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Pride, sadness, and hopes of a Samarnon in California
-by Cesar Torres






June 16, 2004


[Editor’s Note:  I met Addi Batica in 1996 in Edmonton, Canada when we attended that favorite Samarnon institution, the fiesta, of the Basaynon Katig-uban of the USA and Canada.  Aside from a theological discussion about our possibility of going to heaven as Catholics through the intercession of the Saints, we also talked about the role of the Church in helping provide a little more food, clothing, shelter, medical and health services, relevant education, respect and personal dignity to the Filipinos and the Samarnons. When we went to majestic Banff, our spirited discussion about Samar and the Philippines became more passionate in the midst of all the beauty, the splendor, and the pristine grandeur of the Canadian Rockies and the blue and clear waters of the lakes mirroring the heavenly spires of the soaring mountains.  Since then, we have not lost touch.  With the advent of the Internet, we have intensified our interaction.  Again, the focal point of our discussion has always been Samar. 

This piece is the first of a series that we will be posting in the web page of “Hingyap Han Kauswagan Han Samar” which Ray Gaspay, the Webmaster of Samar News.Com has provided for our Internet and cyberspace group, “Pagkaurosa han Nahigugma han Samar ngan mga Kasangkayan” or “PNSK”for short, loosely translated to mean “A Gathering of those who Love Samar and their Friends”.    In the words of Addi Batica, “…I thought it would be worthwhile to give the unofficial Samar list serve a few glimpses of what this Basaynon did between May 7-18, 2004.  Some of the things I have noted down might have relevance for the Philippines, especially the planned "Samar Conference" which all of us in the list serve are hoping would really take off in 2005. This is a shortened report, and spotlights only the events that really stood out in the trip, my main reason for wanting to visit Peru again, after a 25-year absence.”

He adds: “Maupay ini kay larga manok na kita.  Ini nga aton hingyap pagbulig pagpaka-upay hit Samar, para ini hit mga mag-ungod, kay hi ako, — di gud ak contento hit puros la yakan kay numero uno — di ak pilosopo, ngan numero dos — di ak politico.  Let's just cast the challenge and see who will really put their money where their mouth is. The Samar list serve is a unique group of people, they not only have a vision, they are willing to set sail even when the going gets tough.  Let  the whole world know that there's a different breed of Samareno, those who will follow through and get things done.  We might make a few enemies with our banat on the Samarnews web page, but to hell.”  Addi is acutely aware that there are some highly organized groups in Samar.  He says that if such groups believe that they're better, then they should come up with alternatives, to address the problems of hunger and poverty immediately. Peru and the Philippines share a lot of similarities, except for the 8 million Muslim Filipinos.  Peru has the Maoist Sendero Luminoso and another group, the Tupac Amaru.  In the Philippines, we have revolutionary movements too. Of course, there is the fact that the Philippines and Peru share the same historical roots, we are former colonies of Spain.] 

May 9, Sunday.  We woke up early, this being our 28th wedding anniversary.  We had a simple breakfast of toast and coffee, as we thought we could have a bigger meal at our main objective:  the small village of Azpitia 120 kms. south of where we were.  The resort staff had already arranged for a taxi to take us to our beloved village of Azpitia, perhaps the only reason why I really wanted to be back in Peru. Nope, Azpitia was the only reason, and if other items were to be accomplished on this trip, I would consider them as consolation prizes.  It was a two-hour taxi ride down the Pan-American Highway, the same route I got to be familiar with 25 years ago, but which has undergone major renovation - the lanes were wider, the ride was not bumpy.  Our driver actually missed the exit, and we ended up in the town of Mala.  I told the driver to backtrack to the town of San Antonio, and from there take the 7-km road that led to Azpitia.  I could see the surprise on the driver's face, and added that there was no way he could miss the road, as all he had to do was find the parish church - the tallest building in town.

The author with the ruins of the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu on
the background

The road to Azpitia is still gravel, however, it had been widened and become more accessible to cars and public buses.  It was fun seeing buses bearing placards that said "Azpitia-Flores-San Antonio-Mala".  Public transportation was not available 25 years ago, in fact, for me to get to the nearest town of Sta. Cruz de Flores (3 kms. from Azpitia), I either had to hitch a ride on a panadero bus, ride a horse, or walk.  My heart pumped as we made our final approach to Azpitia, there were welcome signs as well as billboards advertising locally-owned businesses (mostly restaurants and hotels).

