The old 'casa' and Sitio Ubos
The old 'casa' and Sitio Ubos
First posted 11:19pm (Mla time) May 13, 2006
By Pau M. Fontanos
ON April 29, the Casa Rocha-Suarez Heritage Center, now a lifestyle museum on A.M. Torralba Street in Sitio Ubos, Tagbilaran City, celebrated its first anniversary, and the occasion marked yet another rite of passage for the house that has been home to at least six generations of Rochas.
For Ubos, it has been a resurrection from near obscurity.
The Casa Rocha-Suarez was built between 1837 and 1839, and its appearance might have changed a little through the years, except for the alteration in the roof line, from a stately pitched nipa thatch to a low-slung nondescript tin—probably a renovation casualty in the 1970s.
Up the narrow staircase of the edifice, one enters a commodious living room and sees the details of a lovingly crafted house: the posts of whole trees carved in a vaguely oriental design, the generous ceiling that gives the rooms a certain grace, and the big sliding windows, opening to welcome the sea breeze of night or closing to ward off the glare of day through the nacreous filter of capiz shells.
In one of the bigger bedrooms, a rare antique, an Ah Tay bed (named after the Chinese furniture maker of Old Manila whose trademark is the unmistakable squash design on the posts and base) holds sway.
And here and there, in the galleries, one finds mementos of the house that had made it special, like the art deco signage announcing the business of Hermanas Rocha, or the appurtenances of baking, including the fancy cookie molds; and the faded photographs that recall a bygone age.
At Christmastime, if one were lucky enough to visit, an elaborate Nativity tableau or Belen is on display. Many of the pieces are made of ivory and said to be of 18th-century style. The tableau is reminiscent of the many old Belens of Cebu, of which the entire Bohol was a dependency until 1864 (a fact confirmed by historian Jes Tirol).
The Rocha "Belen," for example, can well rival Cebu's very best, that of the family of the Cebu Diocese's first Filipino bishop, Juan Gorordo y Garces.
The house of Rocha gave Tagbilaran many of its illustrious sons. It had at least one gobernadorcillo (mayor) in Don Felipe Rocha, one two-term provincial governor in his son, Don Fernando Rocha, and yet another modern-day mayor of direct descent from the gentlemen.
Don Fernando had the benefit of higher learning in Manila, and before his foray to big-time politics, he ran a private school. Only his sisters may have equaled his fame as an ilustrado, a well-educated one, among the Tagbilaran principales or elite.
Filomena operated a general store on the ground floor of Casa Rocha-Suarez, later memorialized by one Tagbilaran mayor, Honorio Grupo, as "a bazaar, drugstore, hardware store, and sari-sari store put together."
Two other siblings, Gregoria and Concepcion, kept themselves busy with a bakery operation most famous for its hojaldres de Hermanas Rocha. This prize-winning pastry has impeccable antecedents in Cebu.
The French traveler, Jean Mallat, writing in 1846, observed that "their (Cebu bakeries') puff cakes called ojaldres are of a delicacy that would do honor to the best pastry cooks of Paris …" Clearly, the Rocha ladies had carried on a grand tradition and made it their own.
A period of eclipse
World War II put an end to Hermanas Rocha. The family itself began to settle in Manila in the 1950s, leaving the house shuttered and dusty for decades.
Yet, another descendent was to bring honor to the family with the appointment of Pablo Rocha Suarez as ambassador plenipotentiary to Malaysia, China and the US. The late ambassador, who also served as undersecretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs before his death in 1993, is the Suarez in the Casa Rocha-Suarez name.
The plight of Casa Rocha-Suarez has been similar to that of other old houses in Sitio Ubos, itself a truly historic site. Strung along the length of A.M. Torralba Street are 19th-century residences in various states of disrepair or ill-use. One of them has been completely obliterated by a Manila antiques dealer.
The remaining homes are those of (current occupants only) a Swiss citizen, the Beldia family, and the Yap family. A mysterious old building, halfway between a shed and a barn, occupies the lot between the Yap and the Swiss's homes.
The Swiss's house itself used to belong to the Rocha family. Evidence also shows that at least one more house in Ubos once belonged to them.
Journalist John Jasper Cortes wrote that "around 1830, the merchants of Tagbilaran descended to the lower part of the city, at the back of the St. Joseph Cathedral, when the moro (sic) raids along the coastal areas of Bohol were quelled."
They built substantial houses of cal y canto, an upper-class house of strong materials, which Mallat wrote, "generally belong to mestizos." (Mestizo in Mallat's time referred only to those of Chinese ancestry and the racial mix was reckoned patrilineally through generations. "Mestizo" to refer to the Spanish half-caste was a later development).
An 1885 document at the Philippine National Archives states that two Butalid sisters and their Rocha sister-in-law (as can be inferred) sold one such house of cal y canto—"situada en el sitio de Ubos"—and a small boat to a gentleman of the Tagbilaran principales surnamed Calceta.
The house was located on land surrounded on two sides by sea. (Was this the one bought by the antiques dealer?)
And, incidentally, the same document classified "Doñas" Butalid and Rocha, and the Calceta "don" as "mestizo sangley" or Chinese mestizo.
Ubos was apparently a Pariancito, a little Parian. The Parian was a Chinese and mestizo ghetto and, like those of Cebu and Manila, markets for, among other things, quilts from cotton and cotton gauze.
Again, Mallat had this to say: "… with the cotton they (Boholanos) harvest they manufacture cloths of great solidity: they also weave some cloths of silk of which we have seen beautiful examples."
Interestingly, the profession of the aforesaid Rocha woman was that of the "ilandera" or spinner of yarn for cloth production.
The Rocha ancestors' choice of Ubos clearly demonstrated their mestizo backgrounds or their vocation as merchants. Don Felipe Rocha was one such "comerciante" in 1872.
Ubos was sandwiched between the commerce of the old public market (now defunct and long supplanted by new ones) beside the cathedral and the trade at its shoreline fronting the Bohol Strait, thus profiting from business of both upland and waterway.
Government must help
The work began at Casa Rocha-Suarez will hopefully provide a catalyst for the rehabilitation of Ubos, from a slum to a magnet of tourism.
The genteel Swiss citizen and Ubos resident suggests that the government must help further this cause not only by providing funds, expertise or muscle to help maintain the old houses (and encourage homeowners to do so), but by exerting political will as well in quelling the fresh tides of informal settlers and in relocating the old ones.
This would also mean their strict enforcement of building codes.
They would like to see the day when the now obstructed view to the beach is cleared, and the sea breeze once again flows back freely into the old houses.
In the end, it is not only tourism that will benefit, but also the Boholano soul.
Ivan About Town http://ivanhenares.blogspot.com
Heritage Conservation Society
Indung Kapampangan http://cityofsanfernando.blogspot.com
ICOMOS Philippines http://icomosphilippines.blogspot.com
The Gabaldon Legacy http://gabaldon.blogspot.com
Old Manila Walks http://oldmanilawalks.blogspot.com