ONE of the more interesting personalities I met in my first few years of settlement in Bacolod was the gifted artist, Ely Santiago. He was also lead person in the organizing of then struggling artists of Bacolod, some of whom are now internationally known painters Charlie Co and Nunelucio Alvarado. In late 1981, Bacolod was dismal city for one who received her doctorate from the University of Toronto, and left family and friends in comfit Canada.
I landed in Bacolod, just a year after the tragic sinking of jam-packed M/S Don Juan of Negros Navigation (NN) bound for Bacolod City, carrying at least 1,000 passengers. Within her are vacationers, students coming home after graduation or a break in big universities in Manila, families of wealthy and elite Negrenses, who accompanied newly bought cars in its cargo and businessmen with bulk of their goods.
The Don Juan was famous for its cruising speed, cutting traveling time to 18-19 hours for a Manila-Bacolod trip which was usually 22-24 hours on other vessels at that time. It featured the elegant “Admiral Class” Cabins, a signature of first class travel for NN’s fleet. It was the first of its kind to have watertight cabin and compartment doors. Ironically, this premier features became cause of death of the elites booked in first class. The PNOC oil tanker that rammed Don Juan left a large gaping hole from its lower deck bunks to the Admiral Class Cabin decks jamming most of the cabin doors, and sealing the fate of their occupants.
Bacolod City and the rest of Negros Occidental were shocked. It came very untimely when the province was suffering from the fall of worldwide sugar prices that heralded the collapse of the monocrop sugar industry of the province.
In the early 1980s, the height of the sugar industry crisis, Negros Occidental became known for the Biafra-like skeletal image of a young boy, and the brewing social volcano.
Given the lingering depressive atmosphere in Bacolod, and widespread gloom and doom, the artists led by Ely Santiago, by his account, grouped together and thought of making colorful, smiling masks, to mask the pain and ease the grieving. The mayor then of Bacolod, Jose Montalvo, was not exempted from great grief. He never found Nora Montalvo, his wife their daughters, Mylene, 17; and Yvette, 7; and mother-in-law, Anicia Kilayko, believed to have died inside their cabins.
Creatively, the late Ely Santiago and his group of innovative artists, instituted a new way of celebrating the City’s Charter: street dancing of Bacolodnons donning smiling masks to drive away pain and sorrow. Thus, was born, MassKara.