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A REFLECTION ON POLOS Y SERVICIOS (FORCED LABOR DURING SPANISH RULE)

November 21, 2020

By Elizabeth Abad Medina

This is not going to be an academic essay but, as the title says, a reflection, triggered by a comment in a blog from a kababayan who said that polos y servicios was not that bad because the work was remunerated. 

This would be like saying that at least the OFWs during Spanish times didn’t have to travel all the way to Saudi Arabia with all the gastos and sakit-ulo of passports, visas….at least they worked nearby and they could supplement their income too because hey, it was paid work!

I don’t even know where to begin to try and give you an idea of what it meant to be a native in the Spanish era, and how minimum wage was not the point, not even the fact that the workers worked under conditions of hard labor, comparable to working in a chain gang.

We depend on information about our history that is, in effect, hygienically presented, without the human dimension. Very “objective” and worse, decontextualized.  Decontextualized means, devoid of human context, of subjectivity.  This is serious because history consists of lived human experiences. It cannot be really understood unless we have sufficient information on what it was like to live in those times.  Without this contextualization, it is so easy for us to take isolated bits of information and presume that that’s all we need to understand the historical process.  This is the result of the way history is taught, and how it is written about—leaving out the body and the emotions, and in fact, leaving out a LOT OF INTELLECTUAL DATA, without which isolated historical information is easily distorted. For one thing, we just superimpose our modern mentality over it.  “Ah, polos was paid, so it was like a job, we know what unemployment is like, it’s really bad, so polos was okay, they were paid.”

I recently spent three years studying Philippine history in Spanish, meaning that I read the works of important modern Spanish historians and 19th century Spanish and Filipino writers. I wanted to do a study of our Hispanic period because I realized that I didn’t really know anything about it, and my ignorance was owed to my deficient history studies in English.  So I wanted to study our history from the Spanish and Hispanic-Filipino perspectives.

Each time I finished reading a book, which I had already made notes on of the most important concepts and information it contained, I wrote a summary, also in Spanish, because I knew that if I didn’t, I would soon forget what I had understood. I wrote summaries on the discovery and the founding of Cebú, Panay and Manila; the encomienda and the evangelization, the relations between the friar orders and the archbishop of Manila, the bishops and the secular priesthood with the historical background of the Council of Trent and the relations between the popes and the Spanish monarch during the colonization until the bureaucratization of the Spanish administration (when the 1872 Cavite Mutiny was turned into a witchhunt of the leaders of the secularization movement and liberals), the tobacco monopoly (which involved the arisal of the Chinese-Filipino bourgeoisie), and the power relations between the principalia, the parish priests, the alcaldes mayores (or provincial governors).

Actually, I did the study in five years, but with jobs in between because I have to work for a living. But in concentrated terms, it took me three years.

One of the powerful ideas that was impressed on me was the problem of oppression based on racial discrimination, and the roles that religion and slave mentality played that enabled the longevity and really quite surprising stability that the Hispanic Filipino colonial period had, in spite of the periodic uprisings.

And the issue of polos y servicios falls under the category of the slave mentality that was imprinted on the native Filipino’s psychology, both with the native’s cooperation and consent, and against the native’s will, through abusive use of power, coercion, humiliation and shaming, and the propagation of ignorance and fear of authority.  

Polos y servicios was not a matter of whether you got paid or not.  We get paid today for the jobs we do, but it doesn’t compensate our real loss of time, energy and quality of life.  I don’t know what kind of work you do, but just compare white-collar work to the work of servants and unskilled laborers.  There is a huge difference just there, in salaries and what those salaries pay for or fall short of paying for, even when a servant, for example, is live-in. If in the 21st century we feel like wage slaves, in the 19th century a polista was not just a wage slave, a polista was a slave, period.

Polo was no longer justifiable past the 16th century.  It was definitely a tool of oppression.  Not only was it selective (no polo for castilas, for mestizos de español, for chinos or sangleyes who could pay for exemption, for those natives who were rich or had special privileges, like the capitán de barangay, the gobernadorcillo, the protegés of the friars and parish priests, etc.).   The harm it did to the natives and their families was that it forcibly took them away from their agriculture and other income generating activities, and exposed them to abusive treatment and yes——bad practices of payment, which was endemic in Spanish Philippines. 

It is really sad that our rich history is so deficiently taught in our schools, though I understand why, which is another subject.

