Nueva Ecija State of Mind

Peñaranda welcome arch (Photo by Jay Cabatuando)

Peñaranda welcome arch (Photo by Jay Cabatuando)

Finally, on June 26, I landed at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, with my daughter, Isobel, and her husband, Jonathan, and their daughter, Gaëlla, who’ll be two this September.

My nephew, Jay, who owns a fleet of vans, fetched us from the airport. He was waiting where those with the P-R-S-T-U-V-W-X-Y-Z family names were. If you are not familiar with NAIA’s waiting areas, you would have waited in the wrong place. I didn’t have a clue, so I sauntered past a passel of people wishing that my intuition would serve me right and land us on the designated spot. Isobel was laughing at me for walking clueless, for waddling like a zombie, not knowing where my lost feet would land me. She knew all along where to wait, and was just waiting for me to burst into tears—out of exasperation.

It was a smooth noonday ride, though, because my eldest brother Joe’s house was just close by, in a subdivision about 20 minutes east of the airport.

In Tahanan Village, I was literally and figuratively, back home. My brother Joe was still in Nueva Ecija finishing a project, but the whole family was there.

My niece Jojo orchestrated the whole gathering, assigning culinary duties to her younger sister Chef Julie Cabatuando Suba and brother-in-law Chef Henry Paul, and cakes and pastries to cousin Mabel Bautista who not only bakes but creates art works under the byline Artsybits by Mabel. The whole Cabatuando brood filled the dining and living rooms with banter and memories: my nephew Jack Cabatuando, an artist-photographer and videographer was there with wife Maja and son Jeru whose birthday we also celebrated; Jack’s brother, businessman and entrepreneur Jay and wife Shirley and their children Sherica, Mico and Sheshe; Jojo’s children Anton and Snow, my retired lawyer brother and Manila city fiscal Roy’s children Alwyn, Joman, Augie and Issa; my sister Azucena’s son Meinrad (first PhD in our family) and wife Reggie and son Ian, another budding artist.

Jojo kept her word about serving my favorite dishes: paella, afritada, bopis, embutido, baked salmon, relleno, leche flan, maja blanco, cuchinta—and all the dishes and desserts and their variations that I only dreamt of in Toronto.

More than the food, though, it was great to be with the family I only Skyped or emailed to or saw on Facebook. In person. The sights and smells and sounds of the people and the land. For real. Good to be home.

Gapan, Peñaranda and Sta. Cruz, Nueva Ecija

On the third day, still in Nueva Ecija, my brother Joe invited me to come with our brother Roy and brother-in-law Kuyang Rudy Bautista to join the blessing of his three-door housing complex for transient teachers and students in the town of Sta. Cruz, just beside the Sta. Cruz National High School whose land was donated by my father, Judge Jose Reyes Cabatuando Sr., and his siblings, Gregorio, David. and Juana, now all deceased.

Path of tiles that leads to my eldest brother Joe's housing project.(Photo by Patria Rivera)

Path of tiles that leads to my eldest brother Joe's housing project.(Photo by Patria Rivera)

Before proceeding to Sta. Cruz, however, we made a detour to Peñaranda, my late mother, Petra Padilla Abes’ hometown. There, my cousins Ellen Bolisay-Dorado and husband, Danny, and Rose Abes Madrid, feted us to a home-cooked feast of broiled catfish (hito) and tilapia, pork sinigang, fermented rice (buro), chicken lechon, boiled eggplant and okra, and the sweetest of mangoes and lacatan bananas.

Also present with his jokes and stories was Ellen’s eldest brother, Ome, now retired, who regaled us with his tales of being resurrected from the dead. He had a stroke a few years ago and was half-paralyzed from it, but a kind old nurse applied all her skills to put his body on track. He survived and can now walk and has his story ready for every willing ear.

As a young child on summer vacation in Peñaranda, I learned how to swim from Ome and his younger sister, Ellen, along the banks of the Peñaranda River. They were two of my Ditseng Casia’s children who lived in our ancestral home in Barrio San Josef in Peñaranda.

The old house in San Josef (Photo by Patria Rivera)

The old house in San Josef (Photo by Patria Rivera)

While chatting with my cousins, I also took time to take photos of the guyabano, mango and camias trees in Ellen’s backyard, which backed onto newly-sown green rice fields, the paddies of clear water reflecting the nearly cloudless blue sky on the horizon. The trees reminded me of the old mango trees my cousins and I used to climb when we visited the province to escape Manila’s summer heat.

