“Manuel and Aurora” by Manuel L. Quezon III, from Baler, Aurora, by Edgardo J. Angara, 2007.
FEROCIOUS STORMS, treacherous undertows, bounty and tragedy: these are the characteristics of the sea that walls in Baler with water on one side. Near-impenetrable lushness, seemingly inexhaustible resources, at times sinister remoteness: these are, the characteristics, in turn, of the Sierra Madre and its forests that form a living wall of rocks and trees that walls Baler on every other side. In essence, Baler is an island; both paradise and purgatory.
For both Manuel Luis Quezon and Aurora Antonia Aragon, they saw themselves, and were seen by others, to be Baler, personified. In Manuel were the storms, sudden, ferocious, yet fated to pass, of his temper; the restlessness of the waves, the deep undercurrents of emotion and ambition; in Aurora was the light, indeed, the dawn —the harbinger of the certain banishment of darkness, to be replaced by life-giving light. He was the builder, she was the nurturer; he was the leader, she was his conscience. He would often be viewed as a gambler, often reckless, a man of nerve –and nerves- as an American once put it [John Gunther, “Manuel Quezon,” Inside Asia, 1938], but she was, in a sense, one too: telling an interviewer, when she was asked to define love, that “love is always a gamble.” [Eulogio B. Rodriguez, Interview with Mrs. Aurora Aragon Quezon, unpublished ms. 1939].
The same journalist who described Manuel L. Quezon as a man of nerves, wrote that he gloried in his origins. “Here I first saw the light of day,” was the caption for an aerial photograph of Baler that Quezon proudly showed visitors: Claro M. Recto, at times rival and ally, called him “The Star of Baler”; even in the city named after Baler’s most famous son, envisioned as the new capital for a new nation, Baler would be a part –there is a district by that name, in Quezon City, to this day. But destiny would take Quezon away from Baler, only to return infrequently, though the affections of his home town for him never waned, nor the place of his origin ever far from his thoughts. In her pre-war Baguio home, she had on display a photograph of Baler, circa 1916: proudly pointing out the Plaza and her home to visitors [Eulogio B. Rodriguez interview]. Whether Manuel talking to an American, or Aurora talking to fellow Filipinos, Baler always took pride of place.
Their Early Years: Fervor and Fatalities
Manuel and Aurora’s mothers –Maria Dolores and Zeneida Molina- were sisters; their fathers, Lucio Quezon from Paco and Pedro Aragon from Laguna, were Tagalogs. Manuel’s father was a fervent loyalist of Spain; Aurora’s father, suspected of treason to the Spanish Crown. The lives of the two were, early on, confronted by the complexities of colonial life. Manuel’s parents were both school teachers, with the linguistic distinction of being the only residents of Baler able to converse in Spanish with the representatives of Spain’s sovereignty: the parish priest and the local commander of the Spanish forces. The young Manuel would begin a life of perpetual rebellion by rebelling against the status quo, in particular the clergy and officials at whose insufferable feelings of superiority he bristled. One of his earliest claims to fame would be an act intended to vindicate family honor, but which took on a political color.
His cousin, Fidela, then a lovely young woman, attracted the attention of a Spanish officer. Manuel thought that the Spaniard did not have honorable intentions toward her. One evening he ambushed and struck down the soldier. He went into hiding from the authorities until the soldier recovered. Time would embroider an already gallant tale: there are versions in which, after assaulting the officer (this time, over the officer’s demonstrating affections for a lady Manuel was himself courting), Manuel paraded about town with the officer’s handkerchief in his pocket. There is a further addition to the tale: worried for the safety of his son, Lucio Quezon extracted from his son an oath of loyalty to Spain, which Manuel upheld even after his father’s death.
Indeed death is an integral part of the intertwined stories of Manuel and Aurora: death in the sea, at home, and in the mountains. A brother of their mothers died following a shipwreck on his return to Baler from Casiguran. Legend says that he was able to swim ashore but the Dumagats, thinking he was a Spaniard, executed him. During Manuel’s youth, at the age of eight, he accompanied three Franciscans to go swimming at the beach. As they swam away from the shore, an undertow pulled them out to sea, resulting in the drowning of the priests. Manuel, however was caught by the hair by an accompanying sacristan, who thereby saved his life; he remained grateful to him savior for the rest of his life. Home, on the other hand, would be where Manuel, by then a student home on vacation from his studies in Manila, would hold his mother in his arms, as she died of the illness he himself would die of decades later –Tuberculosis.
