Hometown Stories

The Houses They Left Behind


On the eastern side of Oriental Mindoro sits Pola: a small, coastal town full of ancestral homes that no one's paid attention to—except the residents who want to keep the town alive.

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There’s a popular story about how the town of Pola got its name: When the Spaniards arrived in Mindoro, they stumbled upon a settlement and asked the natives what it was called. They couldn’t understand each other, but when the conquistadors pointed to the ground, the natives answered "pula,” referring to the earth’s color. Eventually, the Spaniards called the town “Pula,” mispronouncing it as “Pola” over time.

To this day, the land that leads to Pola boasts of burnt orange soil; the kind that would get stuck between the tires of my grandfather’s jeep whenever we made the drive.

Pola is a small and mountainous town in Oriental Mindoro. From Metro Manila, one needs to drive to Batangas, catch a ferry to Mindoro, and take a two-hour drive from the seaport just to get there. The road leading to town is steep, sloping up to a concrete zigzag that puts the most skilled drivers to the test—one wrong turn and you could easily fall off the cliff.

From our home in Socorro, the drive to Pola usually takes less than an hour. Even as a young girl, I could tell my father was a skilled driver, because our car never rolled back on the uphill climb, despite the groans and black smoke coming from the engine. When the ground finally leveled, the grown-ups would breathe a sigh of relief. But my cousins and I would widen our eyes and hug our bellies, bracing ourselves for that ticklish sensation of plummeting downhill.

My family and I visited Pola whenever we felt like going to the beach, or to celebrate birthdays and family reunions. During Holy Week, we celebrated the Moriones Festival; I can recall the children crying at the sight of men and women dressed as Roman soldiers. Flashes of color would scatter across the streets—from the trinkets peddled on the sidewalks to the soldiers’ breastplates, capes, and spears.

Away from the plaza, the streets were so narrow that we had to walk in pairs to make room for cars speeding by. We’d pass by a knot of tricycle drivers barking at people for a ride, and residents playing chess. At the end of the street stood an elderly woman fanning a bunch of saging na saba on an open grill.

This is how I’ve always remembered Pola; its every street and crevice brimming with life. But when I visited last year, I found myself looking at empty streets. Under lockdown, the town came to a standstill: overtaken by fatigue, the crowd and chatter had moved out of the streets and the Moriones were nowhere to be seen.

As we drove through town, I saw an abandoned house covered in wooden slats, bearing a sign saying “Farmacia Raymundo.” My father pointed at the structure and told me it was built between the Spanish and American rule. “Dapat i-preserve ito ng gobyerno,” he said. Then he drove straight and took a tight turn, into a street where a cluster of ancestral houses stood. The arches, balconies, and capiz windows made it seem like we had entered a Spanish colonial village.

Farmacia Raymundo, an abandoned pharmacy located in the town proper of Pola

I was ten years old the first time I noticed the ancestral houses. There was a fiesta in town, and my cousins and I spent the whole afternoon in the perya, placing bets on a game of children’s roulette. These carnivals came rarely, so we never minded staying out late when they did. By the time we decided to head home, it was already dark and our pockets were heavy with coins and candy.

Our uncle’s house wasn’t very far, but we had to walk past the “haunted houses” that sprung in the neighborhood. Their roofs were starting to fall, their walls were flaking, and the capiz shells on their windows reflected the harsh light of the moon.

It was quiet as we walked past the houses; the only sounds we could hear were our footsteps and the cacophony of crickets. Trailing behind me, my cousins started chanting lines from a Pinoy horror film: “May uwi si Nanay, si Nanay sa bahay…” Over and over again.

A chilling breeze blew and rattled the banderitas that hung across the streets, just as the sound of a creaky floorboard echoed from inside one of the houses. Without looking at each other, we ran as fast as we could, our hard-earned coins and candy tossing out from our pockets.

While we still visited the perya when it came, we never took that route again—until that day of our short visit to Pola. I was drawn to the houses, hoping a young lady in a traje de mestiza would come out in the azotea. Under the midday sun, the houses didn’t look as haunted as I thought.

If only these terracotta walls could talk.

Edgar Genabe used to live in one of those ancestral houses. A fourth-generation member of the Genabe clan, many of his forefathers served as Pola’s chieftains in the past. He lived in the Genabe House for over ten years before pursuing an education in Manila. He’s since returned in 2007 and works at the municipal government.

"Dito sa Oriental Mindoro, ang Pola lang ang [may] maraming [ancestral houses] na naka-kumpol," he says. "Sa ibang bayan, may makikita ka, pero hindi siya yung nasa isang lugar lang.”

Like many ancestral houses in Pola, the Genabe House was built in the early 1900s: the two-story residential house of Edgar’s great-grandfather Don Vicente Vargas Genabe, a cabeza de barangay of Pueblo de Pola. Though it’s undergone renovations since then, the house retained its upper wooden floor and capiz-shell ventanillas, as well as the main staircase that leads visitors to the sala mayor, or main living room.

