The courtship of 'Kastila'
Looking Back by Ambeth R. Ocampo

WHILE thousands of people go around Elliptical Road in Quezon City every day, they are too preoccupied with staying alive or getting to their destination to notice the Quezon Memorial Shrine in the center of the circle. Restaurants and various stalls have sprouted all over the place over the years making the shrine an isolated island in the center of the circle.

There are differences of opinions regarding the development of this open space in the navel of Quezon City. Should it be an amusement park, or should we create a beautiful but solemn park that underlines the main purpose of the shrine as the place where Manuel Luis Quezon is buried? We hope Quezon City Mayor Sonny Belmonte will implement the master plan that will rationalize the use of the park, draw more people in, and make them remember the life and deeds of Commonwealth President Quezon.

Yesterday, the remains of Aurora Aragon Quezon were transferred from Manila to the Quezon Memorial Shrine. She was murdered by bandits in 1949, an event that shocked the nation. Reading the lurid details in the newspapers of the time will really wind you up, so I decided to find a happier bit of information from my dustbin.

One of my regular Sunday morning phone pals was the late National Artist Honorata "Atang" de la Rama, widow of National Artist Amado V. Hernandez. I first met "Ka Atang" at the launching of a compilation of her husband's poetry. She autographed my book and we did not get to know each other well until I interviewed her for an essay I was writing on Nicanor Abelardo. Our interview went beyond the topic and she had so many anecdotes on other people that I decided to mine her memory for oral history. My one regret was that I did not record the conversations nor did I follow a set plan for interviews.

Once I asked her about a photograph of Amado Hernandez in a huddle with the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. She simply stated that she did not ask her husband about his business, private or otherwise. As soon as he stepped out the door of their house, she did not care to ask what he did. When I pushed for an answer she said, "Wala akong pakialam. [I don't care.] When he comes home, he is still my husband! That's why we don't quarrel." She then asked why a young person (I was young once) was so engrossed in the past.

"Para kang nangangalkal ng basura [It's as if you're rummaging through garbage]," she said. Despite what appeared to be a rebuff, she still came up with a footnote to the love story of Manuel Quezon and Aurora Aragon that is worth repeating here:

"One day while I was rehearsing for a zarzuela, I was told to get ready and go with a man called 'Kastila.' He would be wearing a khaki ensemble, riding breeches [and carrying] a riding whip. Someone else would take my place [and sing my parts] at that night's zarzuela.

"Kastila came on horseback, and since I was small, he placed me in one of the 'kaing' [baskets] on one side of the horse to balance the load of fruits and vegetables on the other side. The trip was long and the man didn't talk much. He knew I was a singer and he asked me to sing as I went along. I did as I was told, pero nainis ako kasi mainit [but I was irritated because it was a hot day]!

"Then we came to a river where a waiting 'casco' took us to Baler, Quezon.

This part of the trip was more agreeable, because there was a shade and I enjoyed watching the flying fish. The men caught fish, which they broiled along with some chickens on board the casco. Later they served one 'palanggana' [basin] of rice and tomatoes to go with the freshly cooked fish. As I was very hungry, 'lamon ako nang lamon' [I just kept eating].

Water from the river was not good, 'matabang ang tubig [the water tasted flat], so I was given fresh 'buko' [young coconut].

"After a day's journey, we arrived at our destination-a big house in Baler.

I was asked if I knew how to play the piano. I was not in the mood, so even if I could play the piano, I told my hosts I only knew how to sing. A guitar player was called in and he asked me what I wanted to sing. I told him I would sing all the songs he could play. You see this was not a problem, since I was very good with 'oido' [learning by ear] and I could easily pick up a tune. If I didn't know the lyrics, I'd invent them! (laughs) I didn't write stories and zarzuela scripts for nothing you know. You have a lot to learn from your Lola Atang.

"And you know what? My host turned out to be Aurora Aragon, the future wife of Manuel Luis Quezon! I was brought all the way there as part of Quezon's courtship! All the way to sing for his sweetheart! I slept in the Aragon house overnight and the next day, it was the same route back to where the zarzuela company was playing.

"Quezon never brought this up when we met later on. He had married Doña Aurora and was already president when I was invited to sing in Malacañang.

You know, I was even present when Quezon signed the law making Tagalog the National Language. I was not paid for singing for Doña Aurora, but who was I to know, at the time, who this 'Kastila' was? How was I to know he would later become president?"

I wish I had asked Manuel "Nonong" Quezon Jr. to confirm the above story, but I was too busy to visit him regularly or chat with him on the phone. He was another source of oral history now lost to us.

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