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Looking Back

‘Kotong’ complaints in 1885

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On Aug. 22, 1885, Fr. Casimiro Lafuente, parish priest of Santa Barbara, wrote a letter of complaint to the  alcalde  mayor  of Pangasinan regarding the abuses connected with fees and fines on horses and horse-powered (horse-pulled?) vehicles. This was a century before we had cars, expressways, skyways, tollways, and a “rush hour” that actually moves very slowly. The first automobiles were brought to the Philippines in 1901 by the Americans; thus, in those days when Filipinos compared notes regarding “horsepower,” they were doing so literally. In our time, horsepower is related to air-conditioners!

More than a complaint, Father Lafuente’s letter, preserved in Chicago’s Newberry Library, is a picture of transportation in his time. People did more walking then, but some got on a horse or a carabao, or a vehicle pulled by these beasts of burden. Why is it that the steady stream of immigrants to the Philippines from Southern China did not popularize the rickshaw, as they did in other parts of Asia? However, today’s “padyak” is related to the rickshaw.

Travel accounts in the Spanish Philippines describe different types of vehicles:  arañas,  calesas,  omnibus,  tarantin,  carruages,  galosas,  carros  and  carretones.  Carruages  or carriages had wheels with spokes and a center made of metal. This type of transport was popular with Chinese and other merchants who traveled from town to town, market to market, carrying bolts of cloth, dry goods and other merchandise.

In Pangasinan,  carros  were called  carretones  and were exclusively used for agriculture and agricultural products.  A  carreton  was used for heavy loads and had wooden wheels and a roof of cane. You can still purchase these old wheels in antique shops where they are popular accent pieces in interior decoration. I have seen these wheels as ornaments on bare walls or boring outdoor gardens. Often the wheels are placed atop antique wooden sugar crushers, thus recycling these agricultural implements into small tables of “shabby chic” for the upscale home. So popular are these wheel tables that reproductions are sold in the Baguio market, in Greenhills, or any other place where they sell “modern antiques.”

A  tarantin  is not a carriage,  carro  or  carreton. Its main part is made of two pieces of wood joined at the ends by a peg of wood or cane. The  tarantin  was used during the rainy season or to transport goods and people in areas unpassable by a  carreton.

All these vehicles in the past have their equivalent in modern cars of different brands, models, and makes. The horse- or carabao-pulled vehicles needed a driver (drayber  in Filipino); in those days, the Spanish term was  cochero . The Filipino term  kutsero  gave us the expression  “kuwentong kutsero” (meaning unreliable news or gossip). The term “tsuper” comes from the Spanish “chofer” and the French “chauffeur.” It originally referred to someone who stroked or heated a machine; now it refers to a driver of a motor vehicle or the driver of an important person.

Vehicle owners in Pangasinan, according to Father Lafuente, were  indios  who were Spanish at heart. Indios  were typecast as dutiful children, eager to please, serve, and obey Mother Spain, but when this kind mother, through her insensitive or abusive officials, becomes a “madrasta” (or the wicked stepmother of fairy tales), then all the goodwill of the  indio  is lost. Father Lafuente argued that  indios  should be given some liberty and allowed to travel about unmolested in their vehicles. It seemed that despite the payment of fees for a municipal or provincial license, the vehicles in town were routinely stopped at whim so that other fees and fines could be collected. The priest was describing the greedy  Guardia  Civil  of his time, but the same can still be seen in the corrupt policemen and traffic enforcers today.

Father Lafuente cited a case when a  Guardia  Civil  stopped a vehicle and asked for the driver’s papers. Despite the current  cedula  of the driver and the current provincial license for the vehicle, the driver was detained—and released only when he handed over some  buyo  and tobacco as a bribe.

Then there was another case where an  indio  approached a  cuadrillero  (commander of an armed band) in the town tribunal to inquire about a lost carabao. Despite the carabao itself recognizing its master, he was asked to produce documentary proof of ownership. The poor  indio  had to return home, a long way off, on foot, to retrieve his papers, thus losing a full day of work or business.

Father Lafuente noted that many Pangasinenses took to wearing large pouches around their necks, not for fashion but the better to keep all the necessary papers on hand for inspection. After all, the animal-drawn vehicles then did not have the glove compartments of modern cars. The priest complained about the complicated taxes (some surely made complicated to solicit “kotong”) extracted by police, military and government personnel. He suggested that if the government truly needed revenues, it could increase the tribute or poll tax (payable only by men in cash or by working on road- or bridge-building) and dispense with the various little taxes and fees that complicated life.

Reading this complaint from 1885 makes one realize that some things never change, and that Ben Franklin was right when he said that the only things certain in life were death and taxes.

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Comments are welcome in aocampo@ateneo.edu


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