Memories of the Old Hometown

Dec 28, 2011

by Gwendolyn Ramos-Garcia

Most people leave home when they go off to college, or after graduation, in search of a job, or when one marries somebody from another town/city or country. But what exactly is “home”?

Home is that magical place where I feel that I belong. It is where my forbears are buried, and where my mother and most of my family, relatives and close friends still live. It is that special place where even if I leave its shores, I will still feel welcome when I come back no matter how long I have been away.

And for me, that magical, special place is no other than Cagayan de Oro City ! My city Cagayan de Oro did not acquire that moniker for nothing. There is a fable attached to the name.

Cagayan de Oro literally means “city of gold”. The gold was rumored to be in the underwater cave by the river along the original church which is now the St. Augustine’s Cathedral. Whether gold has really been found is subject to conjecture but anyone who has ever been to the city always leaves it with golden memories of the wonderful people that inhabit the place.

A friend who works at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., Marylou Gomez, confided to me that her brief 10 month stay in Cagayan, teaching a Grade V class at XU’s grade school was among the happiest times of her life.

Three other friends, high school classmates of mine at Lourdes College (LC). Vicky Enriquez Agaab, Elizabeth Domingo-Tan and Rosemarie Quiepo-Flores, recently made a nostalgic trip there during a class reunion and they happily retraced the steps of their girlhood walking to the Cathedral from the LC dorm, then back to Divisoria & to XU’s Immaculate Conception Chapel. They even went to Cogon market by themselves, accompanied by Elizabeth’s doting husband, in search of tira-tira and binaki. They hope to go back again for our class’ 50th reunion.

Its People

Years ago, almost everybody in town was related, either by blood or by marriage. They belonged to the big clans of Neri, Chaves, Roa, Velez, Abejuela, Gabor, Fernandez, etc. New people came in when scions of these original families who had studied in Manila met, then ended up marrying young men from other parts of the country or when men in government service got assigned to Cagayan de Oro and married local belles.

The city then was also a popular destination for rich students from Manila, Bacolod, Cebu & other towns because Ateneo de Cagayan (now Xavier University) had a reputation for its firm discipline and good education. Several of these young men married into local families so you have family names now in Cagayan de Oro like de la Fuente, Falcon, Ferrer, Arguelles, etc. Other settlers and transplants came from Bohol (Borja, Luminarias, Enerio, Mosqueda, Balaba), Cebu (Canoy, Dongallo, Sestoso), Ilocos (Soriano, Garcia, Cabading), Gingoog (Lugod, Fernandez), Bukidnon (Fortich), Antique (Xavier, Noble), Ozamiz (Tamparong, Gorospe), Ormoc (Muñoz), Capiz (Torres, Quimpo), Marikina (Cruz), Camiguin (Adaza, Bollozos, Paderanga, Quiblat, Along, Dugenio, Salcedo, Magto, etc.) . Still others were employees of firms like Tabacalera, Soriano, San Miguel and Menzi [and were mostly of Spanish descent like Messrs. Puyo, Aguirre, Rodriguez, Larrabaster] or those assigned in the Army or PC Camps (Limena, Venadas, Sontillano, Saniel, Elloso, Clavano, etc.) or government offices like the Bureau of Lands, Agriculture, etc. (Messrs. Fernando Torres and Castillo were young graduates [UP Los Banos] when they first came to the city and ended up marrying into local families; and government doctors (Drs. Zamora, Almonte, Montenegro, Macaranas, Dayrit, Mejia, etc.) or Del Monte executives/employees (Frias, Tugot, Balbuena, Pelaez, Mejia, etc.).

The Spanish American War and WW II also saw the influx of G.I.a s who chose to stay because they had married local belles like John Charles Chaloner (direct descendants of whom count the Gaanes , Buhays & Casiños) and George Willkom (from that single American from Ohio descended about 500 Willkoms), Larsen (Cepedas) , Paagen (Saberolas).

As the world beckoned, some of the native-born Cagay-anons ventured to other climes in search of adventure and “outsiders” or “newcomers” from other parts of the country came in to take their place when the city became one of the major regional centers of the Philippines. As a result of said regionalization more and more trekked to the city to man banks, regional offices and to establish businesses. The city had so welcomed them with open arms that when it was time to transfer to other branches, many of these managers and heads of offices chose to quit their jobs rather than relocate elsewhere. That’s how much they loved and felt “at home” in their newly adopted city.

