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Looking Back

‘Pera padala’ and world sugar prices

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OVERSEAS Filipino workers keep our economy afloat with remittances to their relatives back here at home. Some send their money through a bank or remittance company for a fee; others scrimp on service fees and commission by risking loss and sending hard cash, hand-carried by a home-bound friend, or friend of a friend. “Pera padala” is quite simple these days and can be done in minutes online or by texting—a big difference from that of Rizal’s time when cash or jewelry was sent through an outbound traveler. In Jose Rizal’s correspondence, it is clear that they abused the kindness of a steamship steward who was asked to bring from Manila jars of bagoong and burong manga, letters, embroidered clothing and cash to our hero. In the days before Lucky Me instant noodles, Rizal also received bundles of miki noodles from home.

Pera padala in Rizal’s correspondence makes it clear that, contrary to popular belief, the Rizal family was not filthy rich. While the family was prosperous enough to send Rizal abroad to study, it was not in the same league as the Paternos and the Pardo de Taveras who lived comfortably. In Rizal’s letters we see how his allowance was often delayed, how it was dependent on the crop yield in the land tilled by his brother Paciano, and how it was barely enough to support him abroad. The letters also show that the Rizal family also sent money through a bank, and Rizal preferred the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp. (HSBC).

“Rizal” is now a great endorser in the Philippines: his name is on matches, cement, banks and universities. Rizal could literally be in our lives from womb to tomb as it is possible to be born in a Rizal Hospital and end up in the Funeraria Rizal. Rizal even recommended HSBC despite its bad exchange rates. Paciano wrote his brother on May 23, 1886: “Enclosed you will receive a draft for 188 pesos against the Hong Kong Bank, in accordance with what you told me in your preceding letter. It turns out more costly than in another bank, for here (HSBC) the discount does not exceed 2 1/2 % while in the other bank it is six.”

Beyond pera padala in the Rizal correspondence, we get a glimpse of the Rizal family’s livelihood, which was rooted in agriculture. The Rizals did not own land, they were preferred tenants of the Dominicans who owned tracts of land in Laguna. Their crops were rice and sugar whose annual yield depended on good weather and protection against various pests—which ranged from flying creatures (e.g., birds and locusts) to two-legged types (e.g., lazy workers, bandits and tax collectors).

The good news regarding land reform and Hacienda Luisita reminded me of Paciano Rizal who tilled a piece of land in Pansol and planted sugar cane. In the 1880s, the development of the sugar beet and competition from Cuban sugar affected the tariff and export of Philippine sugar to the United States. The correspondence between Rizal and Paciano was fascinating because their letters cover more than personal news from home. On Nov. 16, 1884, Rizal updated Paciano on developments in the sugar market:

“The future of Philippine sugar will go from bad to worse. A few days ago I was at the house of Mr. P. Ortiga who is at present working, according to him, to see if the [Spanish] Minister of Colonies can lessen the damage to our commercial fortune. You should know more or less that, as a result of the present situation or the attitude of Cuba, the Spanish Government, always mindful of the welfare of its colonies, is negotiating a treaty with the United States for the free entry of Cuban and Puerto Rican sugar into the New York market. England, informed of this, is also taking steps that the same privilege be granted to her colonies.  If England succeeded in (getting) into this treaty, Cuban and Puerto Rican sugar will also have to be admitted to London and, therefore, Philippine sugar, after a long voyage, paying high freight and duties, will be in a very unfavorable position and in little demand in the markets of the Peninsula, America and England, and hence its complete and total ruin.

“This is what Don Pablo was saying to me. He is drafting a (memorandum) to be presented to the learned Minister of Colonies to see if at least the duties that the Philippines pay could be reduced to one-half and from which Cuba had been completely exempted, in order that this dear Spanish colony of the Orient may not be ruined rapidly, for instance, in less than three years. This is truly hard, but thanks to this profoundly wise measure, the integrity of our native land may be saved, which is the most precious thing for us to look after… Don Pablo, however, has little hope in the favorable result of his efforts and fears that things will not continue as they are. I, fully aware of these circumstances, wish to return as soon as possible to our town to avoid more sacrifices on the part of our modest family. If at another time I accepted its support, it was because the future was smiling on us; but now that times have changed, I believe that it is my duty to go home and try, with my work and savings, to contribute as much as possible to our livelihood…”

Rizal’s correspondence with his family shows that the Rizals were more than country bumpkins who kept abreast of world events through their books, magazines and their brother abroad.

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