CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, the crown jewel of Mindanao, is the country’s newest boom town, experiencing an accelerated level of modernization and real estate investments. Infrastructures such as hotels, malls and condominium towers are vigorously constructed one after the other to accommodate the influx of new residents and visitors to the city.
Proof that, Cagayan de Oro as it is fondly called, had long since shed its small-town roots, to become the mega melting pot of pioneering entrepreneurs and upwardly mobile young professionals that it is today. Apart from the perks and comforts of living in a highly urbanized city, people who call Cagayan de Oro home also bask in its rich and colorful history that dates back to pre-colonial times.
One clan in particular has been a prominent figure in the city’s enduring saga and cultural evolution. The Neri-Chaves family are descendants of a strong-willed Rajah whose resoluteness drove him to seek out dominions beyond his stronghold’s fertile terrains in Lanao province. The Malay prince, whose name was Samporna, or Sanskrit for ‘perfect’, decided to invade Cagayan or Kalambagohan as it was then known.
Excerpts from the writings of the Neri-Chaves family historian, Filomeno M. Bautista, recounted how a potential bloody struggle was averted, when the then chief of Kalambagohan, Datu Bagani, sent his beautiful daughter guarded by his bravest warriors to meet Rajah Samporna. She was to initiate the conditional surrender, so that their people would not be enslaved by the invaders.
It was told that the Rajah, captivated by Datu Bagani’s daughter, ended up marrying her. The prince also built a fortress around their village in Kalambagohan to protect them from other conquistadores.
Rajah Samporna later succeeded the Datu as ruler of Cagayan. He also converted from Islam to Christianity to solidify his devotion to his wife’s religion, and in 1779 was baptized by a Spanish priest with a peculiarly Italian name, Neri. It ushered an era of peace in Mindanao, when Muslims lived harmoniously with Christians.
The Neris intermarrying with the Chaveses of Cagayan was perhaps providential as it produced one of the most enduring clans in the country.
Today, the Neri-Chaves clan is many thousand strong. Well-known lawyer and congressman Rufus Bautista Rodriguez attributes the successes enjoyed by many family members throughout many generations to the tireless pursuit of life’s true purpose.
“We are hardworking people. We are also fortunate to have had many individuals in the family who continue to inspire us, like Vice President Emmanuel Neri Pelaez and Ambassador Felino Neri”, Rodriguez said, adding in jest, “At mga gwapo, gwapa pa!”
Most if not all of Cagayan de Oro’s earliest leaders, from Governors to Mayors, were members of the Neri-Chaves family. Some became pioneers in other fields like business, education and the arts, from Chief Justice Marcelo Fernan to musicologist and concert pianist Vilma May Chaves Cataylo.
The clan has had three grand reunions, first in 1985, then in 1993, and the most recent one took place in August 2016 where hundreds of family members came together from all over the world to rekindle family ties.
Jessica Dingcong, who spearheaded the recent reunion held at the Chaves family-owned Chali Beach and Mallberry Suites in Cagayan de Oro City, wants to inspire the next generation to carry on the legacy of benevolence and integrity of their forebears. “We should be proud that we are very family oriented,’ Dingcong said.
In attendance at the grand reunion were the Neri-Cheves clan’s many young professionals and millennials. Sixth generation Neri-Chaves and journalist Alessandra Marie Chaves Jalandoni, who carries her nickname Apples professionally, admits feeling the pressure of belonging to a family of achievers. “We have some pretty big shoes to fill, so we soldier on, and never give up,,” Jalandoni said, adding that, “We have always been taught to do the right thing, and not just what looks good on paper.”
Jalandoni’s maternal grandfather Engineer Camilo Vamenta Chaves was a World War II veteran and subsequently Dean at the family-owned Liceo de Cagayan University. Her mother Alma Marie Chaves Jalandoni is a pioneer in garments manufacturing and export in the Philippines.
Current Social Security Services Commissioner Pompee La Viña will head the next Neri-Chaves grand reunion in 2018. La Viña is the son of Lourdes Chaves Maestrado La Viña who was the first woman elected to the City Council in Cagayan de Oro.
His younger brother is former Ateneo School of Government dean and climate change lead negotiator Tony La Viña. Commissioner La Viña hopes to welcome many more family members to their tight-knit Mindanaon clan. “It roots us in Mindanao, the blood of Mindanao is running through us,” he said.
La Viña also ponders on how leadership is ingrained in the members of the clan. After all they are descendants of a warrior prince. But the word is also taking on a new meaning as the Neris and Chaveses usher Mindanao to its most vibrant era. “We will always be leaders, we are simply inclined to lead,” La Viña maintained, “but to lead as serving the people rather than ruling them.” (By J. C. Bautista)
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