CHOOSE Negros. Choose Silay. Yes, we are selling our Island of Sweet Surprises. Silay is our gateway because the Green Airport is here. (Thanks to Manager Mecine Reyes for this prestigious award for Negros). Actually our frontline is Bacolod-Talisay-Silay Tourism Circuit.

I personally met the production people who will be working for the Gen. Miguel Malvar documentary film to be produced with the assistance of Malvar’s great grandson, lawyer Jose Malvar Villegas. For their shooting, they want to consider the heritage houses in Silay. Silay City is fast catching the eyes of movie and television producers because of our heritage houses. The movie “Everyday, I Love You” has given Silay an excellent publicity mileage.

Prof. Fernando N. Zialcita, head of the Cultural Heritage Studies Program and this year’s director of Ateneo Cultural Laboratory is bringing Ateneo students in Silay. The activity for the students aims to let them learn social science concepts and methods of research in non-campus setting. Silay could be something typical because of the influence of hacienda system in governance. It seems that all the mayors of Silay come from the “hacendado” group.

The students are here also to work with the local community and city officials in applying the outcome of their research to current needs. It is good for them to discover the culture of Silay, the Paris of Negros at the turn of the century (19th century) when arts in all fields flourished brought about by the sugar industry. Those were the days that Silaynons got exclusive influence in the cultural landscape of Negros. It was hard for the “a fueras” to have that “I belong feeling” in Silay if he was not from Silay.

It was not superiority complex. It was just a social advancement by migration and development. That was just the beginning of an era when the “progresivos” of Jaro and Molo (in Iloilo) exploited the fertile lands of Negros to become haciendas (1840). Pueblo de Silay was a model, a trend setter in art, fashion, food, and way of thinking. While other towns were still in crude agriculture, Silay was already starting its trade, commerce, industry and tourism.

The Ateneans are here also to identify aspects of local heritage that are assets in a cultural world. Our programs and projects are preparing our people not just to be barangay athletes but global warriors. Silay City has more than 3,000 scholars who in proper time will be our ambassadors of culture for the world. Our rondalla ensemble has represented the country in international music festivals in Scotland, China, Singapore and Taiwan (recently).

Tourists come to Silay to discover our food and other delicacies. We are “Banwa sang Dulce.” They are here for the only existing “iron dinosaurs” (steam locomotives) in the Philippines at Hawaiian Philippine Company. Our shoreline restaurants in Barangay Balaring (fishermen’s village) speak of toothsome delight coming from the sea. Our organic farms manifest our desire for healthy living. Our biodiversity is well protected in Patag (part of North Negros National Park).

Our “Negros Sugar Story” features the life histories of key players in the industry”… the sugarcane planters (“hacendados”, “hacenderos”), the sugarcane worker (“dumaan,” “sacadas”), the millers (represented by Hawaiian-Philippine Company), sugar traders (the businessmen), and the consumers (buying public, and those engaging in food business).

Our culinary heritage is embodied in the long list of Silay delicacies… piaya de Silay, lumpia-ubod, guapple pie, buko pie, pili square, empanada, panyo-panyo, dulcegatas, kalamayhati, bitso-bitso, puto lanson, sundol, ibosmais, and more. Silay has a barter market of delicious but not expensive “kalan-unon.” It is happening every day (6 to 9 a.m.) at public market.

The students from Manila will be exposed to the 29 heritage houses identified by the National Heritage Commission as architectural landmarks. Most of them are the “obra maestra” of our “maestros de obra.” They range from “Art Noveau” to “Art Deco” (or combination of both. Houses may date back to the Spanish Colonial Period to the Early American Period.

Part of our “Negros Story” is the actual life in the haciendas where students may discover for themselves religious rituals, “serohano” healing, traditional farming, and the food of the hacienda workers dwelling in “sacada” quarters. All these are worth knowing and deserve a place for their modules. Silay is one laboratory where life is sweet and the past is forever.