Of Turtles and Men

from the website — http://banuaan.tripod.com

by Vicente Ll. Ramirez, Jr., Chair, Baao Historical Society

Baao ba-oo
Baao freshwater turtle myth

Legend has it that early in the colonial era a Spaniard came to a fishing village by a lake and asked a local how the turtle, found abundantly in the area, was called. The quick answer was “Ba-o-o.” Henceforth, the Spaniards referred to the village as “Bao.” Over time the name evolved into “Baao.” Whether the story is true or not, who knows? And, who cares? It’s a cute little story with which we turtles, I mean, Baaoeños, can explain the origin of our town’s name. Consider the towns and cities around the world; many trace their names to a legend. [Our sympathies go to John Steinbeck’s Salinas, CA. Thanks for his ‘mice,’ though.] Self-styled critics of the town (oh, yes, we have an abundance of those, too) deride Baao of slow economic progress and blame it on what they claim to be a laid-back character of the townsfolk. They say it’s because the name “Baao” is taken from the turtle, which moves about very slowly. For that reason they abhor the name and wish to change it with another, like “Barlin.” Obviously, they forget that the persevering turtle beat the speedy hare in a running race. They forget that the smart turtle outwit the monkey into dropping it into its very habitat, the river. That the turtle is so emotional it weeps. That the turtle is so resourceful and ingenious it has its own impregnable armor, a built-in house, if you will. That the Triassic amphibian is so adaptable and resilient it has survived since 250,000,000 years ago – pre-dating the Jurassic period. Where have all the brawny dinosaurs gone? Patience. Perseverance. Wit. Passion. Sensitivity. Resourcefulness. Ingenuity. Adaptability. Resilience. These are the same traits characterizing the Baao persona we all should be proud of and grateful for. At first blush, the idea of replacing Baao with Barlin, is indeed very tempting. Who can go against honoring our dearly beloved Bishop Jorge Barlin? For over four centuries, almost until the very end of their colonial rule at the close of the 19th century, the Spanish friars lorded it over the islands and never could a Filipino secular clergyman as much as aspire to be a parish priest, much less a bishop (!) – until Jorge I. Barlin became one. From Baao. Msgr. Jorge Imperial Barlin
The first Filipino Bishop Led by Gregorio Aglipay, a splinter group from the Catholic Clergy had formed a new congregation and cunningly tried to bring along with it properties of the Catholic Church. Had they succeeded, the 1Philippine Independent Church could be the dominant sect in the country today. Who eloquently argued in the courts against and repulsed the Aglipayans’ obstinate attempt? Barlin. Of Baao. To lure the bishop into dropping the Church’s fight against the annexation moves of the Aglipayans, Barlin was even offered the schismatic church’s bishopric of Sorsogon. Msgr. Jorge’s prompt and firm answer was a perfunctory, 2“Marhay pa ‘kong maglampaso na sana sa tunay na simba’an,” in a characteristic Baaoeño twang. That remark told much not only of the strong faith, but also of the humility, of the man. Inspired by the heroism of Rizal, our brother Filipinos’ patriotism finally saw the dawning of a new nation at the end of the Philippine revolution. A new constitution had been written at the Malolos Congress in 1898, and in 1906 the First Philippine Assembly convened. In the rosy atmosphere of the new legislature’s opening session, I could vividly picture a patrician-looking clergyman, with a deep voice resonating in the jam-packed hall, giving a stirring invocation in impeccable Spanish, eliciting ovation from the entire assembly.

Barlin Monument by Anton Mapa
Barlin Monument by Anton Mapa

Who gave that distinguished invocation? Jorge I. Barlin. From Baao.

Another of Barlin’s outstanding achievements was his having served the equivalent of a provincial governor of Sorsogon when the Spanish Governor and his staff, in the wake of the revolt, abandoned the province. As Vicar Forane of Sorsogon, Msgr. Barlin effectively held both secular and clerical powers3 – an anachronism in today’s sacredly held principle of separation of church and state! He was then no different from the King of England. Barlin, from Baao.

No question, Bishop Barlin deserves a high place in Philippine history. A city street in Naga is named (not renamed, mind you) Barlin. The parishioners of Baao, under the stewardship of Fr. Demetrio Martirez, erected the Jorge Barlin Monument. There is a 4Barlin Debating Society at the Ateneo de Naga (its first members were then high school students and twins Fabian B. Gumabao and Jorge G. Barlin.)