As a child, the sala used to be Edgar's playground; the elders forbade the children to play by the sea for fear that they might drown.

Among other things, Edgar remembers how scary the house felt: the way the floorboards would creak whenever he walked, the life-sized altar of the Mater Dolorosa (Mother of Sorrows) frightening him whenever the lights went out. "Tumatakbo ako palayo kasi natatakot ako, especially pag gabi, madilim. Wala namang [electricity] sa Pola noon."

Edgar is not a historian in the strictest sense, but he is a collector of history nonetheless: as a hobby, he has documented the town’s history, keeping track of every presidente municipal, mayor, and vice mayor to govern Pola.

Under lockdown, Pola came to a standstill: the crowd and chatter had moved out of the streets, and the Moriones were nowhere to be seen.

In the years he’s spent working in government, Edgar has collected various artifacts immortalizing stories and events from Pola that few people know about—including myself. He told me about how former President Manuel Quezon used to work as the third fiscal of Mindoro, showing me pages from an antique yearbook written by Macario Landicho. He also showed me a black and white photo of his grandfather, then-mayor Manuel Ramos Genabe shaking hands with Manuel Quezon in Calapan City on May 24, 1939.

As of today, Edgar has over 1,400 pages of research about Pola. He says there’s no special reason why he’s fond of sifting through century-old photographs and documents about the town: “Personal lang; naisipan ko lang [gawin],” he says. “Wala ka [rin kasing] makitang written documents tungkol sa Pola.”

The ancestral house of Don Vicente Vargas Genabe, the cabeza de barangay of Pueblo de Pola in the 1900s.

The last time I visited Pola, I could only glimpse these ancestral houses from the outside. A few blocks away from the Genabe House stands the Raymundo House: a grand structure with a green and light yellow facade, and a roof supported by columns. Few know that this was the residential house of Maestro Guillermo Raymundo, a cabeza de barangay in the early 1900s. He was also a teacher of the Spanish alphabet. In the 1960s, his descendant, physician Dr. Leon Montejo Raymundo, also lived in the house. Now that I think about it, Dr. Raymundo would’ve also likely owned the abandoned pharmacy I saw earlier.

A stone’s throw away from the Genabe House is the Divino House; its upper floors still dominated by wood and capiz shell windows. The ground floor, however, has been converted to a commercial and residential space.

The house belonged to former Municipal Health Officer Dr. Galicano Asinas Divino. Called “the people’s doctor,” he was well-known for attending to patients whenever they’d knock at his door, even at the stroke of midnight. When he died in 1972, they say mourners filled the streets for his funeral; the line stretching across town from the church to the cemetery.

Under the midday sun, the houses didn’t look as haunted as I thought.

Near the plaza along Quijano Street stands the Venturanza House, also built in the 1900s. The two-story residential house has black and brown exteriors these days—a big change from the bright pink paint it sported a few years ago. Up close, the capiz windows look almost six feet high. It was the home of former Municipal Mayor Roseo L. Venturanza and his family.

The one I was most drawn to was the Martinez House—located just across the Genabe House, a few meters from the shore. Though a bit smaller and closer to the ground than other ancestral houses, it features two floors, sliding capiz windows, and terracotta stone blocks reminiscent of a bahay na bato.

The Martinez House is said to have served as a garrison for the Japanese soldiers in the early years of World War II, though nobody knows the full story. No one lives there anymore. If only these terracotta walls could talk.

The coastal town of Pola is the second smallest municipality in the province of Oriental Mindoro.

As a coastal town, Pola is found where the land meets the sea. Picturesque as it is, the salty sea air also poses a risk to the integrity of these houses, particularly those just a few meters from the water.

“Saltwater [poses a problem] for heritage structures in Pola,” says Engr. Jerome Galler-Pascual who specializes in the restoration work of heritage structures. Engr. Galler-Pascual is part of the Heritage Conservation Society’s Board of Trustees, advocating for the protection and preservation of the country’s cultural heritage.

“Seawater contains salt, which [can] damage the materials of old structures there,” he explains, citing the different effects it can have on different types of materials. The salt carried by strong ocean breezes can corrode the materials used in brick and mortar masonry, making stone materials weaker and leaving behind white stains.

Saltwater also causes metal materials to rust and corrode over time. On wood, it causes a process called delignification, or the “fuzzy wood scenario”: salt seeps through the wood and corrodes the core material, affecting its structural integrity.

But Engr. Galler-Pascual reminds me that there’s a reason these houses were built in this precarious location. “We can’t just say, bakit itinayo ng mga ninuno natin ang mga bahay nila [dito]—syempre, nandyan [kasi] ang trade and commerce. [Another] advantage is that it provides a good vista.”

Early civilizations thrived near bodies of water, so heritage houses found along coastal areas aren’t new. Still, they also aren’t too common.