And as for Aurora herself, at the age of five, together with her elder sister Amparo, aged 15, and their mother, Zeneida, were taken by the Spanish troops in the church of Baler where they sought refuge from the Filipino revolutionaries. There they witnessed the horrors of war, while remaining ignorant of the fate of Pedro Aragon, who had been taken to Fort Santiago in Manila as a rebel suspect. This was the Baler of the twilight of Spain’s imperium in the Philippines: clans divided between loyalists and rebels; turning family against family, the birth of a nation accompanied in torrents of fraternal blood. Baler was a microcosm of the revolution; Manuel and Aurora’s experiences living examples of its toll on families and individuals. If Aurora and her mother were protected by the Spanish even as her father was imprisoned by them, Manuel and his father would choose to remain loyal to Spain while Manuel’s half brother Teodorico symbolically broke with family by renouncing his father’s name, maintaining for the rest of his life only his mother’s maiden name, Molina.
With Teodorico Molina in the forces of the Katipunan, and his cousin, Fidela, by this time married to Federico Luna Novicio who commanded the Filipino troops in the area, bitterness became the inevitable legacy of the revolution. For fiercely loyalist Lucio Quezon, together with his son, Pedro, on their way to secure supplies for the Spanish garrison, were ambushed and beheaded in the Sierra Madre, their bodies never to be found. Years later, in one of his visits to Baler, Manuel confessed that although he had received many honors and plaudits from his countrymen, he had only one regret; he could not trace the remains of his murdered father and brother, Jetin (Pedro) [As recounted by Dr. Andres Aragon Angara, The Molina Clan, undated ms.].
The revolution, in a sense, remained exemplified by Teodorico who stayed his entire life in Baler; the tensions and tragedies of that revolution, particularly its inevitable toll in fratricidal strife, exemplified by the lives of Manuel and Aurora. Manuel would always be haunted by the death of his father and brother; family relations always susceptible to tensions: so to the insurrectos, as the terminology was then, would remain Baler; for Manuel, the task, as writers from Carlos P. Romulo to Nick Joaquin would put, go the task of a strange kind of racial and national vindication: the possession of Malacanan Palace by a Filipino, though one who was creole.
Their Stars Begin To Shine
Manuel left Baler early in life; Aurora remained there longer. His ambitions would be satisfied only by finding an ever-expanding role on the national stage; her attitudes remained fundamentally devoted to home and home town. In the early years of the American era, while Quezon pursued law after having joined the army of the First Republic to fight an enemy, America, which filial piety didn’t prohibit him from fighting, and who then experienced the distinction of becoming an aide de camp to President Aguinaldo and then a major under the command of General Mascardo in Bataan; in those early decades of America’s new imperium in the Philippines, Aurora set about trying to do good by her community.
Like her aunt, Aurora became a teacher, converting their family home across the Church into a school for boys and girls. She described her experience in an interview om April 26, 1939:
When I taught in our house the boys and girls of our home-town of Baler, I organized a reading circle, and we organized a library for the use of the teachers as well as the students. I was elected the librarian of the circle. I listed all the books that we had, and I required every borrower to sign his name on a notebook, and to write therein the title of the book to be borrowed. I also required him to pay a fine of five centavos a day if he failed to return the book on time…
There was a humorous incident that happened when I was the librarian of that reading circle… The library was open from ten to twelve in the morning and three to four in the afternoon. We had a meeting and one of the subjects discussed was the improvement of the library service. A reader stood up and said, “Mr. Chairman, I move that the librarian be opened from three to six in the afternoon everyday instead of from three to four.” A burst of laughter resounded in the room. When everything was calm I stood up and said, “What you meant is to open the library from three to six in the afternoon and not the librarian.”
