Tuesday, November 23, 2010

FPJ’s Kapampangan roots

I WILL start by posing these questions:

(1) Which Pampanga town is the birthplace of at least five Supreme Court Justices, a dozen Cabinet members and seven Governors?
(2) Which barrio in Pampanga has produced the most number of priests in the Philippines?
(3) Which parish in Pampanga has produced the most number of bishops in the country?
(4) Which Pampanga town has produced two Philippine Presidents?
(5) Which Pampanga town has produced two Kings of Philippine Movies?

 The answers are: (1) Bacolor; (2) Betis; (3) Our Lord’s Ascension Parish, Lourdes Heights, City of San Fernando; (4) Lubao; (5) Lubao. Let me explain the last one.

The town of Lubao is probably the oldest in Pampanga. It used to cover more than its present boundaries, maybe the entire southwestern Pampanga (Macabebe being the entire southeastern part). Mountain tribes from Pinatubo used Lubao as their passage to the coast, which is probably how the town got its name (Lubao came from baba, ‌lowland).

Lubao's strategic location made it one of the oldest and biggest pre-colonial communities in the archipelago. When the Spaniards came to Luzon in 1571, they found an already thriving Muslim community in Lubao (its population of 3,500 made it as big as pre-colonial Cebu). The conquistadores pacified the natives and reorganized the town, with a church built at its center. 

The Augustinian missionaries dedicated it to their most important saint, Saint Augustine. They also put up their very first printing press there. The present parish church of Lubao is the largest in Pampanga - another proof of the town's preeminence in the province.

Today, the whole country knows Lubao as President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s hometown. More importantly, it is the only town that produced two Philippine presidents, the other one being Arroyo’s father, Diosdado Macapagal.

Lubao is also the birthplace of the original King of Philippine Movies, Rogelio de la Rosa. His brother Tomas also became a movie actor named Jaime de la Rosa, while his sister Purita became Diosdado Macapagal’s first wife (Rogelio, whose real name was Regidor, had another sister, Africa, and another brother, who died from an accident at the church belfry). Diosdado and Rogelio acted together in zarzuelas, mostly written by Diosdado’s father, Urbano Macapagal, a famous Kapampangan poet.

When Diosdado ran for President in 1961, the administration convinced Rogelio to also run for President to neutralize the Kapampangan vote; he was, however, prevailed upon by his brother-in-law to withdraw from the race, just days before the election.    

History is often stranger than fiction.  The other King of Philippine Movies, Fernando Poe, Jr., also ran for President in the 2004 elections, against Diosdado's daughter, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.  As we all know, the FPJ juggernaut was on its way to easy victory when the citizenship issue gave it a flat tire.

His political enemies claimed FPJ (real name: Ronald Allan Poe) was not a Filipino citizen because his father, Fernando Poe, Sr. (real name: Allan Fernando Poe), was pure Spanish, and so was his father’s first wife, Paulita Gomez, as well as his paternal grandparents, Lorenzo Poe (or Pou) and Marta Reyes. Lorenzo was a playwright from Mallorca, Spain who had come to the colony years before the 1896 Revolution and settled in San Carlos, Pangasinan.

FPJ’s mother, on the other hand, was Bessie Kelly, whom Fernando Poe, Sr. had met at the University of the Philippines where he studied and posed nude for sculptor Guillermo Tolentino (their collaboration produced The Oblation). They fell in love and got married, which is why Poe Sr.’s first wife, Paulita Gomez, sued him for bigamy, five weeks before Bessie Kelly gave birth to FPJ, in 1939.

The Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of FPJ, citing the Philippine Bill of 1902 and the Jones Law of 1916, which stated that all Spanish citizens living in the Philippines at the time Spain ceded the colony to the United States, were deemed citizens of the Philippines.  FPJ's campaign proceeded, by he lost to Gloria, thanks to Commissioner Garci and his operatives.

I am mentioning FPJ’s citizenship case because there are claims that his mother, Bessie Kelly, who was an American, may have had Kapampangan blood.

Former Pampanga Governor Estelito Mendoza, who served as FPJ’s lawyer in the case, mentioned in the court proceedings that Bessie Kelly’s mother was a Gatbonton from Candaba, Pampanga. FPJ was just a boy when she died so he could not remember even the first name of his maternal grandmother. In her own testimony, Ruby Kelly, Bessie Kelly’s sister and mother of Social Weather Station (SWS) chief Dr. Mahar Mangahas, also did not mention their Kapampangan mother.

My staff at the Center for Kapampangan Studies checked the registros parroquiales (parish records) of Candaba circa 1918 (Bessie Kelly's likely year of baptism, since she was 21 when FPJ was born in 1939) and found many Gatbonton entries (as expected in Candaba), but no Bessie Kelly, no Bessie Gatbonton, no Elizabeth Kelly, no Elizabeth Gatbonton.  It's possible that she was not baptized in her mother’s parish, or, as Center consultant Fray Francis Musni theorizes, she was not baptized at all, because Bessie’s father, an American, was Protestant.

Here’s how it gets even more interesting. Dr. Rodrigo Sicat, author of the book Lubao: The Cradle of Kapampangan Civilization, recently told me that his neighbor in Sta. Cruz, Lubao is one Fred Kelly, who claims that Bessie Kelly is his sister and that FPJ used to frequent Lubao in those early days.

Could Bessie Kelly’s American father have been one of those American colonists who went to Lubao in the early 1900s to cash in on the booming sugar industry in Pampanga?  One American who did was William Fassoth, Sr. He came to invest in sugar lands in Lubao because the town had vast sugar plantations and was only a short distance from the Pampanga Sugar Mills (Pasumil) located in Floridablanca. In World War II, Lubao became a strategic town in Pampanga owing to its railroad station which connected Clark Field with Mariveles, Bataan. (In fact, Fassoth built a camp in Lubao for American GIs, one of whom was named Kelly. The Center has a copy of Fassoth’s personal account.)

More research should be done to establish Bessie Kelly’s father’s roots in Lubao, if indeed they lived there. It all makes sense to me: her mother, a Gatbonton from Candaba, met and fell in love with an American businessman in Lubao, got married and settled in Lubao, which was a suitable place to do business in, and which is where a Kelly, Bessie's alleged brother, still resides.

If all this is proven true, then Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Fernando Poe, Jr. are town mates, after all.  

History cannot get any stranger than that.

First published on September 05, 2006

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