In my secret book, there are a select few who should have been and should be immortal; whom the Almighty should have frozen in time but in the pink of health and at the cusp of their creativity. These are (or were) the people who can live forever and should have lived forever, never bothered by the thought of illness and death. They should be immortal because they are (were) sterling examples of what is civilized, cultivated, refined, respectful, humble, compassionate, and magnanimous. People who are genuine harbingers of our finest and noble traditions should remain on this earth forever because this is where they are urgently and irreversibly needed.
I was deeply and most profoundly shaken by those thoughts when I learned that Don Ado Escudero passed away quite peacefully in the Villa Escudero, the centuries-old heartland that he loved, nurtured, and shared with both friends and strangers. Villa Escudero is an enchanted corner of this universe, a native Brigadoon, thanks to its patriarch, Eduardo Adap Escudero.
Where Tiaong and San Pablo mingle among forests of coconut trees, one finds Villa Escudero, my first provincial jaunt. My paternal grandmother, Concepcion Arguelles Cruz, took me and my cousins there a couple of times to visit its owners, Ado’s parents. They would talk endlessly at the veranda of a splendid plantation house, of another time zone, while we children roamed around, unattended by yayas and servants. I had never before seen such lush vegetation; never had I heard the incessant humming of invisible insects; a sudden rustle of leaves betrayed birdsin flight. I was intrigued by the life-size concrete figures of children playing, seated on benches, scattered strategically around the property. I remember a small airplane which, I believe is the very same one guarding the entrance of today’s Villa Escudero Plantation Resort. Ado, who was ten years my senior, was never around, he was studying abroad; we were already adults when first we met
Since then, I had made various trips to Villa Escudero with adventurous friends in tow, jaded by city life, always on the lookout for something new, crazy adventures not far from the metropolis. Even then, the artificial waterfall was already an attraction, not only because you could have a picnic under the cascades; it was an engineering marvel by Ado’s father who wanted to save on electricity. He damned a river passing through the property to generate hydroelectric energy.
When I was living in Mexico during the martial law years, I would hear stories about how Ado was developing the Villa by organizing fabulous parties and other fashionable events that attracted Manila’s crème de la crème. I had also heard that despite all the ostentation, Ado was never blacklisted by the NPA and the New CPP who roamed the provinces of Laguna and Quezon. The Escudero family’s sense of social justice and magnanimity have always been legendary. Everyone knows they take good care of their people. When the rice fields were converted into resort grounds ( to save the estate from land reform), the Escudero family integrated the farmers and their families in every step of the development plan. There is an area in the plantation, near the hacienda church called “pook,” a veritable village where generations of workers have lived with their families. They have permanent jobs maintaining the grounds, cooking for guests, taking care of carabaos and other farm animals, harvesting coconuts and other produce; they are trained servers, musicians, folk dancers and singers, accountants, admin staff, gardeners, and drivers.
When I was appointed secretary of tourism, Ado came to see me about his plans of converting Villa Escudero into a Filipino-type resort. I had flashbacks of visits with my grandma, meeting his parents and his sisters and how I had always been fascinated with the place. I told him that before leaving for Long Beach, California, I took some friends to the Villa, we asked for a small banca, rowed a bit before it capsized near the waterfalls.
Do you think a Filipino-style resort is a good idea? But of course, I said, that is what we need around here; domestic tourism is our bread- and-butter. Besides, it will open the eyes of Filipinos to our enchanting traditions and culture. Some business friends had warned him that a Filipino -style resort would be a total failure, yet deep in his heart he knew he was on the right track.
In the past 22 years, I have visited Villa Escudero many times, with state visitors, unofficial foreign guests, balikbayan friends, and family members, budding historians and wannabe writers who were seeking encounters and experiences to stimulate their creative juices. Not a single one left the Villa disappointed. Breathing, dining, dancing, singing like Filipinos, enjoying aspects of Filipino culture and traditions, how memorable can that be! And every time I visited, Ado would emerge in regal fashion to welcome my guests and converse with them.
The Semana Santa and the Ascension were the most outstanding feasts at the Villa Escudero. You have to see it at least once in your life The Lenten procession with fabulous carrosas depicts stages of Christ’s passion, culminating with the Santo Entierro. Almost yearly, Ado would complain about the bishop who disapproved of the Villa Escudero rituals, calling them pagan and blasphemous. No one, not even the Catholic Church, could intimidate and push back the Patriarch Ado Escudero, especially when he was doing nothing heretical. I always looked forward to the High Mass on Ascension Day, with the participation of the UST Choir, because during the Consecration and Elevation, the Villa Escudero band, gathered at the church yard and would play the National Anthem. Ado explained that by doing so, we are offering our country to God. It is an old Spanish tradition, Ado explained, they would do that during colonial days. Of course, the Sword and Cross, I thought, the inextricable union of Church and State. But I think it is beautiful to offer one’s country to God.
Paalam, Ado, bakit mo kami iniwan? Papaano na kami?
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