“Very rare yang ganyan; it’s like Hoan in Vietnam or... Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima, a water villa for the ocean god in Japan,” he says. “If the same pattern happens for Pola, it [can be] very good for tourism for their locality.”

This is how I remember Pola; its every street and crevice brimming with life and energy.

Ideally, preventive maintenance is done to keep these heritage houses from deteriorating. But since the owners shoulder their own maintenance expenses, there’s limited budget for the repairs necessary to keep them in tiptop shape.

As typhoons get stronger, these houses also become more vulnerable to wind and rain each year. To adapt, Engr. Galler-Pascual suggests disaster risk reduction programs: “Do an audit of these heritage structures [to] know ano ang current state. Map it out, then do proper intervention.”

Depending on what each house is made of, there are also different ways to maintain its integrity. Engr. Galler-Pascual says the general rule is to regularly rinse the facade with freshwater, to prevent salt deposits from accumulating. For houses made of brick and mortar, a “lime wash” or “palitada”—a mineral surface coating made of lime—can be applied to prevent structures from holding extra moisture. Laminates and lacquer-type coatings can be applied to wooden materials, as well, to prevent saltwater from seeping through. Metallic materials can use corrosion-resistant paint, as long as it’s compatible to the historic material used.

In the long run, though, a conservation management plan made with the local government is still the best way to go.

Engr. Galler-Pascual explains that these houses are part of our tangible heritage: physical manifestations of the past where intangible heritage—history, culture, memories—can be found. It's necessary to conserve both to form a sense of identity.

“At the end of the day, it’s is really a synergetic effort. [It’s not just] flushing out the saltwater, checking the wood [and] the metal—that’s the technical part. Kelangan meron ding policy-making and implementation of an effective conservation management plan,” he says.

Inside the Genabe Ancestral House; the dining room and main staircase that leads visitors to the sala mayor or main living room.

To preserve the ancestral houses in Pola, the local government plans to declare this area a heritage zone, hoping to turn it into what Edgar calls the “Vigan of the South.”

The roads inside the heritage zone will be laid with bricks and old-fashioned street lamps to give off a nostalgic vibe. The local government is also planning to formally enter into an agreement with the ancestral houses’ owners.

In the Philippines, the National Cultural Heritage Act was passed in 2009 to encourage cities and municipalities to set up heritage zones: areas within a particular city or town with structures and resources that deserve special designation for their historical and cultural value. Under this, the zone with ancestral houses in Pola will be identified and protected by the local government.

There are still several things that Pola needs to do before this—from crafting heritage laws to mapping cultural areas. The process will take time, effort, and resources from both the local government and Pola’s residents, who are expected to take part in the conservation.

A heritage status could lead to financial incentives and a tourism boost for Pola. People who walk past these ancestral houses will learn to appreciate the history and heritage of the town.

These houses are part of our tangible heritage: physical manifestations of the past where intangible heritage—history, culture, and memories—can be found.

For Pola resident Atty. Harry Jaminola, who also lives in an ancestral house along Senatin Street, the fact that these structures are still standing means the people of Pola should be proud of the structures built by their ancestors.

“The younger generation should be concerned about these old houses. Even if a certain house does not belong to them, they should help in safekeeping it in little ways… especially the people who occupy leadership positions in Pola,” he says. “They should be conscious of [this shared] heritage dahil wala namang ibang tutulong sa Pola kung hindi mga taga-Pola din lang. Pwede pa natin mapaganda ang Pola.”

It will be exciting to see what Pola’s ancestral houses will be repurposed into. A museum or bed-and-breakfast, perhaps? Maybe a restaurant or souvenir shop. The streets would be free of entangled cable wires, and the town proper would glow at night like it used to.

While it wouldn’t hurt to take inspiration from Vigan—it is one of Asia’s most successful heritage zones, after all—Pola also has to come into its own, showcasing what makes the town unique rather than its similarities to other heritage towns. The remote location, for example, could protect the town’s tourist attractions from being exploited. And as Engr. Pascual says, it’s rare to find heritage houses along coastal areas like Pola.

“Ang Pola lang ang bayan sa Oriental Mindoro [ang] hindi mo madadaanan from Calapan to Bulalacao,” Edgar says. “Meron kaming kaibigan, sabi niya, ‘Naikot ko na ang Oriental Mindoro, pero hindi ko pa nakikita ang Pola… Saan ba yun?’ [Sabi ko,] paloob pa.”

Only time will tell how the plans of creating a heritage zone in Pola will take shape. But until then, I’ll keep coming back to traverse its gentle slopes, go out on the beach and see a glimpse of the ancestral houses. It’s a place filled with memories of my childhood, and a place rich in history.

Like Edgar, I also hope to do something to keep its heritage alive and thriving. This way, children playing in the perya late at night won’t run away from ancestral houses anymore, but rather take a peek at the cracked walls and heavy wooden doors, until they too would have a better understanding of the town’s glorious past.

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