Outside, on the now-cemented roads, I watched animated young farmhands in their colorful chinos and pants (Was that a cellphone peeking from one of their back pockets?) walking home after a June day’s planting.

Farmer planting (Photo by Patria Rivera)

Farmer planting (Photo by Patria Rivera)

Gapan: One of the Oldest Towns in the Country

From Peñaranda, we backtracked and proceeded east, past Pambuan and Mangino to the junction of Gapan and the road to Sta. Cruz, the old barrio that is now a barangay of the City of Gapan, which was home to my father’s forebears.

In 2010, my brother, Joe, edited a book, City of Gapan, Nueva Ecija: Its History and Memorable Sites, to commemorate the founding anniversary of Gapan (1595-2010) and 9th Year of Cityhood (2001-2010). As he notes in his book, Gapan is at the center of several southern towns in the province of Nueva Ecija in Central Luzon, and is now a melting pot of diverse peoples and cultures. Founded in 1595, Gapan is the oldest town in Nueva Ecija and one of the oldest towns in the Philippines.

It was a huge pueblo encompassing Cabanatuan in the north (Cabanatuan was a mere barrio of Gapan before it separated in 1777), the Sierra Madre to the east, San Miguel, Bulacan, in the south and Candaba, Pampanga, to the west. It was administered by the Augustinian Order, which pioneered in the propagation of the Catholic faith in 1565, among the Tagalogs, Pampangos and people of Panay. (My brother recounts the legend of how Gapan got its name in his book.)

Sta. Cruz, My Paternal Homeground

My father’s ancestors were peasants who tilled the land in the small barrio of Sta. Cruz, now a barangay of Gapan. The young Jose Cabatuando Sr. was born in 1910 to Ingkong Siso and Inang Anda (Manang).

In his commencement address to the first graduates of the Sta. Cruz National High School in 2001, my brother, Joe, recounted how Ingkong Siso, himself one of 12 children of a farmer (Francisco Cabatuando), with the help of his unmarried sisters, Kaka Verang and Inang Quina, struggled to put his eldest son to school. My father had to commute to Gapan because there was no elementary school in Sta. Cruz, which was still rough wilderness then. In high school, he had to commute even farther to the neighboring town of San Isidro to complete his studies at Nueva Ecija High School. His parents and aunts persevered on the farm to put him through law studies at the University of the Philippines. Because he did not want to further burden his parents, my father walked from his rented room in Sampaloc to the U.P. College of Law which was then located in Padre Faura. There was no money either for expensive law books, so he had to make do with reading thick volumes at the college’s law library. The late nights in the library paid off: He graduated in 1933 and placed eighth in the bar exams.

Author's brother-in-law retired teacher Rodolfo Bautista, niece Mabel Bautista, sisters-in-law Shirley Lyn Paspos-Cabatuando and Emily Barbasa, and brother retired Manila City Fiscal Roy Cabatuando. (Photo by Jay Cabatuando

Author's brother-in-law retired teacher Rodolfo Bautista, niece Mabel Bautista, sisters-in-law Shirley Lyn Paspos-Cabatuando and Emily Barbasa, and brother retired Manila City Fiscal Roy Cabatuando. (Photo by Jay Cabatuando

The author, third from left (in striped shirt), and brother retired Manila City Fiscal Roy Cabatuando (extreme right), with school principal Mrs. Evelyn Policarpio (second from left in orange shirt) and a few teachers in front of the annex building of Sta. Cruz National High School in Sta. Cruz, Gapan City, Nueva Ecija. (Photo by Jay Cabatuando

The author, third from left (in striped shirt), and brother retired Manila City Fiscal Roy Cabatuando (extreme right), with school principal Mrs. Evelyn Policarpio (second from left in orange shirt) and a few teachers in front of the annex building of Sta. Cruz National High School in Sta. Cruz, Gapan City, Nueva Ecija. (Photo by Jay Cabatuando

My father, upon urging from his town mates to help in the postwar reconstruction, ran for mayor and won in the early 1950s. His service was cut short, however, when newly elected Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay (a friend from his rooming house days in Sampaloc) personally went to Gapan to ask him to serve as judge at large in 1955, adjudicating tenancy cases through the length and breadth of the country: from far-north in Luzon to Visayas and Mindanao in the south.

