THE FLAMBOYANT SOCIETY OF LIPA, THE WEALTH BROUGHT BY COFFEE, AND ITS SUDDEN DEMISE
“The Grandeur that was Lipa” is truly a captivating tale one might ever hear. As the story of this extravagance is told, it is really quite elucidating and likewise beguiling. However, such prosperity ended when a deadly virus killed the town’s coffee industry.
The Beginnings of the Coffee Cultivation in Lipa and its growth
There are several variations of stories on how the coffee cultivation spread in the town of Lipa. The record of the Bureau of Plant Industries (BPI) cites that a Franciscan friar brought the first seeds from Mexico and planted them in Lipa in 1749. Other accounts also tell that in 1784, Capitan Francisco Mantuano first brought the coffee seeds to the town and planted them in his own backyard. Subsequently, from those trees, he distributed coffee seeds to other landlords in their community.
Years followed, local historian, Manuel Sastron, mentioned 1814 as the year when Don Galo de los Reyes, a prescient gobernadorcillo of the pueblo for four terms (between 1808 and 1825), spearheaded the widespread cultivation of the precious commodity. He even made it mandatory for the populace of the town. In 1832, Don Santiago de los Reyes, during his term as gobernadorcillo, continued the efforts of his father. With the aid of the Augustinian Friar, Fray Elias Nebreda, O.S.A, they cultivated the first seeds in Lipa by providing the methods and techniques in order to propagate them in other communities. Later on in 1859, Fray Benito Varas, O.S.A carried on the undertaking and by then up to two-thirds of Lipa was planted with coffee. Such endeavours provided the golden key that unlocked the gate of commercial success for the town unparalleled in the province and perhaps, even in the entire colony.
Lipa rose to fame when for a short period of time between 1886 and 1889 it became the major supplier of coffee. Coffee became scarce when a dreadful airborne fungal virus “Hernileia vastatrix” destroyed the coffee plantations in Africa, Java, and Brazil so that from 1887 to 1889 the Philippines was the only source of coffee beans in the world. According to Sastron, in 1887 Lipa alone produced 9,888 metric tons of coffee. In that same year, Lipa and San Jose, the small town next to it, together harvested 85,000 piculs of coffee which at the price of $30.00 (or P 210.00 during that time) a picul gave the two towns an income of P 2.5 million.
The Squandering and Glitzy Living
Lipa during the acclimatization of its coffee industry earned for itself the appellation of “Paris of the Orient”. The town of Silay in Negros also claimed that title during the peak of its azucarera industry, but it could not compete with Lipa’s European opulence and ostentation. Nor could it contend with Lipa’s money, counted in silver Mexican coins. A story was told that a haciendero had a room in his house, walled up to the ceiling, with only a small slit through which a sack full of silver coins was poured.When it comes to glamour, no other place in the country perhaps could ever compare to its Calle Real (now C.M Recto Avenue). Translated as the royal road, this economic artery of the pueblo of Lipa was where the townsfolk could find the best shops and where the well-off and most affluent families could own homes. It is said that as one lived farther away from the church, the plaza, and Calle Real the lower was one’s social status in the town. Furthermore, Calle Real became a social boundary that separated the town’s elite from the poorer barrio folks.
Awash in cash from the flourishing coffee industry, the prosperous landlords built palatial houses made with fine materiales fuertes, ornately coffered, carved, and gilded ceilings. After the construction of those extravagant abode, the dignified barons had a fine taste for possession that they filled their stately homes with all sorts of imported European accoutrements: curtains from Paris, mirrors from Austria, stuffed chairs from Vienna, chandeliers from Germany, fine Sevres porcelain from France. Lipeños drove around in magnificent carriages decorated with plaques of beaten silver and drawn by superb horses with silver harnesses.
Diamonds from newly discovered mines of South Africa were in such demand that Estrella del Norte, the leading French jewellery store in Manila, opened a branch in Lipa. One’s diamonds, their size and number, were favourite topics of conversation. Extravagant ostentation and one-upmanship were the practices of the day. Even the most ordinary objects like writing pens, prayer books, and the insteps of the ladies’ slippers were studded with diamonds. Many families even had gold and silversmith in residence to fashion jewellery and objects which, when completed, would be the talk of the town. Everyone competed for the services of Pedrong Juba, a hunchback who was the most famous goldsmith of Lipa. Matrons and their daughters wore their jewellery not only on their ears, necks, and wrists; they also had real diamonds encrusted in their zapatillas (slippers). It was said that a Lipeña who saw a rival lady going to church on Sunday wearing big diamonds would rush back home and don even bigger ones.
