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I married a mountain girl. Jeanette was born and raised in Bucay, Abra, and settled in Manila for college where I met her several years after graduation. Traveling home to her town often, I started taking an interest in the culture and history of the place. It all began with my questions about a mysterious and semi-decrepit mortar-and-brick monumental arch the locals call Casa Real.

Abra, whose iconic animal is the horse, is a land-locked mountainous province in Northern Luzon in the Philippines. It is sandwiched between the two coastal Ilocos provinces and the great Cordillera Mountains. The province corresponds roughly with the lower Abra River basin, a river from which it takes its name. There is only a way to get into Abra: a tunnel in the road across the Ilocos Range in Tangadan, municipality of San Quintin,  by a park in honor of Gabriela Silang whose equestrian statue can be seen at left of picture. But this is a relatively new approach; until the XX century, the only way into Abra was the river, through the same town of San Quintin that in old times was called Talamey (click here to watch video of the park and tunnel.)

Originally occupied by several mountain tribes: Igorots, Itnegs, and Tinguian, today most of the people in the low lands are ethnically and linguistically Ilocanos with still important population nuclei of Tinguian and Igorots in towns and settlements higher up in the mountains. The province of Abra was created by decree of the Spanish Governor General Narciso Clavería in 1846 to facilitate bringing into the fold of the Church and the central government the mountain peoples of the area and to exploit the vast riches of minerals and timber of the land. Eventually, a new source of wealth was developed with the spread of tobacco cultivation.

At the time the new province was created, there was a relatively big and prosperous town, Bangued, which however was not chosen as the Capital of the province. In its stead, Claveria chose a “ranchería” (a tribal settlement) called Bucay, near the Fort General Martínez, an imposing military compound atop a cliff by the left bank of the wide Abra river. The strategic position of the settlement and fort, beyond which and across the river lay the great Cordillera Mountains, evidently determined the choice of Bucay as the Capital. Bucay today is a pretty, sleepy provincial town that was the first capital of the province from 1846 to 1863 when it lost its capital status to Bangued.

The first Governor of Abra was both a political and a military governor. His name was Ramon Tajonera, at thirty-two an already seasoned captain with a 10-year brilliant record in the field during the Peninsular Carlist wars. He had also studies that included economics, architecture, navigation, and science. From Bucay, he led at least four expeditions across the Cordillera to the east in an effort to subdue the mountain tribes and find a way to connect Ilocos and Abra with the great Cagayan Valley.

BUCAY, 1ST CAPITAL OF ABRA

One of Governor Tajonera's first tasks was that of converting the “ranchería” of Bucay into the functioning town that became the Capital of Abra. He began from zero and with a notable zoning sense laid the streets of the town in a grid pattern, positioned the main institutional buildings in the vicinity of the fort and reserved the low areas near creeks for agriculture as can be seen clearly in the  Map of Bucay 1848 drawn by Tajonera himself or staff under his supervision. He also took the task of developing the economy of the newly created province with the objective of making it financially independent of the subsidies of the Manila Central Government. He wished to have a fitting Casa Real (provincial government office) but given the lack of resources, decided to remodel some of the facilities of the fort so it could be used as as casa real, the latter becoming an integral part of the fort. The fort eventually came into oblivion, obliterated to the extent that other than the monumental arch that was its gate, only a few brick mounds are left of it. The town soon forgot the fort but kept calling the arch “Casa Real”, a powerful symbol of the character and history of the town as the first capital of Abra.

During our visits to Abra Jeanette and talked often with the town Mayor Rodolfo Bernardez IV of the town’s development. In the course of these visits, particularly that of February, 2006 when we traveled there with Gemma Cruz Araneta,  the Mayor became very interested in understanding and preserving the town’s heritage. Previous to the visit I was able to unearth Tajonera's old map of Bucay of 1848 with the aid of which I started understanding the lay and character of the Casa Real. In the company of the mayor, we made an ocular inspection of the whole town, including the ruins behind the Casa Real Arch. With the videotapes taken during the visit, Gemma prepared a one-hour TV program, Secrets of Bucay, that was aired on Feb 27, 2006 in RJTV's Only Gemma

Two events recently made me begin a study in depth of Bucay and Abra. I applied for, and received, a study grant from the Spanish Program for Cultural Cooperation (SPCC) to research Bucay’s Casa Real. As a result I embarked on an extensive perusal of the Philippine National Archives, discovering a large treasure-trove of manuscripts detailing the birth of Abra and Bucay.

Shortly after the study grant was approved, I accepted an invitation to present the case of Bucay at a seminar on Philippine Towns and Cities held on 8 November, 2006 in the development Academy of the Philippines. Intending to explore the beginnings of towns in the Philippines to extract lessons for the future, it was organized by The Heritage Conservation Society chaired by Ms Gemma Cruz Araneta, the Urban Partnership Foundation and the UP Department of History. Mayor Bernardez of Bucay was invited to attend in the symposium and he graciously participated in the Mayors’ Forum. The case on Bucay presented in the seminar is a documented history of the province and the town for the sixteen years Bucay was the provincial capital, almost totally based on documentary evidence found in the National Archives of the Philippines. Further development of the case resulted in the final study completed in May, 2007 and accepted by SPCC, it can be read in Casa Real de Bucay, 1st Capital of Abra.

At present, the Mayor of Bucay is highly intent on renovating the town, restoring its looks and public building styles to conform with the history and  times when it was the capital of Abra. He also wants to make sure that the townsfolk become aware of their history and heritage and would like to begin by making of the research I am undertaking required subject of the public schools in town. Besides the findings I am sharing with him and the town, Patricia, my architect daughter, is drawing the concepts for a small commercial center, renovation of the plaza and expansion of the municipal offices. Funding is always the big issue but we are confident this will be overcome once we have a good plan well articulated.

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Jose R. Perdigon, Dec., 2006
Mail comments to jrperdigon@yahoo.com