Festival in Concepcion

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on December 12, 2008

I returned to Concepcion, Tarlac on Monday for the first time in three years. The occasion was the local festival, which coincides with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrated by the Catholic Church. Like my previous visit, this one was at the invitation of former banker and Concepcion businessman B.G. Gonzalez and his lovely wife, Olette. The Gonzalez’s are our neighbors in Parañaque, where we have lived for close to 15 years.

From Parañaque, the 125 kilometer drive to Concepcion early in the morning was 15 minutes shy of two hours despite rush-hour traffic on South Superhighway and EDSA as far as Makati. That’s a great improvement over what it might have taken before the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX) was rehabilitated and modernized, but unchanged from three years ago. The long planned expansion of the Skyway from Parañaque to Balintawak would probably cut at least 30 minutes off the drive.

Concepcion, the birthplace of the late former senator and political martyr Benigno S. Aquino, Jr., hasn’t changed much either. The stretch of road leading from NLEX – which still ends at the Concepcion exit – is well traveled, but traffic was relatively light for a Monday morning. The market, which is at its most frenetic around 7:00 am, was still crowded at 9:00 am but clearly subdued. I assumed residents had done their festival shopping early.

A small chapel, the San Vicente de Ferrer Chapel, sits along the road to Concepcion. It’s a new structure, and in many ways the product of the energy and vision of B.G. Gonzalez. According to Gonzalez, the chapel was built for the farming community of Barrio San Vicente. Residents themselves lent their labor skills to construct the quaint chapel, which has been painted light yellow, and reminded me of the mission chapels that dot the South Texas countryside where I spent much of my youth, and its small towns.

Inside, two rows of wooden pews – a bargain at P1,000 each according to Gonzalez – line the walls separated by a narrow isle of burgundy tiles. The pews are nestled under exposed rafters from which simple chandeliers – a gift from an overseas worker from the area – hang proudly. The altar is flanked by wooden cabinets – provided by the pew maker – which happened to be decorated with Christmas lights. Outside, the chapel itself was lined with lights. I imagine they provide a pleasant silhouette in the cool Concepcion evenings.

Gonzalez, a high-powered banker before retirement who worked most of his career in the United States, U.K., and Japan, returned to the Philippines about 20 years ago. He is a nephew of Aquino, and upon his return played a number of key roles in the evolution of Philippine democracy. As far as I can tell, however, that’s not why he returned to the Philippines, instead of retiring in the U.S., where his and Olette’s two daughters are successful professionals.

During the week, Gonzalez spends his time in Concepcion, where he lives in one of the family’s ancestral homes, runs an agricultural business, participates in community affairs, and sometimes runs for Congress. He’s lost a couple of times, ironically, to his cousins, Education secretary Jesli A. Lapus and his brother, Congressman Jeci A. Lapus. Despite enjoying the backing of former president Corazon C. Aquino and favorable surveys, Gonzalez has had a hard time getting elected.

That hasn’t stopped him from taking an active role in community affairs. Gonzalez’s involvements include lobbying for better roads and other infrastructure, improving schools, and providing better health care to residents (Gonzalez built and donated the former Concepcion Emergency Hospital, now the Concepcion District Hospital.). He provides scholarships for a number of children whose families are in dire straits. While you would think that someone who by all appearances devotes himself to his community could get elected, sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way.

But maybe that’s actually better for Concepcion. If Gonzalez was elected to Congress, despite its proximity to Manila Concepcion would not have the benefit of Gonzalez’s intimate participation in its development. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gonzalez’s impact in Concepcion is significantly more profound than that of his victorious opponents, perhaps because it can be seen every day.

On the other hand, if more leaders like Gonzalez did get elected, then there’s a good chance that the infrastructure that should be built to support businesses and farmers in places throughout the Philippines similar to Concepcion would get built on time, on budget, and with all the exits and entrances built where and how they should be. Maybe textbooks would be mostly correct. And maybe children who use them would all have one to study at night.

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