Losing our heritage | Inquirer Opinion
At Large

Losing our heritage

“Trying to plan for the future without knowing the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.” —David Boorstin

At the rate things are going, we Filipinos will soon be like transplanted cut flowers—unable to put down roots, bloom and flourish. Instead, we wither in inhospitable soil, incapable of getting nourishment, unknowing of our place in the universe.


Knowing the past is not just a matter of getting names, dates and events down pat. Although education and reading are important, so is an intimate, visceral knowledge of the events that shaped the present, evidenced by things we see, smell, touch and hear. But at the rate ancestral homes and heritage structures—churches, town plazas, town halls and public buildings—are being demolished and razed to make way for newer, more profitable buildings like malls, we will soon lose our last tenuous links to what went on before. We are cutting ourselves off from our roots.

This column is about two heritage structures—an ancestral home turned museum that is now being threatened by conversion into a “bed and breakfast,” and the town plaza of my hometown, Alaminos in Pangasinan, which will soon lose its integrity and historical significance if plans to erect an office building on it push through.


But other edifices and homes are similarly threatened. Most endangered at the moment is the “iconic” building El Hogar in Manila, right by the banks of the Pasig River, that is being threatened with destruction with the new owners planning to erect a warehouse on site.

We all know what happened to the soaring Jai Alai building, its lot now a neglected empty property. And while the magnificent churches of Bohol were felled not by greedy developers but by an earthquake, there is a continuing debate on whether to simply restore the old structures or “creatively” enhance them.

* * *

Before “Balay Negrense” in Silay City in Negros Occidental opened its doors to the public, the late 19th-century structure was known as the Gaston Mansion, built by Don Victor Fernandez Gaston to house his family and descendants. But by the 1980s, the home had nearly crumbled to ruin, earning the reputation of a “haunted house” because it had been uninhabited and neglected for over a decade.

This was when a group of Negrenses, led by Lyn Gamboa, decided it was time to step in and save the home before it crumbled to the ground. She proposed to the Gaston heirs that the house be rehabilitated and restored with the help of the Philippine Tourism Authority (PTA), since renamed the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (Tieza), and that their ancestral home be converted into a museum celebrating Negrense culture.

After negotiating with then Tourism Secretary Rafael Alunan and then with Secretary Narzalina Lim, the team behind the Negros Cultural Foundation (NCFI) succeeded in having the Gaston heirs, led by Msgr. Guillermo (GG) Gaston, sign an agreement in which the Gaston family donated the home to the government, through the PTA. In turn, a tripartite agreement among the PTA, the NCFI and the City of Silay was crafted, with the aim to develop the tourism potentials and rehabilitation of the structure. To this end, the PTA allotted P5 million to fund the first phase of rehabilitation.

* * *


“BALAY Negrense” opened its doors to the public in 1990, with the funds from the PTA used to rehabilitate the rotting structure to a semblance of its original appearance. Gamboa, with her close collaborator Cristina Montelibano, sourced furniture and other household items from other Negrense families and even from antiques shops in Manila, while raising funds with the help of NCFI board members for the upkeep of the ancestral home.

But, says Gamboa, “not once in all this time did the Gastons offer to help with funding the museum.” Monsignor Gaston sits in the NCFI board although he now claims that he was never notified about board meetings.

I paid a visit to Balay Negrense some years back and remember walking in awe through the rooms of the mansion, imagining what life in the years before the war must have been like.

But in August last year, unbeknownst to the NCFI or even the city government of Silay, Monsignor Gaston entered into an agreement with the Tieza, represented by Mark Lapid, in which the donation of the house and the grounds was revoked. The Gaston family alleged that the NCFI had “neglected” their old family home.

“The general sentiment and impression of the public,” says a backgrounder prepared by the NCFI is that “the family abandoned and left the house to go to seed only to want it back because it now has become a major tourist attraction.” Word is that a Gaston niece who is married to a foreigner has plans to “redevelop” the property into a bed-and-breakfast.

The NCFI has since filed a case with the Ombudsman against the Tieza as well as the “Balay Negrense Development Corp.,” the name adopted by the Gaston heirs for their corporate entity, for violating the terms of the agreement in place at the time the “revocation” was signed.

* * *

As for the town plaza (fronting the cathedral) in Alaminos, Pangasinan, a group of townsfolk have petitioned Mayor Arthur Celeste to reconsider his plan—coursed through the city council—to build a new structure to house offices of the city government.

The petitioners emphasize that while they agree with the mayor’s wish to put up a “Don Marcelo Ochave Legislative Building and Socio-civic Center” (Ochave was a longtime mayor), the plan to locate the building in the town plaza (named Plaza Ochave) across from the church is ill-conceived.

They cite previous court rulings on similar structures in other parts of the country, which I’ll discuss in Sunday’s column.

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TAGS: Alaminos, Balay Negrense, Don Victor Fernandez Gaston, El Hogar, Gaston, Gaston Mansion, Heritage, Jai Alai Building, Lyn Gamboa, Mark Lapid, Mayor Arthur Celeste, Negrense culture, Negrenses, Negros Occidental, Pangasinan, Pasig River, Philippine Heritage, Philippine Tourism Authority, PTA, Silay City, Tieza, Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority
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