Loren Legarda has found a soulmate in Antique

As a child, Senator Loren Legarda listened with wide-eyed wonder to many a heartwarming story about Antique on her grandmother’s lap. Through her grandmother, Carmen Gella Bautista, a well-loved daughter of Pandan, Antique who married Jose P. Bautista, editor-in-chief of the pre-martial law Manila Times, Loren got to know more of Antique and loved it more and more it felt so much like home. After all, Loren traces her ancestry to prominent Antiquenos whose passion for public and humanitarian service runs deep in her blood. There was her maternal great-grandfather, Ariston Gella, the first pharmacist of Antique province and a member of the Malolos Congress that crafted the Philippine Constitution. Her great-granduncle Vicente Gella was governor of the province while another great-granduncle was mayor of Sibalom town. A brother of her grandfather, Bartolome Gella, served as governor, too.

Senator Loren Legarda

It came as no surprise when Loren won overwhelmingly in all 18 towns of Antique during the senatorial elections in 1998, which she topped. Sweet was Loren’s victory and even sweeter was her nostalgic homecoming in Pandan, Antique where she took her oath of office before then Mayor Antero Rectra and her beloved kasimanwas (fellow Antiqueños).

To Loren, Antique is home, far away from the never-ending rat race in the city. Here, at the end of a hectic day, she can simply bask in the smell of the warm sea breeze from her bedroom window, lull herself to sleep with the sound of the crashing waves or even walk barefoot in the sand as the blazing sun disappears from the horizon and darkness creeps in. And how Loren loves to catch the aroma of good food wafting through the air whenever she sets foot in a bustling Antiqueño kitchen!

Soup(er) attraction

“One of my favorites, which is also the best, is KBL (not the political party) — Kadios, Baboy, and Langka,” Loren fondly shares. “It is similar to sinigang (sour savory soup) and uses local ingredients like kadios, a variety of small black beans, and batuan, a fruit commonly used to make dishes sour.”

A few days before Christmas last year, I had the opportunity to rediscover Loren’s Antique on my second visit to this province where, so the romantics say with a sigh, the lush green mountains gently caress the deep blue sea.

On my first night in Hamtic, Antique, I attended a concert and sat mesmerized by the scintillating rondalla music alongside a crystal-clear river as the palm trees swayed gently with the soft breeze. Senator Legarda, a staunch advocate of Philippine art and cultural heritage, transported the Kabataang Silay Rondalla Ensemble, under the baton of young conductor-arranger Jegger C. Anjao, to Sitio Datu Sumakwel, for a little night of great music for the 5th International Rondalla/Plucked String Music Festival — Strings of Unity outreach performance. Even as darkness fell on Malandog River, the young musicians (the youngest only 12 years old) went on to play to an enrapt audience — from OKM (Original Kinaray-a Music) to Hungarian; from a Viennese waltz to a kundiman; from a French Christmas song to a Ryan Cayabyab to a Rey Valera to a Beatles medley. Music was here, there, and everywhere. So, Let It Be! The enchanting evening also featured a haunting rendition of the theme from Phantom of the Opera. Homegrown talents Santhea Jane Atienza and Sammy Rubio proved that Antiquenos are great singers as they are great weavers (but more of these homespun tales a bit later).

A passion for Indigenous Fashion

Earlier that day, media people from Manila joined a horde of guests to happily welcome the opening of “Habol Panay,” Western Visayas’ first permanent textile gallery at the National Museum Western Visayas Regional Museum at the Capitol grounds, Iloilo City. It’s a project of the indefatigable lady senator who may as well be the poster girl for indigenous fashion which she promotes with a passion everywhere she goes, both here and abroad.

“Weaving is part of the cultural heritage of Antique and the whole of Panay Island,” says Senator Legarda.

“Habol Panay” is an offshoot of “Hibla ng Lahing Filipino: The Artistry of Philippine Textiles,” the first permanent textile gallery in the country and a project of Senator Legarda who brought the first Hibla traveling exhibition to London in 2017.

“People appreciate it when they see me wearing a patadyong on an ordinary day,” Loren points out. “Our handwoven patadyong is a perfect match for plain outfits because of its plaid and colorful designs. I have been wearing it mostly as a scarf or shawl, but we have talented designers who have fashioned it into jackets.”

She adds, “Weaving is part of the cultural heritage of Antique and the whole of Panay Island. In fact, one weaving community in Bugasong, the Bagtason Loom Weavers Association (BLWA), uses a 50-year-old wild cotton dyed with indigo to produce patadyong with subtle colors and different textures.”

Because weaving provides livelihood for several communities in Antique and to pay homage to her ancestors who handed down this time-cherished knowledge, Senator Legarda is helping sustain BLWA’s cotton supply by providing cotton seeds for planting as well as the tayum, the source of natural dye. The weaving center has also been improved and the weavers are now being trained by the Philippine Textile Research Institute.

Meanwhile, Senator Legarda came to the rescue of the weavers of Malabor in Tibiao — those hardworking women who make our patadyong, shawls, and piña-silk cloths — after they suffered a business setback in the late 1990s. The Malabor Abaca-Pina Weavers Association now has a Weaving and Fiber Processing Center supervised by the Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority.

