From ghost story to urban legend: Authenticating 'The Lady in White of Balete Drive'

Buddy Gomez — Cyberbuddy

Posted at May 27 2021 08:06 PM | Updated as of May 27 2021 09:28 PM

Talked about for many decades, she has remained nameless. Perhaps such prolonged anonymity has contributed much to the alluring mystique.

There is a Philippine ghost story that has achieved the status of an urban legend that refuses to die! Variegated versions just keep cropping up, competing with earlier spawns.

Ghost stories never have a dedicated season. Halloween in the Philippines is popularly known as ‘todos los santos.’ It is about celebrating the dead and not about ghosts. Ghost stories are almost always folkloric, mythical superstitions and urban legends. They fall under the journalistic genre of ‘human interest’ reportage. They are ever being retold and passed on. In fact, just the other day I came upon another one on the Internet: “Myths Surrounding Balete Drive” (May 19, 2021). 

All of a sudden, I remembered and realized that ‘the lady in white of Balete Drive’ had a hometown connection. My hometown, Calbayog, believe you me! Let me meaningfully meander awhile before I explain myself.

Traditionally, the Balete tree possessed a mythical reputation of being host to myriad weird spirits. Balete Drive is an old undivided carriageway in Quezon City that runs from España Extension (now E. Rodriguez Ave.) cuts across Aurora Blvd. and onto N. Domingo. The thoroughfare was lined with Balete trees on both sides. Since the very early 1950s, Balete Drive has been the supposed haunt of the ghostly “lady in white.” 

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Incidentally, Balete tree belongs to the genus Ficus, somewhat related to but quite inferior to the gutta-percha rubber tree that produces industrial grade latex. There was another Balete tree-laden street in Metro Manila. Until the very early 1950s, Mendiola street upon which reside San Beda, Holy Ghost, La Consolacion and Centro Escolar, was alternately lined on each side with Balete and Sampaloc trees. They were all cut off to make way for the laying of water mains.

One evening 72 years ago, there was a vehicular accident which resulted in the death of a comely teenage schoolgirl. “She was rushed to a hospital where she died the following day,” I was told. The sad mishap was in the vicinity of a Quezon City street that was lined with these mature Balete trees.

“A week after,” this friend recalls, “there were newspaper reports of sightings of a young lady dressed in white who [would] hail a cab or private cars in Balete Drive, take the back seat and would mysteriously disappear.” “Many people believed this, including a Captain Babao of the QCPD, who was suspended for cowardice for refusing to patrol Balete Drive,” my friend reminisces.
 
Thus began the cascade of tales. Here are some I gleaned from available cyber archives: 

  • “The ghost is a teenage girl who was run over and killed by a taxi driver at night, then buried around a Balete tree in Balete Drive"; 
  • “a lady residing in one of the old mansions along Balete Drive was killed by her own family and now, she flags every car to seek for help”; 
  • “Some say she was a real person killed in a hit-and-run case along Balete Drive”; 
  • “a student from the University of Philippines who was molested and murdered by a cab driver on her way home and her body thrown by the Balete tree”; 
  • “a famous white lady called 'Babae sa Balete Drive"; 
  • “appears and haunts motorists starting at midnight…..sometimes appears in the rearview mirror or sitting at the backseat of one’s car”. 

There, too, was a horror flick by the late Peque Gallaga: “Hiwaga sa Balete Drive.” 

Who, indeed, was this mysterious lady? 

Thus, I reached out to my longtime friend from Calbayog remembering that Deo was, himself, in that memorialized accident seven decades ago. 

Deo is Deogracias Tancinco Ortega now in retirement in Torrance, LA county, California. He’s a lawyer who served as Calbayog City Fiscal (Prosecutor) from 1967 to 1986 when he immigrated to the US. Although a bit younger, Deo is a UP Sigma Rho fratman, vintage of Paeng Salas, Nacie Debuque, and Johnny Ponce Enrile, etc. Deo belonged to UP High School, Class of 1951, of which another Sigma Rhoan, Raul Daza, who also has Calbayog roots, was valedictorian. 

