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Love in the Time of Landlessness

Lola Vic had the wildest stories. Actually, she just had stories. Tons of them. She regaled us with horror stories of the Japanese times and the war, or growing up rich as one of the few who had a car in 1920s Cebu, and then becoming poor just before the war broke out. Mostly, we tuned her out. One by one, we would stealthily leave the room until she’d be left all by herself, continuing a tale she’d told a dozen times.

Now, I wish I had listened intently. Because there was a lot of history there. And odd romantic tales. Like how she thought she had to marry my Lolo after he stole a kiss during a chaotic fire. Or how her mother escaped to Hong Kong to avoid being married to a cousin because she did not want to have freak children. Yeah, I know. That was progressive thinking back then when people married within the family, thus amplifying wealthand genetic disorders.

I always thought that the particular story of how my great-grandmother, at 17 years old, met a Lebanese merchant in a ship and married him after a  few days together was utterly romantic… and gutsy! It's Thomas Hardy heroine meets classic Disney princess: headstrong child-woman falls in love one day and gets married the next.

Apparently, this wasn't all what it seemed to be. After careful inspection, my father had recently unearthed the closer-to-the-truth account of how she met his grandfather.

Rosario, my great grandmother, aka Charing, was the daughter of Consortia Isguerra of Iloilo and a Spanish clerk, Ramon Matti, who must have been of Italian descent. After the defeat of Spain in the 1898 Spanish-American War, most officials and administrators were sent back to Spain and the Spanish colonies by the year’s end. However, some were allowed to stay.

My dad reckons that Señor Matti was one of those too old to be sent back home. And, like many foreigners back then, he married a local to ensure his status as a resident, be able to venture out into the provinces, and own land. Consortia Isguerra, my great-great-grandmother, was considered an old maid at 26 when she married, but she and her family had some businesses and they owned land. I suppose for any guy over 50, that’s good enough! Their brief union bore one child: Charing.

When Señor Matti died in his sleep after a couple of years of marriage, Consortia’s land was transferred to the Mattis until such time when Charing was old enough to inherit and pass her property to her husband or heirs. Back then, Iloilo was the Queen City of the South and, as in any city, land was at a premium. It was an international shipping lane where imported British cotton (which eventually killed a thriving Visayan textile industry) was exchanged for Philippine sugar.

The urgency to marry the young Charing to a Matti cousin peaked when her mother, Consortia, bore a son, Federico Ledesma. My father suspects that Consortia and Mr. Ledesma, Federico's father, were not legally married because otherwise, the Ledesmas, not the Mattis, would have benefited from marrying Charing to a relative. After all, the Ledesmas, a Chinese Mestizo family, was also landed. Consortia must have known them from being in the same circle. And being a lonely, young widow, one can imagine falling for the charms of a friend.

And so there it was. The Mattis did not want to chance the loss of land in case Consortia married her new baby-daddy. So they quickly made plans to marry Charing to a Matti cousin. There was only one problem. Charing was already in love with the Lebanese merchant, Elias Jureidini.

When Elias met Charing, he was already old—in his 30s! (I never thought being in your 30s was old.) But clearly, Charing, who lived on books and worldly stories, was enchanted by this man’s real life adventures. She did not want to marry an entitled mestizo cousin. She did not care about consolidating wealth. She wanted to be with the landless merchant. And so they devised their escape.

Mr. Elias Jureidini of Choueifat (a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon) and his brothers had stores in Bacolod and Iloilo in the early 1900s. He and his brothers were part of the first generation of the Lebanese diaspora (1860 to 1914), during which almost half of the population of Mount Lebanon had emigrated. The brothers had left Lebanon right around World War I, when their part of the world was under the Ottoman Empire. Ninety percent of the emigrants were Christians.

When Elias met Charing, he was already oldin his 30s! (I never thought being in your 30s was old.)  But clearly, Charing, who lived on books and worldly stories, was enchanted by this man’s real life adventures. She did not want to marry an entitled mestizo cousin. She did not care about consolidating wealth. She wanted to be with the landless merchant. And so they devised their escape.

As I imagine it, she must had been able to leave without a fuss because she had to go back to the Colegio de la Inmaculada Concepcion de la Concordia (now La Concordia College) in Manila. From Manila, she took a ship to Hong Kong where she met up with Elias. As the story goes, she was "captured" at the port of Hong Kong to be sent back home. But it was too late for the Mattis. Charing had already married Elias.

Elias and Charing lived in Manila for a brief time. (My Lola Vic was actually born at the Philippine General Hospital in Manila.) Meanwhile, her mother, Consortia, and half-brother, Federico, suffered alienation from the family and were forced out of Iloilo. Charing and Elias eventually moved to Cebu to be with her mother and half-brother.  

Elias quickly established three stores in downtown Cebu selling fabric (Mount Lebanon was renowned for its silk from the mid 1800s until WWI), shoes, and general merchandise. This was likely not only an emotional decision on Elias's part but also a financial one. The economy of Iloilo was in the decline as the once-vibrant textile industry got pretty much decimated by the influx of cheap cotton; sugar, essentially, had become the only industry. Iloilo, being an international shipping port, also became susceptible to the fluctuations of the global markets. (In the early 1930s, a well-documented series of shipping and sugar workers strikes further crippled its economy.)

Lola Vic was born on September 19, 1920. Curiously, her name, Victoria Paz, was a celebration of the end of the first World War. Elias must have felt strongly against his Turkish oppressors! She won the "Biggest Baby Award" in the hospital at 10 pounds, which she claimed exhausted her mother, Charing, who never fully recovered from it.

An only child, Lola was mostly raised by her grandmother, Consortia. In 1929, Elias, who was already diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, wanted to take his family back to Lebanon. But Charing would not leave her mother and brother. So he left by himself instead and set up cash businesses in the form of 10 tartanillas (horse-drawn carriages ubiquitous in Cebu then) to carry them through while he was away. 

Unfortunately, Lola's father died in Lebanon when she was 10 years old. Her mother followed six years later. My spoiled Lolawho, until that time, never wanted for anythingwas left with nothing. The Great Depression and her mother's mismanagement of their businesses had obliterated all their wealth. At 17, she left Cebu City to become a governess to the Forbes, an American family based in the town of Bogo at the northernmost tip of the island. And, at 21, my poor, orphaned Lola watched helplessly as the Japanese occupied the Philippines.

Read the next part of the story: Victoria's Losses.