When we were little girls, it was always an adventure to drive up north in my dad’s red Mustang, to Baliuag, Bulacan—my grandmother Ima’s hometown. Those were the days when the only way to get there was through the rough back roads of MacArthur Highway; that is, a highway stretched between rice fields and old wooden houses.
I can still picture how we all felt every time we’d arrive at our Ima’s home—basking in the aroma of newly-fried chicken, excited at opening huge boxes of crackling, salty, chicharon as we waited for the Holy Week procession or the Flores de Mayo each summer. I realize now that growing up, we were fortunate to have such memories.
These days, Baliuag feels seemingly different from what the town was back then. To get there, we still drive through asphalt roads beside disappearing rice fields, dotted with carabaos lazing around haystacks, and mango trees wrapped by tall grains. It occasionally feels like looking at an Amorsolo painting with scenes slowly fading into the past.
The scenery abruptly changes as you near town where grass fields turn into modern and imposing structures of low-rise concrete buildings teeming with traders and their wares. As it has been for decades, Baliuag’s town plaza is the point of convergence of people from as far as Pulilan, Bustos, San Rafael, and San Ildefonso.
Nowadays, buses ply their route through the town rotunda alongside tricycles with their noisy mufflers, chasing each other like ants on wheels. The market place, which has gone through so many changes, remains as busy and hectic as it always has, but now has to compete with the lure of the modern-day mall within the town’s boundaries.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays, you may still find yourself stuck in heavy traffic around the plaza rotunda as market-bound Bulakeños hustle back and forth. The town plaza though now displays a more neo-colonial look, in stark contrast to the rustic façade of St. Augustine Church.
As progress has slowly crept into Baliuag, so have the opportunities to re-establish oneself in the community. When Ima was still alive, she’d often ask us to visit and work alongside her in the family’s business. We’d willingly help collect payments and pretend to be cashiers for the day in her office. In return, Ima would reward us all with P20 for a whole day of work. Back then, the amount meant you could again and again treat yourself to ice cream at Magnolia House for an entire week.
Perhaps it was with foresight that Ima would herd us all to Baliuag— assimilating us in the family business and hoping that we’d one day consider going back and beginning our own careers there.
Hence, just as I was beginning my own professional career in Manila, a proposal to re-establish our family’s roots and build a school on Ima’s home was broached. At the start, I reluctantly agreed to do so, fearing that I knew so little about Baliuag for the school to work out and that I might miss out on professional opportunities in Manila. But, as it turned out I got the best of both worlds—commuting easily and accepting work in both places as I needed to. I guess this is how most city professionals feel about building a life in the province.
Now, 10 years on, I have come to understand why Ima loved and never left her hometown—from the “Bert Tawa Marcelo” accent that’s still so pronounced, the simplicity of life, to the inherent kindness and industry of the people who grew up and are still settled here.
With the many changes Baliuag has gone through, I guess this is what modern rural life is meant to be. But more than that, with no regrets, Ima’s hometown has likewise become my own.