It was a war of attrition that lasted almost a year; for the Spaniards of the time, it was considered their generation’s Vietnam War.
But while somehow related to the 20th-century Indochina conflict, especially since the Filipino belligerents who laid siege on the Spaniards holed up in the church of Baler in northeast Luzon were allied at that time with the Americans amid the Spanish-American War, it has none of the bitter cynicism of the Vietnam War.
In its aftermath and more than a century hence, the Siege of Baler, which lasted from July 1, 1898, to June 2, 1899, has become a hallmark of sorts: of Spanish indomitability against terrible odds, and of Filipino magnanimity toward their former colonial masters.
Nowadays, the siege is celebrated as Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day.
Descendants of the veterans said they only learned of this historic milestone from family stories. Spaniard Jesus Valbuena, “adopted son of Baler,” said he had simply heard of his great-grandfather, Corporal Jesus Garcia Valbuena, who took part in the siege, when he was a child.
“He had gotten no recognition in having taken part in the siege,” said Valbuena. “He had a small pension though when he came back [to Spain] from Baler with a limp.”
It was stories about Baler that fueled Valbuena’s desire to go to the Philippines and research in almost every archive about his anonymous great-grandfather. “It was a hunt for a personal story.”
The siege was unprecedented. The Spaniards showed their “attachment to life”; the Filipinos showed their graciousness toward the Spaniards. “It (the siege) came out with no winners or losers,” Valbuena said.
Ilovita Valenzuela Mesina, descendant of Lieutenant Norberto Valenzuela and chair of the Baler Historical Committee, agreed. She said there was no bitterness after the siege.
“There was a group who escorted the Spaniards from Baler to Tarlac. The moment the Spaniards stepped out of the church, the people of Baler treated them as friends,” Mesina said.
President Emilio Aguinaldo said the siege showed the “legendary” courage of the Spaniards, saying that the Iberian soldiers who tried to repulse the Filipinos showed courage similar to the Spanish heroes El Cid and Pelayo.
Aguinaldo decreed on June 30, 1899, that the Spanish surrenderees should be considered “not as prisoners of war but as friends.” Because of the decree, Republic Act 9187, co-authored by Sen. Edgardo Angara, has decreed that June 30 of every year should be celebrated as Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day.
“Our story has been made known in around nine very popular novels, biographies, movies. This event in Baler is really known in Spain—Los Ultimos de Filipinas—the last garrison of the Spanish Empire,” Angara said last June 30 during the 2013 celebration.
The Spanish-Friendship Day in Baler this year gala kicked off with a classical performance of the Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite by the University of the Philippines Arco string ensemble. It was followed by the Ilongot indigenous community performing the Padung O Ela-Lat, an Ilongot ritual duel, as well as the Dewak, a victory celebration.
“Philippine Folksong Medley” and “Pobreng Alindahaw” were performed by Pangkat Kawayan and Rondalla de Aurora.
“A España” (written by Philippines-born Spanish writer Adelina Gurrea) was recited by Felix Perez Cambra; and “Ang Ika-Singkuwentang Kaarawan ni Mickey” (by Marra Lanot) was recited by Daphnee Roselyn Nakar. The recitation of the poems was accompanied by the performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sarabande from Cello Suite No. 1, by Patrick Espanto.
“Baler sa Puso Ko” was performed by Rondalla de Aurora and Pangkat Kawayan.
A neoclassical ballet piece was performed by the Halili-Cruz Ballet Company to the tune of Maksim’s “Fuerte.” The Halili dancers likewise danced to the tune “Yo Te Dire”; though seemingly neoclassical, the dance resembled the costumes and snappy movements of the flamenco.
Renowned flamenco guitarist José Luis Monton performed two pieces, “Conlusión” (Soleá) and “Mujer Española” (Farruca).
Myramae Meneses (soprano), Antonio Ferrer (tenor) and Aicelle Santos rendered “Ikaw” and Severino Reyes’s “Makikiliti Kang Totoo.”
As a finale, all performers went onstage and sang “Ngayon, Bukas at Kailanman,” the theme from “Baler,” the 2008 Tagalog movie about the Siege of Baler. The Spanish version of the original Philippine pop composition (“Hoy, Mañana y Para Siempre”), was also sung.
Fireworks outside the performance hall capped the celebration.
The annual wreath-laying was conducted at the marker in front of the town hall instead of the San Luis Obispo de Tolosa Church due to the regular Sunday masses. A 21-gun salute was executed by the Philippine Army, honoring the veterans of the siege.
In attendance were Senator-elect Sonny Angara, Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman, Foreign Undersecretary José Brillantes, Spanish Ambassador Jorge Domecq, Chilean Ambassador Roberto Mayorga Lorca, Thai Ambassador Prasas Prasasvinitchai and Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Vu Tu.
Soliman, the chief speaker, said the feast was more of a celebration rather than a commemoration; it was an opportunity both to “look back and move forward.”
Domecq echoed this, saying ties between the Philippines and Spain have become stronger.
“We [Spain and the Philippines] have political consultations every year, very strong parliamentarian relations, and the largest [Spanish] development aid program in Asia, [and] a culture program which is quite strong.”
Domecq said that economic relations between the two countries have improved vastly.
“Our exports to the Philippines have grown by 40-percent since last year, and we also have more Spanish firms coming over to partner with Filipino firms, so I think we have a very healthy relationship,” Domecq said.