The Baao Historical Society had the Barlin Monument declared a National Historical Landmark by the National Historical Institute and had funds allocated for its continuing upkeep. The Society, with Alfredo I. Perdon as Executive Director, also puts up an annual Barlin Festival. Kaiba, thanks to the strong leadership of then President Rullyn Garcia and the generous support of many benefactors, redeveloped the Barlin park that the townspeople now enjoy.

Those are just but a few undertakings to honor and preserve the heritage of Bishop Barlin. No doubt, he deserves more – a lot more. But, to honor him by renaming the town Barlin is to honor him at the expense of four centuries of Baao legacy.

People who are history-conscious want to preserve things. It is highly likely that if Bishop Barlin, who certainly had a deep sense of history, were still alive today, he would have been the first to raise a howl against the idea of a name change.

Baaoeños are a self-effacing lot, even to a fault sometimes. Barlin was no exception, as indicated by his rejection of the Aglipayan scheme. So, rename Baao after him? I can almost hear the monsignor retorting something like, “Marhay pa ‘kong ngaranan ‘ba-o-o’ na sana, kaysa Baao ngaranan Barlin.”

The premise of that name change idea, that Baao’s economic progress is slow, is absolutely false. The fact is, the town’s economy is strong and dynamic. Its human resource is extremely talented and deeply religious, its populace ever so vibrant (read: awake 24/7?).

Which town can boast of such record as the following?

  • Baao is a net “exporter” of rice, coconut products, fruits, and vegetables;
  • Three times already the Department of Agriculture has accorded its national award for the Most Outstanding Farmer of the Year to Baaoeños;
  • We also were pre-eminent in the production of tilapia fingerlings and helped spawn tilapia culture all over the country, thanks to the pioneering work of brothers Apolonio and the late Job Bizuña;
  • The town is the Philippines’ largest producer of chicken eggs south of Manila; kudos go to Tiong Greg, Mayor Mel, and the rest of the Gaite brothers;
  • Business executives deeply rooted in Baao can be found in the boardrooms of some of the top corporations in the country;
  • With its townsfolk’s quest for higher education, Baao prides itself for having one of the highest per capita professionals in the country;

Our vocabulary is superbly rich; just one example: In English it may be simply “rain” or “drizzle”; we can be more precise with uran, dunag, ragiri, tagiti, toro-toro, or ambon ;

Our keen sense of humor allows us to pick up really hilarious gems; sample: Overheard in the Allan Theater [in Iriganon accent]: ” Simtun, si Max (Alvarado) tinataba sana sa kalulugus;”

In the field of sports and athletics, we are second to none in this part of Bicol; and, In music and the arts, need we say more?

Second of all, Baaoeños are not at all laidback. Although peace-loving, the valor and nobility of the Baaoeño came to the fore when the small village then resisted the Spanish conquistadores as early as just 50 years from Magellan’s setting foot in Mactan. That badge of honor was again earned when our forefathers engaged the American forces in the fierce Battle of Agdangan in 19005.

Baaoeños are the competitive, go-getter, and take-charge types. The town deservedly takes pride in its roster of great achievers, most of whom are themselves a further testament to the Baaoeño as a brave freedom fighter; they include (in no particular order):

luis g dato marker
luis g dato marker
  1. Jorge I. Barlin: Popularly known simply as the first Filipino bishop, albeit he was a cleric steeped in the law, a spiritual and temporal leader, and champion of the Catholic Church;
  2. Luis G. Dato: A top-notch journalist, historian, academician, strong oppositionist to Martial rule, and a national poet laureate;
  3. Juan B. Guevara: A feisty officer and a gentleman, Philippine Military Attache to Japan, and Commanding General of the Philippine Air Force,
  4. Tai Babilonia6: The daughter of Constancio Babilonia from Baao who migrated to Los Angeles, CA after the war, Tai’s claim to fame is that of a world figure ice skating champion in the ’70s and ’80s. Highly favored to take the gold in the 1980 Winter Olympics, her skating partner, Randy Gardner, suffered a groin injury and the highly favored pair withdrew from the finals before an anxious worldwide audience;

    Tai was swamped by over 10,000 fan mail and the bittersweet experience ironically catapulted her to even greater popularity. Her road to success was truly not without obstacles, but she overcame those through hard work and a relentless pursuit of excellence. Tai approaches life with the same passion and dedication that brought her skating fame.