Manuel, gaining fame and quite a bit of controversy as he embarked on a public career, involved himself in Baler affairs only to satisfy filial piety, personally filing a case for murder against Novicio: securing a conviction which, however, was overturned by the Supreme Court, which maintained that the murders were acts of war, and covered by an amnesty proclamation. We do not hear much of any involvement in the public affairs of Baler on the part of either Manuel or Aurora, except for isolated stories of Manuel taking the long journey by horseback, the singer Atang de la Rama (a petite figure who apparently could be comfortably carried in a basket, along with other provisions on the horse), so that she could sing for his cousin, whom Manuel was surreptitiously courting by this time (Aurora’s mother, Zeneida, vehemently objected to any marriage, so that the two had to wait until Aurora’s mother died before they could marry in 1918).
Small Town, No Small Minds
We finally know of something concrete taking place in1916, when Manuel was already Senate President. According to Aurora’s own account,
I was in Baler in 1916. We erected its school by public contribution. The town people furnished the materials, like boards, lumber, etc., the people freely contributing their time and labor.
I found the officials of Nueva Vizcaya province in Baler who had already succeeded in securing the consent of the inhabitants of Baler to the cession of their town to Nueva Vizcaya. In the public meeting I stood up and said, “What can you officials of Nueva Vizcaya give to Baler which the province of Tayabas cannot give? In the first place Tayabas is a first class province with plenty of resources and Baler can get anything it needs from her. (That was the time of the coconut boom.) Whereas Nueva Vizcaya is merely a special province. It cannot even elect its governor and municipal presidents. If the Baler people want to convert their town into towniship like the towns in Nueva Vizcaya where their officials are not elected but only appointed, it is up to the Baler people. But let me say that I see no benefit in this change. It is trading local independence or autonomy with autocracy.”
Then the people of Baler began to ask: “Ano ba ang kahulugan ng township? Tao at saka ‘sheep’, ano ang ibig sabihin niyan?” Pues iyan nga, kayong nga taga Baler ay gagawing ‘sheep’ (tupa, taong walang isip) ng mga taga Nueva Vizcaya; mawawalan kayo ng libertad na gaya ng tinatamo ninyo ngayon.
The observant reader will note several things about Aurora’s rccollection: it is a perfect example of the “Baler way,” of politics. An open, frank, uninhibited debate, one that not only tolerated, but took for granted, the participation of everyone, male or female, with status or simply poor; democratic, open, and contentious. This was the political heritage of Baler, where status was not an obstacle to participatory democracy: surely the young Manuel, later marveled at for his adeptness at thinking on his feet, and his skills on the debating floor, learned the give and take, the necessary mixture of fiery phrases and the cajoling appeal, that ensured his dominance in national politics for close to two generations. The person touch, the openness to all, the absence of mental or social inhibitions to open discourse, was exemplified by both: small town politics, unlike the common misconception, does not necessarily breed small minds.
The Love Affair
When Manuel and Aurora finally married in 1918, it was in Hong Kong [The Tribune on July 26 and 27, 1933]:
Then came the time for me to get married and I did get married. To avoid public demonstrations, and the pomp of a marriage of the first and only president of the Philippine Senate which the customs of our people would have demanded, I went to HongKong and there got married, without anyone being present at my wedding except half a dozen men who were traveling with me. Even these did not know I was getting married that day until, to their surprise, the marriage ceremony began. I was dressed in a business suit and my bride had an ordinary dress, no flowers, no celebration, nothing but the absolutely essential.
Of their marriage, the best analysis, perhaps, is Manuel’s own, in a letter he wrote to Aurora at a time he thought he was going to die. It is addressed to Aurora –his “sweetheart”- they addressed each other such from the moment of their marriage because, Aurora felt, anything else seemed strange after having grown up addressing her elder cousin as “Ka Manuel.” This is what he wrote:
October 23, 1934
I have just arrived here at the Hospital. I have to be operated on because the stone is big and they say it cannot pass thru the ureter. It is indeed very fortunate that I did not return to the Philippines from Java, for had I returned, I surely would have died for no one there could have performed the operation.
My operation will take place the day after tomorrow. It is well that you are not here so that you will be saved from worry and trouble and you will only know when I am already well, by the help of God.
I am not worried about what would happen to me, because they say that the operation will not be difficult and Dr. Young is the best of all in this kind of operation. And above all I have faith in God who is most powerful. Nevertheless, should anything ever happen to me, I leave to you the care of our children. Have courage because if you will fall sick, no one will look after our children.
