May 23, 2024

Auntie Cecile is what they called her hereabouts because it is part of the culture to call an elder in such a way, whether she was related by blood or not. She was seasoned by the rich genealogy of the Bayosa Cariño clan and by circumstances that also make up contemporary history. To know her was to understand what Baguio was about. I am glad to have met her when I did, after the turbulence of the Chico River Dam, the post-earthquake rousing of the city, and the turnover of Camp John Hay. The wealth of experiences and the learnings cannot be buried but celebrated on Independence Day.

As a child, I heard much about her and on some occasion wandered into the Ato Bookstore. It was a favorite destination of a neighbor, a beautiful lady, who must have belonged to a rich family from Manila but was left here because she had lost her mind. I saw how once she liked a dress so much and hugged it but had no money to buy it and was turned away.

The store belonged to Cecile Cariño Afable, the writer and teacher at the University of the Philippines, they said. She was the only recognized lady writer in these parts at the time that must have been the reason for a distaste for Lina Moore, who lived along Km. 104 or Heald Lumber, who was an accomplished international writer having published several books of short stories.

The influencer

Former Benguet Gov. Ben Palispis whom I met on lunch dates with her was another formidable figure of Benguet then. Often we would hear the names of politicians in the conversation and realize that the next winners at the polls would emerge from there. If one had political ambitions, as is wont in Ibaloy tradition, you sought the elders approval to do so. This affirmation often meant that the position was reserved for you and the influence diffused through other elders like a drop of ink in the sea.

Auntie Cecile belonged to the council of elders that had the wisest and most respected Ibaloys which was still patriarchal at the time. We got wind of the softest whispers from the valleys of the Cordillera because the leaders there were once students in Baguio universities destined by affluence and family history,those who bore the reverence for fairness and equity. They came from far and near to send the desire through the grapevine.Uncle Ben and Auntie Cecile were influencers long before the internet era and geopolitics. They were in the guest list of all the ambassadors and national leaders visiting the city.

The writer

Baguio Midland Courier’s history is one that espoused the philosophies:“Fair, Fearless, Friendly, Free” and the “Exponent of the wonderland of the Cordilleras and Riches of the IIocandias”.

If my researches are right, Bibmaak or Benguet, Ifugao, Benguet, Mountain Province, Apayao, Abra, and Kalinga was then Benguet, Ifugao, Bontoc, Apayao, and Kalinga or BIBAK, the association of the students and professionals from the different provinces.

The BMC was set up by brothers Oseo and Atty. Sinai Hamada together with other Igorot professionals and sister Cecile.This embraced the crusade of bringing the real news about indigenous peoples conflicts and issues to the public. At that time, correspondents of the Baguio Bulletin (If I am right) who were not members of the ethno-linguistic groups wrote news about IP conflicts (more popularly termed as tribal wars) without checking on the veracity before printing this.

No matter how these issues were discussed and confirmed by the locals, these were reported without knowing the implications in faraway IP groups of Kalinga.

In those years, the lowlanders were in choice positions owing to English education. It was Sinai who was a past editor of the UP Diliman student paper and a short story writer who had the credentials to be editor-in-chief of the BMC.

The business prowess of Oseo and Cecile as columnist were the important elements of the longest thriving community weekly newspaper in the country. Cecile’s acerbic and metaphorical style of writing was the reputation she kept in the six decades that the locals habitually bought and read the newspaper. In the last weeks that she wrote her “IN and OUT of Baguio” column, this was done in her penmanship because the typewriter had lost its usefulness.

The pioneer and veteran newshen

Nobody was called newshen but her, we couldn’t earn the stars to get elevated to the rank because her children, Bembo and Yongyong, were the prominent children of equal journalistic mettle, thus the moniker. Actually, all the younger correspondents grew under her wings, like Peppot Ilagan, Steve Hamada, Dom C Cimatu, Willy Cacdac, and siblings Ramon and Joe Dacawi, to name the handful that I know. 

She mothered everyone and could outdrink all of them at any time in her P. Burgos home. This must have been the factor that all of us tipped our hats to, we could not measure up to her in all standards.

In 1998, after her goading, I became the first female president of the Baguio Correspondents and Broadcaster’s Club.

To the chagrin of the elders and at the heels of the newly-legislated sexual harassment law, a board resolution condemning the sexual harassment experienced by a member in the hands of a publisher from Iloilo and the related published news articles and broadcasts sent some 21 journalists to jail due to libel.

Auntie Cecile was among the editors who were included in the charges because BMC had published the article. She joined us inside the Baguio City Jail as the city-based journalists numbering some 18 were hauled by the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group there. This was the evidence to her advocacy of women’s rights among other causes, as she knew this case would be dismissed eventually.

The environmentalist

A member of the Baguio Regreening Movement with Dr. Julie Cabato, former mayor Virginia de Guia, Baguio City Museum Director Leonora Paraan-Agustin, they led the rallies against the construction of the flyover at the Baguio General Hospital rotunda and also raised funds for the perimeter fence of the Forbes Park. She joined the Eco-Walk lectures at the Busol watershed in the earlier years and also initiated the perimeter fencing of the watershed.

Auntie Cecile along with Leonora and Gene also commented on the illegal settlers in the government reservations and criticized the elected officials for allowing this. The moniker, “three witches” referred to them because they badgered the government leaders about these issues and more. The trio were present in all the non-government organization sectoral meetings because their opinion mattered or maybe their clout was more like it. Auntie Cecile would have the issue out in her next column targeting the sitting public official for dereliction of duty.

The ancestral lands advocate

Auntie Cecile’s voice was loudest when the ancestral land rights came to fore. Not just for Benguet but for the rest of the Cordillera, as she wrote the strongest columns on this issue and not to mention, called the incumbent national leaders involved in the decision-making. She was most passionate about this and rightfully, she was able to have the Mateo Cariño Park segregated from Burnham Park in honor of the local leader and in celebration of the Benguet ethno-linguistic group.

Auntie Cecile has left her imprint on the city in many aspects of the socio-political concerns that have been resolved or that continue to affect lives. But the day she chose to depart is most memorable.

Noted lawyer Pablito Sanidad who was at her bedside when she was rushed to the hospital and saw her blood pressure drop slowly noted that she chose to die on the June 12 Independence Day to never be forgotten. (Photos by Art Tibaldo)