If you’re in Iloilo Province and a curious history kid, it is mandatory to visit Southern Iloilo. Unfortunately, the town of San Joaquin doesn’t ring a bell unlike its neighboring town, Miag-ao.
In 2015, I passed by the town when I went to Antique province for work. When I saw a San Joaquin signage, I was certain that I have read something about the town that resonates with Philippine history. While on the road and thinking about it, we passed by the San Joaquin cemetery. And just like Celine Dion’s song “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now”, I suddenly remembered why the name of the town sounds familiar.
I asked our driver and provincial colleague if that’s the famous cemetery to solve the puzzle pieces inside my head. When they said yes, I asked them to stop the car for a couple of seconds for me to take a photo of it.
Seeing a heritage site up close makes me giddy. And oh boy, just the sight of that cemetery from the car made me joyful already. Then, I told myself – I shall return and explore this town someday.
Fast forward to February 26, 2016, I returned and discovered the indescribable treasures of San Joaquin.
Feels Like Heaven
It is extremely odd to find beauty in cemeteries. However, the Campo Santo de San Joaquin was an exception. The quaint mortuary chapel, the fresh air, and the clear skies during our visit was like a glimpse of heaven on earth.
Few days before our visit, the cemetery was in the news because treasure hunters were caught digging for ‘buried treasures’. We’re still lucky because the cemetery was still open to the public, but a police yellow tape was wrapped around the octagonal chapel.
It is really not surprising to see traces from the Spanish-colonial period in the province, since Iloilo was very much influenced by the Spanish culture and heritage.
The campo santo itself is one of the famous landmarks of the province. It was built in 1892 by Fray Mariano Vamba, the last Augustinian parish priest of the town.
Before we entered the cemetery, we were welcomed with open arms by a statue of Jesus on top of the gate. Interesting images can also be seen on the gate such as angel figures on both sides of Jesus’ statue, sculpted heads of cherubs, and a skull.
The red bricks, coral stones, and distinctive red domed roof; the intricate baroque architecture, its stone carvings and patterns are simply astonishing.
To reach and get a closer look of the chapel, I climbed the twenty step staircase. While on top, another breathtaking view amazed me. The overlooking view of the sea which is located across the main highway was another heavenly sight.
San Joaquin Church
Most of the churches built (near the seas) during the Spanish era in the Philippines were made of sea corals and limestone. Same resources were also used for the construction of San Joaquin Church from 1859 to 1869. But, what makes this church a heritage treasure is its facade featuring the intricate bas-relief design about the Battle of Tetuan.
The final battle of the Spanish-Moroccan War took place in February 1861. Upon hearing the great news of the Spanish victory, Fr. Santaren who was the parish priest and at the same time overseeing the construction of the church, ordered the Filipino and Chinese workers to craft a beautiful bas-relief version of the battle. The bas-relief mural Rendicion de Tetuan features military scenes and depicts the Spanish Army of Africa vanquishing the Moroccan Army. (source: http://www.choosephilippines.com/do/history-and-culture/3735/classic-church-iloilo-san-joaquin-parish)
When the news about the Spanish victory against the Morrocan Army reached the town, raids done by Moro (Muslims) were a regular occurrence and posed a real threat to coastal towns of Panay Island. The bas relief design was created as a reminder and inspiration to the locals of San Joaquin with their own battles against the Moro raiders.
As taught in Philippine history classes, polo y servicios (forced labor) has been a practice affecting especially the poor members of the society. This forced labor was usually employed in building ships and infrastructures. This beautiful church was one of the structures borne out of that during the Spanish occupation in the country.
If you have an eye for detail, you’ll see interesting statues on the facade aside from the bas-relief interpretation of the victory at the Battle of Tetouan. The statues of Our Lady of Sorrows (at the peak of the roof), San Pedro Regalado (left side of main door) and St. Francis of Assissi (right side of the main door) enhance and adds personality to the church.
The Untold Treasures
San Joaquin also played an important role in Philippines history as the landing site of the 10 Bornean Datus way back Spain colonized the Philippines. The ‘Barter of Panay’ took place in this town as well.
It traces its ancestry to the barter of Panay Island by the 10 Bornean datus from the Ati King, Marikudo, during the start of the 13th century in the southern part of Iloilo which is Sinugbuhan, San Joaquin. (source: http://www.choosephilippines.com/do/history-and-culture/3765/must-visit-spots-san-joaquin/).
San Joaquin is not an ordinary town. Its history and influences from Malay and Spanish cultures make this place extraordinary. The heritage treasures I discovered from this travel truly left an indescribable feeling in my consciousness. The kind of feeling that makes me want to do more ‘history adventures’ to uncover more heritage treasures.