By Jaime C. Laya

There is great interest in cultural heritage judging from the size of advocacy organizations like the Heritage Conservation Society and ICOMOS Philippines, and Facebook groups such as Ancestral Houses in the Philippines (AHP) that had 65,906 members the last time I looked. They have been instrumental in the enactment of the Heritage Act and local ordinances, in preventing the demolition of notable structures, and in spreading heritage awareness.

The bahay na bató and Spanish Regime churches tend to be equated to Philippine cultural heritage and some probably assume that imposing 19th and early 20th century houses, like those at Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in Bataan, were the norm. The average haves and certainly the 19th century poor had nothing like those—they would not even have been allowed upstairs.   

Cale Victoria

SLICE OF THE MIDDLE CLASS LIFE Calle Real de Palacio (now General Luna) near Calle Victoria, Intramuros, early 1900s (Google Images)

I suppose it’s natural to imagine one’s great-greats as riding in caruajes, sleeping in Ah Tay four poster beds, and wearing piña finery. Note, however, that unless cousins married cousins, we each have four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc. Go back seven generations—to about 1850—and you could have 128 antepasados, among them possibly not only an ilustrado, a gobernadorcillo, and a Padre Dámaso, but also a Chinese peddler, farmers and fishermen, cochero and jueteng collector, or as police archives may reveal, carabao rustlers. Lifestyles would obviously have been different among them and from ancestors of other generations.

The mid-20th century middle class lifestyle is what I experienced.  My parents were public school teachers and, in the early 1940s—during the Japanese Occupation when I was growing up—our family’s lifestyle was nothing close to that of those who lived say on Dewey Boulevard, Aviles, or Broadway or, I assume, of those in crowded Palomár and Leveriza. 

We had none of the things we now take for granted—telephone, TV, refrigerator, air conditioning, computer, washing machine, gas or electric stove. On the other hand, we had a narra French Provincial sala set and an upright piano.  

Old Tondo

Nipa huts, probably in Tondo, Manila, ca. 1920 (courtesy of Gary de la Rosa)

Between the sala windows was a radio that aired soap operas before noon for the lolas and me (Gulóng ng Palad and Ilaw ng Tahanan) and classical music at 3 p.m. There were books all over, on English literature (Tatay’s), history (Nanay’s), an illustrated encyclopedia and story books (for me), Tatay’s guidebooks brought home from abroad, and awit and corrido, his research interest.  

The sala was where we slept, on mats spread on the floor. The windows had no grilles and were closed at night but the ventanillas were left open. Daytime, pillows, mosquito nets, mats, and blankets were cleared away in the cuarto. A charcoal-heated plancha (an electric iron came later) kept our clothes neat and whoever ironed had to watch out for ashes and sparks. 

Without a refrigerator, Lola Trining marketed daily at Blumentritt. Cooking was on wood-fired kalán, fed with tatal, wood roughly cut in flat rectangles and bought bundled. Instead of lighters, there were matches that came in small boxes. At some point, Tatay got an electric stove that had an earthenware base and exposed wire coils that quickly turned red-hot.


Plancha, charcoal-powered clothes iron transformed into an art work by Norma Belleza

The oven was a portable metal box plunked on top of that fire hazard of an electric stove. Its first product was a memorable Nanay-baked sponge cake with caramel icing.

When the neighborhood’s first refrigerator arrived, the neighbor’s daughter, a playmate, exclaimed dramatically to envious us, “Ay, Diós ko, ang lamig ng tubig.” It didn’t take much to make us happy.

The dining table was set against a wall and there were benches on two sides. Leftovers were stored in the paminggalan, an upright cabinet with slatted doors and sides for ventilation. It stood on saucers filled with oil to foil ants and other crawlies. Eating out was not our style.

It was a red-letter day when we had palitáw or ginatán. For that, we had a heavy round stone with a hole dead center on a base that had a canal along the edge leading to a funnel, called giliñgan. The starchy rice variety malagkít was soaked in water and fed gradually into the hole while the stone was turned by hand. The resulting watery mixture was then poured into a flour bag and pressed overnight under the round stone. It was rice dough the following morning, ready to be made into palitáw and biló-biló. My unending frustration was how carefully shaped boats, snowmen, cats, and houses ended up as shapeless globs in the ginatán.


Galapong oil on board, Anita Magsaysay Ho, 1944

Philippine cultural heritage is not only about Capitan Tiago and María Clara and their bahay na bató, Paulita Gomez’s glittering wedding feast, San Diego’s fiesta procession of ivory-headed santos, and the convento of Padre Salvi. It is also about modest homes and lifestyles of maestros, the book-filled home of Pilosopo Tasio, Salomé’s dovecote and humble lakeside home, and the hovel where Sisa raised her two sacristans. It’s also about Sama-Bajau homes on stilts over the water, Ivatan stone houses, the Ifugao bale and alang (granary), the Maranao hierarchy of homes—torogan for the nobility; malaa-walay, large houses for the wealthy; and lawig, the small houses of ordinary people.  

Our cultural heritage is not only about bahay na bató life, but also about our cultural minorities and the simple ways of the lowland majority who made the Philippines what it is.  

Comments are cordially invited, addressed to

Source: Manila Bulletin (