‘Kwentong Kutsero’ | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

‘Kwentong Kutsero’

Fabian de la Rosa, dean of the prewar University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts, is a great painter unfortunately overshadowed by his nephew Fernando Amorsolo, the first National Artist, whose paintings, whether big or small, never go unsold at auctions abroad. De la Rosa was the link between the dark, brooding paintings of late-19th-century masters like Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo and the cheerful sunlit canvases that Amorsolo painted before World War II. The recent floods reminded me of a painting by De la Rosa depicting turn-of-the-century Manila with a man waist-deep in a flood. Artists can really re-present a scene turning calamity into a thing of beauty.

In my last column I commented on garbage and industrial waste that have made the Pasig River unlivable for fish and crocodiles. Watching TV news the past few days reminded me of old photographs and paintings of floods of the past. The recent calamity reminded me of carbon monoxide and other pollutants from motor vehicles that were way different from vehicles that run on horses, carabaos and humans. In the past, pollution on our streets was visual and olfactory—and if you were truly unlucky, you could find your foot on it. In my notes I found a reference to the Ilustracion Filipina of 1859 that described Manila before cars, trucks and jeepneys made their appearance. What made me smile was that the air quality may have been better then, but that whether Filipinos use motor-driven or animal-drawn vehicles, the problem is the same—drivers.


Judging from the condescending tone of the article on cocheros, the author was sufficiently socially mobile to have a private cochero who was usually called Quicoy, Pancho, or Pololo. Other men in domestic service were the portero (doorman), the muchacho de cuarto (valet), the sota (jack/jockey), and the cocinero (cook), but the author focused on the cochero who, with little or no driving experience, had the nerve to get on the pescante or driver’s seat of a carriage. Pescante is rooted in the verb “pescar” (to fish) because the cochero holding a whip or reins seemed to be fishing. It was claimed that 95 percent of the cocheros in Manila did not know what they were “fishing” for, and cocheros gained expertise at the expense of their amo’s money and patience.

My only experience with horse-drawn carriages was taking kalesa rides around Binondo when I explored it during my seventh grade. I was also taught to “drive” a carriage in my uncle’s home in Pampanga as a boy. It was in my childhood that I heard adults in cars giving directions in Spanish: mano (turn right), silla (turn left), menor (slow down), arrancada (speed up), atras (go backward), avante (go forward), carga silla (stop on the left), carga de mano (stop on the right), freno (step on the brake), derecho (go straight ahead), and sigue (go ahead).


When I learned Spanish in college, I realized that these driving terms did not always mean the same thing. These terms go way back to the Spanish period when a proper cochero sitting on a pescante held the reins with his right hand (mano) while his left hand rested on his seat or his handle, hence silla. In Spanish, left is izquierda and derecho means right, not straight ahead. Sigue means follow, not go. Buena mano (good hand) did not refer to the first sale of the day awaited by the tindera but to a cochero who took good care of his horse and carriage. A buena mano not only kept the vehicle clean, he also fed the horse well. Bad cocheros fed their horses cheap grass bought from a zacatero (their version of diesel fuel) while good cocheros fueled their horses with a diet of palay mixed with honey or molasses (their equivalent of premium gas). A good cochero knew his horse not by name but according to its colors— el moro (black with white streaks on the head or feet), el castaño (chestnut brown), el blanco (white), etc.—and kept it healthy and happy.

The Philippines followed Europe and drove on the left side of the road, thus a buena mano followed road rules and did not do a counterflow. He managed to let the horses move, trot, or run in unison to give the passengers the smoothest ride possible: trotando (trot), galope (full gallop) and escape (rush). Horsepower came in various speeds that had to be learned by the cochero in the same way that a modern drayber learns about the gears in manual transmission: primera, segunda, tercera, cuarta and quinta. (With automatic transmission these days, all you need is Par, Drive, and Reverse.) Aside from the grunts and shouts that the cochero used to communicate with the horses, he also learned hand signals to indicate intent to other cocheros on the road or to pedestrians on the street. Today we have headlights, signal lights, backup lights and busina (horn).

A cochero parked the carriage in the shade when the amo got off and either slept in the back seat or the pescante. Often he would compare notes and gossip with others; thus we have the term kwentong kutsero (false or exaggerated stories).

A look into the language of the cochero is a glimpse into a different world, but it only goes to show that history is found not only in books and libraries but also in the words we speak. Dictionaries are not just a source of word definitions but, used wisely, can also show how language reflects life and life ways. Dictionaries are another way of knowing and breathing life into the past.

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TAGS: `cochero’, Ambeth R. Ocampo, horse-drawn carriage, pre-war Philippines
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