With the initial purpose to save their family legacy, this true-blue Taal natives have become impassioned with a new goal to save the heritage of their uniquely Filipino hometown.
In all of its historical glory, Taal seems like an underrated gem compared to the bigwigs of cultural destinations such as Vigan in the north. The southern town that had once been the richest in all of the Philippines and a hotbed for many of the country’s revolutionary heroes now sits peacefully overlooking the volcano crater it has taken its name from—maybe, too quietly. A misconception is that Taal is associated with the view of the lake, thus Tagaytay coming first to mind. However, it is an integral town in the province of Batangas, where one can access the lake by land. And while Vigan’s ancestral homes are concentrated along one main street, Taal’s dispersal of its own ancestral homes add breathing room that should be appreciated by more potential tourists.
It’s this breathing room that Ernie Villavicencio and his wife Ria appreciate about Taal. “Here, it’s a purer kind of tourism. We don’t want Taal to be over-commercialized and we don’t want our streets to be filled with tourists all of the time because then you will lose the charm of a quaint little village.” Despite the initial aversion towards the crowds, Mr. Villavicencio admits their town still needs a push when it comes to tourism, but, he hopes, in all the right directions. “We still need people coming here to support our industries. Hopefully, that will be a jumping point for economic development. But more than that, it’s for kids like you to get a glimpse of Filipino cultural heritage. Because most of the millennials have forgotten the past, and by restoring all of these structures by trying to make it tourist- friendly, giving people a chance to enter the houses as to feel what it was like before.”
“We should always be proud of our culture. We should always be proud of where we came from, because if you don’t, then we will lose it forever. It’s like a soul—if you don’t feed your soul, somewhere,
somehow we lose our identity as Filipinos. So I think it’s the duty of each and every one of us to try and propagate that message, especially to the young.”
Mr. V, as he is fondly called, believes that Taal’s best chance is through tourism. “So in 2007, when there was a change in the mayor, we hit upon this idea: ‘Why don’t we promote tourism?’ So the only thing that you can offer is the houses because that’s what makes us unique from other Filipino towns. So, one of the very first things that we did was to prohibit demolition of old structures in Taal.”
Fellow heritage advocates told him to build infrastructure first, and then the tourists will come. “Build and they shall come. So we built a restaurant, we built a hotel.”
But as noble as it sounds, their fight to preserve Taal and Filipino heritage in general doesn’t come easy, even with government and financial backing. “Well, it’s not that easy actually, even though we do have that ordinance already. People were not following that ordinance even here.” Mrs. Villavicencio cites that Vigan has always been and is still ahead of Taal because they have the resources, with an engineering department of twenty or more members, while back in Taal, it’s literally a one-man team. “So how could he monitor all the houses being demolished? Not only in the poblacion but in the farmlands as well.”
Mr. Villavicencio tells us that he’s buying ancestral houses to save them but even that proves challenging due to obstacles like inter-family inheritance issues of the homeowners. “There aren’t enough funds because their last priority is to fix the house. It would be easier for them to tear it down and build a new structure rather than restoring the house. It takes three times more money to restore a house. It takes at least two times longer to restore a house rather than build a house. That’s why restoration and preservation are very difficult for the townspeople to appreciate.”
However, the Villavicencios continue with perseverance. The love affair with Taal started with the objective to recognize the heroism of his great-grandmother in the area. Gliceria Marella de Villavicencio is considered the “‘Angel of the Philippine Revolution” but her contributions are not as widely recognized as fellow Taaleño Marcela Agoncillo. Mr. Villavicencio’s father was adamant to propagate the family legacy. “Even when I was young I used to see my father slaving away [on] the typewriter.” Mr. V tells us the house was such a treasure to his father that they restored it as a gift to him. And although his father didn’t live to see it finished, his spirit lives on in the revival of Casa Villavicencio.
This purpose to save the heritage of one’s own finally cascaded into saving the rest of the town, and the Villavicencios are determined to preserve its culture and traditions, even if it means money out of their pockets, because they work within a continuum of passion. “There’s a lot to be done. Every day is a new challenge for us,” says Mr. V. On the other hand, Mrs. Villavicencio tells us they want to build a barong museum in one of their restored houses along the main road to preserve, and maybe revive, the once-rich barong making industry of Taal. Now, even the future of local industries unique to Taal like embroidery and balisong-making are looking bleak, with a lack of willing apprentices to carry the tradition.
But despite the looming obstacles in Taal’s future, Mr. and Mrs. Villavicencio are resolute. “They say it is love for country. Moreover, specifically, the love of this town. This is where we came from. I’m lucky to be from Taal. Taal has a lot of history. Taal has a lot of culture, that’s why I’m lucky to be from here. Because we’re from here, we’re more conscious. We’re more appreciative of what Taal has to offer other people, and that’s to give you a glimpse of the past.”