In search of the real Betis

I don’t mean the world-famous Spanish football club; I mean the little town in Pampanga made famous by its well-preserved church and its furniture makers. Today, December 30, is when Betis celebrates its town fiesta.  In the rest of the country, as we all know, this special day is set aside to mark the anniversary of the martyrdom of the national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, whose writings kindled our awakening as a modern nation.

Contrary to what some may think, the patron saint of Betis is not Jose Rizal, but Santiago de Compostela – the patron saint of Spain, the colonial power that executed Rizal in 1896.  It is unusual for a Filipino town to hold its fiesta celebration in December. Fiestas in this mostly agrarian society are typically held in the month of May or June, around harvest time.

Betis is where I grew up, but I don’t remember exactly how we came to hold our fiesta in December.  What I distinctly recall is that on December 30, we would have a civic parade in the morning to honor Rizal, and a religious procession in the evening to venerate Apung Tiago, whose feast day falls in July.  In this fascinating way do we re-enact some of the paradoxes of our identity.

Betis is one of the few places specifically mentioned in the early chronicles of the Spanish colonizers. There is a street named Betis in Seville, and a

long river (Guadalquivir) in Andalusia, that in pre-Roman times was called Baetis.  But it does not seem as if our town took its name from anything Spanish, as, say, in Nueva Caceres or Nueva Segovia.

The old folks say Betis is the name of a huge tree (Madhuca betis) that used to thrive in this place. They assume that’s where the town took its name. This is a majestic tree with a straight trunk and a broad shady crown.  It is one of the Philippine hard woods, the kind that one would use to support the heaviest beams or loads. I wouldn’t be surprised if Betis wood was extensively used to build the galleons.  I chanced upon this tree in the MakilingBotanical Garden many years ago, and found myself instantly mesmerized by its proud bearing. After telling the caretaker that my town was named after this tree, I came away with two precious seedlings. One of these I planted in the courtyard of the Betis church, where I assume it belongs, and another in my garden in the University of the Philippinescampus. They’re flourishing nicely in both religious and secular surroundings.

Memories of the Spanish conquest persist in our religion and in our churches, in our names, and in our written history.  On the other hand, the memory of our people’s struggle against Spanish tyranny survives in the monuments we build to honor our heroes, and in the textbooks that narrate our emergence as a nation.  But, not many traces remain of who we were, what we were like, and how we lived at the point of Spanish contact.

There are copious descriptions of the kinds of people the foreigners encountered in these islands. But as these were written from the perspective of an outsider, they do not express our self-understanding as a people – in short, our phenomenology.  Spainclaims to have discovered us, but, surely, long before she did, we had constituted ourselves as a culture by the sheer act of settling and living in these islands.  The record of this is what is missing in our history books.

The best of the outsider accounts is Antonio de Morga’s “Sucesos de las

Islas Filpinas,” published in 1609.  Morga’s work covers the period from 1565, when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi started the sustained subjugation of the islands, till 1603. From the Visayas where the Legazpi expedition founded its first colony, Spain’s conquistadores led by Martin de Goiti and Juan de Salcedo sailed north towardsManila in 1570.  The establishment of the seat of colonial power in Manila made it easy for the Spaniards to fan out to the rest of Luzon.

In 1574, Guido de Lavazares, who had earlier taken over as governor general upon Legazpi’s death, subjugated Pampanga.  Not much is known of this man except that he successfully drove back the Chinese pirate Limahong when the latter attempted to sack Manila.

Of Lavazares, Morga writes: “This same governor apportioned all the pacified land in the island ofLuzon and surrounding islands to the conquerors and settlers there.  He assigned to himself the towns of Betis and Lubao in the province of Pampanga, besides others of some importance.  The succeeding government dispossessed him of these towns, but afterward his Majesty, on account of his good services, granted them all to him, and he enjoyed them, together with the office of master-ofcamp of the islands, as long as he lived.”

Lavazares was clearly the first encomendero of Betis, the one who collected tribute from the inhabitants of the place in return for taking care of their souls. Why he chose Betis and Lubao to serve as his personal encomienda is not clear.  But there were two things that Betis became famous for during the colonial period – carpenters and clergymen. The colonial government drew from this place both the wood and the woodworkers for its various construction needs.  And the Church recruited from the town’s finest youth the native priests who would assist the Spanish friars in the propagation of the faith.

What Betis was like, how our ancestors lived, or who they thought they were before they became Christians and colonial subjects, are things no one seems to remember.  I can’t find them in Morga or in Blair and Robertson. They must be in the way we celebrate our fiestas, prepare our food, profess our faith, and keep our families together through calamities and prosperity.