HomeThe Journal of Historyvol. 51 no. 1-4 (2005)

Social Realities in Early 19th Century Santa Cruz de Malabon as Reflected in Religious Folklore

Jose Alain Austria

Discipline: Philippine History, Philippine Literature



It is a theory accepted by both historians and ethnologists that legends and tales, such as miracle stories, are unconscious reflectors of contemporaneous social realities. Beneath the fantastic plots and wonders, one can glean socio-historical realities, as well as the concerns of the people of a particular epoch. This study presents one such case from the Tagalog province of Cavite.

Sometime in the 1790's, a dark wooden image of San Agustin (Saint Augustine of Hippo) was recovered along the banks of the Obispo River, in the newly-established town of Santa Cruz de Malabon (now Tanza). A string of alleged miraculous incidents involving the image between the 1790's and the 1860's paved the way for the development of one of the most popular saint cults in the province. This paper, however, does not have any intention of looking deeper into the factuality of the said "miraculous happenings." Instead, it uses these religious oral traditions as reflectors of then prevalent social conditions/concerns in a fledging 19" century Tagalog town.

This paper was able to identify four salient features of early 19th century Santa Cruz de Malabon using this methodology (in turn verifiable through conventional sources); The material details of most of these tales were taken directly from the immediate contemporaneous environment (in this case, a 19th century agricultural estate town). Historians and folklorists agree that oral traditions, such as religious legends, cannot incorporate details/elements that are not integral to the environment where they developed. The stories ofSan Agustin are not different. The oral tradition teems with details that 19th century Santa Cruz inhabitants would have been so familiar with: kaingin smoke, carabaos, cogon grass, nipa huts, swarms of mayas, etc. To some extent, these fantastic legends are unconscious "photographs" of everyday life in Santa Cruz de Malabon.

Santa Cruz de Malabon was a society with a wide geo-economic disparity. The two existing variants of the San Agustin discovery tale (Poblacion and Amaya versions) are replete with pictorial details of what seems to be "two distinct societies within a society." Whereas the poblacion variant highlights the role of local power symbols (gobernadorcillos and cura parrocos) in the rise of the devotion, the Amaya variant focuses on the role of the marginalized (kaingeros, tulisanes, etc.). Such disparity may be viewed as reflective of the center-periphery dichotomy inherent to the colonial pueblo layout.

This 19th century society upholds values that promote rigid patron-client relationships. A unique characteristic of the San Agustin oral tradition is its consistent portrayal of the saint as an angry and vengeful tanda (patriarch) capable of hurting people. The oral tradition behind the "Gregorio Arca incident" (as well as other similar tales) reflects the prime importance this agricultural society accords to the values of respect arid palabra de honor -and the dire consequences of failing to live by these. This is more significant when we consider the fact that these values were the pillars of the patron-client relationship that underline the dynamics of other Caviteño hacienda towns during the 19th century.

Water (or the search for it) was an integral part of the everyday life of the people of Santa Cruz de Malabon. The "protomiracle" story of San Agustin in Bitin Creek reflects Santa Cruz de Malabon's pre-occupation with irrigation issues. Water was definitely of supreme importance to th6 old estancia of Santa Cruz de Malabon for its very existence revolves around wet-rice cultivation. Inevitably, such concerns are found even in the most fantastic of religious legends.

The folklore revolving around the image of Tata Usteng is probably the facet of the Tanza devotion that is most attuned with the mentality of ordinary people. The supernatural content of these tales may seem to be too naive to contain anything -but they do. While devotees wonder over the saint's miraculous projects in the past, these stories similarly mirror the very milieu, thoughts, and attitudes of this colonial estate town. It would not be too much to say that Tata Usteng's legends are idioms of Tanza's peasant past.