Looking Back

Rizal’s agrarian dispute

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One week from Independence Day, June 12, we commemorate the birthday of Jose Rizal, one of the founding fathers of the nation. It is a holiday in his birthplace, and the house in Calamba, Laguna, that I once painted green will be the focus of attention for a while—the focus of teachers who will advise their students to study hard and get good grades like Rizal.

The Calamba home should teach us about the surname rooted in the Spanish word “ricial,” which means “a green field ready for harvest.” Being an urban ignoramus, I presumed that rice fields ready for harvest are green when in fact these turn golden when the stalks bend from the weight of the rice. The reconstructed Rizal house in Calamba should remind us of the agrarian roots of the Rizal story that teach us of the agrarian roots of Philippine social problems.

Textbook history has led us to believe that the Rizal-Mercado family was one of wealth and importance. While the family was prosperous enough to send their daughters and two sons to school in Manila, and prosperous enough to send Jose to Europe to study, Rizal’s letters to his family prove that unlike truly wealthy contemporaries like Pedro Paterno and Trinidad H. Pardo de Tavera, who never wanted for financial support, he had to cope with a subsistence (and often irregular) allowance.

Textbook history also fails to mention that the Mercados drew their fortune not only from the industry of Rizal’s elder brother Paciano and the business sense of their mother Teodora Alonso but also from working the land—that is, plots of land not theirs but part of the vast Dominican hacienda that covered many parts of Laguna and Batangas. It is odd that Rizal’s father Francisco Mercado does not jump out of the documents, and it is clear from Paciano’s letters that he was in charge of the land planted with rice and sugar.

What is conveniently swept under the rug in our anti-Spanish and antifriar textbook histories is the fact that the Mercado family was initially on good terms with the Dominicans, or at least with the lay brothers who administered the hacienda. Rizal’s family was given preferential treatment and were leased land in Pansol, for which Paciano reminded his brother in 1883 to be grateful to the Dominicans:

“The object of the present letter is to speak to you a little about our family interests and a little about yours in particular. I’ll begin with the first. The land in Pansol is improving and much can be expected from it in the future, provided I enjoy good health. The land is good and extensive. This land, which did not cost us anything and was ceded by the Corporation to us in preference to anybody else, deserves to be appreciated a little. We ought to be a little grateful to the Corporation that, without owing us anything, desires the welfare of our family. Undoubtedly you will tell me that I overlook the work involved and the rent paid. I agree with you, but you will also agree with me that these priests have no obligation to give us the Pansol land exclusively, ignoring others who were eagerly soliciting it. It does seem that they are trying to grant our family all the favor within their power to give. Knowing this, it behooves us to refrain from displeasing them in the least with our behavior, in view of the needlessness of our services. If sometime you get to talk to Father Martínez, assure him that these are the sentiments that animate us.”

When Rizal returned to Calamba in August 1887 after studying abroad, he was by then the celebrated—or should we say notorious—author of “Noli Me Tangere.” What we are not told is that on Dec. 30, 1887 (significant because this date is nine years to the day he would be shot), the government wanted to check on taxes by asking the Calamba tenants about rental paid to the Dominican hacienda. In January 1888 they replied with a petition drafted by Rizal and signed by the principales  of the town challenging the legitimacy of the land titles supposedly held by the Dominicans. By February 1888, the Calamba tenants had refused to pay rent. A year later, after trying in vain to collect rentals due, the Dominicans brought the case to the Justice of the Peace in Calamba and lost, allegedly because the justice was in the pocket of Paciano Rizal who allegedly dictated the decision favorable to the tenants.

The Dominicans appealed to the Provincial Court of Santa Cruz and won. The court then ordered the nonpaying tenants to vacate the lands owned by the hacienda. When they refused, agents of court, with 50 soldiers standing by to keep the peace, effected the order of eviction, which resulted in the burning of some houses and injury to some tenants. After a while the evicted tenants began to return to the land, prompting Governor-General Valeriano Wyler in 1891 to order the deportation of 25 individuals to Mindoro. The 25 included Paciano Rizal and his brothers-in-law Antonio Lopez (husband of Narcisa) and Silvestre Ubaldo (widower of Olimpia). Another brother-in-law, Manuel Hidalgo (husband of Saturnina), was later exiled to Bohol.

To cut the long story short, the Dominicans won the case in a higher court in Manila as well as the Supreme Court in Madrid. Rizal’s heroism is rooted not just in his subversive novels but also in an agrarian dispute that resonates in our times.

(Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu)

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  • Joules Calderon

    bat ganun parang lugi ang mga dominican…

  • agalegre

    The Dominicans who owned the Calamba estate were very kind to the Rizal-Mercado family. What Ambeth Ocampo failed to mention was Rizal’s family was spared by the Dominicans from paying “canon” or rental for five years. That was a big favor given to the family.