Thus now, Cagayanons are categorized as the native born, those who married into local families, the transplanted merchants, businessmen and professionals who plied their trade here or practiced their professions in their new-found city and the children born into families who emigrated to the city before or during the war or during the business or regionalization boom in the 80s.

The Old Town

When I was growing up, the town had few cars. The few taxicabs in town under the “Ang Sidlak” name was owned/operated by Rodrigo Lim. Jeepneys plied the Pier & Patag routes and “tartanillas” were very much in vogue. But most people walked to school or to their jobs. Life was so slow and people did not have to rush. It seemed that we could walk to most places: to market, to church, to the shopping areas which then was centered mostly in Divisoria, Del Mar (now Don Apolinar Velez) & Real (Gen. Nicolas Capistrano) streets.

People rode only when they had to catch the boat at the Macabalan Pier, or the plane at Lumbia airport. I remember walking to school from our house in Del Mar Street. I had to pass by the old bowling alley owned by the Ematas, the old China Restaurant (Ongs) & farther ahead, the Yee’s Restaurant which is still there, Bina Tan Grocery, Our Store, one of the very first educational stores run by the Mosqueda couple, the Velez Almacen owned by the couple Dodo & Chunching Velez, which carried silverware and glassware from Oceanic and other beautiful houseware & dAcor, another store with nice items owned by Fred Lee, Society Store (owned by the Sisons nee Puring Emata), which sold Gregg shoes,the finest clothing materials and the latest items from Manila, past Cagayan Grocery before I could reach Lourdes College.

It was a leisurely walk past these stores brimming with items that to a young girl’s eyes were just so delightful. It was fun to window-shop each day on my way to school. Lourdes College was just about 2 blocks away from the St. Augustine’s Cathedral. The street then was lined with tall acacia trees that swayed from the breeze coming in from the river nearby and across the church was the major park in town, Gaston Park. Lest anyone forget, Gaston Park undertook a major facelift thru the efforts of the late Mayor Justiniano Borja who put in the lovely fountain, well-lit at night so that people could stroll and frolic in the park on warm, balmy nights. Said park is just one of his many enduring legacies to the city.

Its Places of Worship

My understanding is that St. Augustine’s Cathedral was built by Engr. Diego Imperio or under his supervision. I think it is a beautiful edifice with perfect symmetry, beautiful stained glass windows and very nice chandeliers. When the church underwent a facelift years ago, I learned that some of the stained-glass panels were taken out and replaced by wrought-iron, probably, to let fresh air in. I personally think that those stained-glass pieces should be put back into the church. (Editor’s Note: The stained glass were restored years back).

Nazareno Church along busy Lapasan was built thru the efforts of the Floirendos and had as its parish priest for many, many years, Fr. Cicero Cebrero, S.J. The church still stands on the same spot, now surrounded by towering Gaisano stores. Another popular chapel was the Perpetual Help Chapel (now Fatima Chapel) along Del Mar St. maintained by St. Paul sisters who run one of the few stores in town that sell religious articles. Lately it has been the chosen venue of some weddings.

And in densely populated Nazareth district is the San Antonio de Padua Church that also underwent a major makeover, courtesy of Capt. Luciano Firmacion who spent for its entire renovation, his legacy to the residents of Nazareth. The old Aglipayan church was then along Del Mar St., on property donated by Nemesito Chavez. It has since moved to the back of its present site. Acacia trees also used to line the entire stretch of Del Mar. They were probably torn down when the sidewalks were built. I wonder if there could have been a way to save those majestic trees, now forever gone.

Recreational facilities

There were only 3 bowling alleys in town the one along Luzon St.. (now J.R. Borja St.) operated by the Firmacions, the Emata-owned one on Del Mar St. (now Bank of PI) and the 2-lane one run by the Garcias somewhere near where Gaisano is.

On top of the Firmacion’s bowling lane was the night club “Monte Carlo” and the other nightspot across the other end of town, just after Puntod, was the “Taza De Oro”, owned by Feodor and Nene Emata. That site, a lovely brick building, is now the YMCA.

