When I think about Iloilo, my hometown, I always think about food.
When I left Iloilo more than a decade ago to live in Cebu with my little family, the airport was still in Mandurriao, which was very near the city, and had a short runway for select domestic flights. The airport was renamed the Iloilo International Airport and moved to Cabatuan, about 34km from Iloilo, and so I missed many flights back to Cebu.
But I always bring to my family kilos of batwan, a tiny fruit that we used as a souring ingredient; ginamos, which is a kind of shrimp paste; kadios, or pigeon pea—so my children will understand how home tastes like. These distinct ingredients that can be sourced only from our region are not just sustenance, but memories that connect me to my hometown.
My late grandfather, as part of our Sunday routine then, would treat us to a fancy meal in a restaurant by the beach. In the district of Villa de Arevalo can be found the best restaurants that serve the freshest seafood and the classic Ilonggo roasted native chicken. Every Sunday, we would drive for about half an hour or so to feast on dishes like lechon manok Bisaya; adobado nga pantat, catfish slow cooked in coconut milk, palm vinegar, and aswete; sinugba nga managat or grilled red snapper; kinilaw nga tangigue, mackerel ceviche with green mangoes; ginlusgosan nga krusan, pan-cooked christian crabs; tinola made from angel wing clams; lampirong, which were buttered scallops; and steamed talaba.
The restaurant’s structure is as basic as basic can get: It has bamboo walls with a nipa roof and black beach sand for floors. This unpretentious hut serves not just good food but an extraordinary and authentic dining experience. I may not have been conscious of it then, but the experience began during the long slow drive. We would talk about what food to order and recount our past meals in the place. We would recall if the oysters or scallops were fat and delectable last time we ate, or wonder if the angel wing clams were in season. We leave the city and anticipate the abundant feast that awaited us; this harvest from the land and seas of the Western Visayas.
And when we arrive in the restaurant, we would be greeted by the sea breeze, black beach sand, the sparkling sea, the view of the mountains of Guimaras.
Breakthrough Seafood Restaurant is one of the first to modernize the native seafood restaurant structure, making the dining experience upscale enough for tourists and Ilonggos. Its concrete walls, sleek and clean native interiors may look fancy and photographable, yet the food is just the way Ilonggos prefer their meals: fresh and folksy.
It is owned by Munding Robles, a marine biologist, and his wife Daday, a hotel restaurant management graduate. “Everything that goes on our menu must be approved by the wise elders who always go for the simple yet authentic flavor. Our bestsellers since we started in 1986 are still our bestsellers to this day. We don’t really have a secret ingredient or recipe, we just capitalize on freshness,” said Mia Robles-Ng, a second generation owner of Breakthrough who understands the Ilonggo foodie psyche. “We train our staff very well because we know the diners who come here have driven far. They’re escaping to relax and eat good food. So we make sure when they arrive, they feel right at home.” In this city, food is nourishment that is always shared, and the act of dining is not only for survival but also leisure and comradeship. What is delicious is that which is familiar, a flavor that prompts the self to remember, transporting it to a pleasurable serene state that makes one feel at home.
Chef Miguel Cordova, a young and exceptionally creative restaurateur believes that Ilonggo cuisine has a lot of history and is synonymous to our sense of place. “Our cuisine is very diverse, and it carries so much weight that it conjures Iloilo just by its name. For example, Lapaz batchoy and pancit Molo are iconic Ilonggo dishes named after its place of origin.”
His young and novel culinary ideas lead to a multifarious restaurant scene in the city. He owns three restaurants—Esca’s, a Filipino restaurant he named after his great-grandmother, who is his ultimate source of inspiration for cooking; Afriques, which is a hip Italian restaurant that serves good pasta and pizza; and the newest, Dova, a posh brunch café that serves continental cuisine like pancakes and waffles, salmon on toast, burgers and sandwiches. Fittingly, Dova is located where I first boarded an airplane, where I first left to have a taste of the bigger world outside my once sleepy hometown.
Every time I go home—which I do at least twice a year—new establishments pop up. New roads and new bridges make travelling from one place to another convenient, and I see more and more vehicles on the road. Concrete, air-conditioned malls sprout up everywhere, but so do walkable and bikeable open spaces like the Iloilo River Esplanade that outlines the banks of the magnificent Iloilo River. Like the water of this rehabilitated river, this city is moving and flowing, no longer stagnated.
The modernized Iloilo City Hall, completed in 2010, is contiguous to the heart of the old downtown district, the Plaza Libertad. It is in the plaza where the flag of the first Philippine Republic was raised in triumph after Spain surrendered Iloilo, her last capital in the Philippines. This historic space is a walkable distance from the centers of the colonial era: Fort San Pedro, its center of defense, Muelle Loney, its center of trade, and Calle Real, its illustrious commercial center. Surrounding the plaza are streets with iconic buildings and century old houses that still stand proud until this very day. They serve as tangible memories of the past glory of a bustling coastal city once decreed by the Queen Regent Maria Christina of Spain as La Muy Leal y Noble Ciudad—a most loyal and noble city. That earned the city its historical title, The Queen Regent’s City of the South, shortened colloquially to “The Queen City of the South.”