Before we set out for Peru, I had tried to gather as much information on Azpitia and the Mala Valley from an old colleague (Alfredo del Castillo) who used to work for the Peruvian Bureau of Census and Statistics.  In his e-mail message to us a month before our scheduled departure, he had told us to be prepared for surprises, as the tiny village we invested our blood, sweat, and tears 25 years before had changed.  As soon as we pulled into the village at around 11:00 a.m., the plaza in front of the church was already filled with the hustle and bustle of a typical Peruvian Sunday morning - people in their Sunday best chatting or walking together, as mass had just been concluded.  I instructed the taxi driver to take us first to the other end of town, so he could give us a "snap tour".  We actually didn't get noticed, as many cars were also pulling into town, after all, this was Mother's Day.

In the few minutes it took us to get to the other end of town, my mind was taking snap shots of what I saw - lamp posts and mercury bulbs, restaurants and inns, orchards with rows and rows of fruit trees, and the most magnificent of all - the Mala Valley, the food granary of this part of Peru.  I could see orchards, cornfields and vegetable plantations down below, the Mala River bisecting this fertile valley with water coming from high up in the Andes Mountains before finally connecting with the Pacific Ocean only 8 kms. from where we were standing.  If I were to be "other-worldly" about my feelings, I would sum up the experience as being in awe of:  a Land of Mystery, Mountain of Care, River of Consciousness, and Sea of Tranquility.  I had journeyed to the "other world" in the midst of this world, a feeling of being accosted and grabbed by total Mystery.  That's really what Azpitia is all about - my own spiritual journey, an experience that can be likened to a Pasyon and Rebolusyon awakening (if Renato Clemena Ileto were to be believed).

The quick drive-thru Azpitia completed, it was now time for our group to settle down for lunch, as it was almost noon.  I asked the driver to drop us off at Azpitia’s first restaurant – El Balcon del Cielo, or “Heaven’s Balcony”, so-called because once you’re inside the restaurant, you get this feeling of being on top of the world.  The restaurant is built on the edge of a cliff, and one gets the impression that s/he is in a hanging structure, one that’s barely clinging to a cliff.  25 years ago, the town mayor’s outhouse stood on this same location.  Now, it’s an impressive structure of three levels – and one can actually go all the way down (a descent of about 500 ft.) to the riverbank and get a better feel for the Valle de Mala.  But simply looking out from the balcony gives you a panoramic view of the Valley, it’s marvelous, incredible.  But the most incredible part of this structure is that it’s made of bamboo (kabugawan) and amakan.

We picked a large table in the corner of the restaurant, one that was close to the balcony so we could get a better view of the Valley.  The waiter told us they were not ready to serve yet.  I had forgotten that we were supposed to operate on “Peruvian time”, and lunchtime in Peru is anywhere between 1:00-3:00 p.m., even on Mother’s Day.  It only meant we still had an hour to spare, enough time to visit some old friends.  I asked the waiter if he knew Jesusa Aburto, and he said she was home with her parents, Felix and Gudelia.  I more or less knew the exact location of their house, so our group proceeded there for a brief visit.  As we stepped out of the restaurant, one of the kitchen staff approached me and said, Senor, me acuerda?  Soy Elena.  Then she proceeded to tell the others that we were the Filipino family that came to work in the village in 1979.  (Elena is one of ex-mayor Felipe Aburto’s daughters.)  While the excitement was going on, a lady my age came out of the kitchen.  I couldn’t recognize her at first, and when she said her name was Gloria, the name rang a bell – it was Gloria Aburto, Felipe’s oldest daughter whose husband, Simon Caycho, was one of the leaders of the Liga de Agricultura (Agriculture Guild).  Back in 1979, Simon, Gloria, and myself spent countless hours lobbying the local office of the National Irrigation Authority to allow the village more access to the irrigation canals.  (Previously, water for irrigation flowed to Azpitia only once a week; the irrigation folks later on decided to grant the village access twice a week.)  The issue of water rights was (and still is) a sensitive one in Peru, and in 1979 the village had to compete with larger haciendas in the area.