SUMMERHOUSES IN BALETE
Picnics to Balete were popular. This barrio beside Taal Lake was the site of the old Lipa that was destroyed by the eruption of 1754.
Picnics then were grand affairs and involved much preparation. A few days before the event ox-drawn carts piled with servants, beddings, furniture, and other paraphernalia were dispatched to the summerhouses which had to be cleaned and made ready for the guests who would stay overnight. Damaras or bamboo trellises were put up on the picnic site and decorated with handmade paper flowers, anahaw leaves, intricately woven coconut fronds, and garlands of intertwined kamuning branches. The ground beneath was overlaid Persian carpets and bentwood sillas de Vienna, sofas and armchairs imported from Vienna, were arranged on them. Dining and serving tables were put up and formally set with damask tablecloths, fine china, sparkling crystal, and silver cutlery. Ferns and cadena de amor ran riot around the fruteras, dulceras, and epergnes that paraded along the center of the table. Male guests came to the event on horseback while the ladies were borne by porters on hammocks slung on bamboo poles. Everyone sat down on Vienna Chairs to dine formally a la Rusa with the food platters being served to each guest in turn. All the while, a string orchestra serenaded the guests who were usually dressed in cool cotton and linen clothes cut in European style and accentuated by straw boater hats.
“INACCESSIBLE LIKE THE STARS”
As what Teodoro Kalaw wrote in his childhood memoirs he described the first class families as “inaccessible like the stars”. Snobbery was prevalent with the best families adopting European manners and speaking Spanish only. It came to a point where people who did not live in Calle Real, the main street, were not welcomed in the houses of those who did, unless they were relatives. Foreigners, however, were welcomed with open arms and sought after for marriages, para mejorar la raza (to improve the race), as the saying went. Grand balls were regular occurrences. The Lipeño clans who gained extraordinary wealth and fame during the celebrated coffee days were: the Aguilera, Solis, Katigbak.
The Aguilera clan is Castilian in origin from Spain with their paternal ancestor Don Juan Gabino Aguilera who married a Manilena, Prudencia Amada Esguerra. They went to Lipa in 1858. Their family was very aristocratic in many ways and very continental in modes of living. They had two children: Gregorio and Romana. Gregorio married Maria Luz Solis and had two children by her: Gregorio and Soledad. Their son, Gregorio Aguilera y Solis, married his first cousin Rosenda Solis Katigbak. They didn’t have any children. The daughter of Don Juan and Dona Amada, Romana, was the second wife of Don Catalino Dimayuga y Reyes.
The Solis Family which like the Aguileras, is also of Iberian descent. The clan was spearheaded by Don Celestino Solis, a Spanish Mestizo who had been married thrice. He sired the clan that was almost all girls. His only son Bernardo Solis, a very handsome and gentle person, married Guillerma Africa. The union bore Salustia Solis who married Don Nicolas Olaguivel whose only daughter, Criselda “Didi”, married Alberto Katigbak, a former Ambassador. The incontestable hostess, in those times, was Doña Catalina Solis, the second wife of the widowed Don Gregorio Aguilera y Esguerra. “She had a floor length hair and lived in the largest house in town and continually entertained church dignitaries and important visitors of the town. She served the most scrumptious Spanish dishes at a long table that could seat eighty guests at a time, laid out with exquisitely crafted gold and silver service imported from France.”
Then there is the Katigbak family. It started with some royal members of the Bornean settlers of Lake Bonbon, now Taal Lake. Three sons carved names for themselves: the offspring of Cayetano Katigbak are the business entrepreneurs; the descendants of Lino Katigbak, are the landed gentry of Lipa; the heirs of Norberto Katigbak were the professionals in the family; Don Norberto Katigbak’s land spanned fifteen barrios. Upon his death, all of his 15 children from his two marriages, received 145 hectares of land each as their inheritance.
LIPA: THE LAST VILLA OF THE SPANISH COLONIAL EMPIRE
Dr. Luciano P.R Santiago defines a villa as a Spanish territorial classification as well as an institution. “It is little known in the Philippines, even among historians, because it was sparsely granted in these parts during the Colonial Period. Though small in number, the villas were huge in significance as the centers for regional consolidation as well as, when linked together, the general dissemination of Spanish rule, commerce and culture in the archipelago.”