Growing up as a teen in Iloilo in the late 90s, I learned how this title was stripped from my hometown. In school, my history teacher declared that the name now belonged to Cebu, the new destination for multinational and foreign investors, which was the rising cosmopolitan metropolis next to Manila. Iloilo became an unexciting place in the eyes of young people like myself. When I passed by Calle Real every day on my way to school and I see these old colonial buildings, they never struck me as impressive or extraordinary. It is a common sight that is as familiar as the smell of the sea that permeates everywhere in this coastal city.
Left to Right: Located in the heart of Iloilo’s bustling Molo District, the Molo Church’s neo-gothic architecture signifies Iloilo’s Spanish-colonial history; A jeepney passes through the city's newest commercial district, Iloilo Business Park.
“When we build a road, it shouldn’t be only for cars. It is also for pedestrians, for bikers, for street lights, for trees,” <callout-alt-author>— Rock Drilon<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
It was during the mid-90s when the Iloilo City Cultural Heritage Conservation Council (ICCHCC) was formed, with the vision to protect and restore the city’s decaying cultural landmarks. Its vision and mission was to make Iloilo City the cultural capital of the Visayas, even if it is quite a tall order considering its rivalry with fast-developing Cebu. The initial group is a company of volunteers; Ilonggos who work in the public and private sectors of banking, academe, business, and even medicine. Founding council member Dr. Kristine Gaon Treñas spent her childhood in Panaderia de Molo, a century-old bakery that is one of the Iloilo’s landmarks. She says she was once unaware of the value of antique structures and artifacts around their ancestral home: “We see these things just lying there. In fact, we use them for our day-to-day chores like doing our laundry, and we thought it is nothing special because it is just part of our everyday life. Until artist friends from Manila like Patis Tesoro, people from outside would find them special and point this out to me. I started seeing these objects with a different set of eyes.”
This new vision inspired her and her colleagues in the ICCHCC to lobby for the preservation of the colonial buildings in Calle Real. Their efforts were recognized towards the end of the 90s when the local government of Iloilo administered a city ordinance appointing an executive committee to give juridical and official entity to the council. Every month of May, the council is involved in the celebration of Heritage Month that aims to raise public awareness of the Ilonggo culture and identity.
Dra. Treñas is proud of having the local government agree to the council’s proposal to enact local laws to protect the buildings in Calle Real and around the city from wanton demolition. Today, the council receives funding from the local government to record and catalog buildings that are over 50 years old, and they implement preservation guidelines. Barangays may report heritage sites in their vicinity like old structures and also century-old trees. The ICCHCC’s primary desire in its conception is to “arrest the continuing decay of heritage buildings and the decline of cultural appreciation amongst the youth.” An apt reminder today that applies to my naive consciousness in my girlhood.
Here’s one more memory. It was during my teens when the “mall culture” established its popularity in The Philippines. It seemed, at that time, everything happened inside a mall. After class and during our lunch break, my friends and I hung out in a mall. We met with suitors, played billiards, watched movies, and since we did not have phone cameras back then, we had our group portraits taken in a photo studio inside a multi-storied air conditioned mall. I can never forget how embarrassed I felt when my grandfather haggled with a saleslady for a pair of Nikes. I kept whispering to him over and over again, “This is a mall, Tatay. This isn’t Calle Real.” He never listened to me, of course. He never changed. He haggled every time he bought something, anything. If only he could walk with me around Calle Real today, he would have teased me: “Change has come.”
My daughter, a 7-year-old first grader, was made to explain in class the story behind Iloilo’s name. Her amused teacher wrote me a note saying she told them it was named after a river called Ilong-ilong by this “esplanade with a fire tree” where she jogged and watched the “skaters and sunset.” She convinced all of them that it is called Ilong-ilong because from the sky the river is shaped like a nose. I wrote her teacher back saying it is actually the landform that is nose-like but the imagery in a 7-year-old’s explanation is more marketable than mine. It amuses me how a river with an esplanade is her idea of Iloilo.
Ilong is the Hiligaynon term for nose, while Ilong-ilong means nose-like. According to UPV Professor Emeritus Dr. Leoncio Deriada, Hiligaynon is the lingua franca of the Western Visayas. It is an adopted common language from Kinaray-a (its mother language that is spoken in the southern towns of Iloilo Province, Antique, and most of Capiz) and Akeanon (spoken in Kalibo and Boracay). Outside our region, I always feel I have an advantage being an Ilongga because of the language I speak. I once attended a writers’ workshop hosted by a big university in Manila. My co-fellows and workshop panelists had this pre-existing impression that I am “malambing,” because my accent is soft and melodious to their ears. My Cebuano husband fell for this, too. After I introduced him to my family, he admitted it was on his bucket list to have an Ilongga girlfriend.