Jesusa was home with her parents, Gudelia and Felix Aburto.  (Jesusa was an energetic 14-year old back in ’79, and even at an early age, she took to the role of community advocate quickly, doing mostly outreach work for the Liga de Salud, or Health Guild.  She also began learning English so she could communicate with the English-speakers on our staff.  Felix Aburto had also served as mayor.)  We had a great visit with Gudelia and Felix, and one of his most profound questions was:  “What made you come back?”  My answer was simple:  I wanted to know if the small village I used to know had changed significantly in 25 years.  I could tell he wanted to share more with me, as I had pressed him:  “What did the village do to get to where it is today?”  Felix is a very articulate man, a man of letter of sorts like his younger brother (an author and poet), even if he dresses simply and has this unbending love for the land he tills.

Unlike some Peruvians I know, Felix is not prone to mumbling, he carefully chooses words and is keen about enunciation, and most often stays away from slang.  (His Spanish is so formal, oftentimes he sounds like a bureaucrat.)  He told us that, in addition to the training we gave them in organizing and advocacy, plus other things we shared with them in the area of community development (including fundraising and grant writing, networking, promoting local products including the embroidery and other handicrafts [in which Elsa played a key role]), the community really worked hard and was willing to take risks.  Other former residents of the village who had done well in the big city decided to invest in it.  Many of the improvements in Azpitia became so visible to many communities scattered all over the Mala Valley, and the village also attracted the attention of the Ministry of Agriculture.  In 1984, Azpitia was awarded the presidential “Bronze Shovel” award and no less than President Fernando Belaunde Terry showed up in Azpitia to present the award.  The award ceremonies received wide media attention and Azpitia was finally up on the map.  It was no longer the lonely, unknown village, many curious trekkers flocked to Azpitia, which the villagers billed as an “Experiment in Total Community Development.”

One would think that the village was all about socio-economic development, when in truth and in fact – culture was the “glue” that held the community together.  In the entire Mala Valley, the small village is well-known for the many cultural and religious activities it sponsors, especially during Holy Week and Fiestas Patrias.  I was told that during Holy Week, people from Lima retreat from the heat and chaos of the big city, to find solace and experience la semana santa.  The 3-star hotel, inns, and lodging houses in town are always filled to capacity.   Fiestas Patrias, a weeklong celebration marking Peruvian Independence, is a major event in the village.  Marches, burro races, poetry and singing contests, plus programs with nationalistic themes are spread out over a week (July 21-28).  The grand finale is 28 de Julio – Peruvian Independence Day, where there’s a big gathering in the salon comunal or community ballroom.  It was in this same salon communal on July 28, 1979 – when the community residents asked me to say a few words about freedom and independence, and went on to recite Rizal’s Mi Ultimo Adios.

Azpitia’s accomplishments are enumerable, but just to list a few:

  • 10 restaurants in town, of which only one is not owned by a resident
  • A 3-star hotel, owned by a community resident
  • Inns and lodging houses owned and operated by residents
  • 12 or so cozy bungalows available for short- or long-term rent
  • Electricity and phone service (no e-mail, though)
  • Adequate water supply, plus houses with indoor plumbing (and hot and cold water)
  • An elementary school with playground (25 years ago, there were only two classrooms in an old building)
  • Agricultural products are sold by a marketing cooperative, thus eliminating middlemen
  • Orchards, many of which use “drip technology”
  • Local businesses employing youth after school and during weekends as cashiers, waiters, busboys, etc.
  • A preschool and daycare center owned and operated by the community
  • A training center (with lodging facilities) for seminars and workshops
  • A small “extension” medical-dental clinic and regular visits by public health practitioners stationed in nearby Mala.

At the conclusion of our visit (Monday morning, May 10 – election day in the Philippines), and while we were having breakfast by the poolside of Azpitia’s 3-star hotel (Hotel Mayoral), I just kept shaking my head and telling my wife and our two companions that I couldn’t believe the kind of progress I had seen.  Elsa, of course, was in agreement with me, after all, when we relocated to Azpitia on the eve of Mother’s Day in 1979 – it was just a small, quiet, desolate and isolated village somewhere in the boondocks of Peru.  These days, one can go into the internet, go into “search”, click and presto – you’ll find a significant amount of information on this tiny village in English, Spanish, German, Italian, and French.  What happened in this small village Elsa and I learned to love?

