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Group tries to solve Pili’s history puzzle

/ 12:04 AM December 24, 2015

FROM AN ODD name of a village to remnants of old structures, a heritage group is collecting historical information to solve the puzzle that makes up the narrative of Pili, a town established in 1901 in Camarines Sur when the Americans governed the Philippine islands.

“Relatively young at 114 years old, our information about the history of Pili is scant,” says Carlos Arejola, book author and convener of Pili Cultural Heritage Society (PCHS), a group of historical enthusiasts behind the project.

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PCHS is attempting to unravel the history of Pili, tracing back to the birth and story lines of a barangay named “Curry” and divulging secrets of old structures. “We find in these old structures and the name of Barangay Curry as signposts of the history of our town,” Arejola adds.

Pili, now a first-class town (annual income: more than P55 million) was named capital of Camarines Sur on June 6, 1955, replacing the more popular Naga City.

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Ambos Camarines

That the Americans gave importance to Pili was evidenced by their naming one of its 26 barangays after George Curry, the American commander who was governor general of Ambos Camarines—the name of the merged provinces of Camarines Sur and Camarines Norte.

The precursor of Ambos Camarines was Partido de Camarines, which the Spanish colonizers founded on May 27, 1579. It was divided in 1829, fused anew in 1854, again separated in 1857, and reunited in 1893. It was finally divided in 1917 and has remained so to this day.

Citing historical records, Arejola says the name “Curry” appeared in 1901 when the town was created and divided into 26 barangays. Back then the village was called Bongcao, which is a now a sitio of Barangay Curry.

Curry, the governor general, carried out the Roosevelt administration’s expansionist policy on the Philippine islands in Ambos Camarines. He was “probably also a pain in the neck to the native forces that stood in the way,” says Arejola, referring to the troops led by his great granduncle, Ludovico Arejola, the commanding general of Ambos Camarines and Catanduanes during the Filipino-American War.

Until the Commonwealth Period (1935-1941), the Americans ruled the Philippines after the Spaniards sold it to them for $20 million at the end of the Spanish-American War with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on Dec. 10, 1898.

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‘Important figure’

Curry was also the name of another barangay in Sta. Margarita town in Eastern Samar, where, along with Isabela, the governor general lorded over. Curry was also the first representative of the US state of New Mexico.

“Curry wore a lot of hats. He was the first to own and operate a hardware store in Nueva Caceres (old Spanish name of Naga), a politician and a historian,” says Arejola .

Arejola notes the Americans wanted the elevated Pili as its urban center, away from the near bodies of water colonies built by the Spaniards that suffered from major floods. It was in Pili that the Americans built its first public high school, base hospital and airstrips. Pili also has an airport during the Commonwealth Period in the area where the Naga Airport now stands in San Jose, Pili.

Strategic site

Pili was seen as the most strategic location in the province. From here, the Partido and Riconada, two of the biggest districts in Camarines Sur, became accessible.

Because of the concentration of American development in Pili, the Japanese Imperial Army deployed 3,000 soldiers to the town when World War II broke out in 1941, Arejola says. The Japanese built several structures—tunnels, manmade caves and foxholes that still exist today.

Arlene Brosas, 52, narrates her mother’s story about how the Japanese built a tunnel near their house in Barangay Cadlan, with Filipino prisoners as laborers. These were 500 meters long and exiting on the other side of the barangay.

Domingo Arnante Sr., 63, says that as a child, he and the other boys played inside a structure that looked like an air-raid shelter in Cadlan. It had two rooms that could house more than 10 people. There were paper money, a tattered Japanese flag and a flagpole there, he adds.

Arejola says 10 other structures, including tunnels and manmade caves big enough to accommodate jeeps and other war materiel, were also built in Barangay Curry.

The oldest structure in town still standing today is the watchtower of a leprosarium in Barangay Palestina, built by the Archdiocese of Caceres in 1872 and ran by Franciscan missionaries.

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