Having realized the value of language in one’s identity, writing, and love life, my native language is a gift I want to pass on to my kids. Aside from their trips to Iloilo during the summer, I read to them storybooks written in Hiligaynon because the love for language is stronger and memorable when it is shared as literature—a song, a poem, a riddle, or a story. Noel Galon de Leon is the kindred soul behind Kasingkasing Press, the publishing house responsible for the current upsurge of literature written in Hiligaynon, Kinaray-a and Akeanon. As an indie publisher, Noel is the sole force behind the publication process, from editing and layout, to marketing and distribution, as well as looking for funding.
Like the water of this rehabilitated river, this city is moving and flowing, no longer stagnated.
This progress happening in Iloilo is expansive. As architects and engineers aggressively build infrastructures that rapidly change its physicality, guardians of heritage persevere to make progress inclusive. Skyscrapers may rise in Megaworld but Ilonggos persist that new books in the native language are also written, century-old landmarks and trees are not demolished, and paintings by local artists will appear on new urban walls. Their civic spirit is inspiring and infectious. “When we build a road, it shouldn’t be only for cars. It is also for pedestrians, for bikers, for street lights, for trees,” said Ilonggo painter, cycling and culture advocate Rock Drilon. His inclusive mindset for progress prompted the recent flourishing of arts and culture in the city. It began with his efforts to actualize the Cinematheque Centre Iloilo. For Rock, a cinematheque is a setting where all kinds of art meet: visual, literary, music, performance, and film. This centre, for five years now, has functioned as a hub for Ilonggo artists from different disciplines and has hosted art talks and exhibits, poetry readings, writing workshops, art fora, and even bike tours. The movements and connections that Rock and his peers achieved in this venue have significant ripple effects.
Clockwise, L-R: Cinematheque founder Rock Drilon; The Cinematheque Centre Iloilo aims to be a nexus of various art disciplines; UP professor and artist Martin Genodepa curates the Iloilo Museum of Contemporary Art.
The first wave is the rising of 15 galleries-cum-alternative-art-spaces that brings the works of Ilonggo artists to the community and art collectors. The biggest one to date is the Iloilo Museum of Contemporary Art or ILOMOCA in the Iloilo Business Park. This beautiful space is a three-storey museum that houses the opulent collection of Ilonggo art patron Edwin Valencia, curated by UPV Vice Chancellor Martin Genodepa. Prof. Genodepa, an artist who sculpts and writes, meticulously arranged the artworks in sectional thematic assemblages so that the observant viewer is treated to an orchestrated visual narrative. This gallery is the first of its kind outside the country’s capital, housing works by local and international artists.
The second wave is the Ilonggo’s heightened fervor for biking not just as a hobby but as an advocacy. The CF4 bikers, a university-based bike group organizes a regular ride-for-a-cause called the “Sandwich Ride,” because they bike and hand out sandwiches to those who need a meal at night. The umbrella organization of all these cyclists, the Federation of Iloilo Cycling Organizations (FICO), celebrates Iloilo Bike Festival every month of May. One of its interesting activity is Art Bike, a tour on selected art galleries, which includes a stop at the Cinematheque and the iconic Museo Iloilo.
Having realized the value of language in one’s identity, writing, and love life, my native language is a gift I want to pass on to my kids.
Every Ilonggo student of my generation must have gone on a field trip to Museo Iloilo. I told my husband and kids on our first visit there that I do not recall the valuable display of fossils, native pottery, relics, or era photos. I have no memory of the place being a repository of my city’s rich heritage. What I can vividly remember, with great delight, were the carefree conversations and short pleasant walks with my best friends from my school Assumption-Iloilo to the Museo on one of those field trips. I share my experience to my daughter while we moved around the renovated gallery and took selfies. We posed for a family portrait to pay homage to this landmark and document its historical value to my hometown, to myself, and now my daughter’s. It is fascinating how growth compels one to remember and appreciate the past.
The most notable development that the urban shapers and heritage fighters achieved is the not a new Iloilo, but a new Ilonggo with good taste and new eye for progress and change. “The key to heritage conservation is the pride of place, the pride of identity. When every man, woman, and child, has that pride, the council can step back because the citizens take the cajoles for you.” Dra. Treñas refers to how civic-minded Ilonggos rallied to stop the demolition of the century old Molo Mansion to make space for a commercial hypermart. The proposal was junked and the battle was won. “It is strange that progress means to destroy the old to make way for the new. In Iloilo, we say, the past is always present.”
This story was originally published in GRID Volume 06.