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Century-old Cagayan de Oro monument bears skeletal remains of old town heroes

At the bottom of a pile of rocks, at the back, is a small steel door that leads to a chamber where the skeletal remains of many of the city's heroes are

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, Philippines – Cagayan de Oro Mayor Oscar Moreno on Sunday morning, June 12, delivered his final Independence Day message as the city’s leader, days before he ends a colorful political career that spanned 24 years.

“What can we do to pursue the dreams of those who died fighting for our freedom?” Moreno asked the crowd that gathered at Kiosko Kagawasan at the historic Plaza Divisoria to mark the country’s 124th Independence Day.

He threw the question from a stage just a stone’s throw from a monument in a park that many still mistakenly think was built nearly a century ago in honor of plebeian hero Andres Bonifacio.

Unknown to many, the park right smack in the middle of downtown Cagayan de Oro serves as the burial ground for many local heroes who died fighting the American colonizers at the turn of the 20th century.

The generic Bonifacio statue

The statue is unmistakably Bonifacio, and similar to other monuments that show the image of the charging supremo of the Katipunan in folded shirt sleeves and pants with a raised bolo in the right hand and a pointed flag in the other.

The monument of rocks, however, is more than what meets the eye – it is where the remains of local freedom fighters were moved years after they were killed.

FOR TOWN HEROES. The words El Pueblo A Sus Héroes (The Town to its Heroes) are inscribed in bold and capital letters on the monument that stands in the middle of Plaza Divisoria in Cagayan de Oro. Photo by Herbie Gomez/Rappler

Local historians agree that while a generic Bonifacio statue was used, the monument was erected solely to honor and remember the heroism of the brave warriors of the old Cagayan de Misamis town who were killed two years after the 1898 Philippine Revolution against Spain.

They said the words inscribed on the monument – El Pueblo A Sus Héroes (The Town to its Heroes) – are a dead giveaway.

“Ka Andres Bonifacio, the father of the Katipunan, was a great hero but this is not his monument,” said local history aficionado Raul Ilogon.

But Dr. Antonio Montalván II, a Kagay-anon anthropologist and ethnohistorian, said, “It’s actually a generic monument put up in many towns and cities all over the Philippines. It is Bonifacio, yes. That’s the history of the Bonifacio image that has been copied all over the country. It actually depicts the Cry of Pugad Lawin. Thus, to identify it as Bonifacio is not wrong.”

Bones of heroes

At the bottom of the pile of rocks, at the back, is a small steel door. It leads to a chamber where the skeletal remains of local heroes were gathered and given a decent resting place by one of the leaders of the resistance, Apolinar Velez, when he rose to become the local chief executive of the capital town of the old Misamis province.

Velez served as the governor of Misamis province from 1906 to 1909, and municipal president of the old town from 1928 to 1931. Cagayan de Misamis was renamed Cagayan de Oro in 1950 when it became a chartered city.

DOOR TO THE BONES. A steel door, ignored or unnoticed by many park goers and pedestrians, leads to a chamber that contains the skeletal remains of Filipino soldiers and macheteros who died fighting invading American troops in the old Cagayan de Misamis (now Cagayan de Oro City) in 1900. Photo by Herbie Gomez/Rappler

Nicolas Aca, the chairman of the city’s Historical and Cultural Commission (Hisccom), said the bones belonged to resistance fighters who died in the May 14, 1900 Battle of Agusan Hill.

Aca said city hall’s list showed 46 members of the Mindanao Battalion killed by raiding American troops in the village of Agusan in the old Cagayan de Misamis.

The fatalities mostly held the rank of private, and a dozen of them were macheteros who all fought under the battalion’s 1st Company under Captain Vicente Roa.

Roa, who also died in that battle, has a Cagayan de Oro street now named after him.

Facts and lore

Montalván doubts the veracity of some of Hisccom’s data though.

He said that while “it’s not a guess that the Divisoria monument contains the bones of the revolutionary heroes… the bones moved by Apolinar Velez are rather unaccounted for as to where they come from….”

Montalván, a former member of Hisccom, said the idea that the bones belonged to the dead from the Agusan battle where many died was based on popular lore.

There were no real numbers, and the known accounts in the United States’ archives merely gave estimates, Montalván said.

He added there might have also been some skeletal remains that belonged to those who died in two other 1900 battles.

According to Montalván, there were nameless indigenous people from Bukidnon who fought during the three 1900 battles.

Three battles of 1900

The Battle of Agusan Hill was the second of three that followed the March 30, 1900 occupation of Cagayan de Misamis by the American forces, just two years after the 1898 Philippine Revolution, and after Spain ceded its 333-year-old colony to the US.

Eight days after the March 30 occupation, revolutionaries led by General Nicolas Capistrano, a Bulacan-born Katipunero, raided the American barracks and sparked the Battle of Cagayan de Misamis, the first of three in 1900.

But Capistrano’s forces were outmatched during the battle in what is now known as Gaston Park near city hall and areas surrounding it. Seeing imminent defeat, Capistrano ordered his men to retreat.

Capistrano, who never surrendered, subsequently became a member of the Philippine Assembly.

A month after the Battle of Cagayan de Misamis, the colonizers successfully staged an offensive against Captain Roa’s group that was positioned in the village of Agusan.

Filipinos lost big in the April and May 1900 clashes, but turned the tables on the advancing American soldiers, forcing them to scamper and run for their lives in June.

First-ever big win

The victory came for the revolutionaries in the Battle of Makahambus Hill on June 4, 1900, when the new colonizers were greeted with a volley of cannon and rifle fire while trying to negotiate the surrender of the group under the then-major Apolinar Velez.

Many Americans were said to have been killed in the offensives from the well-fortified and steep Makahambus Hill.

It was a decisive win for Velez’s group, and the first-ever battle the Filipino resistance won anywhere in the country since the start of the Philippine-American War in 1899.

Remembering comrades-in-arm

Montalván said he felt insecure about the use of secondary sources that provided sketchy details, but the known primary sources in the US Archives “were skewed heavily in favor” of the American forces.

He said what has been established is that Velez had the bones of the 1900 heroes exhumed and transferred to the El Pueblo A Sus Héroes monument in Divisoria years later and that the three 1900 battles took place, with the last one being won by the revolutionaries.

The National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) acknowledged the historicity of the three battles by installing markers years ago under rites that included memorial wreaths sent to Cagayan de Oro by Malacañang.

FLAG PARADE ON VELEZ STREET. Representatives of a multi-sectoral group parade a giant flag during the 124th Philippine Independence Day celebration in Cagayan de Oro on June 12, 2022. The street is named in honor of Apolinar Velez who successfully led revolutionary forces in the historic Battle of Makahambus Hill. Photo by Froilan Gallardo/Rappler

Ilogon, for his part, said the El Pueblo A Sus Héroes monument also serves now as a fitting tribute to Velez who “never forgot” his comrades-in-arm.

“He (Velez) gathered and buried them, with full military honors…. The monument was built by someone who fought in that war. It is a monument for those who died in that war,” he said.

A busy and primary street leading to the historic Plaza Divisoria where the monument stands in downtown Cagayan de Oro has been named after Velez. –