By By tataramon
Catanduanes Independent Province-hood: The Romance and the Grit
posted 3-Nov-2019  ·  
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October 26, 1945, Catanduanes became a separate province from Albay by virtue of Commonwealth Act 687. But what is the big deal? Does anybody really care anymore? For those of us born in the fifties onwards, province-hood appears to have always been in place as a most normal and permanent reality. And why not? In a year’s time, it would have been three quarters of a century that we carried through our lives as a separate provincial community, quite enough to forget the hard aspects of the past. Writing our addresses with the assignation “Catanduanes, Albay” would be as weird and cumbersome to imagine as living in times without cellphones.

But we would be better off heeding the cautionary counsel of the wise that “those who forget the past are bound to repeat its mistakes,” or that “ang dai batid magsaringoy sa ginikanan dai makaabot sa padudumanan.” Hala ka dyan!

Right now, we are all a-buzz celebrating the 74th Foundation Anniversary of Catanduanes appropriately themed Saringoy sa GinIkanan, Padagos sa Kauswagan. In this come-back piece of my column “Sisay Kita?”, let me contribute my modest due in doing the sarignoy (pwera ringo). Particularly, I shall mull on our becoming a separate province as an exercise in the claiming of an identity. To assert province-hood is to say that we are a distinct people as Catandunganons. If indeed we are, Sisay Kita? To answer this question we need to look into the factors that led to the point of province-hood. October 26, 1945 did not happen accidentally. It was no simple arbitrary date of the signing of Commonwealth Act 687.

 I propose that there were three interconnected circumstances that conspired to create that remarkable milestone in our history that changed not so much our mailing addresses but more so our very lives as Catandunganons. These are 1) the euphoria of victory over the Japanese, 2) the build-up of the local political elite’s taste for power, and 3) the natural separation of Catanduanes as an island, aggravated by the perceived discrimination by mainland Bicol.      

As a starter, note that the date itself, October 26, 1945, is quite conspicuous. Just over a month before in September 2, World War II which was the most devastating armed struggle in history came to its official end after raging on for some four years. In the country and the rest of the world, the dust of destruction has barely settled and the stench of death was still reeking about. How come the Catandungnons were in an upbeat mood to declare themselves free from mother province Albay? Note that about just eight months before, in February 2-8 of that same year, the Catandunganons almost single-handedly liberated the island from the Japanese, earlier than the liberation of both Manila and Legaspi, and quite ahead of the retaking of Berlin in the European arena. It was the first ever shooting war that the Catandunganons fought in their history, and the sweet victory of their resistance must have created a strong sense of collective empowerment. It demonstrated that they can execute great deeds, largely by their own initiative, creativity and will power.

In addition, wars are known to radically change the course of history. While wars leave behind massive physical destruction, they too cause the profound breakdown of established order. Therefore, the aftermath of a war offers a grand venture of reconstruction, an opportunity for people to reinvent themselves. New life, it is said, springs forth from the decay of death. For example, the two world wars resulted to massive re-drawing of the map of the world as nations previously controlled by colonial powers asserted their freedom. It would seem that the Catandunganons, emboldened by their own victory at home over the Japanese invaders, seized the opportunity presented by the fluidity of the socio-political order, and claimed the right to pursue their collective fate, albeit in the smaller scale of local governance.

But the acquisition of province-hood has its less romantic, practical aspects. It is something made possible in the worldly realm of politics, the product of maneuverings by the stakeholders of power. Commonwealth Act 687 may be seen, in more mundane and less idealized terms, as the fulfillment of the ambitions of a Catandunganon political elite that started to take shape only at the onset of the American regime. During the three centuries of Spanish ascendancy, island-wide exercise of power by the homegrown ruling class was not possible. The highest position available to a native was the gobernadorcillo or town executive. Catanduanes was always a partido or sub-province of either Camarines or Albay. A province then was ruled by an alcalde mayor who was always a Spaniard appointed by the Governor General. Even so, Catanduanes for the most part was administered as a corregimiento or a politico-military outpost under a corregidor who was a military officer, typically with the rank of colonel.