I regret that I have not dedicated my life wholly to you and yet it was you who gave me strength to continue my services for our Motherland.
My love for you has never changed. My heart and life are for you alone. No wife could have equaled you in kindness and in everything. All the happiness I received came from you. Now at this hour believe what I say, because it comes from the deepest part of my soul.
Pray for me and, our children, pray for me. I am kissing, embracing you all, and praying to God for all of us. If this be the end, then I will be waiting for you in the peace of heaven, and I will never forget to watch over you through the Almighty to deliver you from all evil.
Farewell –my life
There is much lost to legend and gossip about their marriage, but in that letter alone, can there be a said to be fair, and verbatim, appreciation of what they meant to each other.
The Star Points the Way Home
During his presidency, Manuel would return from time to time to Baler; he caused the construction of a vacation house, but neither were inclined either to reconstruct Manuel’s boyhood home, or enlarge or even improve Aurora’s home facing the church. The distance of their home town eventually resulted in Aurora settling on establishing a model farm in Arayat, Pampanga –though even there, where she was happiest during the years of her husband’s administration, Baler remained a tangible presence: the farm was known as Kaleidan.
The final, personal, glimpse of their married life comes from Manuel’s autobiography, where he describes the decision to go into exile:
[After having been told by General MacArthur to prepare to evacuate to Corregidor] When I got home, I called my wife aside and repeated to her everything that General MacArthur had told me. I wanted her advice. She felt that it would be very painful to leave and be away from our people. “But this is war,” she said, “ total war –and the Military Commander should know better what should be done to win it.”
“The winning of the war,” Mrs. Quezon added, “is the only question before us. Nothing else matters.”
I agreed. She had put her finger on the right spot.
“How about you and the children –will you come with me?” I inquired. Instead of answering my question, she asked me another: “What do you want us to do?”
“I want you to remain here. The Japanese will respect you and treat you with every consideration. I have always dealt with their nationals in the Philippines with courtesy and justice. And you have done the same.”
Mrs. Quezon answered: “I shall do as you wish, but my preference is to be with you. Remember the sacred words, ‘For better or for worse, in sickness or in health till death doth us part.’…
“However”, she counseled, “let us think the matter over to-night and to-morrow we should hear what our children have to say. They are grown up enough to be heard.”
On the following day and before the meeting of the Council of State which I had called for eleven o’clock, the family council took place. Every member of the family was willing to do as I wished; but, like their mother, who had said nothing to them of our conversation the night before, they preferred to go with me wherever I went.
In exile, ailing, embittered, offering up his sufferings for his country, Manuel took to recounting his past, either to his collaborator in his autobiography, his close American friend Francis Burton Harrison, or in more confidential, but informal chats with his Executive Secretary, Arturo Rotor. He was aware, as best he could be, of events at home, including the destruction of the telegraph station in Baler. But on August 1, 1944, Manuel’s life came to an end –in the same manner as his mother’s life had ended, nearly fifty years before: in a torrent of blood.
Widowhood was the life of Aurora thereafter, dedicated to her husband’s memory, and it is from her pen that the ultimate meaning of both their lives are best expressed. Having been voted a pension by the Congress of the Philippines, she declined it with these words [“The Letter,” Time Magazine, January 1, 1946]
I feel that on account of … countless war widows and orphans … I should waive collection of a pension . . .I cannot, in good conscience, receive … Government assistance when so many of my less fortunate sisters and their children are not yet taken care of. . . . I know [if I accepted] I would not be keeping faith with the memory of my beloved husband. . . .
And it was to honor the memory of her husband that she set out, on April 28, 1949, to visit Baler. Instead of traveling by sea, as her husband had preferred to do, she set out by road. And it was, on the Bongabong-Baler road whose construction she had supported, and the completion of which she had celebrated with her townsfolk, that her life was ended: the stillness of the surrounding forest, along the road in Sierra Madre, broken by the sound of gunfire, demanding a final holocaust of blood. As her husband, so with her: Manuel and Aurora in their final moments, denied what perhaps, they most yearned for. A final sight of their hometown, that island in the midst of the walls of sea and trees.