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alex r. castro
alex r castro MEMORY IS a wily keeper of the past, so they say— often true and faithful, but at times elusive or even deceptive. Mine, however, is still sharp and bright, especially when it comes to Angeles City, a special place that I have always associated with a joyful time of youthful discoveries, when everyone's idea of risky adventure was a quick trip to Pampanga's playground— the "City of Angels."

Growing up in a sleepy town-on-the-border that is Mabalacat, the nearby city of Angeles represented just about everything an idealistic "promdi" teen dreamed of. Angeles provided the ultimate escape, a 20-minute jeepney ride away to where the action is— there, in her downtown movie houses and cheap restaurants along its crowded alley roads serving Hollywood magic and meriendas in its bustling commercial streets crammed with hawkers, shoppers and Muslim vendors; and in the famed avenues of Balibago lined with bright neon lights spelling familiar names straight from roadside Las Vegas: Copa Cabana, Stardust, Nina's Papagayo.

More than just a center of escapades, Angeles was the place to kick off your shoes and get really comfortable, a city known for freely extending its unconditional welcome to one and all. They say in Angeles, everyone has a chance to make it and to this city gravitated every one— entrepreneurs, missionaries, U.S. servicemen, backpacking tourists, students, bar girls, artists, German and Australian retirees and even lost souls out to make a quick buck or two.

Such was Angeles in my mind's eye. One could never imagine that this freewheeling city was once the farthest barrio of San Fernando, a clearing started by spouses Don Angel Pantaleon Miranda and Dona Rosalia de Jesus in 1792. Its early name was Culiat, from the woody vines that proliferated in the area. Inaugurated as a town in 1829, Culiat was dedicated to its titular patrons, the Holy Guardian Angels, hence the name "Angeles," but it is certainly a strange coincidence that its founder was also named Angel.

The handful of nuclear families and their descendants that settled in Culiat soon expanded and grew, with family members often intermarrying. Large prominent families like the Nepomucenos, Hensons, Parases, Lazatins, Del Rosarios, Tayags have common genealogical roots, which explains why today, it is possible to bump into a distant relation just by walking the streets. It is also the best way to discover the city's soul, with its unexpected surprises that lurk at every bend.

Recently on a weekend, I went on my own to revisit my old Angeles on foot, to retrace familiar haunts, half-expecting to relive my big city experience while exploring its contemporary attractions. After years of living in Manila and in other parts of the world, I was not disappointed.

Historic Sto. Rosario Street was my starting point. On this street stands the city landmark— the imposing Holy Rosary Parish, started in 1855 by Fr. Guillermo Masnou but opened to the public only in 1890. Its massive intricately carved doors feature religious figures central to the city's story, most specially the Virgin of the Most Holy Rosary. Most of Angeles's ancestral buildings are clustered in this district— from the old Pamintuan Residence that was once occupied and transformed by Pres. Emilio Aguinaldo as his presidential headquarters, (now a Bangko Sentral regional branch), the restored Bale Herencia to the Nepomucenos' Kamalig, an ancient barn turned specialty pizza restaurant, adjacent to Bale Matua, the old stone house of the original founders of Angeles. The old regional court across the church has been converted into Museo ning Angeles, a repository of the city's historical and cultural treasures.

The city's more organized commercial center, Nepo Mart, is just a stone's throw away. PX goods were once the lifeblood of the stores here. I remember, from school, I could dash here for my favorite fig newtons or Lay's potato chips. Nowadays, Bangkok goods are peddled side by side U.S. products obviously purchased from Clark Field PX shops. There are so much food choices here — from Everybody's Café, a branch of San Fernando's most popular restaurant known for its local delicacies like kamaru, betute, and tapang damulag; Delyn's Restaurant inside the Nepo complex; Susie's Cuisine and its famous tibuk-tibuk; the outdoor Cely's with its array of Kapampangan value meals; to this once-nameless snack house on nearby Corazon Street noted for its unique pastillas de leche-enriched halo-halo. Recently, the age of malls has come to Angeles with the rise of Jenra and the multi-storey Nepo Mall, the city's latest concession to progress.

But the height of adventure begins in the downtown market occupying Miranda and Rizal Streets, where one can get lost amidst life's most trivial pleasures. Snake in and around the stalls if you have hunger pangs, munch a turon, eat suman, snack on pancit palabok. Kitschy gift shops stand next to hole-in-the wall beauty shops here. Down a narrow street, I checked if Cool Spot — everyone's favorite high school snack hangout— was still around. It still is, thankfully, serving up the tastiest pancit and pineapple-upside down cake this side of town.

Every Friday, the tiangge ng Apu comes to life on Burgos Street, where the wildest assortment of merchandise at dirt-cheap prices abound for the picking— from CDs, VCDs and DVDs , batik dusters, ukay-ukay finds, tropical aquarium fishes, car tools, leather goods, glassware, fake GI surplus to pots, pans and what have you. The city's own version of Divisoria has been around for years, but this baratillo paradise is much noisier, rowdier. Before, second-hand shops and thrift stores would also be located in this area, selling Clark Air Base odds and end— vinyl records, army trays, pocketbooks, and girlie magazines.

