The Flag of Their Forebears

It all started a few months ago when I was having a nostalgia attack for my paternal grandparents’ house in the Ermita-Malate section of Manila. I knew that the property had been sold to a religious order sometime in the late 1970s, after having been in the family since the 1920s; but I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how a “religious compound,” going by the size of other religious orders’ redoubts in the Philippines, could fit into that cozy lot, in its Ermita neighborhood originally zoned for single-family homes.

As a youth, I remember going there for the Sunday afternoon reunions, family holidays, even emergencies, family pow-wows, and other life events. I remember meeting my first chow dog there called Panda. The house had cool tiles in the front veranda (which was screened in); creaky wooden floors which were polished to a “T.” There was a balon (well) in the backyard.

The house, raised a few feet above the ground for ventilation and protection from flooding, was made of thick concrete walls. I always marveled at how those walls absorbed stray shrapnel in the Liberation of Manila, and pockmarked as they were, protected my father and his family during the fighting. Postwar, my grandmother, Leonila, raised some orchids, and somehow eggshells found their way into the orchids’ pots, which as a kid, I always wondered about. The last time I was there was in the early 1970s before I left for the U.S. and my grandmother was still alive.

So I went into a Google Earth search-and-attack mode to find out how the property and the neighborhood looked today. Google Earth showed me a six-story building, and the street was demarcated “Agoncillo,” the Filipinized name that replaced the “Colorado” street name I grew up and was familiar with.

Then I posted the finding on our Facebook family pages. Little did I realize that a totally serendipitous, historic family connection would result from that action and keep that nugget of trivia en famille. A niece (or second cousin if one went by the U.S. version of family relationships), Mia Herbosa, remarked that when her father Pocholo was still alive and she got betrothed to one Paul Agoncillo, it seemed like kismet was at work again. Pocholo was my first cousin on my father’s side.

“How so?” I asked Mia.

“Well,” Mia replied, “It was a very strange feeling, just like… ” when Paul (and she) realized they would be each other’s life partner and became aware of their families’ earlier connection with the Philippine flag, when over a century ago three ex-pat Filipina ladies sat down in a house in Hong Kong to sew the first tricolor emblem that we know today. Paul and Mia recalled a déjà vu moment when two of their grand-lolas connected in Hong Kong.  

The historic sewing circle when (from left, Lorenza Agoncillo, and the two adult ladies—Marcela Agoncillo and/or Delfina Herbosa-Natividad--sewed the first Philippine Flag. The two adult ladies are interchangeably identified. This painting by Fernando Amorsolo is one of several versions though.   

The historic sewing circle when (from left, Lorenza Agoncillo, and the two adult ladies—Marcela Agoncillo and/or Delfina Herbosa-Natividad--sewed the first Philippine Flag. The two adult ladies are interchangeably identified. This painting by Fernando Amorsolo is one of several versions though.   

The three ladies were Marcela Agoncillo, her daughter Lorenza, and Delfina Rizal Herbosa -Natividad—forebears of Mia and Paul. Their moment in history was immortalized in many paintings and tableaux later, including the most famous one above by Fernando Amorsolo,

“Wow!” I thought. This was a eureka! moment, definitely something worth writing about and sharing with the world today. It was a Betsy Ross-type moment in Philippine history. A little over a century later, the totally random sewing circle among expat ladies in Hong Kong would be further cemented and sanctified by a formal union between two of their descendants.

There are even more historic connections. Delfina was a niece of national hero Jose Rizal. She is the second daughter of one of Rizal’s sisters, Lucia. Thus, Mia is a fourth-generation grand-niece of Delfina Rizal-Herbosa.

Marcela, on the other hand, was originally from the prominent Mariño clan of Taal, Batangas. She had all the qualifications of one who was de buena familia (i.e., the right side of the tracks). She studied at the original Santa Catalina College when it was still in Intramuros. She then married lawyer and jurist Don Felipe Agoncillo, also credited as the first Filipino diplomat. When Don Felipe was exiled to Hong Kong during the outbreak of the Philippine Revolution, Marcela and the rest of the family joined him. It was there in Hong Kong that Marcela, her eldest daughter Lorenza, and Mrs. Natividad locked in their date and destiny with Philippine history. Also, it was Marcela’s husband, Don Felipe Agoncillo, for whom Colorado Street was renamed sometime in the 1970s.  

La famille Agoncillo-Herbosa, 4th generation, today. Paul, Mia and daughter Lana, 13, taken at Honfleur, France, summer 2015. (Photo from personal collection of Mia Herbosa-Agoncillo)  

La famille Agoncillo-Herbosa, 4th generation, today. Paul, Mia and daughter Lana, 13, taken at Honfleur, France, summer 2015. (Photo from personal collection of Mia Herbosa-Agoncillo)  

Flash forward some 80 years later to the De La Salle-Zobel school in Alabang, Muntinglupa. There in the early 1980s, a relationship took root between teenagers Mia Ongpin Herbosa and Paul Agoncillo. (Paul was actually a year ahead of Mia, being a classmate of Mia’s older brother, Alfonso.)

