Sunday, April 1, 2012

Genealogy 101: The Value of Oral History to Genealogists

Although it is important to base family histories on facts and archival documents, there are many instances when these can only go too far. Records don't give us an insight into a family's dynamics unless one or several members kept diaries or other written accounts. Unfortunately for Filipinos writing was never easy in the Spanish period, so all we have left today are oral traditions that many continue to believe and retell the younger generations. Since this week is celebrated all throughout the Christian world as a holy week, I have decided to retell a tradition in my family that has for many years been solely oral until I decided to find archival records to support it.

My paternal family, the Saleses, own the Santo Intierro of Moalboal, Cebu. Oral history says that this was a gift by Padre Omeng del Carmen to his mother after he became a priest. 

The Santo Intierro of the del Carmen-Sales family
I have already known that my great-great-grandmother's name was Eulogia del Carmen, who was born in Moalboal, Cebu. She was the daughter of Don Pio Quinto del Carmen and Doña Petrona Gador. I later found out that Eulogia del Carmen had a younger brother, Bartolome, whose name appears as one of the ordained priests of Cebu in the 1870s. I also later found his name in the list of parish priests of Argao, and his signature and name appears in the church records of Argao from the 1870s until the early 1900s.

According to family tradition, the Santo Intierro, which Bartolome gave his mother, became a centerpiece in the del Carmen family’s altar. Doña Petrona and her children began a yearly devotion to this blessed statue, and their family became in charged with the preparations for the carrosa for the Dead Christ during the Lenten procession on Good Friday.  The carrosa used to be simple and small, and was borne upon the shoulders of four men.  This practice of taking charge of the Dead Christ carrosa soon became a yearly practice, and pretty soon the Santo Intierro became associated with the del Carmen, and then later the Sales family.  After Doña Petrona died of beriberi on 3 March 1903, her children took over the preparations for the blessed idol. Teodorica, known as “Nanay Icay” to her many great-nephews and nieces, became the head of the family at her parents’ deaths, being the eldest unmarried daughter of the del Carmens. She was  very strict, the archetype of an old maid or dalagang ulay, although she bore an illegitimate daughter, Patricia, in 1904.  Patricia del Carmen lived only for five weeks as she died of fever. The tragic loss of her daughter must have driven her to concentrate on her family, specifically her sister’s, Eulogia, children, who were orphaned early when Eulogia died from cholera in 1896.  Since most of her nephews and nieces lived in the Big House after Eulogia’s death, she would always insist that the children would come inside the house at the strike of six in the evening, or during the oracion, and kiss her and the other elders’ hands.  Then she would insist on having everyone join in the praying of the Angelus and then later the rosary, which was very lengthy.  A child who failed to come to the house at six or failed to join the prayers would get a sharp reprimand and a painful kusi at the waist.

Indeed, her great-nephews and nieces viewed her with awe and fear. She believed that children should always be called by their first name, and thus she refused to call her great-nephews and nieces by their nicknames.  She was a tireless woman, always seeing to it that the huge parcels of  farmlands left by her parents were not left idle.  In her younger years she herself oversaw the management of these lands, but in her later years she appointed her favorite nephew, Gorgonio, to be the overseer.  She became even stricter in her later years, refusing to come out of the house except to attend the early morning mass and other church holidays.  However, she was also generous to her family, and allowed anyone in the family to get whatever they needed from the farm.

Her devotion to the Santo Intierro and to her family was truly tireless.  She shelled out hundreds of pesos for the preparations of the carrosa.  Each Good Friday morning, she would gather all the members of the family to work on the decorations of the carrosa.  She and her sisters Eulogia and Rosa supervised and did the flower arrangements and other decorations.  Later, Eufemia and Aniceta, the elder Sales daughters succeeded them.  Later, members of the family with requests or intentions would insert “petitions” beneath the statue.  After the preparations, the whole family would cross to the church to bring the Santo Intierro and to attend the mass.  Later, the family, together with many people, would follow the carrosa of the Santo Intierro during the procession.  Before, as today, the Santo Intierro always had the largest number of devotees, for which statue best symbolizes the meaning of Good Friday but that of the Dead Christ himself.  At past 6 in the evening, Teodorica would once more gather all the family members and a large feast would ensue.  There was never a shortage of delicious foods, as Rosa del Carmen was said to be a master chef.  She amused her family with her cakes, mamons, candies, fruit salads, tortas and rosquillos.  She took charge of the menu, and never was there a time when one complained of her cooking.  Throughout the night a group of  people would do the passion, lasting into midnight.  Also throughout the night people from all over Moalboal would congregate at the house to kiss the Santo Intierro.

