I HAVE lived most of my life in Metro Manila except for some seven years spent as a missionary in Mindanao. For some reason, however, to this day I consider San Jose in Nueva Ecija my “hometown.”
Early this month my siblings and I, together with our respective families, traced once more “the way to San Jose” for the traditional All Saints Day commemoration, to visit the graves of our loved ones. Once again, I was proudly “coming home.”
I was born in San Jose—more accurately in Porais, a barrio of San Jose at that time. I grew up in our cogon-roofed and sawali-walled house on Ramos street and learned the realities of life there as I played the games of youth with my playmates Nano, Igme, Kiko, Cesar, Dado and many others whose names escape me at the moment even as I wonder where they are now.
I acquired basic formal education in the town’s public elementary school, a good walking distance from our house. For my secondary education, my parents endured untold sacrifices and saw to it that I went to the private parochial Catholic school, aptly named St. Joseph School, where I further learned the basic tenets of the Catholic faith in addition to the ones I already learned from my mother.
After high school, I left San Jose at the young age of 16 to pursue seminary studies, serendipitously for me, at San Jose Seminary in Quezon City. From then on, my visits to my hometown became few and far between. I resumed my regular visits during “Undas” only when I got married, to introduce my family to San Jose. It was only then did I notice that my dear old San Jose has slowly transformed from a near-sleepy town in the 1950s to the progressive small city that it is today.
But sadly, along with progress came changes that have almost completely erased the old familiar haunts of my youth.
The most obvious change is the emergence of some famous fast-food chains across the grounds of the parish of Saint Joseph. The old church where I was baptized, received First Communion and learned to serve at a Latin Mass, and whose belfry we used to climb for the sheer thrill and youthful adventurism of it, is completely gone. In its place is a huge, grandiose-looking cathedral designed along medieval lines. It was built, I suppose, to match the honor given to the parish as the seat of the Diocese of San Jose.
Needless to say, the Dutch Sacred Heart Missionary priests who administered the parish and nurtured our growing faith then are gone, too. But their old convento made of concrete still stands as parish office, though it is beginning to succumb to the elements of nature. The remnants of the old St. Joseph School still stand along with new and modern buildings. The old school canteen, a familiar hangout of our student days, is gone, and in its place are a covered all-purpose gym, basketball court and activity area with a stage. The old convento of the Franciscan Sisters, a target of some of our youthful but harmless pranks, is gone; the Sisters have transferred their residence to a new building within the school compound.
On the main highway, the three big cinemas—Villaverde, Viva and Grand—where we spent a lot of weekends watching our favorite movies, are gone, obliterated by the arrival of Betamax, VHS, CDs and DVDs. The old market still stands where it used to but is now completely renovated, especially after the fire some years ago. The commercial area along the highway going toward the north of Luzon has been extended farther to the next barrio of Malasin, giving the area a metropolitan look with a mall, some restaurants, hotels, and modern gas stations.
Our old house on Ramos street is no more, with the street itself having been transformed from a dusty, rough road that I used to traverse daily into a smoothly paved one. The nearby irrigation canal of the neighborhood, where I learned to swim and where I spent many summers just diving, swimming, and sometimes fishing with my playmates, has become like a garbage dumpsite. Gone, sadly, is the fresh clear water that used to flow freely through it.
Although San Jose today is no longer the old San Jose of my youth in physical appearance, it is still to me the hometown to which I “come home” occasionally to relive memories of my growing up years. And as Sam Ewing has said: “When you finally go back to your old hometown, you find out it was not the old home that you missed, but your childhood.”
Come to think of it, a hometown is not a physical place, but a place in the heart of someone who cherishes his past.
I am “coming home” wanting to be a child once again.
Danilo G. Mendiola, 70, was a human resources and administrative executive until his retirement in 1997. He and his wife are now doing volunteer work for the Family Life Ministry in their parish. After his quintuple bypass in 2007, his children encouraged him to start a blog as a form of therapy during his recovery period, making him, he says, “an accidental writer.”