The Heritage Wonders of Negros Occidental

December 27, 2019 Travel

I have always regarded myself as a daughter of Negros,even though I was born in Manila and raised in Cavite. My mom’s family is from San Carlos City, Negros Occidental; some family members still reside in San Carlos City, and I make it a point to visit or come home often.

But despite my frequent visits, I find there is so little I know of my beloved island, particularly its heritage. Good thing I met a person with unmatched passion for it. Raymund Alunan was endorsed to our group by the Provincial Tourism Office.

For one whole day, we visited storied churches and homes across three municipalities (Victorias City, Talisay City, and Silay City) and marveled at its affluent past and preserved heritage. Of course, we sampled cuisines that are very much a part of Negros’heritage. But what really got me interested, though, were the people. Negrenses are very colorful people.

This trip was the highlight of the familiarization tour for members of the media who joined Philippines AirAsia’s inaugural flight from Manila to Silay City, one of the gateways to the island of Negros. It was held during the celebration of the country’s most colorful festival, which is Bacolod City’s Masskara Festival.

Bacolod City was our base for the entire tour.

Men and the churches

We started our tour at The St. Joseph the Worker Chapel, popularly known as “The Church of the Angry Christ”in Victorias City. 

While its altar that features an angry-looking Christ has long been the main tourist draw, we found out that there is more to this church than what is below the all-seeing eye.

For one, the church was built by our very “monuments man," Frederic Ossorio. His family is the owner of Victorias Milling, which owns the church.

“The Monuments Men” are people who retrieved and returned countless artworks, artifacts, and belongings stolen by the Nazis. These men are the subject of the movie The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, and many other big movie stars. 

Frederic commissioned his brother Alfonso, abstract expressionist artist who was a close friend of famous artists Jackson Pollock and Salvador Dali, to do the mural.

His influence is probably the reason why there are symbols associated with the Jews in the church, like the Star of David in Mama Mary’s robe in the mural. Raymund also discovered, with art restorer and conservator Tats Manahan, that the mural forms the shape of the Star of David.

Frederick hired Czech-American architect Antonin Raymond to design the chapel, who built it to be earthquake-proof. The mosaics of the church were made by Belgian Baroness of Schaerbeek Adelaide de Bethune, who used discarded glass bottles. Still recognizable are the bottles of San Miguel Pale Pilsen, sodas, and milk of magnesia.

The church also features Filipino-looking wooden statues of Mary and Joseph, as well as a station of the cross sculpted by Benjamin Valenciano.

Another church we visited during the tour was San Diego Pro-Cathedral, the only church in Silay with a dome. 

“Pro-cathedral”means it shares cathedral honors with another cathedral. In Silay’s church’s case, it is the San Sebastian Cathedral in Bacolod City.

This structure was mostly designed by Italian architect Lucio Bernasconi and was commissioned by sugar baron Don Jose Ledesma to head the renovation.

Don Jose was the richest man in Negros during that time. He was also one of the biggest funders of Al Cinco de Noviembre, the day when Negrenses revolted against the Spanish colonizers in 1898. 

What is interesting about the church’s design is that the pulpit was erected after the first section of seats, which was allocated for the wealthy members of the church. In this way, when the priest preaches their sermon, they are not facing the rich donors of the church. 

Women and Their Homes 

What I can say about the hacienderos of Negros is that they did not hold back on demonstrating their fortune. 

One very remarkable exampleL Balay ni Tana Dicang, located in Talisay City.

Balay ni Tana Dicang is the ancestral home of Don Efigenio Lizares and Doña Enrica Alunan. There’s a lot I could feature about this house-of-stone built on a 6,000-square-meter property. For one, there is an escape room to avoid unwanted guests. There is also a nook, which has a good view of the entire house. Oh, yes, and I can't forget the phallic symbols in the latticework between the receiving area.

But it was really Tana Dicang who amazed me. Tana Dicang took over managing the hacienda, raising her family of 17 children, and serving as Kapitana, thus the shortened name “Tana." She served for 40 years!

How’s that for power? Want more? President Manuel Quezon stayed in her house. Other presidents, Sergio Osmena and Carlos Garcia,also visited her.

In Silay City, the “Paris of Negros," we did a rolling tour of the ancestral houses. We saw “Balay Negrense," the most-visited house; Bernardino Lopez Jalandoni House, the pink house; The Hofileña Ancestral House, the repository of the private art collection of Ramon H. Hofileña; the house of Jose Pitong Ledesma, a renowned Silaynon pianist, conductor, and philanthropist; and the Generoso Gamboa Houseoften called the Twin House due to its similarity with the house next door.

One particular house got everyone’s interest because of its odd structure. Raymund, of course, has the background to that. He told us a tragic story involving love and betrayal.

Let me tell you now, it is telenovela material. Companies have actually been seeking rights to the house-owner’s story.

Adela was the only child of Emilio Ledesma y Ledesma, and his wife was Rosario Locsin y Locsin-Ledesma. He was also the granddaughter of Don Jose Ledesma, who contributed a lot of money for the San Diego Pro-Cathedral.

Of course, Adela was raised to live up to a certain ideal. Tragedy began when Adela fell in love with a distant relative. Being a cousin was not the issue. What earned the parents’ disapproval was the he was a dentist and was only a member of the upper-middle class. 

But Adela continued seeing Rudy. When parents forbade her, she locked herself in her room. She continued to communicate to him through letters handed out by their common cousin, Emma. 

We thought this love would be given a chance when Adela’s parents died. But no. Rudy fell for Emma, and they eventually got married. 

What is even more devastating was that Rudy and Emma lived only a house away from Adela. She could see the house from her second floor balcony, so she had the whole second floor removed.

Negrenses and Food

We actually developed a hate for Emma,but lo and behold, when we tasted her empanada (given to us by the organizers of Kaon TaFood Festival), we developed a liking for her. 

Emma’s recipes have been passed on to family,and her lumpiang ubud, pili nut squares, and empanadas are among Silay’s best food heritage.

Silay’s food legacy is something that should also be noted. For one, Silay gave us the person that the New York Times dubbed as Filipino food’s greatest champion: Doreen Fernandez. Her ancestral home in Silay City, which is now a bed and breakfast, is the heart of the region’s slow food movement.

Casa A. Gamboa is now being run by the late food critic’s niece, Reena Gamboa, who graciously gave us a tour of the facility.

Aside from Emma Lacson’s empanada, we also got a sampling of El Ideal’s delights. El Ideal is one of my usual stopovers whenever I visit San Carlos City. It is housed in another one of Silay’s heritage sites. It was established in the 1920s by the late Cesar Lacson Locsin and his sisters.

More of Silay’s food traditions are being featured at the Kaon Ta Food Festival.


AirAsia currently offers 3 roundtrip Bacolod-Manila flights.

Other must-visits when flying to Bacolod City are The Ruins, which is the Philippines’ Taj Mahal; Lakawon Island, a 13-hectare, banana-shaped island off the coast of Cadiz known for its white sand beach and floating bag; and of course, its dining destinations. There’s Calea, Felicia’s,and Anne Co for desserts; Eron’s for Cansi; Aida’s in Manokan Country for Chicken Inasal; and Balaring, a small barangay in Silay City, for seafood. 

The Ruins

Lakawon Island
Balaring Spread

For fun activities, there is Jojo Vito’s place for mask-making and Bongbong’s for piaya cooking.

That also basically the rest of my 6-days #AirAsiainBacolod trip.

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