A fair to remember

Senator Legarda never ceases to be amazed by her kasimanwas’ industry and artistry. All this we found out for ourselves at the Antique Harvest fair where we saw the native beauties and goodies the province is famous for. “With the Antique Harvest, we gather the best products from all our towns — muscovado, tablea, handwoven patadyong, handmade pots, and handicraft made of nito, bariw, buri, abaca, and bamboo, among others,” says Loren who brought Department of Tourism’s Philippine Harvest to Antique to boost trade and tourism in the province and to promote its local sources of livelihood.

We hopped from booth to booth, checking out the bamboocraft, baskets, textiles, bling-blings, scarves, socks, native bags, bottled goodies, and chips. And yes, we went loco over the coco products at Ariana Coco, where entrepreneur Clarissa Esmenos, also the president of Purong Produktong Antiqueño Inc., shared her riches-to-rags story after her once flourishing business collapsed. And so, she scrounged around in her backyard for stuff she could sell and found her coconut trees, which saved her business — and her daughter’s life. After sifting through the health benefits of coconuts, she came up with VCO products such as essential oils, lip balms, rubs and scrubs, beauty and personal care products. She recommended to us a balm that you can simply rub on your arm if you’re asthmatic as this helped her daughter who had a severe case of asthma. She also assured us that her products would not make us smell of coconut as they have a refreshing scent.

Surely, so much is happening in Antique and the townsfolk couldn’t be more grateful to their favorite daughter, Inday Loren, for making it all happen.

Welcome to Antique’s bigger, better airport

Antique’s progress is unstoppable, what with the recent opening of its expanded and upgraded airport. “It’s long been the dream of Antiqueños for our airport to be reopened and serviced by a commercial airline,” discloses Gov. Rhodora Cadiao, thanking her former boss, PAL president/COO Jaime Bautista. “It was seemingly impossible, but all it took was one Antiqueña working hard for the common good.”

Through Senator Legarda’s efforts, working with government agencies, PAL can now fly direct to Antique again after the senator allocated funding for the improvement and expansion of the San Jose Airport.

“The airport was closed as it was not economically viable for jets because of the small runway,” explains PAL VP for corporate communications Jose Enrique Perez de Tagle.

It was pilot Timothy Jayson Mapeso with co-pilot Anthony Larena who landed PAL’s inaugural aircraft — a Bombardier Q400, reportedly the world’s most modern turboprop — at Antique’s new airport as an excited, cheering crowd waited at the tarmac one balmy December morning last year.

“Very good weather, very clear on the way, coming in from the south going to the north,” Captain Mapeso tells media people. “It was a very smooth flight with 86 passengers on board.”

PAL now has direct flights to Antique every Sunday and Tuesday, departing from Clark Airport in Subic at 6 a.m. and arriving in San Jose, Antique at 7:20 a.m. The return flight leaves Antique at 7:40 a.m. and arrives in Subic at 9 a.m. “From what I saw in the return flight records, it’s like only 12 seats will be vacant,” Mapeso informs us.

Frankly, Antique may not be on your bucket list, but I assure you it’s got so many natural wonders enough to last you a lifetime. Like the Nogas Island in Anini-y, an uninhabited, 24-hectare marine and bird sanctuary ideal for snorkeling and scuba diving. The Sira-an Hotspring, also in Anini-y, boasts a sulphuric hot spring that can heal certain ailments (but perhaps not a broken heart). Drop by and say a prayer at the beautiful Anini-y Church, where the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra performed last year and is a restored heritage site project of Senator Legarda. There’s beauty in the ruins of the old San Pedro Church, originally roofed with cogon grass and, according to an intriguing legend, was burned down by the parish priest’s pet monkey. For health buffs, there’s Malumpati Health Spring in Pandan, where the water is cool even on hot summer days. The Pandan Arboretum and Eco-Park, built by Senator Legarda, is an eco-tourism area that promotes biodiversity-friendly tourism activities. For the adventurous, Mount Madja-as in Culasi is a premier peak for mountain climbing. Madja-as is also home to endangered species of spotted deer and cloud rat, and rare flora and fauna. For those who love flowers (who doesn’t?), the Sibalom Natural Park (Loren funded its conservation through the DENR) is home to the  largest flower in the world, the Rafflesia speciosa. San Remigio’s Aningalan Strawberry Garden is Antique’s Little Baguio, berry lovely! San Remigio also has its own rice terraces, well kept by the Iraynon-Bukidnon indigenous community. Antique is where you’ll find some of the cleanest rivers in the country, like the historic Malandog River in Hamtic, where the 10 Bornean datus are believed to have first landed when they arrived on Panay Island in the 13th century; the Bugang River, Antique’s pride that boasts to be the cleanest river in the Philippines; and the Tibiao River, the place to go for white water kayaking. The list goes on and on. Fact is, each of Antique’s 18 towns has its own unique attractions.

“It’s paradise found,” Loren keeps it short and sweet.

And then she adds with the brightest glow in her eyes, “Antique seems to be my soulmate!”


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