( Everything written here are of the author. He takes responsibility for any mistake , inaccuracy and inconsistency inherent in this exposition.
It is remarkably quaint why Hilongosnon seldom refers to himself as Leyteño. Almost always when in distant shores, he carries the word Hilongos like a proud badge on his forehead. When asked from whence he comes from, the ready answer is ‘Hilongos!’. The word ‘Leyte’ only comes disclosed when the one asking is not geography adept or well-traveled, and raises an inquiring eyebrow.
In early 1990s, the apartments in Sanchez Compound (along Sanciangko in Cebu City where most of those not from Cebu take temporary abode) where known by their respective inhabitants: Surigaonons, Cebuanos, Leyteños (those coming from other parts of Leyte) and Hilongosnons!
Most of my friends in the city ask me, What is Hilongos? Where is Hilongos ? What makes it so distinctly special? And why is Hilongos so remarkably regarded all around? Is it a city or an extremely attractive place? Neither, I told them. Hilongos is simply a small town at the belly of an island province called Leyte in Central Philippines. From a distance , the place exudes of nothing extraordinary. The usual vegetation and shrubbery fill its landscape.. The usual salty, often murky waters washes its shores… the same flat nosed, brown skinned ‘probinsyanos’ populate all over the place.
But if a visitor looks closely enough, he would find that the smiles from the faces of the Hilongosnos have meaning. It is different from the usual. It conveys pride, even a little bit of arrogance. Even those who are toothless. The self-assurance in their smirks is manifest and it seems to say: “ I am Hilongosnon. Can you beat that?”
That makes me deeply ponder. And in that moment of deep thought , the church bells gave out a mischievous peal. I looked far and saw the pompous belfry in the horizon… the belfry which saw the town through all these years, both trying and triumphant. The same belfry which has come to be regarded as the municipal icon, an overpowering symbol of the Hilongosnon as a people. And in that exact moment, I came to know why.
Such an awesome belfry or ‘campanaryo’ was erected in the early 1700s and is one of the tallest in the country. Our ancestors could just have decided to make a bell tower that is half its size and half its grandeur. But no, they did not. They wanted it to be like no other. They wanted it to stand tall and proud, beyond the reach of other neighboring towns. Here we could surmise and ascribe Hilongos as the bastion of regal blood and character, whether it be Spanish, Chinese or plainly Indio. Why regal? Because it does not settle for something mediocre and average. The ancestral houses, which stand to this very day speak of a glory that was Hilongos, and of the superiority and ascendancy of the people residing in them.
Our ‘carros’ during Lenten season are definitely marvelous. Our old folks could very well have settled for something of lesser value, but no. They preferred them to be of life-size and to be made of costly material from abroad. Comparing them to those from other places today is like comparing gold with brass. Such a frame of mind has remained to this day, and has been ingrained in the minds of young Hilongosnons who have assumed the cudgel of leadership. This has unconsciously governed our every activity as people. This is behind our drive and our desire to build the superlatives of everything… be it a pier, a new municipal building, a public market or just a momentary hosting of a regional sports competition, a district-wide beauty pageant, etc. Even in the making of our street lights and the booths during new year. In everything that we do, we unwittingly vie for distinction… for superiority.
In my interaction with a good number of educators in Tacloban City, I am amazed at the fact they hold relatively similar views of who we are as a people. They have experienced our performances and hospitality in almost every angle. They have only one thing to say. And that is… we always go for the best, and it pleases them no end. They told me in the vernacular: “Lahi ra gyud ang taga Hilongos.”
The Hilongosnon too is very intelligent and highly educated community. By intelligence, I do not mean its customary meaning which is characterized by memory that is superior. The Hilongosnon is so beyond that. It has superior intelligence as evidenced by its pioneering spirit, its dynamism at work, its creativity, its resourcefulness, its openness to change, its intensiveness, and its consistency to censure mediocrity in everything that it does.
This portion on the intelligence of the Hilongosnon wouldn’t be complete if I do not mention the name of the late Ma’am Tering Flores, who was touted by many to be a genius in her own right. I was too young to know her up close and personal, but I have spoken to a lot of people who vouch for her brilliance and versatility.
It is of great joy to note that the intelligence of the Hilongosnon is not of armchair quality (one which philosophizes about things all day long) but is of practical worth which gave life in Hilongos a lot of more meaning, vigor and substance. We do not simply lament at poverty; we had constructed houses for the poor via tha Bahay Kalinga project, the first in this part of the country. We simply do not talk about human development; we had ventured into radio broadcasting, print journalism, higher education, and other paths less pursued (although some ventures had to bow down to economic realities). We are not simply content with trash art coming from questionable artists gyrating and bentering meaningless words; we recently have embraced poetry, theatre, art exhibits, choral concerts and the game of chess… all which remained strange and unappealing to others.
A visitor I have had recently was amazed at the lifestyle we Hilongosnon do not scamper and race for transportation as the others predictably would. The Hilongosnon wakes up in all comfort and luxury, and slowly moves out from the boat, fully self-assured that he is home. That by the way is a result of a Hilongosnon ingenuity who in the past took the risk and pioneered endowed to us by chance. It was the work of one Hilongosnon. If that is not superior intelligence, what is it then?
My visitors had more things to say… now with respect to our state. She emphatically said that we do have impeccable taste as people. Our women do not overdress like dim-wits in the name of fashion and ballroom dancing. Our young people do not act stupid just so they be called cool. Our lips do not give away an unsophisticated accent. All in all, we are wonderful people, without even trying.
I would like to commend mostly the young professionals of Hilongos working here and elsewhere aho have continued to nurture the mentality of the belfry in everything that he does. Such is the spirit of the Hilongosnon, Such is the reason why we carry with pride, poise and coolness our very identity.
Let every toll of the bells in our belfry constantly reminds us that we are people… the Hilongosnon!