Bernardo M. Villegas
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Childhood Memories of San Pablo

          Thanks to a Philippine Airlines flight I took to Cagayan de Oro last July 14, 2017, I was transported back to the late 1940s and early1950s when my parents with their seven children in tow would regularly visit our only granduncle on my mother side, Dr. Potenciano Malvar and his wife Eusebia Fule, in their palatial residence in San Pablo City.  In the July 2017 issue of Mabuhay, writer Regina Abuyuan describes how residents of San Pablo City in Laguna, just two hours from Manila, have come together to build their area into a hub of artistic, cultural and environmental pursuits.  My Lolo Poten was the only brother of my maternal grandfather, General Miguel Malvar, arguably the last Filipino General to surrender to the American forces during the Philippine-US war.  He and Lola Ibiang lived in what is now the only pre-war structure that survived the passage of time—the Malvar-Fule mansion on Rizal avenue, built in 1915 in the Romantic classical style.  It is now a regional office of Philam Life.  Lolo Poten was the first mayor of San Pablo City.

         The Malvars came from the town of Sto. Tomas, Batangas, the once-sleepy barrio that has now become an industrial hub with hundreds of large manufacturing enterprises that have located in the numerous industrial zones built by Manila-based entrepreneurs, including the Lopezes.  When we used to visit our Lolo Poten during the Christmas holidays and other festive occasions, we envied San Pablo City because, as Ms. Abuyuan described it, even before the Second World War, it was already a thriving center of culture.  It was at the center of the coconut boom at the turn of the twentieth century.  San Pablo was at the crossroads from Laguna and Batangas to Quezon province where tens of thousands of hectares were planted to coconuts.  Following the example of my Lolo Miguel, who was passionate about agriculture (one of his business partners was a brother of Jose Rizal), my uncles and aunties on the Malvar side purchased coconut plantations in Quezon, especially towns like Tiaong and Lucena.  As coffee and oranges were to Lipa City, where there were many wealthy Bataguenos, coconut was to San Pablo and the surrounding areas of Laguna and Quezon.  As Ms. Abuyuan wrote, the world-wide demand for copra and coconut oil transformed Laguna owners of coconut farms into veritable barons:  “This windfall meant that the area’s families easily fell into a life of luxury, complete with all the trappings of wealth—sending their children abroad to study, building grand mansions and hosting extravagant parties where private orchestras would entertain guests.” Indeed, my Lolo Poten was our rich relative who gave me and my siblings very generous “aguinaldos” during Christmas time.

         The Japanese occupation disrupted this idyllic life as the palatial houses were bombed and burned. The economic decline of San Pablo was further aggravated by the migration of coconut plantations to Mindanao after the Second World War.  Although there can be a renaissance of the coconut industry in the region as intercropping with high-value crops such as fruits and vegetables is implemented by the new generation of entrepreneur farmers (very much in the mold of my Lolo Miguel), the future of San Pablo City and the whole Laguna and Quezon can be even brighter if the potential for tourism (especially domestic tourism which now counts at more than 60 million domestic travelers) is fully exploited.  San Pablo is in the midst of what is known as the Viaje del Sol Route conceived first by fashion and restaurant entrepreneur from Pampanga, Patis Tesoro.  I was gladdened to learn from the Mabuhay article that a daughter of my close friends, the late Tony Mercado and his wife Monina , is one of those pioneering in bed and breakfast facilities that in the future will mushroom all over the Philippines as we experience the coming tourism boom.  I have been advocating two industries that can spawn many small and medium-scale entrepreneurs:  high-value crops such as fruits and vegetables and bed and breakfast facilities.

            An Mercado and her husband Boots Alcantara own and manage Casa San Pablo, a b&b set in a former coconut plantation.  The young couple, more than a decade ago, helped to create the very first Viaje del Sol map—“a loose itinerary of charming country inns, off-the-beaten-path cafes and inspiring artists’ studios” which can be found along the Maharlika Highway from San Pablo City in Laguna and Tiaong in Quezon, which among other tourist attractions hosts the famous Escudero plantation.  Actually, I have many times brought friends to many of the towns along the Viaje del Sol Route showing them the picturesque plaza of Pila, Laguna with its beautifully restored church and ancestral mansions; the barong tagalog industry in neighboring Lumbang; the woodcraft and paintings of Paete; the waterfalls of Majayjay (where there is also a very attractive bed and breakfast hotel managed by the widow of another good friend of mine, the late top advertising executive Minyong Ordonez).  Indeed, the Viaje del Sol route is one of the best ways that families in the Metro Manila area can spend weekends enjoying cultural, ecological and agricultural tourism.  The golden age of infrastructure under the Duterte Administration will enhance even more the attractiveness of this route.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.