More precisely, how did Azpitia do it?  Following are just my best guesses, although I was able to gather enough information from long-time residents like Felix and Felipe Aburto, Jesusa Aburto, and other Azpitianos.  (Felix and Felipe Aburto are cousins, and both have served as town mayors; Jesusa, who has been involved in community development since 1979, also spent almost 2 years in Phoenix in the early ‘90s and underwent training in Total Organizational Planning under the guidance of ICA-Phoenix, AZ).  Elsa and I have been close to the Aburto family, especially Felix, Gudelia, and their daughter Jesusa – because they stuck with us through thick and thin during the early days of the Azpitia Human Development Project.  Truth to tell, Felix and his family were part of our “inner circle” just like the Chumpitaz family (Sra. Bartola and Don Floro who owned Azpitia’s biggest store at the time).

Ø       The village did have leadership potential, and community participation frameworks were already in place when we first went there.  For example, the Comision de Regantes (Commission of Irrigation Users) had been there since the irrigation canal was built, each farming family was represented and had a voice.  There was also a Men’s Club in the village, composed of the bachelors whose activities ranged from hosting/sponsoring dances, song contests, stage plays to doing community clean-up and other civic activities.  Truly, there was human resource potential that could be tapped.

Ø       The village was open to change, to new approaches to uplifting their community but at the same time, they also wanted a stake or a key role in the process; they were not willing to be ministered to.  (Azpitianos were not even impressed by the presence of Americans on our staff, and were initially worried about their community being “mortgaged” to international agencies, what with funds coming in to finance development efforts.  To put it simply, they kept pressing us:  “What’s the catch?”)

Ø       Azpitia was not the pilot project site “consensed upon” by the extra-national, Chicago-based ICA staff – it was the village of Antioquia north of Lima, at least until two or three days before Elsa’s and my departure for Lima in late March, 1979.  At the time of our departure, we thought we were headed towards Antioquia.  However, Peruvian colleagues, most had attended training seminars conducted by the ICA and its parent organization (the Ecumenical Institute of Chicago) or done volunteer work in another human development project in Cano Negro, Venezuela, impressed upon ICA extra-national staff (we were not included in the discussions) to drop Antioquia in favor of Azpitia.

Ø       Azpitia had proven to be a hard nut to crack, and the extra-nationals (all American staff) just wanted to get started on a pilot project.  Our Peruvian colleagues’ rationale was, though Azpitia was a hard nut to crack, as soon as the village bought into the idea of a pilot demonstration project, the changes would be more visible and have more impact on poorer communities in the Mala Valley than if we were to do a project in Antioquia.  Throughout the month of April, 1979, a series of meetings were held between village residents, the extra-national ICA staff  (we were included this time), and our Peruvian colleagues whom we affectionately called the “Lima Cadre”.  Those were tense and difficult meetings, but in the end, the village residents came to a consensus – they would be willing to be an experimental project and a weeklong planning consultation was scheduled for June 6-12, 1979.  Elsa and I, and the rest of the full-time ICA staff moved into the village on the eve of Mother’s Day, 1979…and the rest is history.

Ø       With Elsa’s and my arrival, the full-time ICA staff became increasingly diverse, instead of being dominated by Americans.  Monique LeGuillou, a French lawyer, arrived after spending a year of doing volunteer work in India; Rob Horne, a public school teacher from Adelaide, Australia who was on a yearlong sabbatical also joined us; Ralph Castro, a Fil-Am and retired US Navy Lt. Cmdr came with his young wife, Anne Bleaden; we also made a conscious effort to recruit local residents to be part of our full-time staff, and our first batch of local residents to join were:  Luis Aburto, Rafael Quispe, Juan Quispe and his sister Ana.  Of course, the task of training the local recruits had to rest primarily on my and Monique’s shoulders, as both of us could communicate effectively in Spanish.  (I was project director, but our Area Director also resided in the village – which was a cause of friction between us, but that’s another story.)

