I didn’t know that my accidental discovery of La Laguna province’s foundation date many years ago was going to dance with controversy. Instead of receiving magnanimity from the powers that be, it was, sadly, received with vehement opposition.
First, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) contended that 28 July 1571 should not be recognized because on that date, La Laguna was founded not as a province but as an encomienda. I told them that it should not be made an issue. There is no question that La Laguna —now referred to simply as Laguna— did not begin as a province on that date, but the NHCP had overlooked what a foundation date really is. My argument is simple: . Not as a province per se, but as La Laguna .
Up to now, nobody knows exactly when La Laguna became a province. The editor of that aborted history-laced coffee table book project that I wrote under then Governor E.R. Ejército theorized that it could have been 1581 when Bay was made the first capital of La Laguna (many in the provincial capitol, including yours truly, agree with him). But the problem is that there is no exact date. Nevertheless, whether we have an exact date or not, it will NEVER negate the fact that La Laguna already existed prior to 1581. Oddly, concerned individuals over at the NHCP either fail to understand this or they simply don’t want to accept it.
In the end, when they could no longer withstand the strength of the logic of what a foundation date really is, one of them found a loophole: that it would be unpatriotic if Lagunenses will choose La Laguna’s foundation as an encomienda simply because this system connoted slavery! Yes, this gentleman mentioned the word slavery. And he crumbled right before my very eyes.
But did the encomienda really connote slavery? Let us first study the background of the problem.
What is an encomienda?
In elementary and high school classes, Filipino students are generally taught that an encomienda was a piece of land given to a Spaniard for a certain period of time. Included on that land are the indios (natives) who were the original settlers. The receiver of the encomienda is called an encomendero. The encomendero had the right to exploit the natives for labor but without enslaving them.
Unfortunately, it is hardly taught that an encomienda was a quid pro quo affair. What is hardly taught these days is that it was the duty of the encomendero to:
1) protect the natives from tribal enemies
2) to educate them, i.e., to teach them the Spanish language, and
3) to indoctrinate them into the Christian faith.
To wit, an encomienda was a legal system employed by the Spanish crown during the colonization of the Americas to regulate Native American labor. And this system was later applied to Filipinas.
In this scheme, the Spanish crown grants the encomendero a specified number of indios (for a limited time period) for whom they were to take responsibility by accomplishing the aforementioned duties. That is why it is called an encomienda in the first place: it is from the Spanish verb “encomendar” which means “to entrust”. In return, the encomendero could extract labor from their wards in the form of labor, gold (if available), or other products (mainly agricultural produce). There was, therefore, a mutual obligation from both encomendero and indio.
What should be firmly noted in this system is the existence of the aforementioned mutual obligation between the encomendero and his subjects. In the first place,there would be no encomienda at all without either of the two parties involved. At the onset, pre-Filipino societies were not yet organized into township communities, i.e., they were not yet set up in a way the Spaniards had wanted them to be. These communities were small and scattered. Many were forest dwellers. And those living in river and lakeshore communities were not as compact as well. Naturally, it took some time and effort for an encomendero to organize the indios in his encomienda in order for the mutual obligation to materialize. Thus, it is safe to say that the encomienda served as the prototype (or it laid the groundwork) for the reducción, at least in these islands.
Important note: this is not to say that the encomienda preceded the reducción. In the early years of Spanish rule, both encomienda and reducción have taken place at the same time. But in La Laguna, this seemed to have been the case.
To wit: the distribution of land during the early years of Spanish rule had to start somewhere, and that was done through the encomienda system. The encomendero was also required to support the missionaries and to train the indios assigned to him how to grow various crops and raise farm animals. Through the encomienda system, the indios learned modern farming methods. Through the encomienda system, the carabao was imported from Vietnam to facilitate rice farming. All this stimulated modern agriculture.
This is not to say that the encomienda system was perfect. Did it become corrupt? Yes, but not to the extent which ultranationalist hispanophobes wanted it to appear in our minds. True, abuses and corruption did take place (that is why the friars later on opposed it). But which regime at any point in history was considered falutless? Nevertheless, if we are to compare the encomienda system to our modern political landscape, the encomenderos of yore would have looked like saints compared to our politicians today.
For the sake of argument, let us say that the encomienda was filled with nothing but hardship and suffering for our indio ancestors. Should we still consider 28 July 1571 as La Laguna’s foundation date? Of course. In the case of La Laguna and 28 July 1571, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur should come to mind. “The thing speaks for itself.” It doesn’t matter anymore if the encomenderos were drunkards or rapists. What is written on paper (i.e., the chart where the foundation date of La Laguna appears) should still be recognized and respected and should not be mixed with opinionated bull.
It’s like this: suppose that a man was the product of rape, why should he be disallowed to celebrate his birthday?
Anyway, back to the encomienda. The creation of provinces did not happen overnight. It had to evolve. And it did evolve from the encomienda. And even if the encomienda system did not become corrupt, it would eventually have been abolished, nay, replaced to give way to a much developed system of governance. The encomienda was the basis for the creation of provinces. If not for the encomienda, there would have been no provinces in the first place.
In closing, subscribing to the leyenda negra will never do us anything good at all. Hating everything that Spain did to us only harms all the more. Ultranationalism is the problem here. It leads us to blind hatred. Attacking our Spanish past is tantamount to shooting ourselves in the foot. For good or for worse, the encomienda is part of our history, and is already history. It helped create modern Filipino society.
But to those NHCP historians whom I encountered in my early 30s, the encomienda system was bad, bad, and bad. The Spanish colonization of Filipinas was bad, bad, and bad. It makes me wonder why one of them still uses the surname Encomienda. He should change it to, perhaps, Lapu-Lapu or Gat Páñguil. Or Datu Putî.
Happy foundation anniversary to my beautiful adoptive province of La Laguna!