    Mr. Ambeth Ocampo, you should be reminded or maybe you just refused to credit the Dominican historian Fr. Fidel Villaroel regarding the Calamba litigation. Everything you wrote here was explicitly discussed by Fr. Villaroel in his book “Jose Rizal and the UST”. You were not Ambeth Ocampo then when that book came out.

  • http://www.yellowmythbusters.gov.ph/ Weder-Weder Lang

    According to Edgar Wickberg, Francisco Mercado applied for his tax classification to be changed from Mestizo de Sangley (Mestizo Chino) to Indio in order to pay less annual head tax. So from Francisco to Jose, were they required to undergo the labor conscription? Did their special ethnicity win them more favors from the Dominican Corporation?

    Is PNoy and his family the Dominican oppressors of today? Hmmm…

  • carlbenedict

    Ang mga Rizal, Lopez at Hidalgos land grabbers?

  • tra6Gpeche

    Because of his love of country, Dr. Jose Rizal and the whole family suffered unbelievably in the hands of the friars and the Spanish government. Amazing sacrifice by the Mercado’s family! In today’s Philippines, no wealthy and important Filipino will even think of losing their wealth, stolen or not, and power for the benefit of the whole country. The disgusting part is when these corrupt and avaricious political leaders of today extol the greatness of Dr. Jose Rizal!

    • agalegre

      You did not understand the whole article, did you? It was mentioned that the Rizal-Mercado family was given preferential treatment by the Dominicans. So what’s your basis in saying the family “suffered unbelievably in the hands of the friars”? The friars during Rizal’s time were not the government. Well, that’s what you get when you read those anti-Spanish and anti-friars textbook histories written by lousy “historians”.

      • tra6Gpeche

        You did not comprehend what I wrote. Did you? So what if the Dominicans gave them preferential treatment? They became wealthy because of that. Right? Then, what happened to their wealth and power when Dr Jose Rizal challenged the pretentious, imperious, deceitful and hypocrite Spanish Friars? Everything was taken away from the family including the life of Dr. Rizal, the life of his father, the life of his mother and possibly the life of his other siblings. Do you understand that? Did I say the Friars were the government? I said: the Friars and the Spanish government. Did you see the conjunction “and?” Well, that is what you get for trying to be smart. Lousy historians? And you are the “smart” and the “magnificent” historian? Incredible! And if you use the quotation (“), put the period (.) inside it. That’s the proper way.

      • Just_JT

        x x x Everything was taken away from the family including the life of Dr. Rizal, the life of his father, the life of his mother and possibly the life of his other siblings. Do you understand that? x x x

        You should be the one who should be told if you understand that. The mother of Rizal died during the American occupation. More than a decade after the end of Spanish occupation. What is that you’re saying that the life of the mother was taken away by the Spanish Friars/Spanish government?

      • tra6Gpeche

        Ha ha ha…You finally responded after few days, Kabayan. I knew someone would be nitpicking on my sentiments. This is what some Filipinos are good for. I salute you for being nitpicker, You must have really read the life of the mother of Dr. Jose Rizal. Anyway, when I said “taken away,” it was meant not to be literal. Yes, Mrs. Teodora Morales Alonzo Realonda y Quintos died in flesh and blood during the American occupation on August 16, 1911. So I made the “biggest mistake of my life.” Now what? Are you happy now? But I am really impressed with your tenacity to get back at me. On this one, you are really “smart.” More power to you!

  • joe_rizal

    Para sa akin dapat si “idol” humawak ng itak at naki pag skrima sa mga hapon…este…kastila pala. Tayo lang yata ang may national hero na hindi Heneral e. Kaya idol kita dahil jan national hero na…marami chicks pa. Heheheheehehehehe

  • Meow Ming

    “…. In a letter to his mother while he was in exile in Dapitan, he had
    written: “I had a lawsuit with the Chinese and I vowed not to buy any
    more from them, so that sometimes I find myself very hard up. Now we
    have almost neither dishes nor tumblers.” Rizal was filled with
    righteous indignation at the exploitation of the natives by the Chinese
    traders, and appealed to the local residents to boycott the Chinese
    shops. He also opened a small sari-sari store (general merchandise
    store) to compete against the Chinese….”

  • AlexanderAmproz

    Sequels of the Spanish/Clergy/US colonization,
    collateral damages still haunting the country.

    Basically no changes in this backward, knowledges isolated Archipelago.

    A shameful Medieval Feudal time applied with Private Armies and death squads,
    I feel to vomit !

    What a pity !
    Consequences are the ugliest.
    No Karma, no Divine Justice !

  • on_hindsight

    I believe no one has loved the country as fervently as Jose Rizal. None of our politicians today would dare give up their personal interest to sacrifice for the country. Mahirap ng mag-produce ng mga katulad ni Rizal because nowadays politicians DO NOT understand that we don’t need their opinions, we need their example just like what Rizal demonstrated.

  • nes911

    Again, in this case, the church was involved. For how long shall we bear the intimidation of the clergy?

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