Trouble in the hacienda | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Trouble in the hacienda

/ 10:56 PM February 21, 2012

“Royal” and “pontifical” are the words that come with any mention of the University of Santo Tomas.

UST also takes pride in its age and a roster of distinguished (and some notorious) alumni. It also comes up when we remember how the United States bought the Philippines from Spain in 1898 and declared its policy of “benevolent assimilation.”

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Imperialists from US President McKinley down to clerks and foot soldiers were told that theirs was a mission to “civilize” and “Christianize” the Filipinos, but when they saw UST they realized that many of the islands were already Christian for over three centuries.

UST is a quarter of a century older than Harvard, the oldest US university. Harvard was 375 years old in 2011; UST was 400.

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Into a jubilant campus went I to deliver the Annual Paz Latorena Lecture on Rizal, and I was told later that the organizers worried that I would venture into the national Hero’s “shipwreck of faith” and the eviction of his family from Dominican lands in Calamba, and repeat the black legend that Rizal’s low grades, compared with those he got in the Jesuit-run Ateneo Municipal, had resulted from unhappy experiences expressed in a painfully funny way in “El Filibusterismo.”

If I had dwelled on these topics, it would have been to point out the agrarian roots of Rizal’s heroism.

Schoolchildren are raised thinking that the Rizal family was one of great wealth and importance. That is partly true. While the family was prosperous enough to send its daughters and two sons to school in Manila, and to send Rizal to Europe for study, it could not compare with the likes of Pedro Paterno and Trinidad H. Pardo de Tavera who never wanted for financial support.

Rizal’s letters illustrate how he had to cope with a meager and often irregular allowance. Textbook history 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, and that their fortune was built on working  the land (which was not theirs but part of the vast Dominican hacienda that included many parts of Laguna and Batangas). It is quite odd that Rizal’s father Francisco Mercado does not jump out of the documents because it is clear from Rizal’s correspondence that Paciano was in charge of leased land planted with rice and sugar.

What is conveniently swept under the rug in our anti-Spanish and anti-friar textbook histories is the fact that in the beginning, the Mercado family was on good terms, if not directly with the Dominicans, at least with the lay brothers who administered the Laguna hacienda.

As a matter of fact, Rizal’s family was granted preferential treatment for land leased in Pansol. In a letter from 1883, Paciano reminded his brother 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.

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“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.”

Then the problem. Paciano, on May 26, 1883, told Rizal:

“This is the time to pay land rent at the Hacienda and contrary to the general custom, they accept the money without issuing any receipt to anyone. Has this any relation to the important reforms of the general or is it nothing more than one of the arbitrary nets of the administrator? I’m more inclined to the latter one, though I would like it to be the former one.”

With no receipts, Paciano had no proof of payment. Then the rent was raised regardless of crop yield affected by drought, excessive rain, storms, locusts or tulisanes. Epidemics kept farmers from work or drove them to borrow money from usurers.

To cut a long story short, when Rizal returned to the Philippines in 1887, he encouraged the tenants to question the rent and the ownership of land titles allegedly held by the Dominicans. When they stopped paying rent, the Dominicans haled them to court in 1889, and lost.

The Dominicans appealed and the decision was overturned in Sta. Cruz, again in Manila, and upheld by the Supreme Court in Spain.

Many of our current social problems are rooted in land. This is why agrarian reform is important, and why we must follow the case of Hacienda Luisita and the Sumilang farmers today so that we can escape rather than repeat history.

Comments are welcome in my Facebook Fan Page.

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TAGS: Dominican hacienda, featured column, imperialism, jose p. rizal, opinion, UST
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