But polos y servicios has parallels to the tobacco monopoly malpractices.  In fact, the entire three centuries of Spanish rule in Filipinas was plagued by malpractices.  Tributo (tribute) was another form of polos y servicios—medieval practices to strip the poorest groups of the population (the native majority) of what little monetary income they had.  Farmers who were forced to cultivate tobacco, and could no longer plant the fruits and vegetables that they needed to cover their daily nutritional needs, which they then had to buy.  Then when time came to harvest and the inspectors went to see what quality plants they had (which the government would buy at rock bottom price, then send to Spain where they would be turned into exports that were paid easily a hundred times more)——–they would be FORCED TO BURN perfectly good tobacco leaves so that they would not sell it cheaper to local tobacco manufacturers for domestic consumption, or even turn into cigarrettes and cigars themselves to supplement their small income.  AND THEN they were paid WITH I-OWE-YOUs. That could take months to cash, and probably the Chinese or Tsinoy would cash but in exchange for a usurious commission.

And there were many native farmers who would even be forced to transport their sacks of tobacco across mountains because they had to be taken to the provincial capital to be received in the clearing houses.

The polo was FORCED.  Like the planting of tobacco. And the native then had to leave their family, for 40 days.  This left the wife and children to take care of the farm as best they could.  Because it was not just the father who had to go, but also the sons.

And it was not just polo, but there was also the quintos—–never spoken of in our history classrooms.  When young men reached the age of 18 their names were put in a lottery (I do not have all the information, if every year this was done, or if the lottery was only for the sons of the principales and all poor sons had to do military service) and the names that came out had to do military service far from their families for EIGHT YEARS

Of course there was cheating, on the part of the rich native and tsinoy families who did not want their sons to do military service, and often the parish priest colluded because he was their relative. 

You can understand how this disrupted the young men’s and their families’ lives.  And they were sent to Mindanao or Marianas or wherever, brutalized by the life in the army barracks, alienated, ordered around by officers who spoke to them in Spanish, which they barely understood because the parish priest made sure they never learned it.

But there was more.  Even if you didn’t do polos y servicios, if you weren’t sent to the Marianas or Mindanao, if you were a native in any village or town, you were fair game for the authorities.  No polos or servicios, even.  You had to work for free.

Whenever any Guardia Civil felt like it (this is mentioned in the Noli in passing) or any other Spanish official, they could order anybody in the barrio to go to the barracks or to the Tribunal (which was the town jail) and clean it up at no pay.  They could take any food or chickens or eggs or forage from any household or get themselves or their animals fed, at no charge.  This was not polos o servicios.  This was plain abuse, continual abuse and degradation.  Guaranteed impunity.

The trouble with the information about our history that Filipinos today have, is that it consists of isolated bits of information that are very easy to misrepresent or twist, because there is no big picture, there is no panoramic view of what the natives’ oppression truly was.

Because…………no serious study has ever been done of mentality, of microhistory, of the psychosocial background that natives lived in for 300 and more years.  Even in Chile with its amazing historiographical traditions (that the dictatorship set to destroying, putting Pinochetista academics and Neoliberals at the helm of all universities), ONE HISTORIAN, Gabriel Salazar, gave himself the task of constructing a coherent picture of the world of the mestizo (the peon) who was left out of the Constitution, who had no legal standing, who wandered from hacienda to hacienda, town to town, a vagrant, and ended up becoming a tulisan.  Who fathered more poverty stricken, abandoned, neglected children like himself.  And the role of the mestiza or mixed blood rural and urban women who had to figure out how to keep body and soul together. What they often did was turn their house into a carindería, and sometimes with dancing and wine, for which they were labeled by the neighbors as prostitutes.

Gabriel became interested as a child in the children and poor people he saw as he went to school (for example, he saw that there were children who lived under bridges, or wandered the streets—like our kutong lupa), whereas he lived an orderly life with his hardworking parents.  But nobody ever talked about those people anywhere, who they were, why they lived as they did.  He became interested in studying that faceless, nameless, abandoned population.

When the 1973 Chilean coup happened, he was already digging into all the documentation on colonial Chile…he self-exiled to Great Britain and continued his academic formation, got his doctorate, and he kept on specializing in social microhistory.

His books are all about how capitalism developed out of the hacienda economy, and most of all, how the “guacho chileno” lived — the Chilean bastard, the kid without parents, without education, the children of the enslaved peons who when they grew up refused to stay in the hacienda system and be the chattel of the rich landowners, having grown up abused physically by their fathers, submissive, profoundly frustrated farmworkers who had resigned themselves to being the mascots and submissive slaves…..and these rebellious sons would head for the road.

In Filipinas the power of the frailes prevented this from happening wholesale because the native was already used to make tiis, was already resigned and perhaps had a stronger and more cohesive family construct, unlike Chile, which early on became much more of a laicized culture because the founding fathers and the Masonic lodges were under the heavy influence of Anglosaxons, and because the racial mixture of Spanish and Indian bred a more intractable, rebellious and sturdy mestizo race, there were fewer Spanish priests in Chile, the Chilean indio was not submissive and carabao-like…. but you can still see glaring similarities.  

