The month of June 2009 began with shocking news… I was at “Gallery Frames” along Osmena Highway at about 5:00 p.m., having some beautiful old prints set in pretty Spanish gilt frames when my cellphone rang. It was my dear friend Maria Teresa “Tess” Zamora Lopez, and she had distressing news…
“Toto, Zaffy Ledesma passed away today. He died in his sleep. I’ve spoken with Lourdes, one of the first to know. Elen is in Hong Kong. Belen didn’t know even if she’s in Iloilo…”
[ Lourdes Lopez Jison-Ledesma; Elena Lopez Jison-Golez; Belen Grageda ]
I froze in shock. Zaffy Ledesma??? He wasn’t even old!!! And he was careful about his health!!! Although he liked to smoke, so…
The first time I ever heard of Mr. Zafiro “Zaffy” Ledesma was in the mid-1990s after a tour of Joey Panlilio & Co. to Iloilo. The amusing story — which has since become an urban legend — was that when the grand seigneur from Pampanga [ Panlilio ] met the grand seigneur from Iloilo [ Ledesma ], verbal one-upmanship ensued. The Pampangueno stuck out his aristocratic nose at the Ilonggo and the Ilonggo did likewise to the Pampangueno. However, when I finally had the chance to ask Zaffy about that supposed episode, he said it never happened. Actually, given the aristocratic, courtly dispositions of both Joey Panlilio and Zaffy Ledesma, it probably never did.
I finally met THE Zafiro “Zaffy” Ledesma just before the funeral mass of Manong Frank Jison [ Francisco Lopez Jison ] at a function hall in the Jaro Cathedral complex in early August 2007. Manong Frank’s daughter Elen Jison-Golez introduced me to him. He was lean, wearing moutarde and brown tones; I thought him dapper. We shook hands, he muttered a few words, and he went right back to chatting with two ladies, most likely relatives.
The first time I had a conversation with Zaffy was that very evening in a corner of the immense reception room at the Nelly Gardens while we were all waiting to go to dinner…
“You like history! How do you find Iloilo? Is it your first time here?” Zaffy inquired.
“It’s beautiful. I’ve been here before. There is so much history all around…” I gestured at the Nelly Gardens living room.
“What and who are your sources? You must be careful about your sources!”
“Many good, old books. Various Lopezes, various Ledesmas. Specially you, I hope!”
“You have to be careful: even among Lopezes and Ledesmas you can be told the wrong things…”
“I know… I do a lot of crosschecks, counter-references. Thank you for the advice.”
“You’ve visited our museum?” he asked.
“Yes, I have. It’s well-done.”
“You are from Pampanga… We have nothing to compare… We did not have those huge, old mansions; the food, oh the food; the French porcelain, silver, and crystal; European royalty visiting…”
[ I thought it was odd of Zaffy to say that, but as usual he was factual and correct: Old Pampanga rice and sugar fortunes from the 1820s predated those of 1870s Iloilo and Negros sugar fortunes by about 50 years. ]
“I am from Pampanga but I certainly don’t think it has a monopoly of old world wealth and high style… ”
“Perhaps.” he reflected.
I continued: “I’m interested in the histories of the Lopez and the Ledesma clans. I gather that much of turn of the 20th century Iloilo was mainly about the Lopez and the Ledesma…”
“Ah, the Ledesma… They were reclusive, They were eccentric. The windows of their houses were all closed!!! They retreated to their own worlds…” Zaffy reminisced with a wry smile. He continued in snappy Ilonggo which made everybody else laugh but I didn’t understand it.
“According to the senior Lopez family members like your Manang Vic [ the late Victoria Lopez de Araneta ], the Ledesma were the true aristocrats of old Iloilo: refined, cultivated intellectuals and artists. The old Lopez on the other hand, were all businessmen and moneymakers.”
“True…” Zaffy agreed.
I so enjoyed those casually elegant evenings, one after the other, at the storied Nelly Gardens in Jaro, Iloilo of the Lopez-Hofilena family [ devolved to the Jison-Lopez, and on to the Ledesma-Jison and the Golez-Jison ]. My visit of several days was courtesy of Elen Jison-Golez. At about 6:30 p.m., We — Manang Lourdes, Manong Arturo, Elen, Elen’s daughters Frannie, Cecile, and Isabel, Zaffy, and Manang Belen —would gather before dinner in that corner of the immense reception room [ where the telephone was located ], nearest the palatial dining room, and enjoy cocktails and conversation. Zaffy was trim, handsome in an offhand way, usually smoking cigarettes, and was a lively raconteur of the day’s events. In the company of close Ledesma and Lopez family and dear friends, Zaffy’s trademark snobbishness and aloofness in public gave way to a patrician warmth, sincerity, and solicitousness. I admired the way the gentleman of the old school looked in his dark sports shirt, jeans, and sneakers — so contemporary, chic, and casual, yet so dignified and yes, expensive-looking. He always had the wittiest, sometimes the most acidic, things to say about everyone who mattered in Iloilo.
Adios, Don Zafiro Ledesma. It was an honor and a pleasure to have known you. I regret that we will not be having dinners together anymore. And I will forever miss those lectures and tours you had planned for us Visayas / Iloilo history enthusiasts from “Imperial Manila.”