The U.S.-Philippines War and experience of the birth of Philippine Independence were still fresh in the minds of everyone when my father was born in 1904. In our hometown of Barugo, Leyte, my father’s generation only remembers those days silently. My grandfather was a revolutionary leader who was reputedly the last of Aguinaldo's officers to lay down his arms. His son, my own father, never spoke about those days to me. I had to find out for myself how life was during the U.S.-Philippines war.
Silence was the source of many historical gaps, like the story of Philippine Independence, upon whose principles my lolo and many other Filipinos like him, fought so fiercely. As a writer and an educator, I have decided to break that silence.
Twenty years ago, Abe Ignacio, colleague, historian, author and librarian, called me from out of the blue and told me that he had just seen on eBay, a Filipino flag dated 1899 with the name “Peñaranda” written on it. He thought that was my lolo’s flag, captured by the Americans during his battles against them, and that I should bid for it before someone else got it. I had never heard of this flag or any stories related to it from my lolo.
Last year in Dumaguete, Negros Oriental, this flag and I had a rendezvous with destiny.
Alex, a Filipino martial arts master and teacher, had moved to nearby Sibulan three years earlier. A Caviteno by origin, he had lived in the US almost all his life and had come to retire there although he had no apparent link to the area. I came to see about an appointment in Silliman University. Like Alex, I am a student and advocate of Filipino martial arts. Nonoy had taken up some form of martial arts in his youth and was very interested in taking it up again, along with his son, Ramon, who had taken the “stick” fighting arts but stopped because of dengue fever and had been looking for a way to get back into it. Right away, father and son enrolled themselves in a private class with Alex.
In the midst of our conversation, I mentioned how about 20 years ago, I missed a bid on a certain invaluable family item on eBay, then a new online auction site, because of my incompetence with computers. And I paid a heavy price for that shortcoming. It never really left my mind. The item was a Filipino flag dated 1899 with the name Peñaranda handwritten on it, an obvious item identifier by whoever retrieved the flag. My heart had jumped upon seeing the item.
My grandfather, Florentino Peñaranda (Florentino is also my father’s name and my middle name) had fought the U.S. fiercely for Philippine Independence at the turn of the 20th century and was reputedly the last officer of Aguinaldo’s regular army to surrender, a year and a half after Aguinaldo himself, after Lukban, after Mojica, and after Malvar. But alas, not knowing how to bid on eBay, I could not procure his flag, a symbol of his legacy. I, however, wrote the seller and the eBay people to tell whoever had bought the flag that I am the grandson of Peñaranda, and that my family would be forever grateful if the buyer would contact me. I got no response.
As mentioned, I am also an educator in the U.S. When one of my fellow educators found out about my going to Dumaguete, he suggested that I contact his friend Alexander Bautista Bayot France. The name rang a bell. The previous year, in Dumaguete when I met Edo and Annabelle, I had walked along the Boulevard one Sunday morning and was eating at the Bethel Hotel when I saw a group of stick-fighters practicing by the tall trees along the Boulevard. I approached them, and the instructor said that his name was Leonardo de la Luna. He told me that a colleague of his was also from the States, like me, but was now living in the Dumaguete area, one Alexander Bautista Bayot France. He gave me his card.
Alex picked me up from the Dumaguete airport. When we were having a late lunch, he said he knew Leonardo quite well and that he also wanted to talk about another topic. It was then that he broached a question that caught me off-guard. “What do you know about the Peñaranda family?” he asked. I said I knew about our private family history and my lolo’s role in the fight for independence, though it was hardly in any history books.
I thought Alex was interested in a business proposal of some sort. He said, “I know about your lolo.” How? “I believe I have your grandfather’s flag. I was the one who outbid everybody to get his flag on eBay.” I was floored. A mountain was lifted off my long-burdened heart.
“I put all my month’s salary (without telling my wife, of course) to make sure that I outbid all those war memorabilia collectors,” Alex said. “When I was bidding for that flag, I was thinking that since the Americans had taken that flag from the Filipinos, I was going to liberate it from its American captors.” He also said that an acquaintance who had owed him a longstanding debt of a thousand dollars had, from out of the blue, paid him within a week of this purchase.
I told Alex that one of my missions in the Philippines was to put up a plaque in the typhoon-ravaged Baybay Municipal Building where my lolo brought his people to surrender on June 19, the day after his 25th birthday, and where he made his final and gallant speech as the last holdout of that gruesome war. My friend Joe Robles, another Fil-Am now retired in Baybay, was going to help me, I told Alex. “I know Joe quite well,” he said. Good man.” Another surprise. I didn't realize he knew Joe. “When you and your family get that plaque built, it would be my honor to give that flag to your family. For then, at long last, it would have found its true home.”
By the time we meandered our separate ways home past midnight, Alex and I felt like old friends. We probably were. That is, our souls were like flitting butterflies hovering around our destinies before we physically met. But it took Dumaguete to introduce all of us to each other and to discover our past lives.
When I got back to the States, Alex and I did not communicate for about a month. He had told me that when I returned to San Francisco, he will tell his grandson in Vallejo my contact numbers and he can arrange with me how to let me have the flag. I met the grandson Isaac on Sutter St. in a college he was attending. He came out and with a bow, handed me the flag encased in a triangular container with a plastic glass window. The flag was visible but it was all folded. I did not open the case until it was time to take a picture of it for this article.
The day I got it, I carried the encased banner with me without missing the grand irony of it all: that this same Philippine flag captured by U.S. soldiers who had embarked from this city of San Francisco to the battlefields of the Philippines to fight the Filipinos whose leader's grandson now walk these same streets with the same flag retrieved and recovered from U.S. possession and history.
A version of this article was published in the Dumaguete MetroPost.
Oscar Peñaranda is an educator, writer, and culture-bearer for and from both shores of the Pacific, and is a recipient of the prestigious Gawad Alagad ni Balagtas for lifetime achievement for his writings and endeavors. He currently sits on the board for the San Francisco Filipino Cultural Center.