My father’s court cases kept him away for months, but he would be back with a transom or kaing of fruit and delicacies from the provinces he visited. When he was adjudicating in Luzon, we used to accompany him for short stays in the field. Sometimes it would be in Batangas, at other times Pangasinan, or Tarlac and Pampanga. He served until his retirement in 1970. His one gift to his old barrio was a piece of land he inherited from his parents and maiden aunts. He wanted a site for a high school because he felt empathy for the young students in Sta. Cruz and adjoining barrios who had to travel many kilometers during rainy months, or in the sweltering heat in the dry season, to complete their high school studies in Gapan. He too used to take those long walks to school at one point in his life.

My father never lived to see his dream come true. He died in 1985, never knowing that a high school was finally built on the land he had gifted to the youth of Sta. Cruz. It was built in 1994, as an annex of the Juan R. Liwag Memorial High School (formerly Nueva Ecija South High School) in Gapan. To his credit, my brother, Joe, amped up my father’s legacy by pushing for the building of the barangay library and information center to make the annex a complete high school.


The old pastor from Gapan would come and celebrate Mass, and we the children would sleep halfway, mesmerized by the drone of a long sermon or homily peppered with calls to piety.

Today, the annex is a full and integrated national high school, which has graduated close to 2,000 students since it turned out its first batch in 2001.

Back at the housing complex, which my brother, Joe, built literally with his hands and with help from local carpenters and artisans, we were pleasantly surprised that he had created an oasis of recycled art from remaindered tiles and iron work. To cut costs, he bought left-over or misshapen and scratched-but-new tiles for bathroom walls and floors as well as assorted iron grilles and bars for a pittance. He used left-over wood boards for cabinets and dividers. Everything was new but re-soldered or built in creative ways.

After the blessing of the housing complex, the genial local priest, Father Marlou Cruz, sat down with us to share stories about his ministry. Since it is still a farming community, he takes the time to be out in the fields with his parishioners to visit, celebrate Mass, or share the day’s stories with them. It is far from an idyllic assignment, with his parishioners relying on the land for their livelihood. But their spirit is buoyant, allowing him to celebrate Mass every day with a devoted group of parishioners who help tend the church grounds or volunteer with parish activities.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the now-huge church of St. Helena parish used to be a small visita or chapel. On the parish’s feast day each May, the chapel would overflow with people who went to Mass once a year. The old pastor from Gapan would come and celebrate Mass, and we the children would sleep halfway, mesmerized by the drone of a long sermon or homily peppered with calls to piety, the old priest’s fractured Tagalog, intoning: “Pagsisihan na ninyo ang inyong mga KASALANAN. Kung hindi, HINDI KAYO MAKAKARATING SA LANGIT!” (Repent your sins. Or else you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven!) melding with the cacophony of voices and sounds from inside and outside the cramped and hot-as-a-fever chapel. Most times, I only heard the endings of phrases and Latin chants: “Ave Maria Purisima….” I used to know the response, because my mother taught us those Latin prayers when we prayed before our little altar at home in the early evenings.

I also remember how I loved my small and frayed Baltimore Catechism book, with its drawings of stains signifying venial and mortal sins! That little book was a gift from my brother, Joe, who earlier suggested to my (then-pregnant-with-me) mother that the new baby be named Patria, after the national hero Jose Rizal’s immortal poem, “Mi Ultimo Adios,” with its famous first line: “Adios, Patria adorada.”

That I devoured our eldest brother’s collection of Reader’s Digest magazines and their stories about “Life in These United States” completed my “Americanization.” In grade school, I absorbed every English word I read, putting to memory the glossary of terms in the back of each Philippine Readers series. My Grade 5 teacher, Mrs. Gaya, was so flabbergasted she exempted me from taking the daily word exams for fear of my acing it yet again. In retrospect, with a class of 40 pupils, for her it must have been one fewer test paper to correct.

Now I know, too, looking at my daughter Isobel’s hard-to-suppress laughter as we waited at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport that sunny day last June, home is never far from where one truly is; home is where your lost feet land. The journey is not one of arrivals and departures. It is in the lift-off, where memory and reality sometimes are one, in harmony with the other, beautiful and in sync.


Patria Cabatuando-Rivera

Patria Cabatuando-Rivera

Patria Cabatuando-Rivera, a journalism graduate from the University of the Philippines, recently retired as editor of Catholic Missions In Canada magazine in Toronto, Ontario. She has also published three poetry collections in Canada, the first of which, Puti/White, was shortlisted for the Canadian Trillium Book Award for Poetry. Her fourth poetry collection, The Time Between, will published by Signature Editions (Winnipeg) in 2018.