Himugso Heritage Feature: Cagayan de Oro’s Square Garden

Jun 7, 2015

by Dr. Blas Ch. Velez

 

(In commemoration of the 65th Anniversary of the City Charter of Cagayan de Oro, we are bringing back these stories on “Birthing the City”)

 

Did you know our pre-Spanish Kagay-anon ancestors once had their own version of the famous Madison Square Garden? Present-day Kagay-anons will be proud of the fact that they share a common bond with their 15th century forefathers-they all have, at one time or another, taken a stroll along our local square.

Old Gaston Park (photo by Carlos Neri Arce)

Old Gaston Park (photo by Carlos Neri Arce)

Our square was once one of these things: an arena similar to Blasco Ibañez’s Blood and Sand epic, a baseball park, a military camp, a place of Catholic worship, a battlefield, and a dreaded execution site. It is now a lovers lane, a place for evening meditation, a jogger’s delight, and a place where a royal prince fell in love with a Moro princess-thus giving the town its name, Cagayan.

 

If a tape recorder were available during these different eras, we would be able to hear the different events that transpired at the Square. The “hisses”, the “boos”, the thunderous ovations, the sobs, the laughter, the “vivas!”, the groans of deep pain, the religious hymns. What a delight it would have been to be able to “hear” history in the making!

 

During the pre-Spanish era, the Square was a fortified place where the royal family of Cagayan lived. It was here where the Higaonon chieftain, Bagani, and the Maranaw princess, Bai Lawanen, met and fell in love at first sight. The legend dwells on the shame the loving pair brought on their tribes-a shame, locally translated as kagayha-an. Voila! The settlement finally had a name!

 

Then the Spaniards came. As usual, the fair-skinned colonizers started bastardizing the local names of places. Finding “Kagayha-an” a tongue-twister, the kastilaloys chose the sexy-sounding “Cagayan.” The name has stuck to this day.

 

Now when you think Spanish, you usually think matador. The Spaniards, naturally, influenced our fashion, manners, our religious beliefs, our culture, and our hobbies. The most popular sport during that era was the Juego de Toro. Not the toro-toro some present Pinoys enjoy but the real thing! A bullfight during those days drew in the crowds from far and wide. The Square was the arena. A local, Bernardino Daang, was acclaimed the best Pinoy matador. He was said to be agile in his movements, swift in his passes. What a glorious sight the Square was then! Oles! and Bravos! literally filled the air.

 

During our first encounter with the American forces, the fight for freedom saw Filipino bolos and spears matching the American rifles. The Pinoys lost the fight but the gallant defenders won the respect of the enemy. The Square witnessed the clash of weapons and the cries of the dying.

 

There were no gas chambers or “hot seat” during the early American occupation. Criminals, mostly bandits, were executed by public hanging. The Square saw hundreds die. The crowd-drawer was the execution of the notorious Balodong, the outlaw. His life and exploits were as savage as America’s infamous Dillinger.

 

Just before World War I (i.e., 1914-1918), the Square became the local afficionados’ diamond – much like the World Series playing field. Winning teams included: Smith Bell, Constabulary, Government Employees, Central and High School. They played real baseball then, not kid stuff. A familiar sight during such games was the famous “Cracker Jack”, a junk food similar to the present-day popcorn.

 

Kagay-anon volunteers for overseas duty -the National Guard- trained at the Square during World War I, prior to their assignment to the Middle East. The 1918 Epidemic of influenza claimed a heavy toll among the volunteers. Nevertheless, the survivors were able to embark on the USS Liscom with their American officers for Camp Claudio at Baclaran.

 

During the pre-war years, on the evening of the Feast of Corpus Christi, altars were built around the Square. Believers visited each altar with deep reverence. Hymn-singing devotees were a common sight during these festivities.

 

Before the Second World War, the Square was transformed into an aesthetically landscaped park. It served as the town’s playground. The estate belonged to the provincial government, but after the war, it was deeded to the municipal government.

 

Now, the Square- locally known as Gaston Park- stands proudly as a mute witness to Cagayan de Oro’s colorful past and glorious heritage. Lover’s lane, jogger’s delight, snatcher’s paradise, or haven for the homeless… Gaston Park may be all these today but what park isn’t? Gaston Park may have lost its past glamour just as the once-famous Luneta has, but both landmarks have HISTORY written all over them. Well can other parks beat that?

 

(A modern adaptation of an article by Dr. Blas Ch. Velez published in the 32nd Charter Day anniversary souvenir program of Cagayan de Oro City. Dr. Velez, a doctor of medicine (UST 1937) and a WWII veteran, was a man of many talents. He was the past president of the Misamis Oriental Medical Society,  Misamis Oriental High School Alumni Association, UST Medical Association, Cagayan de Oro Cultural and Historical Society and Apovel Enterprise, Inc. 

 

A barangay captain and member of the Cagayan de Oro Rotary Club, the late doctor was a former municipal and city councilor of Cagayan de Oro before and after WWII. A 4th degree Knight of Columbus, he was a professor in legal medicine at the Xavier University College of Law).

 

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