Along Jake Gonzales Boulevard, the main artery linking Balibago and Angeles, motels and cocktail lounges abound. I remember a U.S.-style hotel being built in the 70s here, called Pauline's, with surreal interiors embellished with concrete stalactites and stalagmites. It was never finished, and for years, was the boulevard's signature landmark. No longer a hotel row, the strip is now known for its sisig stalls by the old railroad track, a legendary haven for beer guzzlers and pulutan lovers.

Balibago, past the Abacan Bridge, has always had a honky-tonk feel. In here, the attitude is a bit more brash, a little looser, a touch of the wild, wild west on Kapampangan soil. Balibago was both a residential and a commercial district— with prime villages like Diamond Subdivision providing major housing for American G.I.s and their families. The premiere hotel in the area was Marlim Mansion, which still stands today, and across it, the celebrated Angeles Fried Chicken restaurant— host to many birthday, anniversary, and graduation bashes - owned by the Taus family. Other Balibago "institutions" include Johnny's Grocery (where we went shopping for our Junior-Senior Prom food supply) and Del Rosario Swimming Pool Compound, located at the foot of Abacan Bridge, where many an Angeleňo kid learned to swim.

Balibago subsisted primarily on Clark, and the myriads of shops and businesses that dotted its landscape naturally reflected complex American tastes: swanky bars with go-go girls, galleries that peddled velvet paintings, Kon-Tiki carvings and artworks with exotic South Pacific themes, fastfoods with American names (Spic 'n Span, A&W), rattan furniture shops, dozens of hotels and motels with pretentions of poshness. Along the main highway, animated neon signs advertised the clubbing pleasures of Little Brown Jug and Cock and Bull. The whole stretch of Friendship Hi-Way and Fields Avenue housed the seedier establishments that promised more wanton delights.

Nearby Clarkfield was terra incognita for a lot of us teeners back in the 70s, an exclusive enclave reserved for a privileged few (Americans and their dependents). People spoke of a commissary with endless rows of the freshest apples and peaches, Pacex milk, Hershey's Kisses, macadamia nuts and more! There were stories told about fancy restaurants like Top Hat and Coconut Grove, of Olympic size pools with gleaming white tiles at the Officers' Club, and of visits by celebrities like Xavier Cugat and Bob Hope. I remember going there only once, as part of a group invited by Wagner High School officials, for a tour of their arts-and-crafts facilities. I came away foolishly impressed by the American dream, and for some time, relished the thought of Philippine statehood as espoused by Cabangbang.

Now, more than a decade after Pinatubo, the atmosphere around this perimeter is more sedate, the din of raucous laughter a bit quieter. It still is a people-friendly place, and shopping here can be quite a thrill. Art galleries and frame shops— with their precious old stock of artworks, are concentrated here, and there is still that delicious possibility of unearthing a masterpiece from the 60s and 70s painted by Jose Bumanlag David, Patricio Salvador or Felix Gonzales— noted masters of the brush who once plied their talents here. Astro Park,fronting the Clark main gate, provides the ideal green spot for games and afternoon gambols. Next door neighbors to galleries and furniture shops are modern-day KTVs and coffee shops, catering to a whole new community, more local than international.German and Australian retirees have replaced the Americans, even the Koreans have arrived, giving rise to thriving multi-cultural businesses and all-new relationships.

The big city of my youth seems so much smaller now, but with so many attractions (and, surprising distractions!) to assault the senses, it still is so easy to lose one's way. In a sense, you can never find your way out of Angeles, because the city— like some giant magnet— will draw you back in. Perhaps it is its "there's something-for-everyone" patronage to diversity that makes people stay. Or the fact that it has retained its human scale in the midst of growth and modernity. To me, its enduring appeal lies in it capacity to make the most lasting impressions, a place of the rich past which has created its own vital present— where people can take comfort in knowing that they can leave Angeles, for half a lifetime or more, and return to find most of their fascinating memories of this proud city still safe and intact.

[About the author. Alex R. Castro has been an adman all his professional life. Presently, he is a business director of Makati-based Jimenez Basic Advertising. His job has taken him around the world, training in New York, London, working in Asia and Australia, and living in Bangkok for 4 years. Yet, Mabalacat, his hometown, continues to be his favorite place on earth. So much so that in January 2006, he singlehandedly researched, wrote, designed, and published a book of his town's history, titled Scenes from a Bordertown & Other Views/Views from the Pampang & Other Scenes. The twin book also featured Pampanga-themed pictorial essays that previously saw print in his column for Sun.Star-Pampanga. When not writing advertising copy, he does consultancy work for the Center for Kapampangan Studies at Holy Angel University, collects antiques and books, and tends to his two cats, Uma and Pikachu. A true nerd, he received his Communications degree from St. Louis University in Baguio City and was named as one of the Philippines' Oustanding Students of Communications by the Broadcast Media Council and KBP (Kapisanan ng mga Broadcaster sa Pilipinas).]

-Posted: 1:35 PM 1/1/07 | More of this author on eK!