They were expecting great wealth such as gold, silver and spices but what the Spaniards saw when they arrived in the remote province of Ilocos in the Northern part of Luzon island in the Philippines were Chinese merchants trading beads and porcelain with the locals. In the year 1572, the Spaniards under the leadership of Miguel Lopez de Legaspi were well rooted in Manila and were looking for more sites to conquer when they reached this rocky and rugged place. The ideal decision was to leave to find a better location but the seventeen year old explorer, Juan de Salcedo, the grandson of Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, together with Augustinian missionaries had other plans. They stayed on and explored the islands and discovered several inlets where inhabitants were living in harmony.
The inhabitants of the island were very afraid of the invaders and hid from them. The young conqueror admonished his men to respect the people and take only from them what was necessary. Seeing that the invaders were not hostile, they started coming out from their hiding places to mingle and make friends with the Spaniards.
Meanwhile, the missionaries thought that baptising the locals and converting them to Christianity was far better than any treasures. The Augustinian missionaries believe that their true mission was to spread Christianity. Religious conversions grew so did the Christian population in the region. The Augustinians worked without haste in building churches and bell towers.
Juan de Salcedo fostered friendship with the locals and established a Spanish city. The colonisation continued but was not completely successful due to abuses by some of the Augustinian friars which drove the locals to revolt against their colonisers. To gain political control over the growing population, a Royal Decree was signed in 1818 dividing the region in half, Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur. No one could have predicted that one day the rubble of these establishments would be conferred World Heritage status by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
With this brief history, I found my first visit to Ilocos Province enthralling and subsequent visits even more interesting and thrilling. My second visit was with friends and we all discovered the charm and beauty of this province through the help of our knowledgeable guide, Arlene Gajeton.
Nowhere in the Philippines is Spanish influence more evident than in Ilocos. Imposing well preserved churches and edifices built as early as the 16th century stand as testaments to the long Spanish colonisation. Although many of our ancestors had negative feelings about the Spanish rule era, the Spanish left behind some positive aspects of their culture. One example is the famous Paoay Church in Ilocos Norte, a stand out among the province’s attractions. This church was completed in1894 after ninety years of construction and is considered as one of the finest example of baroque architecture in the Philippines.
I mentally draw up an itinerary to rediscover the past: a visit to the museum, talks with the locals and perhaps a stay in one of the period houses. My visit of Vigan, Ilocos Sur, dazes me not because for its old fashioned look but because it has maintained such a strong Spanish identity. Houses built in the 16th century line the streets of the old city. The captivating Castilian architecture is very evident in the hundreds of stone houses still standing in the town’s main district. Most of the ancestral homes are in good condition and have been turned into cosy inns, bistros and shops.
Walking along the cobblestone roads reminds me of Rome. What makes it different are the “calesas” or horse drawn carriages with smiling faces peering out from large windows. It is like stepping back in time and viewing a romantic interlude when our ancestors used to serenade the women to whom they professed love. I remember my grandfather’s story that he used to go with troubadours to serenade some of the beautiful senoritas on their balconies, one of the most romantic remnants of the Spanish legacy. The troubadours had a varied repertoire and usually started with a fast number before going into a smooth Spanish love song. For their trouble, they either receive an overturned bucket of water from irate senorita or a return song from her. The senorita herself was rarely interested, but if she favours the man, she nonetheless basked in the lyrical attention she received.
Back in the present, I feast my eyes on the unique architectural blend of Asian, European and Latin American influences in the buildings. It’s amazing that this very Castilian colonial site used to be the Chinese quarter, a place the Chinese immigrants called home. The Chinese merchants obviously did not settle here because of beads and porcelain but were taken by the charm of the women, married them and remained.
Old Spain is alive in the Ilocos region, coexisting in peace with the local culture. The past and present have entered into a comfortable relationship. Old edifices are merely shrines of a magnificent cultural ethnicity. I discover Spain not by plan but by chance.
Passing through narrow lanes, I find the Heritage Village to be the strongest living symbol of the former colony. I believe that it’s Spain’s best legacy, a place flaunting its Spanish connections. With my friends, we explored the whole site, tracing history through old pieces of furniture, ageing homes and withered faces. At the nearby church, a bell still tolls for a departed soul. It is a custom as old as time informing the village that someone has passed away and that we should pay our last respects.
After almost 400 years of colonial rule, the Spaniards are now gone. I am sure they departed with much hesitancy. I have similar sentiments as I prepare to leave with fond memories. Ilocos, beautiful and charming. Hospitable people with simple lifestyle but endowed with rich and beautiful natural resources. It is being invaded once again by foreigners not to be colonised but to be appreciated and enjoyed. Surely, they will be captured by this unique place as so many others have been in the past.