Lipá’s fame was announced with flourish of trumpets in the Philippine General Exposition in Madrid in the summer of the same year. In recognition of the town’s economic pre-eminence, the Queen Maria Cristina of Spain, acting as regent to the young King Alfonso XIII, elevated Lipá into a noble villa on October 21, 1887 and regaled it with a coat of arms. This was made public in the Gaceta de Manila on December 21 in time for the holidays. The royal order stated that the title was conferred on Lipá “in consideration of the great advances that the town has made in a brief period of time and to reward the work and virtues of its residents.” A corollary decree described the coat of arms that the new villa was authorized to apply: “It will be divided into three quarters, two in the upper half and the third occupying the whole lower half. The left upper quarter will represent virtue over a silver field with the attributes of the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. The right upper quarter will represent work with the emblems of the anvil, hammer, etc. over a red field. The lower half over a blue field will bear the symbol of hard work with the figure of a man resting on a plough, a bull lying down on the ground and a mother embracing two children while sitting under a coffee tree. Above the seal will be a royal crown, below is the inscription: “Virtud y trabajo” (virtue and work) are for the towns the sources of happiness.” with characteristic exuberance, the people of Lipá welcomed the news of the royal decree and the coat-of-arms with a cavalcade of floats featuring the coffee plant as a bountiful icon. Also paraded was a supporting cast of farming implements, a milling machine and handsome boxes for storing coffee beans. Upper crust Lipeños began to live a life of astounding luxury. They became the patrons of the arts as well as handicrafts of precious stones and metals reflecting the treasured coffee of Lipá.
From the childhood memoirs of Teodoro Manguiat Kalaw, he described the proud celebration as follows: “Those were the days of prosperity for Lipa, people everywhere talked of its very rich aristocracy, its handsome carriages drawn by huge horses. The señoritos, dressed in the style of the day, in shirts spangled with sequins that glittered in the sun, went about their business, mounted on spirited Arabian Horses…Calle Real was crowded with shops, stores and, bazaars, like Manila…The sons of the wealthy paraded around the town escorted by a host of servants, who opened the way for them and protected them from the jostle of the populace…Income from coffee was the yardstick of social classification. In extremely cordial relations with one another were the town aristocrats, priests and the peninsulares. The latter were Spaniards staying in Lipa, either because of jobs with the government or because of marriage with the native heiresses. This very harmonious friendship made Lipa’s high society exceedingly hispanized. Its language was Spanish; Spanish were its, customs, manners and social forms; Spanish were its dances, its music. Lipa’s social atmosphere was an importation from Spain. Money was splurged on clothes interior décor and pictures; on rare crystals and china ordered from Europe; on curtains of finest silk; on slender black chairs from Vienna; on exquisite table wines and foods. Lipa’s Society sought to equal the halls and banquets of Madrid.”
The sudden demise
In 1889, scarcely two years after Lipa’s declaration as a villa, the dreaded airborne fungus that devastated the Brazilian, African and Javanese plantations put the town’s coffee industry to annihilation- from which it never fully recovered . Since there was no adequate quarantine measures during that time, the virus, commonly known as “bagombong”, invaded the local plantations. According to Kalaw, the more pious people blamed the misfortune on the sacrilege done during the fiesta of 1888, when at the customary procession of the images of the saints from the cathedral there was included a robust coffee plant mounted on wheels, to which was apparently attributed the prosperity of the people. But there is no mention of the plant itself having been paraded around as an object of worship or veneration. It was darkly added that the pest was seen among the coffee leaves soon after the proud celebration.
It is said when the dreaded coffee rust had started its depredations on Lipa’s coffee orchards, one of the planters’ daughters traversed the length of the cathedral nave on bended knees, clutching a coffee branch in her hands, and asked God to lift the scourge that was destroying Lipa and her family’s fortunes. But the coffee boom was over, never to return.
Teodoro M. Kalaw, Aide de Camp to Freedom
Maria K. Katigbak, When Coffee bloomed in Lipa
Martin I. Tinio Jr., Lipa’s Golden Age in Batangas Forged in Fire
Ma. Rita Isabel S. Castro, Demythologizing the History of Coffee in Lipa in the 19th Century