A Tale of Two Cities:
Quirks and Habits of Ilonggos and Negrenses
Once upon a time there were two cities, one simple and old; and the other young and outrageous. It is in these cities where leaders and cultures clash, where Kings would rise and fall. Or, not exactly. And so our story begins when I was in High School in La Salle, I certainly knew that I was in for a challenge. Because where ever I turn, the appreciation for the finest things in life was all around me. The best clothes, the prettiest girls were in the next School – St. Scholastica’s Academy.
The book “Clash of Spirits” (Ateneo de Manila Press) by Filomeno Aguilar, Jr. offers very insightful observations about the origins of Ilonggo stereotypes and society. Aguilar drew his conclusions from numerous oral interviews. He discusses in his book how these stereotypes were formed thru the years.
One very common stereotype is that of the cruel haciendero. Even today, mention the word haciendero and images of a well-dressed, gun-toting, horse-riding mestizo chasing an escaping sacada. Frankly, these are fodder for telenovelas of the ill-treated worker.
Another stereotype is that Negros-Ilonggos (or Negrenses) are more ostentatious and flamboyant in their tastes compared to their Panay relations. The Ilonggos in Panay are said to be more conservative and timid in their spending habits. Even in business and gambling, Negrenses are famous for being risk-takers while their counterparts in Panay are more cautious about investing in some new venture.
Aguilar explains that during the mad rush to convert Negros into one big sugar plantation in the 1850-1880s, the island’s new hacienderos were forced to adopt novel business practices for their sugar plantations to be profitable. Labor was the key to a sugar plantation’s success or demise. Whereas in Panay, their fathers or elder brothers can rely on old laborers who have roots in their land for generations (commonly called tumandoks), the haciendero found a dearth of farm workers in Negros. Negros in the mid-1800s was an undeveloped wilderness. So the haciendero had to import seasonal laborers from Panay (called sacadas). Sacadas were paid using the pakyaw system: half of his salary is given in advance to his family in Panay and the other half upon completion of his 6-month “contract.” Food is usually provided for free for the duration of the work season and expenses for basic items are deducted against the salary of the sacada in the hacienda grocery store.
This system usually worked but there were some abuses. Sacadas would run away after their families have received half their salary. Some would transfer to another hacienda without completing their contract, get an advance from the other hacienda’s overseer and run away again. This practice became so widespread that many hacienderos went back to their hometowns in Iloilo financially ruined. To protect their investments, the hacienderos banded together and petitioned President Manuel Quezon to allow them to possess guns. And since sugar was the country’s major cash crop, Quezon granted their request.
Thus, Aguilar gives a new twist to the familiar movie scene of a horse-riding, sacada-chasing haciendero. Like any businessman, the haciendero is merely protecting his investment from absconders seeking to ruin his business.
To attract more sugarcane laborers to work in their fields, hacienderos in Negros had to show people that they have money and that they are “galante”. Flamboyant behavior and ostentatious living were used by sugar planters as a tool to induce workers to their plantations. For example, sacadas were attracted to work for legendary haciendero and shrewd businessman Don Esteban dela Rama because he seemed to treat money with contempt – he regularly gave away his cockfight winnings to the poor, donate big sums on charity events, shoulder the medical expenses of strangers, spend outlandish sums on jewelry, etc. Aguilar posits that this “bizarre” behavior has an explanation and that there was a method in Don Esteban dela Rama’s “madness” – he was trying to attract more workers to his farm.
The “Clash of Spirits” offers many more interesting insights on how stereotypes came about. During the olden days, rich Ilonggo families did not subdivide their landholdings. Instead, the family’s lands usually went to the eldest son on the condition that he will take care of his sibling’s financial well-being. Aguilar contends that members of the Jaro elite who immigrated to Negros were actually the second, third or fourth sons who were boxed out of their land by their elder brothers. These “poorer” relations of the Jaro elite left departed the relative comfort Iloilo for the promise of wealth in Negros. Crossing Guimaras Strait, these “lesser” sons and daughters of Panay left behind their inferior status brought about by the accident of birth to forge their own destinies. Aguilar concludes that the earliest settlers of Negros were primarily entrepreneurs and gamblers unafraid to take risks. And unlike their “richer” cousins in Iloilo, Negrenses have something to prove both to themselves and to their “betters”. They have to show that they are wealthier, more successful, more well-dressed, than their Iloilo relations. Thus, the stereotype of the ostentatious and avant garde Negrense was born.
Thru the years, descendants of hacienderos inherited not only the land but the ways, attitudes and practices of their forebears. But the original purpose and meaning of these practices have been lost to the succeeding generations. That is why it is always useful to examine and understand the lessons from our past so we can apply in our present. The problem with stereotypes is that they are not always true. And trying to live up to these stereotypes is one mistake we must avoid.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,”
Aguilar asks: how did it happen that two groups of people, related by blood but separated by water, became so different in their outlook, attitudes and business practices?
A Tale of Two Cities