This is a town that gave its name to an entire province in the same way that the municipalities of Cavite and Batangas became the names of their respective provinces.
When people learn I am a native of Bulacan, they inevitably ask me about the origin of the name Bulacan. Frankly I am not sure. Some say that the name “Bulakan” is derived from the Tagalog word “bulak,” which is cotton in English. It is not, however, the same as the cotton that grew in the old American south but “kapok,” which used to grow abundantly in the area even before the Spaniards came. But according to another version, before the Spaniards arrived, the region was sprawling with green orchards, vegetables, and flowering plants, and so this piece of land came to be called “bulak-lakan” and later shortened to Bulacan.
Just for your information, the New Provincial Administrative Code of Bulacan of 2007 states that the word “Bulakan” with a K stands for the municipality while “Bulacan” refers to the whole province.
Just 35 kilometres away from Metro Manila, Bulakan is a tiny town, ranking just 10th among municipalities in the province in terms of land area.
But don’t let its smallness fool you. In terms of history, it looms large.
Firstly, Bulakan is one of the oldest towns in the Philippines founded by the Augustinians in 1572, one of the 385 towns founded by the said order of friars throughout the Philippines whom Plaridel mocked so hilariously because of perceived abuses. It was the first capital of the Province of Bulacan before it was moved to Malolos shortly after the American occupation.
Bulakan was also the scene of battle between the Spaniards led by Simón de Anda y Salazar and the British led by Capt. Slay during the short British occupation of Manila. The British sent an expedition of 400 English soldiers, 300 Malabar Negroes, and 2,000 Chinese allies. The Spaniards, with the natives of Bulacan, made a gallant stand for nine days but were eventually defeated. Although Capt. Slay eventually took over the town, he did not stay long and decided to march back to Manila. The British attempt of conquering the rest of the country ended here because of the marvelous fight made by Bulakeños. In this fight, Bulakeños showed for the first time an extraordinary martyrdom.
During the Spanish Period, Bulakan must have been a flourishing economic and cultural hub probably because of its nearness to Manila, with whom it shares a coastline, and the easy transportation made possible by rivers.
Arguably, this prosperity created and sustained an Ilustrado class, landed and educated families. This Bulakan elite must have imbibed the same liberal-democratic theory that animated the love for freedom of the Ilustrados in other provinces such as Laguna, Cavite, Ilocos and Iloilo.
Replete with Ilustrados with liberal ideas, it is not surprising Bulakan spawned the Del Pilar line of Filipino heroes: the satirist-propagandist Marcelo H. Del Pilar, the boy general, Gregorio “Goyo” del Pilar of Tirad Pass fame. There’s another revolutionary del Pilar by the name of Gen, Pio del Pilar but he was born in Makati and was not really a del Pilar but originally an Isidro but dropped it to elude the Spanish authorities.
Other notable native sons include Francisco “Soc “Rodrigo—lawyer, educator, broadcaster, journalist, playwright, and statesman having served as a long serving member of the Senate of the Philippines from 1960-1972 and as a Commissioner on the 1986 Constitutional Commission. He is said to be related to Marcelo del Pilar and Gregorio del Pilar.
Soc Rodrigo wrote plays in English and Tagalog, and was also known for his Tanaga poems which exalted Filipino teachings, idioms, feelings, and ways of life. There is now a national cultural award named in his honor, the Gawad Soc Rodrigo, which is given by the Philippines’ Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF) and National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).
The town has produced not only heroes and patriots but also scientists. I learned recently that Sec. Fortunato de la Peña of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) is a native son. Before he became the top honcho of DOST, dela Peña also served as the president of the Philippine Association for the Advancement of Science and Technology and is also a former chairman of the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development.
Let’s not forget the Lava brothers: Jesus, Jose, and Vicente who were scions of a prominent family in Bulakan. Vicente was a chemist who helped develop coconut oil for use in industry, while Jesus was a top notched medical doctor before they became embroiled in the political ferment of their time. The Lava brothers supported economic independence of the Philippines from America and later became leaders of the local communist resistance against the Japanese during World War II.
This town also gave birth to other things aside from heroes and famous personages. One of these is the traditional song Dalit, a poetic chant for the patrons of a certain barrio or town. The tradition of Flores de Mayo was also born here at the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion. This is a feast held to honor the Virgin Mary, now held throughout the Philippines in the month of May.
Small as it is, Bulakan also has many things of interest to attract out-of-towners. Its legendary native cuisine is the most talked-about thing that draws a lot of visitors from Manila and far-away places is.
This interest has been sparked by the late Filipino food historian Milagros Santiago-Enriquez.
Known as Tita Mila, she was known for such dishes as binilot na morcon, bistik na sugpo, bringheng Bualakan, Calamares relleno, hamon ng bulakan, deche flan del mar, Picadilyong na may patatas at chorizo.
She was the author of an award-winning historical cookbook, Kasaysayan ng Kaluto ng Bayan, which documents the history of Bulacan cuisine from as early as the 17th century. The book provides original recipes of Bulacan dishes during the Philippine Revolution and the birth of the Philippine Republic. There is a chapter there that has a list of the favorite foods of the country’s heroes. Accordingly Jose Rizal’s favorite was tinola and ginisang monggo, while Marcelo H. del Pilar’s was pinalundag na bulig and pochero. Gregorio del Pilar craved arroz ala Cubana and puto caramba, among others.
How did she know? Mrs. Enriquez was related to Gregorio del Pilar and Pio Valenzuela. Her father-in-law, Col. Vicente Y. Enriquez, was the aide-de-camp of Gen. Gregorio del Pilar. In fact, General del Pilar was born on land adjacent to the Enriquez family house in Barrio San Jose, Bulakan. The Enriquez brothers were not only neighbors of Goyo, they also became best of friends. So it’s easy to imagine General Goyo enjoying those original recipes prepared by the Enriquez household during his occasional neighborly visits.
These “revolutionary dishes” are still being served to visitors by the next generation of the Enriquez clan, who have carried on Tita Mila’s traditional cooking. A planned trip there is in my new year’s list for 2021.
By the way the Enriquez Ancestral House is a destination in itself. Constructed during the 1850s, it houses a museum of rare antiques and historical artifacts. Some of the documents of Marcelo H. del Pilar were found in this house.
Three historical spots in Bulakan to put in your must-see in Bulakan:
- The Church of Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion, built by the Agustinians in the late 1500s, is one of the oldest churches in the Philippines. It is said that in this church, Gregorio del Pilar distributed “subversive” pamphlets authored by his uncle, Marcelo H. del Pilar. The National Historical Commission of the Philippines installed a historical marker in 2007 that declared the Bulakan Church as a Marked Historical Structure.
- Gat Marcelo H. Del Pilar Memorial Shrine and birthplace of the country’s exceptional propagandist and hero. This is where Plaridel was born and where he spent his youth. However, according to a granddaughter of del Pilar, the original house was torn down. This house is just a replica of the original. The shrine is now under the care of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.
- Gen. Gregorio del Pilar Marker, which marks the birthplace of Gen. Gregorio del Pilar who was born on November 14, 1875, and died December 2, 1899.
Now is the time to visit this quiet town with K (for kasaysayan) before the modern world encroaches on it. That’s because from what I learned, the New Manila International Airport is being proposed to be built along the coastlines of the municipality with 2025 as the target day of completion.