Deep in the heart of Barangay Banlat, in Quezon City, is as shrine dedicated to Melchora Aquino de Ramos (1812-1919), the Spanish Era revolutionary heroine who is better known as “Tandang Sora” or “Elder Sora”. Erected in 2008, the shrine is the site where Tandang Sora lived, and now houses her remains. The whole shrine was designed by sculptor, Toym Imao, with a central monument featuring Aquino tending to the injured Katipunan revolutionaries, and around the monument are six panels depicting the life of Tandang Sora.
Abdulmari “Toym” de Leon Imao (born 1968) comes from a family of artists. He first took up architecture at the University of the Philippines, but the call of the arts was too strong and he became a sculptor. Later he took his Masters in Fine Arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art as a Fulbright Scholar. Aside from sculpture of historical figures and public installations on social commentary, Imao has also done production design work for theater and film.
Born in Balintawak in 1812, Melchora Aquino grew up without formal schooling, but had somehow learned on her own how to read and write. Melchora was nicknamed “Sora”, and it was noted that she was known for her beauty and talent of singing in her youth, as she often asked to perform in local community events and sing during mass. Sora was also regularly invited to play the role of the Reyna Elena, during the annual May harvest celebrations of the Santacruzan, which commemorates the discovery of the True Cross of Christ by the Byzantine Empress Helen (250-330 AD), during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 326-328 AD.
Sora’s prominence in the community caught the eye of Fulgencio Ramos, the local cabeza de barrio (village chief), whom she would later marry. The couple had six children: Romualdo, Saturnina, Simon, Estefania, Juan, and Juana. However, Fulgencio would pass away shortly after the birth of their youngest child, leaving Sora to manage their businesses and raising the children on her own. Sora would eventually take her husband’s place as the hermana mayor of the community, managing the daily affairs of the people, as well as participating in major celebrations such as weddings, baptisms and fiestas.
When the revolutionary Katipunan movement against the Spanish colonists was initiated by Andrés Bonifacio (1863-1897) in 1892, Sora was already 80 years old. However, she would become one of Bonficaio’s trusted advisers, during the clandestine meetings of the Katipunan at her home. It is believed that Sora had met Bonifacio, through her son, Juan, who had joined the Katipunan movement.
When the Katipunan was discovered by the Spanish authorities in 1896, Bonifacio rallied his men where they torn their cedulas (community tax certificates), and declared that they were no longer under the rule of the Spanish Empire, and that they declared war against the colonizers. To some historians, this declaration of independence was held in Balintawak, to others in Pugad Lawin, and in one instance it was believed to be held in front of Tandang Sora’s home in Banalat. When the war broke out, Sora would house the injured and sick revolutionaries at her home, and feeding the rest of the troops.
On that same year, the Spanish authorities got wind of Tandang Sora’s activities and arrested and interrogated her. When she refused to divulge any information about the Katipuneros, the Spanish government exiled her to the island of Guam, where she would stay until 1903. In Guam, Sora and another Filipina revolutionary, Segunda Puentes y Santiago, were placed under house arrest doing house work for a certain Don Justo Dungca.
In 1898, the United Stated of America took the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and Cuba from the Spanish government, as an agreement at end of the Spanish-American War (1898). However, this did not sit very well with the Filipino revolutionaries, lead by General Emilio Aguinaldo (1869-1964), and the Philippine-American War broke out in February 4, 1899. When the war was declared officially over in 1902, the American colonial government made amends by bringing home the Katipunan exiles, among them was Tandang Sora. She arrived in Manila in 1903, on board the U.S.S. Thomas. Upon her return to the Philippines, Tandang Sora would stay at the home of her daughter, Saturnina. Although she spent the rest of her life at her daughter’s home, Sora was still fiercely supporting of Philippine Independence, until her death in 1919, at the age of 107.
Immediately after her death, Aquino was buried at the buried at the Panteón de los Veteranos de la Revolución (Mausoleum of the Veterans of the Revolution) in the Manila North Cemetery, along with other heroes of the Katipunan uprising. The mausoleum was designed by fellow revolutionary Arch. Arcadio de Guzmán Arellano (1872-1920).
In 1969, Aquino’s remains were transferred to the Himlayang Pilipino Memorial Park in Banlat, and in 1972 a shrine was erected to commemorate Tandang Sora. This first shrine was designed and sculpted by Florante “Boy” Beltran Caedo (1939-2004), which is just a few hundred meters from Aquino’s old home.
Now relocated in her final resting place, Melchora Aquino’s legacy is forever commemorated in this shrine. Not only is her legacy told through sculpture, but a small museum is placed within the shrine, with her belongings, photographs and other memorabilia on display for the discovery of the next generations of Filipino patriots.