Siege of Baler rekindles PH-Spain ties
BALER, Aurora—Spanish film writer-director Jesús Valbuena, a descendant of one of the 33 Spanish soldiers who survived the 11-month siege by Filipino revolutionaries of Baler in 1899, is eternally indebted to the people of this town.
The “adopted son” of Baler has kept coming back to Aurora every June 30, Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day, to keep alive the cultural and historical ties between the two countries.
Aurora is the site of the Siege of Baler, the last and historically significant story of the Philippine war of independence against Spain.
“I am alive, thanks to Balerianos,” a tearful Valbuena told residents during ceremonies marking the 11th year of the Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day, which also coincided with the 114th anniversary of the attack and the 500th year of Spanish presence in the Pacific.
With his wife, Anabel Izquierdo Rubio, Valbuena flew in from Spain to attend this year’s commemoration. He said the siege took place at the “sunset” of the once powerful Spanish empire that ruled over the Philippine archipelago for 333 years.
“My wife and I try to teach our three kids (Adrian, David and Raquel) … to have dignity in defeat and humbleness in victory, and we try to teach them that, one day, the last will be the first,” he said.
He said that during the siege, the generosity of Filipinos became “the universal legacy that this town has given the world.”
“So I owe you my life, and therefore, I am from Baler. I love you very much,” he said.
This declaration triggered applause from the people, local and national government officials, Spanish guests and members of the diplomatic corps who gathered at the town plaza.
Social Welfare Secretary Corazon “Dinky” Soliman was guest of honor of the celebrations presided by then Sen. Edgardo J. Angara; his son, Sen. Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara, and sister, Gov. Bellaflor Angara-Castillo; and Baler Mayor Arthur Angara.
Also present were Ambassadors Jorge Manuel Domecq of Spain, Roberto Mayorga of Chile, Prasas Prasasvinitchai of Thailand, and Vu Tu Nguyen of Vietnam.
In 2003, Angara and his son, then Aurora representative, authored Republic Act No. 9187 declaring the Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day every June 30 to commemorate the day when Emilio Aguinaldo, the first president of the Philippine republic, recognized the bravery of Spanish soldiers by giving them safe passage to Spain following the siege.
The law has paved the way for improving bilateral relations between Manila and Madrid. Since 2007, Spanish humanitarian aid to the Philippines reached P1.3 billion, Domecq said.
Angara said the occasion was a “constant reminder of the long-standing friendship, as well as cultural and historical ties, between the Philippines and Spain.”
Holed up in church
Since the law was enacted, Valbuena has been coming back to Baler to remind its people the generosity of their ancestors, as well as to express gratitude to Aguinaldo and the Katipuneros (Filipino revolutionaries).
On June 27, 1898, 54 Spanish soldiers holed up at the Church of Baler in a last stand against the revolutionaries.
Valbuena’s great grandfather, Corporal Garcia Quijano, was among those who endured the 337-day assault on the last Spanish imperial garrison. The Spaniards had been unaware that the war had long ended.
Only 33 survivors emerged from the church on June 2, 1899, with the sympathetic people giving them food, clothing and medicine. Aguinaldo decreed that they be treated as friends, not prisoners.
The siege is one of the world’s longest in recorded history, and its lessons turned into a survival manual in the United States’ West Point.
“The story of the Siege of Baler has become a Bible for survival and is being taught in the West Point,” said Angara, adding that it had been made into films, biographies and novels here and in Spain.
“This fact is a source of personal pride and satisfaction—the Siege of Baler is the only battle where the Katipuneros won against both the Spanish and Americans,” said Angara, recalling that an American contingent sent to rescue the Spanish ended up being captured by the Katipuneros.
“This is the only event that we celebrate as a Filipino victory,” said Angara, pointing to many events in the country’s past that mark defeats, such as the Fall of Bataan and Battle of Manila.
It showed the “good traits” of two nations—bravery, courage and loyalty on the part of the Spanish soldiers, and generosity, civility and decency even in the time of war on the part of the Filipino soldiers and Katipuneros, he said.
“That’s the good lesson being taught in the public school system in Aurora,” Angara said.
He pointed to the conclusion of James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu in their seminal book, “Why Nations Fail” (2012).
“A nation fails not just because of culture, geography and economic policies. One major factor why a nation fails and become a basket case is political leadership who forgets history. Please do not forget history and the lessons of history, so that you’ll be generous, not selfish; humane rather than cruel; and look after the interest of our country,” Angara said.
To pay homage to both the Spanish and Filipino soldiers, and civilians, Valbuena produced “The Empire’s Sunset,” a documentary that “attempts to keep alive the memory of the last outpost of the Empire where the Sun never set.”
On the eve of the anniversary, guests were treated to a gala performance titled, “Amigos para Siempre” (Friends Forever), produced by Angara when he was senator, the Cultural Center of the Philippines, National Commission for Culture and the Arts, National Historical Commission of the Philippines, and the Embassy of Spain.
In a brief speech, Valbuena cited Angara’s efforts in drawing attention to the lessons of the siege as a focal point for the revival of the friendship between the Philippines and Spain.
“The Siege of Baler is unprecedented worldwide because of three reasons—it was the longest military siege in modern history, the winner of a military siege displayed such level of respect for those who can never return (to their country) out of their own will, and there is no record where the winners displayed such respect for the losers,” he said.
“And third, [it] … is a universal fact because there is no record of any colonized nation that unilaterally declared friendship (to a former colonizer) such as (what) the Philippines has done.”
Valbuena thanked Filipinos “for the friendship that has proven continually” and “for this profound act of love.”
He said that after the 33 soldiers came out of the church, the people of Baler had thought of them as “dead bodies” because of so much animosity and hatred toward Spanish colonizers at the time.
“But they were able to go back to Spain and they were able to have families. I was 20 years old when my great grandfather (told me this story). Therefore, the 33 families which I represent today owe our very lives to the people of Baler,” he said, fighting off tears.