So ‘Calbayog’ are we that, Deo and I are not only boyhood friends who never lost touch with one another all these years, but before our time, his father and uncles, and my father were childhood friends and playmates, too. Aside from being borne of the town’s ‘principalia,’ they were conscious of their common ‘sacerdotal heritage’---- natural grandchildren of Spanish Franciscans! Source of Calbayog’s mestizaje!

Speaking of hometown, Deo belongs to the Ortega branch of Calbayog’s prominent Rosales clan and through his mother, he also belongs to the Cincos, the Catbalogan-rooted oldest and largest clan in Samar and perhaps in Eastern Visayas, tracing their ancestry to 1700 Fukienese migration.

Deo recalls that at the time of the accident, he was in third year high school having just transferred to UP at Diliman, QC from the Christ the King Seminary HS. That’s the castle-like structure along E. Rodriguez, on the same side as St. Luke’s Medical Center.. His family was then living in nearby Kamuning.

In the late 1940s, Manila neighborhood teens usually attended different schools (parental choices, I presume) but congregated as gangmates, where their homes were, enjoying common teenage social activities such as simply hanging out in one another’s homes, occasional dance-jam sessions (Boogie and ‘slaw drag’), even joyrides on reconditioned surplus G.I. jeeps. Deo recalls: “We formed a gang which held jam sessions at the residence of Atty. Jose Gamboa at Lantana,” a street perpendicular to Balete. “Leni Garchitorena who lives nearby would attend the jam sessions driving a Fiat. Incidentally the popular music at that time were "My Happiness" (Pied Pipers) and "Woodchopper’s Ball" (Woody Herman).”

Deo no longer remembers the exact date in 1949 but “One night, while we, namely Arthur Gamboa, Miranda, 2 Tiosejo brothers and myself, and Leni plus Linda, Arthur’s sister, were at Atty. Gamboa’s residence, we decided to joy-ride around Manila with Narding Teosejo as the driver of his Jeep.” There were seven teenagers on that ride. I remember Leonardo Tiosejo from San Beda, a classmate of Enrique “Spanky” Perez, my longest-oldest bosom pal. Both belonged to HS ’51.

“But in going back, Leni was the driver. While cruising España Extension Blvd. at 50 mph, she hit a pile of gravel and sand that caused the Jeep to turn turtle causing Leni to be thrown out of vehicle around 6 meters away, bleeding with Jeep battery near her head.” And as Deo earlier recounted, ”she died the following day.”

As it actually happened, the accident was not on Balete Drive itself but along España Ext. close to where both streets intersect. Deo recalls Leni Garchitorena was mestiza, about 5’5”, somewhat pleasingly plumpish, ‘simpatica,’ a ‘colegiala’ from the Assumption. 

Deo also remembers that in 1952, a 3-year lapse, there was a magazine follow-up story on the accident, “mentioning the presence of a UP student during the mishap.” “While I was out, a reporter came to our Kamuning home, told my brother the purpose of his visit and asked for a photo. My brother innocently gave my high school graduation picture which was published along with the Balete Drive ghost sightings. Leni’s family was dismayed and called me a publicity seeker.” 

That was most probably the last time Leni Garchitorena’s name was ever mentioned, as the ghost stories her untimely demise launched, persistently floated all these decades. Until today.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 

Tomas 'Buddy' Gomez III began his professional media career in ABS-CBN's (previously Chronicle Broadcasting Network) DZQL-Radio Reloj in 1957, after which he spent 25 years with the Ayala Group.

In 1986, the then Pres. Cory Aquino appointed him Consul General to Hawaii and later served as her Press Secretary.

During the Ramos administration, he was chairman and president of state-owned IBC-13 Network.

After government service, he became an ‘OFW’ in the U.S., working as front-desk clerk and then assistant general manager of a hotel. He also worked as a furniture and antique restoration specialist.

He is now retired and lives in San Antonio, Texas.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.