    Turning professional, she featured in many ice skating shows in the U.S. and abroad. She has attained success in clothing and jewelry design and has even come out with a children’s book and, lately, a coffee table book of her story with Randy Gardner. A coveted speaker on themes like developing the discipline to succeed, overcoming life’s obstacles, and achieving a lasting healthy relationship, she frequently guests on radio and TV talk shows and was featured in a life documentary on national TV. Tai untiringly gives herself in the support of organizations helping inner-city youths and children with AIDS,
  5. Its priests and nuns who constitute the Philippines’ largest source of religious vocation, next to Oas, Albay,
  6. Four Presidents, five Deans, and scores of professors of leading universities in the country,
  7. Jack P. Arroyo: Acclaimed political guru, bank executive, Commissioner of the Social Security System, Vice Governor of Camarines Sur,
  8. Joker P. Arroyo: Fierce opponent of the Marcos dictatorship, vanguard of human rights, trial lawyer par excellence, Executive Secretary during the Aquino Administration, a no-nonsense Congressman then two-term Senator of the Republic (despite not being a politician),
  9. Joaquin G. Bernas: Bar topnotcher, staunch advocate of civil liberties, educator, Provincial of the Philippine Province of the Society of Jesus, a regular amicus curae of the Supreme Court, the country’s foremost constitutionalist (1987 Constitutional Commission Member) – a legal luminary, and

Still counting7.

The list will not cease to grow; it should not…unless some other-meaning friends change the town’s name after a person. If they do, every Baaoeño’s achievement will not be seen to go over the bar that that person had raised. Retain the name and the Baaoeño’s horizon for greatness goes beyond the meadows of Binanuaanan to the west and hills of Caranday to the east. Honoring a man with a town’s name limits the greatness of the man to the town’s, and the town’s greatness to the man’s.

If, for some luck, some ‘Barlinon’ should surpass the greatness of Barlin, what would prevent the future from re-naming the town again after that person? When will it end? Why should we go the way of Azcarraga? Of Avenida Rizal? Of Dewey Boulevard? And scores of others swept into the dustbin of memories?

Any serious attempt to change the town’s name will be divisive of its citizenry and will set the town in fruitless debate. There are more pressing matters the town should worry about and channel its efforts on. This very moment we urgently need to address the constant flooding due to the denudation of our watershed and the silted waterways, the drug menace, the expensive yet unreliable power utility, and the high cost of tertiary education, among others. We are therefore endlessly grateful to the Sangguniang Bayan for its enlightened discernment of the issue. If my memory serves me right, I believe a proposal to change Baao into Barlin had been filed with the municipal council a few years ago; thank God, our kagawads had the wisdom, the alacrity to reject it.

Changing the name can result in an identity crisis of the town and its citizenry. That is not to mention the trouble of having to explain the new name or to insert an obligatory “(formerly Baao)” note after the new name. Moreover, the tremendous expense of changing registers, addresses, legal documents, etc. should instead be put to much better use.

The only valid reason for a change is to honor Bishop Barlin. But, there are many, and better, ways to honor the man. Why compromise the legacy of four centuries of Baao history?

Let me share with you what some blue-blooded Baaoeños have to say about the name change in response to a “text survey” that I casually conducted (responses were in SMS):

