12:18 AM June 14th, 2013

By: Ambeth R. Ocampo, June 14th, 2013 12:18 AM

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.

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