“Pacto de Retroventa”

They say that “What comes around, goes around.”

“Wherever Sugar Grew”

Many years ago, Joey Panlilio asked his grandmother, the regal and enduringly lovely Dona Luz Sarmiento de Panlilio, where the most beautiful old houses — needless to say the most beautiful antiques — in the Philippines could be found, and She answered simply:  “Hijo, Wherever Sugar Grew…”

That meant Pampanga, Bulacan, Batangas, Iloilo, and Negros.

Of course, She was right.

The Grand Lady of Jaro

Among the many splendid mansions of Old Jaro, Iloilo, there is only one grand residence that enduringly captures the full essence, and the length and breadth of the wealth and splendor of the legendary Iloilo sugar fortunes at their height in the 1920s to the 30s:  the “Nelly Gardens.”

The imposing, Beaux-Arts style “Nelly Gardens” mansion was built in 1928 by Vicente Lopez y Villanueva [ 1879 - 1963 ] and his wife Elena Hofilena y Javelona.  It was named for their eldest daughter Nelly, who liked gardens.  Their first residence was along Calle Iznart, Jaro’s main thoroughfare, but Elena found the street noisy and bothersome, and since she liked flowers, plants, and gardening, Vicente decided to build their new residence on four hectares in [ what was then ] the outskirts of Old Jaro.  The residence began as a simple two-storey affair that was continually enlarged and embellished as the family grew, as their fortunes multiplied, and as their social obligations increased.

Vicente Lopez and Elena Hofilena had four children:  Nelly [ married Salvador Zamora ], Benito [ married Leonor de la Rama ], Lilia [ married Francisco Lopez Jison ], and Vicente [ married Maria Rita Molina Zamora ].  In the aristocratic fashion of those days, all four siblings could play a musical instrument proficiently:  Nelly played the piano; Benito, the cello; Lilia, the harp; and Vicente, the violin.  To this day, there is still a large prewar photograph of them on top of the black Steinway grand piano in the “sala” [ living / drawing room ] of the mansion.

Vicente Lopez y Villanueva was among the richest in the affluent Lopez Clan:  a sugar planter and industrialist with immense holdings.  When his elder brother Benito Lopez y Villanueva [ o 1877 ] was assassinated in 1908 by a rival political faction [ who happened to be their Jalandoni relatives ], he undertook the guardianship of the two sons, Eugenio “Ening” and Fernando “Nanding” [ who later on became THE tycoon Eugenio Lopez Sr. and the Vice-President Fernando Lopez ], and took them to live in his Calle Iznart house and later on at the “Nelly Gardens” [ Their mother, Presentacion Hofilena viuda de Lopez, retired to the old { turn of the century } house perched on an islet --- the storied "Roca Encantada" ---  on the 400 hectare ancestral Hofilena "hacienda" in Guimaras island ].  The brothers Eugenio and Fernando Lopez y Hofilena and the siblings Nelly, Benito, Lilia, and Vicente Lopez y Hofilena were first cousins twice over:  their fathers Benito and Vicente Lopez y Villanueva were brothers and their mothers Presentacion and Elena Hofilena y Javelona were sisters.  The younger Lopez-Hofilena first cousins always addressed their elder first cousins respectfully and affectionately as “Manong Ening” and “Manong Nanding.”  In fact, when Eugenio Lopez y Hofilena married Pacita Moreno y de Santos, they spent the first five years of their married life at the “Nelly Gardens.”  To this day, there are twin, late 1800s four-poster beds with the initials “BL” [ "Benito Lopez" ] and “PH” [ "Presentacion Hofilena" ]  in a second-floor bedroom facing the front garden.

According to oldtimers, The “Nelly Gardens” mansion was the very place where the legendary lifestyle of the Iloilo sugar barons was ultimately defined.  It became the definitive Iloilo residence as the most important receptions of the province during prewar and postwar were held there.  In prewar, the grandest occasion in the Lopez family was the annual birthday ball of Vicente held every 02 February, to which only the family and the elite of Iloilo and Manila were invited.  It was always a formal affair that required long dress and black tie, magnificent jewels and black limousines; full orchestras played dance music throughout the evening.  The invitation from Vicente Lopez was an indication of one’s rank in Iloilo [ and Manila ] society.

The mansion eventually devolved to the second daughter, Lilia Lopez y Hofilena [ Mrs. Francisco Lopez Jison ].  She and her husband Francisco Jison y Lopez of Silay, Negros Occidental were second cousins through the Lopez line.  Lilia’s father Vicente Lopez y Villanueva was a first cousin twice over of Francisco’s mother Maria Juana Dolores Lopez y Villanueva [ married to Albino Jison y Golez ].  Vicente’s father Eugenio Lopez y Jalandoni was an elder brother of Dolores’ father Marcelo Lopez y Jalandoni.  Vicente’s mother Marcela Villanueva y Felipe was an elder sister of Dolores’ mother Julita Villanueva y Felipe.  To further underscore the close relations, Rosario Lopez de Santos [ Rosario Lopez y Villanueva, married to Francisco Santos; they had no children so she adopted several Lopez nieces and nephews as her heirs ], the formidable “Nanay Sayong” [ "Mother Sayong" ], adopted the young Francisco Jison y Lopez [ her first cousin Dolores' son ] and made him one of the heirs of her vast fortune.  “Nanay Sayong” was an older sister of Vicente Lopez y Villanueva, a very capable and very willful lady who created her own immense fortune in sugarcane plantations and sugar mills.  She was among the richest of her generation of Lopezes.  So such are the interrelations of the Iloilo aristocracy…

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These days, The “Nelly Gardens” is actively managed by the daughters of Lilia Lopez y Hofilena and Francisco Jison y Lopez:  Lourdes Lopez Jison-Ledesma and Elena Lopez Jison-Golez.  Their brother, Francisco Lopez Jison Jr., resides at the estate year-round.  The mansion itself defies time as it is excellently maintained and remains as it was during the lifetime of Lilia Lopez de Jison; but the grounds are being redeveloped to best utilize the opportunities of the 21st century.  Constant reinvention is one of the secrets of the several, enduring Lopez fortunes.

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