LOLA REMEDIOS AND HER SAYAS
Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
Published in Zee Lifestyle, Aug-Sept 2009
When I was small I used to listen to my mother (Concepcion Cuenco Manguerra) talk about her lola or grandmother, and there was another lola she spoke of, only this one was referred to as “lola sa tuhod.” It took me a long while to figure out that she was talking about her grandmother and great grandmother. The great grandmother she referred to was Juana Lopez who originally came from Naic, Cavite and who did business in Cebu and Leyte. Year ago, when I was gathering genealogical information about my family, an aunt sent me a brief description of Juana Lopez as someone “who loved to dance. “
This surprised me because pictures of her show an oval-faced serious woman with hair severely swept back. In the photos, Juana wears a saya and a camisa, and the black and white photos increase the severity of her looks. She may have been more flirtatious than her pictures suggest because she married a second time, to a Veloso in Leyte. She had children with that second marriage, but I’m guessing that her first child, Remedios, gave her headaches as only firstborns are capable of doing. Consider this: Remedios married my great grandfather when she was only 13. Even though women married early in the olden days, I’m almost certain that Juana was shocked when her daughter announced she’d be quitting her schooling at the Inmaculada to marry the school teacher and poet, Mariano Albao Cuenco. It seemed the marriage was a good one; Remedios bore over a dozen children, although only four survived to adulthood.
Remedios was the grandmother my mother spoke of with great awe. In fact, I believe that Remedios had been her role model, especially when my mother became a young widow. Listen to what my granduncle Archbishop Jose Ma. Cuenco of Jaro, Iloilo said about Remedios as a widow: “My good mother was a woman of strong determination, ready to overcome all obstacles. Besides she was business-minded. With these qualities she was able to relieve our poor condition. Little by little, she bought land on which she built several houses. The high rents of these houses were a great source of income to us.”
Following Remedios’ footsteps, my mother, after my father died, bought properties, built houses on them, and rented them out. She sent all four of us children to college and to graduate schools abroad.
Remedios was widowed at 39, with three sons, a daughter, and the family of her second son staying in her house. She not only invested in real estate, she also ran her husband’s publishing business, Imprenta Rosario, making her the first woman publisher of Cebu. She continued raising her children in the intellectual and religious atmosphere that she and her husband had created. She must have been proud of her children’s accomplishments: the oldest son became an archbishop; the second son became a senator; the third son, a representative; and the daughter a writer.
What astonishes me, is that not only was she excellent at juggling the publishing business, real estate business, and her family, Remedios took meticulous care of her looks. All her pictures show a slender woman, dressed in elaborate and elegant saya, camisa and panuelo.
In a photo taken in 1895, she is wearing an elaborately embroidered panuelo, and a chic black ribbon with a cameo or pendant; she is wearing large earrings. Her hair is pulled back in a bun, and no doubt she had a peineta in her hair, as was the custom of the days.
A photo taken a few years later shows her wearing a printed long skirt and a light colored filmy camisa and panuelo with lace edges. She wears interesting jewelry – necklace, earrings, ring.
In a picture taken around 1909, after she was widowed, we see her wearing an attractive skirt with stripes and the camisa and panuelo pick up the lively pattern.
And in a photo taken when she is an old woman surrounded by her children and one grandson, she is finely dressed in a saya that is richly embroidered. She wears rings, a bracelet and a necklace.
The photos are in black and white but the clothes were no doubt richer in color – indigo blue, emerald green, deep red, glowing yellow perhaps.
In her book, Life in Old Parian, Concepcion G. Briones, has fine descriptions of Remedios from the 1920s:
“I still retain in my mind’s eye the picture of Doña Remedios Lopez Cuenco — the Cuenco matriarch hurrying to her front door to welcome Msgr. Giuguilmo Piani, the Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines, who, at that time, was to confer the Vicar-General title on her erudite son, Msgr. Jose Maria Cuenco, at the nearby Cathedral.
“Nyora Medyos wore a satin merino (navy-blue) saya, wide and bouffant, an elegant camisa, and a panuelo which was pinned on her bosom with a magnificent brooch of gold and pearls. Tucked inside the waist of her saya, on the left side, was the golden-chain or porta-abanico which, as the name implies, held her big silk fan. Jewelry? She had the most gorgeous ones, too. Old gold and pearls, rubies and diamonds worn at her throat, on her fingers or on her wrists…”
In another part of her book, Briones writes: “Nyora Medyos used to come very early, mornings, in sayas and kimono to the printing press — her long black curly hair falling down to her waist, freshly shampooed and fragrant with samuyao…”
This is an interesting and vivid description of Remedios with her flowing long hair. The sensual image belies the fact that she would be typesetting and working huge heavy presses that crashed and clanked — a man’s work, really. (My mother told me that the powerful machines shook their residence above.)
It should be understood that Remedios was an unusual woman — she was strong, intelligent, determined, driven, possessed with a devil-may-care attitude about what people thought of her hands smeared with ink from the printing press. She was the matriarch of a family that was demonstrating its leadership in politics as well as in the church, and she and her family displayed the trappings of importance: a home in fashionable Colon Street furnished with fine things; her sons studied abroad; and family members took the time to clothe themselves in fine silks, satins, piña, with embroidery and lace. Shoes matched. There were different sets of jewelry for daytime, nighttime, casual occasions, as well as rock-size diamonds for important events and for investment.
It was a different era then — a time of gentility, of gallantry, of romance, of elegance, a time when people sat on the azotea to catch the breeze, a time when neighbors dropped by for afternoon visits. We, who are used to our current-date city life, who rush about in our jeans and pants and T-shirts, no longer know this life.
Remedios did not remarry. She was an attractive, good-looking, dynamic woman, and there must have been men who were interested in her. But she devoted her life to her family and her businesses. Remedios died in 1945 at the age of 75.
Curiously, my own mother who was also fond of dancing and beautiful dresses never remarried either. She too devoted her life to her children and businesses. Even when she became old, my mother continued to dress elegantly, copying perhaps her role model, Remedios Lopez Cuenco. ~~~ end (copyright 2009 by Cecilia Brainard)
Life in Parian Now
Cebu's 1730 Jesuit House
The Secret Hall of Angels
A Story of Hope
Finding Jose Rizal in Cebu
Lola Remedios and her Sayas
Lunch with F. Sionil Jose
tags: Cebu, Sugbo, Philippines, travel, tourism, history, women, politics, Cuenco Family