Black Saturday was always spent quietly, for it was considered to be utter disrespect and blasphemous to do anything loud on the day that Christ was still dead.  And so, the family would stay in the house, with the children staring achingly outside the huge windows, itching to continue playing.  Throughout the day, the older members of the family would be seen mumbling silent prayers.  Later, however, the teenage great-nephews would always group together and go out, almost always sneaking out to grab a couple of drinks.

Easter Sunday indeed proved to be a glorious day for all members of the family.  Early in the morning the whole family would be roused by Teodorica to attend the sugat, or the reenactment of the meeting of the Risen Christ and his mother Mary.  After the sugat and the mass, the whole family would troop at the back of the big house to spend the entire day at the beach.  Once more, there would be an abundance of food and drinks.

This tradition, started approximately around 1874 by  Doña Petrona, has continued to this very day.  After Teodorica’s death, Eufemia Sales Jainar became tasked with the observance of the tradition, being the eldest among the Sales brood.  When the family decided to tear down the big house before the outbreak of the second world war, the Santo Intierro was transferred to Eufemia’s house, where it has remained in the custody of her descendants since.  Without fail, each year, members of the Sales family would flock to Eufemia’s house to pay homage to the blessed statue, and to carry on the family tradition.

Several changes have been made throughout the years.  The carrosa was added another layer, and tires were also added so that members of the family would no longer have to carry the carrosa and instead just pull it.  The elevation of the carrosa also proved to be useful, as people would always flock and grab flowers from the carrosa after the procession.  These flowers, it is believed, have healing powers.  Recently, also, the process of “bagging”  (inserting the flower stems on to a small piece of plastic cellophane filled with water to allow the flowers to last longer) was introduced.  And instead of working on Good Friday, the family has decided to start the bagging and the decorating on Holy Thursday, as many members already live in the city and there would be lesser time if done on Friday.  Also, some members of the family go to the beach on Saturday instead of Sunday, since those who live outside Moalboal still have to travel home on Sunday.  Similarly, the younger generation towards the 1980’s started the tradition of doing a Way of the Cross inside the Church.

Despite the changes, the tradition pretty much remains the same.  The family continues to work together, the teens working on the flowers, the grown-ups taking care of the food and other preparations, while the older ones are allowed to relax and observe everything, perhaps allowing them the opportunity to just sit back and reminisce.  The bagging of the flowers allows distant cousins to get to know each other, and later in the more liberal years the youngsters would have a case of beer in hand to help them socialize with their cousins better. 

And of course, at the heart of all these is the Santo Intierro, the reason for all these celebrations.  Six generations of del Carmen-Saleses have devoted their Holy Week on the family saint.  One member aptly described everything: “The Santo Intierro is the uniting factor of the Sales family; it is what brings us together and gives us a sense of being a family.”

I am proud to be part of this tradition, which continues to this day. If I only focused on archival records I would never have this much insight into my family's past. With recording these oral histories we guarantee that the future generations will have knowledge of what their family's past had been.


  1. That was such an interesting read! My maternal grandfather is a Gador. My mother had the opportunity to visit her paternal relatives last December. It was amazing. Thank you for sharing this story!

  2. Wow. That would make us related, albeit distantly. Petrona Gador was my ggg-grandma. I have an incomplete Gador family tree in case you are interested.

  3. Hello. My maternal great grandma (my mom's, mom's, mom 😊) was a Sales from Cebu before she married and became a Tomelden. Her name was flor sales. I don't know if there is a connection, but I'm interested in making a family tree that goes as far and wide as possible. Could you please give me some tips and advice as to where I can find such genealogy material? Or even where to start. Thank

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