen in late November and December when twin typhoons walloped the east coast of Luzon, bringing untold misery and destruction.
At least two of its palm-fringed towns are no longer habitable because of imminent threat to massive floods in the future. The Baler Bay waters are shallow at 5 to 20 meters up to 3 kilometers before it plunges suddenly to depths of more than 50 meters. This condition makes surfing such a bliss. However, it also makers Baler susceptible to giant waves caused by undersea earthquakes and storm surges. The legendary Tromba Marina or undersea earthquake of December 27, 1735 wiped out Baler’s population except for five families. “We originate typhoons and earthquakes,” grins Senator Edgardo Angara.
The major link to Quezon and Aurora provinces were completed in 1940 at the behest of Quezon’s own wife, Doña Aurora Aragon Quezon. Until the Baler-Bongabon road, the capital of Aurora province could only be reached from Nueva Ecija by trails on horseback or carabao cart. Mrs. Quezon herself inaugurated the road. Ironically, it was on this two-lane highway where she was murdered by Huk guerillas in 1949.
Baler, known as Principe, is actually on of the oldest provinces in the Philippines. The name probably came from Valeriana, a native woman who mistakenly gave her name to a priest looking for a direction, or Valeriano, a Spanish missionary in 1690. Or Baler could have come from “Balod”, a large mountain dove that used to be plentiful in the area. Baler became known as the place were the doves come to roost.
Baler was originally inhabited by two kinds of aboriginal settlers – the Dumagats, an aeta tribe who came from the seas and the Ilongots who came from the forests. Ilongots mean people of the forests, as distinguished from Tagalogs (taga-ilog) which means people of the river, or Dumagats (people of the sea, dagat). The g-stringed and topless Ilongots used to occupy the region from Palanan, in Isabela to Baler, in Aurora, a distance equivalent to four to six days of travel on the coast.
Migration and incursions by lowlanders have diminished the Ilongots into a handful from as many as 5,000 during the 18th century. The Dumagats, meanwhile, used to be fishermen but were driven into the forests by immigrants from the Tagalog lowlands.
Spanish explorer Juan de Salcedo wandered into Baler in 1573 following his discovery of Quezon and Camarines Norte. The town was used as reference point by Spanish navigators sailing into the Pacific Ocean. In 1591, the province of Kalilaya was created and it consisted of Aurora, Quezon and Marinduque. The province was later broken up. The northern portion was divided between Laguna and Nueva Ecija. Aurora became a province of Nueva Ecija with Baler as capital.
In 1609, a group of Franciscan missionaries landed and converted the natives into Christianity. They traveled through the mountains following trails blazed by the Dumagats and Ilongots. The Sierra Madre separated Baler from civilization. In 1611, the first church was built. The Franciscan administered Baler until 1899 when the population had grown to 1,668 souls. The friars were also the political leaders.
In 1840, Fr. Jose Urbina de Esparragaza arrived. He was a modernist. He built watch towers to ward off Moro pirates, an irrigation system, and a belfry which later collapsed because of the weight of its bells.
Urbina didn’t believe in celibacy. He sired five children. One of his children, Lucio Urbina Quezon, became the father of the future president, Manuel Luis Quezon. His parents were Baler’s only public school teachers and who where too poor to have a watch.
Quezon, of course, was the father of social justice and the national language. Apparently, he was also pro-poor and had encounters with what Senator Edgardo Angara calls “people driven to desperation by hopelessness and proverty.” They say he was the original dictator. He had the Constitution amended so he could run for a second term as president.
Angara’s father, Juan, a nurse and later also a dentist, was a three-time mayor of Baler. “We have lived outside the town in the 1940s. School was a 30-minute walk to town. I would start at 7. I had to cross a river. I was lugging a pail of drinkgin water. We had water on the farm but not drinking water,” recalls the senator. Angara’s mother, Juana, was also a nurse. She and Juan met at the Philippine General Hospital where they were the first health professionals of Baler.