  • Atty. Justino G. Bernas, retired business and government executive, now savoring an enviable status of a gentleman-farmer, laughs it off with, “If that happens we’ll have a West Barlin and an East Barlin.
  • Fabian B. Gumabao, macu-ama sa tuhod ni Msgr. Jorge mismo, nagsabi, “Baao should have its own identity intact and separate. Escuelan na bago puede pa, anything with its own history, di puede.
  • Atty. Manuel B. Gaite, Senior Deputy Executive Secretary, Office of the President, career government technocrat, argues, “Baao is already very much a part of our lives and story; besides, it’s unique. Barlin can be remembered some other way.
  • Dr. Albino Bismonte, Jr., pediatrician, enjoying his retirement in St. Mark’s, Florida: “I love my birthplace so dearly I christened my leisure boat “Baao” and my favorite car’s license plate bears the letters B, A, A, and O.8
  • Felix B. Imperial, a Mugmates/Blackjets stalwart and highly successful businessman in Staten Island, NY: “Bishop Barlin was an Imperial, too, but I’d rather that Baao be forever Baao.
  • Sancho B. Bacagan, marketing man and hard-core Mugmate, has a simple yet loaded question, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
  • On board “R.S. Baao,” Dr. Jun Bismonte pursues his passion for fishing off the western coast of Florida. Of course, he learned the tricks as a young lad in Qui Palna.
  • Fruto Ll. Ramirez, S.J., Dean at the Loyola School of Theology, sent the following email response, which I quote:

“References to “Bao” (Baao) are found in three historical documents published in Emma Helen Blair & James Alexander Robertson (eds.), The Philippine Islands: 1493-1803 (52 vols.; Cleveland, Ohio: 1903).

[1] In Blair-Robertson, The Philippine Islands, vol. 8, pp. 96-141:

‘Account of the Encomiendas in the Philipinas Islands – A detailed account of the encomiendas in the island of Luçon and the other Philipinas Islands, both those belonging to his Majesty and to private individuals, pacified and hostile, with instruction and without it; with the names of the encomenderos, the number of tributaries in each encomienda, the number of ministers of instruction in them, and the number they lack and need; the capitals and the alcaldes-mayor established therein, who maintain peace therein, and governs them in peace, justice, and civilization, in their present condition. May the last, one thousand five hundred and ninety-one.’ [Note the date: 31 May 1591]

“The list of encomiendas was ordered by Gov. Dasmariñas and sent by him to the King of Spain on June 20, 1591. Among the encomiendas listed is Bao [together with Nabua, Bula, and Buy (Buhi?)].

“The pertinent passage reads:

‘Bao: Minor son of Sebastian Perez – These fathers of Nabua visit also the encomienda of the minor son of the late Sebastian Perez, called Bao. It has one hundred and seventy-six tributes, or seven hundred and four persons. Like Nabua, the capital, it used to have four friars, but now has not more than two. These encomiendas are not well administered, but five religious would be sufficient for it.’ (The Philippine Islands, vol. 8, p. 119)

[2] In Blair-Robertson, The Philippine Islands, vol. 28, pp. 104-162:

‘The Religious Estate in the Philippines – [This survey of religious affairs in the islands is taken from the Chronicas de la Apostolica Provincia de San Gregorio de religiosos descalzos de N. S. P. San Francisco en las islas Philipinas (Manila, 1738) of the Franciscan chronicler Fray Juan Francisco de San Antonio, vol. 1 pp. 172-175; 190-210; 214-216; 219; 220; 223-226]’

“The pertinent passage reads:

‘657. The discalced Franciscan religious of this province of San Gregorio have administration in what they own in that bishopric, in a convent of the village of Naga, contiguous to the city of Nueva Caceres, in the province of Camarines. A commissary-provincial lives there, and they have a good infirmary. They also minister in the villages of Canaman, Quipayo, Milaord, Minalabag, Bula, and Bao, Naboa, Yraga, Buhi, Libong, Polangi, Oas, Ligao, Guinobatan, Camarines, Cagsaua, and Ligmanan, where they minister to 52,555 souls.’ (The Philippine Islands, vol. 28, pp. 154-157)

[3] In Blair-Robertson, The Philippine Islands, vol. 28, pp. 163ff:

“Religious Condition of the Islands – [The following is from Historia general, by Juan J. Delgado, S.J. (written in 1751-54), pp. 141-158. The chapters here presented are from part I, book II.]

“The pertinent passage reads:

‘… In the province of Camarines, the convents and ministries of Naga, near the city of Nueva Caceres, the seat of the vicar-provincial, together with Canaman, Quipayo, Milaod, Minalambang, Bula, Bao, Naboa, Iraya, Buhi, Liban, Polangui, Oas, Liyao, Guinobatan, Camarines, Cagsaua, and Ligmanan…’ (The Philippine Islands, vol. 28, p. 168)”

It is noteworthy that the above references to Baao cited by Fr. Ramirez date back to 1591.