Therefore, up until the Spaniards left, no local Catandunganon ever had a taste to exercise authority over the entire island. Things changed when the Americans took over at the break of the 20th century. They instituted a system of local governance that somehow depended on popular elections in choosing local officials. Even as Catanduanes remained a sub-province of Albay, a sub-provincial executive called Lieutenant Governor was chosen by suffrage from among the locals (although back then only men with some property were allowed to vote). From 1901 to 1945, there had been a total of nine Lieutenant Governors in Catanduanes. Surely, they were culled from the former gobernadorcillo class of the Spanish period. The line-up suggests that early then, the position of Catandunganon chief executive was a contest between constituencies of the north (Felipe Usero, Francisco Perfecto, Felipe Almojuela) and the south (Eustaquio Joson, Deogracias Belmonte, Remigio Socito), a pattern that seemed to have obtained to this day.

In addition, a Legislature for the entire Philippines was instituted composed of representatives or congressmen elected by districts. Catanduanes was part of the then 2nd district of Albay that also included the islands of Rapu-rapus and Batan (now San Miguel). In 1925, Francisco Perfecto won the congressional seat for the 2nd district. In the 1931 elections, a Catandunganon was again elected congressman: Pedro Vera who won over another one from Catanduanes, Jose Surtida (again the north-south competition). In 1934, Catanduanes became a separate 4th district all by itself. This time, Jose Surtida won over Pedro Vera. In 1941, Francisco Perfecto regained the congressional position after a stint as Lieutenant Governor..

What happened therefore in the first four decades of American rule was the formation of a local elite in Catanduanes with political aspirations that embraced an island-wide scope. Surely, independent province-hood sparkled brightly in the covetous eyes of this circle; their ambitions would be the most gratified by a Catanduanes seceded from mother province Albay. Surely too, the scheme for separate province-hood started early among their ranks, way before Francisco Perfecto made it real. Without degrading Perfecto’s role as “Father of the Province of Catanduanes,” it can be said that it was his sheer and distinct luck to have been the congressman of Catanduanes at that most opportune time to push for province-hood, and it is to his credit to have possessed the acumen to grab such opportunity when it showed up. The reconvening of the Commonwealth Congress after the war in late 1945 presented the most dramatic concert of circumstances: the fluidity of a war’s aftermath, the euphoria of victory and the urgent need to reconstruct, and the imminent total relinquishment of power by the Americans to Filipinos as provided in the 1935 Constitution. For Perfecto, it was the perfect timing to make the move; to him it was “now or never” and he took it. Then, as they say, the rest is history. 

 But there is a third crucial factor that worked for the Catandunganons becoming a distinct people: the natural boundedness of their homeland, their insularity. Separated from mainland Luzon by the Maqueda Channel that becomes treacherous much of the year, Catanduanes is a lonely territory that faces directly the vast and menacing Pacific. Such remoteness is aggravated by the harsh geographic ruggedness of terrain and the frequent battery of typhoons, all of which shaped the Catandunganons into a hardy people with a strong sense of resilience and independence. What else, the feeling of being marooned from the rest of the world was coupled by a perceived discrimination from mainland Bicolanos which created in them a resentment. All that duly translated into a yearning to be weaned from Albay.

October 26, 1945 was the culmination of a people’s slow and tedious push for local independence. It did not come so casually as a piece of paper being signed into law. It rode high on the drama of a World War coming to its end of magnificent victories and defeats, of spectacularly heroic labors and unprecedented enterprise of wholesale destruction and murder. It drew energy from the Catandunganons’ remarkable demonstration of their own capacity to ward off a common enemy. But to become an operational reality, it relied on the blue print for governance of a colonial regime and the pursuit of the local elite’s political ambitions. It built on natural geographical separation, but got fueled by long-running resentment of the mainlander’s slurs, real or imagined.

It might as well have been the product of centuries, perhaps millennia, of build-up. But when it came, it was only the start. What happened next would be another story to be told, surely as colorful and multi-faceted.

Happy 74th Foundation Anniversary fellow Catandunganons!

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