The Alberto house and déjà vu

BY MARLEN V. RONQUILLO

Reading historian Ambeth Ocampo’s article on the Alberto ancestral house in Laguna brought me to the past right away: an old house in Lubao that was bought by the same developer currently negotiating to acquire the Alberto house and was moved—old tile by old tile—to a seaside town in Bataan.

The Laguna house was of historic value, connected to the life and times of the mother of the national hero. And when something concerns Rizal, who shaped him and what shaped him, the value is deemed priceless.

The old house in Lubao, bought by the developer who contracted the controversial tenements called
“Home along the Riles” and brought, “wooden plank by wooden plank and old tile by old tile” to a Bataan seaside resort town, was not a house where heroes lived. But the old house was a virtual mural of history.

That old house in Lubao relates to the topics of the old: the feudal structure, the Basques that settled in the country to own and run sugar mills and haciendas, the days of the landlords and the sharecroppers. It relates to something new and current: meritocracy and the singer Enrique Iglesias.

Can we really weave all of these things into the history of one seemingly obscure old house alone? Yes, and I will explain.

The old Lubao house was built by a couple, the late Dr. Wenceslao Vitug and Doña Juanita Arrastia Vitug. Doña Juanita Arrastia came from the landowning clan that descended from Basque adventurers. At one point in Philippine society, said an account, no one can be more beautiful that the Arrastia women.

Isabel Arrastia Preysler, the former wife of Julio Iglesias and who latter married into a family that is a member of the Spanish royalty, came from the Arrastias of Lubao. So is the current ambassador to the Vatican, Mercy Arrastia. International singer Enrique Iglesias is a son of Julio and Isabel. Some of the Arrastia women became movie stars themselves, even if only briefly. Others married matinee idols of an earlier generation. The wife of the late actor Mario Montenegro is an Arrastia.

Dr. Wenceslao Vitug, who was from a barrio of sharecroppers that was adjacent to the poblacion, was himself another story—an inspiring story of meritocracy. He preceded the “Poor Boy from Lubao” (former President Diosdado Macapagal) at the Pampanga High School. But he was more brilliant than the late president.

After excelling at the Pampanga High School, Wenceslao Vitug trained in medicine at UST, where he again excelled. His academic brilliance was soon the stuff of legend in Lubao and his overachiev-ing ways brought him to the attention of the town elite—and Doña Juanita. Were it not for meritocracy, Wenceslao Vitug, who came from a barrio of Arrastia sharecroppers, would not have met and married Doña Juanita Arrastia.

During the heyday of feudalism, Lubao was strictly segregated. The landowning families, mostly Basque descendants, married among themselves. The Arrastia women married tycoons, ambassadors, Forbes Park residents and movie actors at the very least. But not commoners from the barrios of their sharecroppers.

So when Doña Juanita married a commoner, even an overachieving doctor, it was big news in Lubao, a marriage that broke the mold. It was one story that can fuel one long-running telenovela.

Before they left Lubao for good, Dr. Wenceslao and Doña Juanita, did one thing that also broke precedent—become caring and enlightened landlords.

Dr. Vitug would take care of the medical and health needs of the Arrastia tenants, from routine check-ups to more complicated treatment. Doña Juanita would spend weekends attending to the problem of the tenants’ wives and kids.

On the shaded balcony of the old Lubao house now in Bataan, Doña Juanita would extend interest-free loans, on a pay-when-able basis. In exchange, the wives of the tenants would comb her long hair and tell her stories about the goings on at the rice farms the Arrastias owned.

During the town fiestas of Lubao, the tenants and the families would repay their kindness. On a single file, they would fill up their carabao-driven carts with firewood to light up the giant vats and ovens at the Arrastia yard. They would cook and serve the guests. After the fiesta, they would stay a day longer to clean up the yard and wash the dishes and scrub the giant vats and ovens.

Kids who tagged along with their sharecropper-fathers to the big Arrastia house during these town fiestas were witness to and entirely different kind of kind and caring landlords. I was one such kid.

After reading Ambeth Ocampo’s account on the old Alberto house in Laguna—one that is being acquired for the Bataan seaside town—I suddenly remembered the old Arrastia house in Lubao.

Today, after the transplant, it sits by the sea, as a rich man’s acquisition. The old structure and architecture remain intact.

But in this seaside setting, you cannot even imagine what took place in that old house at another place and time—the young Isabel Arrastia Preysler visiting. Or the good doctor with the stethoscope. And Doña Juanita kindly handing out interest-free loans so that the kids of their tenants can study and break free from their fathers’ indentured status.

On Father’s Day, it came back to me again, but it played out with the old house still at the poblacion. My father and me and our carabao-driven cart filled with chopped firewood, heading out for that old house in Lubao to be of service to the good doctor and Doña Juanita.

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