Paulix B. Robosa, professor at the Universidad de Sta. Isabel and our authority on local history, also emailed a two-page write-up entitled, “Why Change the Name Baao?” Paulix presents his own reasons against a name change and also provides a historical basis for the name BAAO going back even earlier, to 1576 – that’s 428 years ago. Moreover, the reference to Baao was not at all trivial, as you will read from the following excerpts from his essay, below (emphasis supplied):

“What of the name Baao? Aside from the fact that the name is stuck in millions of documents, history, literature, and registry books, mail and email addresses and the birthplace of many famous people, the Village of BAAO, has already earned its place of glory in history. The village is mentioned in Fray Gaspar de San Agustin’s book of 1698 as one of the three villages which resisted the entry of Spanish colonizers in Bicol in 1576. This not only made the name BAAO legendary three hundred years ago, but of historic importance today. So, for whatever the reason, the town of BAAO always takes ascendancy because it took a name for itself so far back in history and for the nobility of the cause by which she earned it.

“What name would be better than Baao? Perhaps, the name of an illustrious son – Msgr. Jorge I. Barlin? To change the name of a town for a famous son is not an uncommon practice and many towns and provinces have had varying degrees of success and results with the change of name. But does it hurt if you don’t change the name of a place? Calamba has the more reason to change its name. It has a name of vague origins but it has a famous son – Jose Rizal – yet we still have Calamba, Laguna, birthplace of Jose Rizal.

“If this move is simply to honor a great man, which Barlin is, I suggest we spend more time and money in knowing him, preserving his legacy, and making his good qualities known to more Baaoeños so more of us can identify with him and emulate his greatness.

“Even if I shared the dislike and misconceptions about the name Baao, I wouldn’t dream of changing her name. Would you, if you loved your parents, change your family name if you could? I believe the great Bishop would not do, too. Perhaps, he might even object to this ill-conceived plan of renaming his birthplace. I can almost hear him retort, ‘May the light of the Lord illumine your way so you can see the precipice unto which you are hastening with great strides.’

“Our town is a cradle of greatness because her sons and daughters manage to rise to great heights even if they come from such a simple and humble town with a simple and humble name. Do we dare change that?”

The answer is a resounding “NO(!),” Paulix, friend. Not that we love Barlin less, nor do we love Baao more. It’s that Baao and Barlin need not be mutually exclusive! Both should have their rightful places in our town’s history, in our hearts, and in our minds.

My strongest argument in favor of “Baao” is paradoxically a fallacy in logic. It is something personal to me, an argumentum ad hominem. I’m sure it is to you, too, for Baao runs in our veins and resides in our psyche. We breathe, we eat, we sleep, we dream, we cry, and we laugh Baao.

Yes, we live Baao.

And, yes, we should and shall die…Baao.       [vlr.04]

1the hallmark case is now permanently recorded in Philippine jurisprudence as Barlin vs. Vicente Ramirez (no relation to this article’s author).
2from oral family history according to Fabian B. Gumabao, great grandson of Bishop Barlin.

3Robosa, Paulix B., letter to the author, November 2004.
4Founded in the early 60’s by the late Fr. james O’Brien, S.J. who, like Fr. Raul Bonoan, S.J., the late President of the Ateneo de Naga University, was an avid fan of Barlin and to whose heart Baao and Baaoeños were very close.

5Robosa, Paulix B., “Battle of Agdangan,” 2000-2001 Kaiba Yearbook.
6The longer resume is meant to introduce Tai Babilonia to readers ‘meeting’ her for the first time. For more about this outstanding lady, please visit her website.

World champ skating pair, Tai Babilonia and Randy gardner. No doubt, Tai’s facial features are that of a Babilonia; but, who could imagine a nobo quin Baao would be a world skating champion and a celebrity in the U S of A?

7Above list comprises only those we know from the turn of the 20th century. It will be an awesome yet fascinating research work to find out more about Baao and its outstanding sons and daughters from the late 16th to the 19th centuries.
8The streets of Chicago have given way to Dr. Jun Bismonte’s car proudly proclaiming, “BAAO.” The ’37’ is the vanity part – his age, says Romy Quiñones.

Stephen Cenon
Stephen Cenon

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