In no time and all, Mia and Paul had found their soulmate in each other. Paul courted Mia; the relationship moved Stateside sometime in 1985 when Paul’s family emigrated to the U.S., and Mia took art classes at the Art Students’ League in New York City. Daughter Lana was born in 2002; and Mia and Paul were formally married at the foot of Mount Mayon in 2011, with nine-year old Lana being the flower girl and witness to her parents’ solemn vows to each other.

Thus, the historic connection in Hong Kong in 1898 had come full circle in a little over a century, with the fourth generation descendants of those ladies joined once again to form a new union, as if destined by the golden sun and stars sewn and embroidered in chilly Hong Kong.

Today, Mia is a much sought-after portraitist and painter in Manila. Paul is a chef at a leading Manhattan hotel. He has other well-known relations: the singer Carina Afable Silos (her stage name) is an aunt; the movie actor, Ryan Agoncillo, is a cousin.

Two of Mia Herbosa-Agoncillo’s favorite genres – still-life’s and portraits: 

Chinese Screen 3

Chinese Screen 3

Lana (daughter) (2002)

Lana (daughter) (2002)

Mia and Paul live for ten months of the year in the U.S. where they raise their daughter Lana, and in summer, Mia goes home to Manila usually to have an exhibit and see new and existing clients.

Strangely, while the Philippine flag has essentially stayed the same from Emilio Aguinaldo’s original design, there is one important little detail that has been lost in time.

The 1898 flag was not quite the same on both sides as are nearly all flags. Aguinaldo’s original design included a double escutcheon of open and closed laurel wreaths surrounding an inscription in the center, as shown below. On the obverse, the inscription read: Fuerzas Expeditionarias del Norte de Luzon (Expeditionary Forces of Northern Luzon) whereas the equivalent wording on the reverse was Libertad Justicia e Ygualdad (Liberty, Justice and Equality).

The Philippine Flag as designed by Emilio Aguinaldo

The Philippine Flag as designed by Emilio Aguinaldo

Marcela Agoncillo apparently rented a sewing machine, but it certainly wasn’t the computerized model we have today. The logistical challenge was how to execute the two differing inscriptions back to back. For something embroidered, the backside will show the lettering from a reversed mirror image.

I have never seen the original flag but it must have been accomplished in one of two ways:

  1. Using the wreaths as a boundary on both sides, one side would have to be an applique slapped on to the area while the wreaths served as boundaries.

  2. Another technique would have been to create two separate sheets of the red and blue fields, stitched the different wording on each side, and then, appliqued each entire piece to the back of the other, with a single white field sandwiched in between the double blue/red sections. This, however, would have resulted in a heavier flag that would not flap easily in the breeze.

One account says that it took the three ladies five days in May 1989 to finish the flag, and obviously sewing had to be done during daylight hours when it wasn’t a strain on the eyes. The flag was sewn at the Agoncillo home at 535 Morrison Street in Hongkong.

Here are two other images confirming the wreath-escutcheon in the center of the flag: 

Emilio Aguinaldo and the 1898 flag he designed. Note the laurel wreath escutcheon in the center. This is the reverse showing the Libertad, Justicia e Ygualidad wording. This original supposedly resides at the Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo Museum in Baguio City.    

Emilio Aguinaldo and the 1898 flag he designed. Note the laurel wreath escutcheon in the center. This is the reverse showing the Libertad, Justicia e Ygualidad wording. This original supposedly resides at the Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo Museum in Baguio City.    

Still another image (a doll diorama) showing the Philippine Flag with the wreath escutcheon in the center more clearly.

Still another image (a doll diorama) showing the Philippine Flag with the wreath escutcheon in the center more clearly.

The center escutcheons with the differing inscriptions were abandoned shortly thereafter on succeeding flags because:

  1. Aguinaldo’s design of two differing sides was simply too ambitious and technically challenging to execute if the flag were to go into mass production;

  2. The fight was no longer by “Expeditionary Forces of Northern Luzon.” Most of the battles against the new enemy, the American troops, were fought in central and southern Luzon, and the internecine rivalries and betrayals within the Philippine revolutionary movement itself rendered the slogan, Libertad Justicia e Ygualdad moot and invalid.

Also, many of the paintings that have immortalized the historic moment are apocryphal in that young Lorenza Agoncillo was only eight years old, not the adolescent young lady depicted.

One other bit of flag trivia: Both the American and Filipino flags were sewn secretly in what was once British crown territory. The USA was fighting to be free from George III of Great Britain. The Agoncillo-Herbosa trio sewed the Aguinaldo flag also in a British crown colony, Hong Kong, in the fight against Spain.

However, just as the ladies were putting General Emilio Aguinaldo’s vision to thimble and thread, events back in the Philippines were turning out not quite as Aguinaldo had anticipated. On May 1, 1898, the American fleet under Admiral George Dewey defeated the Spanish navy in Manila Bay, then routed the garrison at Intramuros. And the rest, as they say, is history.  


Myles A. Garcia is a correspondent and regular contributor to www.positivelyfilipino.com. He is also the author of two books: Secrets of the Olympic Ceremonies, and most recently, Thirty Years Later . . . Catching Up with the Marcos-Era Crimes. His first play, Dear Domenica, is undergoing developmental readings.