Ø       The residents of Azpitia were eager to learn and willing to take risks, most of them were so inquisitive to the point of irritation – but they were hungry for knowledge.  I must say that the level of political consciousness among the villagers was a lot higher than in most places, notwithstanding their isolation and the depressed situation of their village.  They didn’t exactly just take to themselves, they interacted with other communities in the Mala Valley, and most especially with the members of the cooperative farm right below them.  Note that in 1968, “community action” and “rural empowerment” became “in” words in Peru, after a left-leaning military junta took over the country and instituted radical changes – from a massive land reform program, nationalization of industries, cooperatives, and promoting a “society without masters” (via a movement with the acronym S.I.N.A.M.O.S.).

Ø       Although changes did not happen overnight, and change came slowly – at least it was consistent.  Each improvement was considered a building block for progress, from the first landscaping workday (involving 300 village residents), the opening of the first daycare center in mid-July, 1979 (our oldest son, Jaffer, then 1 ½ years old, was the youngest in the group), converting an old, unoccupied house into “la Clinica” around the same time, and planting sequoia trees along the major irrigation canals to prevent erosion (trees were also planted along the cliff overlooking the Valley for the same purpose).  All these accomplishments were made possible through volunteer work.

Ø       Between 1979-1984 – Azpitia residents simply went about implementing their vision for their community, which was truly a Peruvian vision of things – Peruvians took the lead, while the extra-nationals took on an advisory role.  Elsa and I left Peru on November 4, 1979 – just when the village was embarking on another project – a box factory that would produce boxes for shipping fruits such as apples, oranges, grapes, pears, and peaches.  By 1984, the village had accomplished many visible changes, not just in the area of socio-economic development, but also in other areas such as community advocacy and leadership development.  1984 was when the village was awarded La Lampa de Bronce – the Bronze Shovel Award.

Ø       Current and former residents of the village were willing to invest in it, hence the presence of many locally-owned business enterprises.  Many of the “barrio boys” who did well in the big city decided to invest in their community, and in the case of the owner of Hotel Mayoral – he decided to return to Azpitia.  Indeed, it was a fulfillment of a dream, best rendered in song.  I do remember one song that was a favorite of the village residents – Todos vuelven a la tierra de Azpitia.  “Everybody comes back to Azpitia.”  How true, because even Elsa and I….came back.  (And we’ll be back, but it won’t take us another 25 years!)  Todos vuelven.

Ø       The village was able to build strong institutional linkages – with the Agriculture Department of the National University, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Health, churches (the Diocese of Canete, for example), religious orders (mainly the Jesuits, Maryknoll Missions, and Redemptorists), and other NGO’s (non-governmental organizations),

Ø       Although often overlooked, culture and identity were the glue that held the community together, Azpitia’s veladas and other festivals were a big draw, the Fiestas Patrias activities were the best in the entire Mala Valley.  Speaking of culture and identity – the Peruvian spirit of nationalism is quite strong.  When Peruvians sing Tengo el orgullo de ser Peruano y soy feliz, de haber nacido en esta Hermosa tierra del sol – donde el indomito Inca preferiendo morir!  They mean it!  “I’m proud to be Peruvian and I’m happy, that I was born in this beautiful land of the sun – where the indomitable Inca preferred to die!”  It came as no surprise to me that my recitation of Mi Ultimo Adios in 1979 would draw tears, cheers, and applauses –  mi patria idolatrada, dolor de mis Dolores, querida Filipinas…  sorrow of my sorrows – but still my beloved.

Ø       The best resource Azpitia had (and still has) is:  people.  Understand that Azpitia looks like a big oasis in the middle of a desert; in 1906, it was all desert until 68 brave families relocated to that part of Peru to escape the poverty and deprivation of Lima.  The 68 families “set aside” all of 330 hectares of desert land and turned it into a farming community.  From nothing, to something, but always – with people working hard to make things happen.  Every man, woman, and child in Azpitia is well-aware of la Historia.  (And just in case people forget – there’s a memorial in the town plaza that bears the names of the town’s founders).

Ø       The community sees itself as a symbol, a model for other communities to follow.  Local leadership was given the opportunity to grow and mature, then reach out to other communities.

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