When Rizal as a child said that he wondered if on the other side of Laguna de Bay there were countries where people could live in peace and be happy, he said that in his own land, there was tyranny inside the towns and outside—–banditry.  He never said that a lot of bandits were good men who had become outlaws because they were unjustly persecuted, tormented by the powerful. 

Gabriel Salazar wrote a small book on el huacho chileno. It is an infinitely sad book, but full of soul.

Filipinos need to read the thinking of great minds like Paulo Freire of Brazil, whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed is obligatory reading for all people who have ever been born and educated in a colonized society. Freire worked with rural workers in Chile in the 1970s, where in 45 days he showed it was possible to turn illiterate campesinos into reasoning, self-respecting, opinion-forming and wisdom-sharing human beings.

Of course, under the dictatorship that ensued, literacy once again became an unattainable luxury for the Chilean peasantry.  However, the Allende government still left its mark.

The weird thing about the modern Filipino is that, despite what breast-beating Catholics so many of us are, I have never come across historians and writers like Salazar and Freire…it seems that Filipinos just don’t care about their greater society; they have no compassion for and very little interest in the upliftment of their own people—-who are still there, enslaved, easily explained away and forgotten.

A couple of quotes from 19th century authors:  Gregorio Sanciangco Goson (lawyer, from Malabón) and W.E. Retana (Rizal biographer, Filipinist).

  1. W.E. Retana: In which he argues that privileged but uncultured Filipinos did not want servant and workers classes to become Hispanized because they would no longer be able to oppress them. (Emphasis mine.)

“In fact, in the Philippines, although latent, there is the ancient spirit of slavery, practiced only by the sons of the country; imagine that this abominable memory —so useful, so profitable for the natives and mestizos who are anybody— were to be entirely eliminated; the consequence would be infallibly that the most inconceivable anarchy would occur; nobody would do any work at all.  There would be no servitude like that which exists today, no sharecropping, and nothing of the sort that any Filipino who has a bit of income can afford a more or less large number of servants, of natives, who usually wear the prehistoric loincloth as their only garment. Ninety-eight out of every hundred natives who work there (at the small scale at which they usually work) do so forced by something that would vanish if assimilation were to become effective there, — which it never will be, precisely because it is the children of the country who, with their traditional system, do not accept certain freedoms for those whom they exploit, whose blood they suck.

Visit the houses of the rich people of the provinces: there no servant speaks Spanish; none who through his manners and clothing would give the slightest hint of any civilizing action that his masters exercise on him; no one is paid a salary above four reales a month (a fair salary for a servant would have been around 4 pesos a month; 4 reales was like 50 centavos); all of them owe money to their master, and all of them work like automatons, driven by threats when not moved by the whip or the stick. The most ignorant servants, the most unwashed, the most Indian, you will find in the houses of the Filipinos; those who eat the worst, who are paid the least, and those who are physically abused—look for them in those houses, too.

(I could add a multitude of quotations to my statement, but this is such a great truth for anyone who knows the Philippines that I consider it useless to do so).

Tell us, then, if all those masters to whom I refer have feelings of freedom, ideas of assimilation, if they have even the faintest yearning for Hispanization within their domains. If you want me to admit to you that I am wrong about any of the above, you must still concede my point—that a large number of these masters are not in favor of a radical change in affairs, because “business as usual” prefers slavery,  ignorance, and the lowest forms of servility (Filosofemos un poco, 129-131). 

G. Sanciangco Goson:  El Progreso de Filipinas

“Well, as you travel through these very rich provinces, where the incomes of the natives and mestizos amount to many thousands of pesos, when you look at the balance sheet of one of those trading houses, national and foreign, whose coffers are depositories of the country’s savings, and that represent fabulous sums; when we contemplate those magnificent train carriages that carry the principal families, and when we enter those banquet halls where in one night what could constitute the fortune of a hundred families is spent, it is not possible to contain our thoughts, and we must remember the day laborer, the servant, the lackey and the pastry cook who, poor and even miserable, appear as contrasting elements next to their masters in the tax system; but who, poor and miserable as they are, are the only ones in the Philippines who contribute to the support of the State, for their own benefit and for the benefit of the rich (9-10).”


Blogger’s Note:

This article was submitted by the Filipina-Chilean writer and historian, Elizabeth Medina. Published without edits and in full. While I disagree with some of the article’s position, it makes important points that history students should consider.

In the end, if we want to verify our true past, we should seek and study and listen to all the evidence right in front of our eyes. Rediscovering our past is a long and arduous process, but don’t forget to have fun and laugh along the way!

– Arnaldo, With One’s Past

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I came here from what I think is the same article that prompted this essay. I got so angry at how the author glorified polo y servicios and mocked his fellow countrymen or being “ungrateful” towards the Spanish.