Bontoc, Mountain Province (circa 1920s-1940s)
Around the early 1900s, my father, Felipe Belen, joined the U.S. Pacification Campaign and was assigned to the province of Ilocos Sur. His first assignment was Candon where he met Fermina Cariño. They fell in love and got married. Their first child, Amparo (Manang Amparing), was born in Candon in 1905.
After a few years in Candon, my father, “Tatang,” was transferred to Lubuagan where Cirilo (Manong Ilong) was born in 1908. From Lubuagan, he was assigned to Bontoc. While working as a soldier, he and my mother (Nanang), wanted to set up a general merchandise store so they decided to settle in Bontoc.
Tatang looked for the best location of their store and bought a lot in the center of Bontoc Poblacion, in front of the market. He and Nanang built a two-story brick house. The first story became the store and the second story became our residence. Behind the store, there were two bedrooms with one bathroom. The second story had five bedrooms with one bathroom. There was a bay window at the back of the house. From there, I could see our garden planted with cacao, coffee, santol, and macopa trees. At the side of the house, there were hedges of lantana and in front were begonia plants. We had a piano and a manually-operated phonograph. I used to play long-playing record of Spanish songs. Nanang had a telephone installed. We also had a cook who was good in baking bread.
Our store was a combination of a grocery, hardware and department store. We sold foodstuff, canned goods, clothes, pots, pans, cloth materials, school supplies, hardware goods and many others.
I was born in Bontoc in 1919. My other siblings were also born in Bontoc. My sister, Demetria, died when she was three years old. Eliseo, (Manong Lising) was prematurely born in1913; Francisca Luz (Manang Luz) in1915; Gaspar (Manong Gaspar) in 1916; and Honesto (Manong Estong) in 1918.
Nanang was a tall, poised and well-trimmed woman. She used to dress up in her saya and kimona and tied her long hair in a knot at the back (nakapingol.) She focused her time on the store and thought of the goods to be sold. Most of the time, she watched over the store. Sometimes, when Nanang took a siesta after lunch, she assigned Manong Estong and me to be watchers. We would play sigsigking (hopscotch) in front of the house. The roads in Bontoc then were all dirt roads.
Goods were selling fast at the store. To help Nanang, Tatang resigned as a soldier. They needed helping hands and wanted to put up branches in other parts of the Mountain Province like Lubuagan, Banaue and Kiangan. So, Tatang went to Santa Rosa, Nueva Ecija, and brought along some relatives when he returned home. Nanang also brought some of her cousins from Candon. Our relatives took charge of the stores that were set up in Lubuagan, Banaue and Kiangan. Many of our relatives later settled in Bontoc.
Nanang went to Tagudin, Ilocos Sur and San Fernando, La Union to buy goods for the store. From Bontoc, they passed through Cervantes. There were only mountain trails then and she traveled with three or more ox driven carts or cariton. It took two to three weeks before she arrived home. Tatang also went to Manila to buy goods.
When the mountain trail was widened, Nanang bought a truck. She used to bring me with her when she went to San Fernando to buy goods. During the rainy season, I would cling tightly to her as the truck passed the road with the precipice below.
Together with my older brothers, Manong Gaspar and Manong Estong, I attended Grades 1 through 7 at the Bontoc Central School. Every recess, our teachers asked us pupils to get stones from the Chico River. We carried these back to the school. The stones became the stonewall surrounding the school. We were taught Arithmetic, English, Spelling and Reading. Our teachers used English as the medium of instruction. I was good in spelling. We learned sewing, gardening and cooking in Home Economics. For our Physical Education, we had volleyball, softball, and track and field. I enjoyed track and field, and volleyball.
My classmates and schoolmates were Victoria Antero; Cristina Lacsamana, daughter of the provincial treasurer; Isabel Peredo-Gonzales, daughter of the assistant district engineer; and Celedonio Galo and Beatrice Galo.
I finished my elementary course up to grade 7 at the Bontoc Central School. For my first year high school, I studied at Kalinga Academy in Lubuagan. Manong Estong also finished his elementary school, grades 1 to 7, at Bontoc Central School. For his first year high school, he went to Saint Vincent’s High School then transferred to Kalinga Academy.
In March 1926, Tatang went to Manila to buy a car and look for other business opportunities. While they were returning to Bontoc with the car, they met an accident in Balitian. They were already near Bontoc when the car fell to the river bed. Tatang, another passenger and the driver died. Tatang was 45 years old.
I was seven years old when Tatang died and have vague memories of him. He used to bring me along when he went for a walk around town. He was always in “Barong Tagalog” - whether at home or outside. He was a quiet man. When he found out that his children did wrong, he would let them lie down on the floor and whip their buttocks. Almost every day, he heard mass at the Roman Catholic Church. Sometimes, he brought me along.
After Tatang’s death, Nanang continued with the store. She converted the second floor of our house into a hotel. We called it the “Belen Hotel.” This was the first and only hotel in Bontoc in 1926. There were seven bedrooms, five with double beds and two with single beds. On the ground floor, the back part of the store was made as the family’s living quarters. Nanang saw to it that all furniture and decorations were of excellent materials. Glass windows were decorated with beautiful and colorful curtains. The hotel had its own electricity.
During holidays and in the summertime, the hotel would be filled with American tourists, who came from Subic Naval Base and Clark Field Air Base. When the hotel overflowed with guests, even the family quarters were given up for the guests. From Bontoc, the tourists went to see the rice terraces in Banaue, Ifugao early in the morning. They returned to Bontoc in the late afternoon, stayed overnight and went home the next day. When guests were around, I was in charge of operating the phonograph.
In February 1934, Nanang developed pneumonia and died. There was no available medication for pneumonia then. With Nanang gone, one of the children took over the business. By this time, most of the Cariño Belen children left for Manila.
The Belen Hotel was rented out to an American married to a Filipina in 1937. The couple was Mr. and Mrs. Gill. Mr. Gill was the principal of Bontoc Central School. They rented the hotel for three years. In 1940, one of the Belen children took over the hotel again.
During the Second World War, almost all the buildings and houses in Bontoc were bombed. It was sad because most of these structures were made of bricks. Our hotel was burned. Our family business ended.
Later on, I left Bontoc for Manila and got married to Engineer Eulogio Galang from Sta. Rosa, Pampanga.
I’m the last of the Cariño Belen siblings who spent my childhood in Bontoc Poblacion. I remember those memorable years.
About the Author
Teodora Belen-Galang and her husband, the late Engineer and architect Eulogio Galang, lived most of their life in San Juan, Rizal. In the early 1960s, Engineer Galang was assigned to Baguio City as an architect at the Philippine Military Academy. They lived in Camp Allen, Baguio City for sometime until he was reassigned to Manila. Mrs. Galang now lives in San Juan, Metro Manila where her nieces, nephews and their children visit her.
Fe Belen-Ciriaco interviewed Teodora Belen-Galang, her only living paternal aunt, in December 2008 and January 2009. This article is the result.