“Who are these two people who are waiving their rights to the lot to Second Cousin’s mother in this document?” I asked my wife as I looked over the documents my wife had obtained from the municipal offices in Cortes, Bohol. My wife went on to tell a tale that went back to the late 1970’s. My wife had lived in a house with her mom, dad, 4 brothers and 4 sisters. One night there was a terrible typhoon and a coconut tree fell and destroyed their home. The family escaped before the tree hit. I assumed that my wife told me this because Mama’s family decided they did not want to rebuild on the same land. I knew Mama’s family owned land on the other side of the main highway on a steep hill. I figured they traded for the good flat lot where Mama’s house now sits about 30 meters off the main road that was previously owned by the two sisters whose names were on the document in my hand. All parties in the trade were poor, so no legal document reflected the trade, but it was common knowledge that the trade had been made. Recently my wife was talking about the situation and said they had never lived on the other side of the road and that the land trade was made at or just before her birth in the early 1970’s. I guess she told the other story because it was more interesting. I left it in this article for the same reason. I figured if push came to shove the document would be legally considered null and void because Mama had as much a right to the land as Second Cousin’s mom. The problem is the land would legally revert to the two sisters that I had not known existed before seeing the document. There was some good news in the documents. We had receipts that showed my wife’s Papa had paid the real estate tax in 1998 and 1999. Other receipts showed Mama had paid the tax 4 years in the 2000’s. My thinking is that this was recognition between the Municipality of Cortes and Mama that she was owner of the lot, since a person does not pay tax on property they don’t own. My wife told me she and her older sister would go to Second Cousin’s mom in the morning to get her to agree to a survey and a division of the lot. We agreed it would be best if I did not attend this meeting.
My wife and her older sister returned from their meeting with good, bad and worse news. The good news was that it was agreed that the lot was to be divided. The bad news was that Second Cousin’s mom’s side of the family would not share in paying the surveyor. I already knew that we would be paying the bill. The worse news was that there was a third Lola who had an equal stake in the lot whose family had never used any of the lot. We had not been aware of her legal claim. We now had to get 3rd Lola on board and the lot needed to be divided 3 ways, so Mama was only entitled to only 1/3 of the lot.
The next morning before it got too hot, my wife, her older sister, my two boys, and I walked to 3rd Lola’s house. We walked past fairly substantial houses on the road that leads to the church. Then we walked on a path that could only be used for walking or riding a bike or motorcycle past very modest homes. The people living in these homes would look at jeepney and trike drivers as well to do. I thought to myself how many of these people could produce legal written documentation that they owned the land they lived on was it none, some, all. I honestly don’t know and I am not saying they were squatters. I just wondered about it because of what we were trying to accomplish. We walked about 15 minutes and arrived at 3rd Lola’s home.
Before entering 3rd Lola’s home I removed my leather sandals even though I was told I didn’t have to by a member of 3rd Lola’s family. The floor of her home was part cement and part earth. I walked to 3rd Lola a frail lady of about eighty years with a warm kind smile; I blessed her in the traditional Filipino way, the mano. My 10 year old son followed my lead and blessed 3rd Lola. Then my 6 year old son did the same followed by my wife and her older sister. I don’t know if I have ever been prouder of my boys. Next my wife and her older sister talked in Bisayan with 3rd Lola and her family as I smiled still feeling really good about how my boys had shown proper respect to 3rd Lola, which is not just a Filipino thing, but a part of my Southern USA upbringing as well. After a fairly short discussion my wife looked at me and said, “It’s done.” We returned to Mama’s house the three Lolas were in agreement the land was to be divided 3 ways.
The next day the same diplomatic group embarked at 5:45 am to the home of a relative of the two sisters whose names were on the waiver that I mentioned at the beginning of this article. The two sisters had both moved to Manila many years ago. Our intent was to get their phone numbers, since they would need to sign off on the division of the lot. I was concerned about going to someone’s house that we really did not know unannounced at 6 am, but my concerns were relieved when we arrived. A voice boomed out, “Are you an American?” I said I was and we were welcome to a breakfast of dried fish, eggs, rice and coffee. My wife was astonished that I sat and ate the dried fish with rice and coffee. I have frequently complained about dried fish stinking up the house, but it actually does not taste bad. It just for me is not worth the smell. Diplomacy sometimes stinks. The Filipino man who called out to me had been working in Southern California for 20 years and just happened to be visiting his family when we came. My wife got the needed phone numbers and we were reassured that the two sisters would agree to the plan. We were invited to return with Mama and my wife’s eldest brother in the evening so we could sing karaoke. We accepted the invitation. We left made our calls and got verbal commitments from the two sisters to sign the legal document after it was prepared.
I always try to learn from my experiences. What I learned from this experience was that the people who hold the written legal title to a lot may not be the owners of the lot in the Philippines. The two sisters who live in Manila probably still have the written legal title to the lot Mama lives on, but they have not owned the land for over 40 years. Land has been bought, sold and traded sometimes with only a verbal contract and a handshake. If you want to buy land in the Philippines you need to be Filipino and then you better do your research and not just on a computer or at an office. I strongly advise you to go in person to talk to the people living on and near the land, because the people holding the written legal title to the land may not actually be the owners. That is just my advice based on my experience and as always you can take it or leave it. What do you think? I would very much like to learn from the thoughts and experiences of the readers of this site. I will finish this series by explaining how we had the lot divided and made the division legally documented in my next article: A Land Divided.