Another night club was the “El Retiro”. Young people took their dates to the following snack places – the “Casino” of Tito Ating Gabor, the only place in town where you could get Magnolia ice cream; the old & original La Playa, along the riverbank (where the City Social Hall now stands) owned by Pete Tan, known for the best burger in town; Hernando’s Hideaway owned by Tita Trining Pineda, named after her husband, Judge Hernando Pineda, that daily churned out fresh milk ice-cream and yummy homemade barquillos; Ferns Restaurant in Divisoria, and the only steakhouse in town, the Sirloin & Saddle owned by Phil and Nena Roa Balan.

Bakeries/OtherPopular Stores

For our bakery needs, everyone went to either Ah Fat, Shanghai or Dalisay Bakeries. And who can forget the original hot pan de sal available at a small bakery at the pier. Students of Lourdes College congregated at the “Good Morning Store” (below Lola Charing Fabella’s house) for their delicious & salty “kiamoy” & shrimp crackers while the XU boys had “Macmang’s Store” where students went for snacks.

Its Culinary Delights

My mother used to say that one way of sizing up a person is by knowing about the kind of food he/she enjoys since food is part and parcel of living well. It wasn’t until I left home that I realized that we have so many culinary delights, some of them peculiar only to Cagay-anons – like the much-touted “bihod” coming from that special fish known as “pigok”.

There the binaki that most people in the Philippines don’t even have an inkling of. Then there’s the fresh milk puto from the Soriano kitchen, the yemas, brazo de mercedes, sans rival and boat tarts that only Tita Gely Dayrit can make.

There’s also the Elloso’s banana candies and the late Tita Flor Jaldon’s special coconut candies (not macaroons). From my mother’s kitchen, I learned to make keseo (white cheese), budin (bread pudding), jalea (pure mango jam) and fresh milk ice-cream churned from a hand-cranked ice cream maker or garapinera.

Who can forget the late Tita Luz Macaranas’ special ensaimadas, fresh lumpia and “masa podrida”, the Castano’ empanadas, Lola Iling Fernandez’s pastillas de leche (also made from fresh carabao’s milk) and the “manticao” and “crema de fruta” recipes of the Neri sisters (Tita Perla and Tita Flor). Almost every family had “tsokolate” at breakfast & dinnertime made from their own backyard cacao trees.

What about the “kayam”? I remember that my mother had a “suki” who would deliver cooked or boiled “kayam” to the house. I haven’t seen kayam for a long, long time now. And who can ever forget the “ginamos” made from “hipon” or little fish that come only once a year, usually the first day of February.

I wonder if other places in the country have as many delicacies such as the ones that Cagayan can boast of (except for Pampanga and Bacolod, of course).

Life in the Slow Lane

My recollection about growing up in a small town is mostly about simple pleasures walking to school, going to Patag golf course on Sundays with my parents along with other golfers and their families, to the beach on weekends either in Opol (with the Rabes and their Canoy relatives) or in Baloy (the original Neri enclave) with the Dayrits, Nobles and Eparwas.

It was lazy summers spent in the company of visiting Manila cousins (the Pelaezes) who spent almost every summer vacation in Cagayan. Other happy memories were the joyrides with cousins Babe, Sonny, Inday, Gangging, Sweetpea and Charito Fortich, Gigi and Tetel Borja, Annabel Montalvan, and Jing, Lani and Beth Eparwa, and my brother, Boy.

We would go all over town, to the pier to buy hot “pan de sal” then end up at Lumbia to gaze at the stars and the city below, all the while singing Mitch Miller sing-a-long songs.

All of these happened a long time ago but the memories live on and linger, like the notes of an old forgotten tune. Growing up in Cagayan meant being around a lot of relatives and other people whom you knew your entire life; where “everybody knew your name”, to borrow a phrase from Cheers. Although it was akin to living in a fishbowl, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. These happy, cherished memories will carry me through life whatever may come my way.

posted by The MINDANAO CURRENT @ 4:01 PM

Now available at the VIP Hotel lobby, a photo book about Cagayan de Oro City entitled MEMORIES OF THE OLD HOMETOWN, by Atty. Pureza Neri Ramos and Gwendolyn Ramos Garcia. Read all about the city and its people, and many other interesting tidbits about the city they know so well & love so much !


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