The Indio Agraviado
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - February 29, 2020 - 12:00am

Are we inside or outside our politics? I mean: is it something we watch from a distance, like a circus, or is it something of which we feel we are an essential part? In a world where viewer attention is monetized and ideologues and trolls have joined the political machinery to shape public opinion, we are bombarded through every media, including and especially social with messages persuading us to buy something or be outraged by something else. As a matter of self-care I’ve taken to deliberately delaying any reaction by counting to five and thinking more carefully about any message or information I’ve come across, before I come to any conclusions. There are a lot of economic and political interests trying to win all of us to their side, a lot more than ever before. Before the internet, or computers, televisions and refrigerators, news cycles and commercials had been dreamed of, information and ideas had much more power, perhaps exactly because there wasn’t as much and it would remain with people for longer.

It’s been nearly 200 years since some unknown author wrote a slim, subversive pamphlet and gave it the title: “El Indio Agraviado,” in English “The Aggrieved (or Offended) Native.” It’s been transcribed by the inestimable Jorge Mojarro at the University of Santo Tomás who was kind enough to share it with me, but amazingly no-one’s ever done a full annotated translation. Written more than 60 years before José Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” came along, this is the earliest and clearest piece of writing that reaches right into the hearts and minds of Filipinos as Filipinos. It’s probable that we will never be certain who wrote it but whoever it was is the first Philippine author in Spanish who had a sense of a Filipino identity. He writes with a raw, cold fury addressing colonising Spaniards with wit and intelligence.

“The Indio is a man of flesh, he has a rational soul, the image of God, with three powers, five senses and the same capacity of discernment as a Spaniard.” My translation is probably a little rough but the sense of a righteous and indignant challenge is unmistakable. It seems to be addressed to the Spanish in Spanish by a Filipino author who declares his equality with them under their own constitution. It’s also a challenge to other Filipinos to stand with him; and as a Filipino reading his words 199 years on, I find myself placed right next to him in the midst of the birth of the idea of an independent nation.

“If the Indio is ignorant no-one is more to blame than the Spanish themselves, because after more than two and a half centuries since they conquered these islands, till now he remains an idiot,” our author argues. It’s compelling reading, especially if, as you read it, you imagine what it must have been like to write and read such words at the time. Never before had any Aggrieved Native written in such a way. He challenges the colonizers on behalf of all Aggrieved Natives. It wasn’t so much that our anonymous Indio was claiming legitimacy through the Spanish, but that it is claimed in spite of Spanish rule, indeed that colonisation was holding us Indios back.

“It is good not to teach them Spanish, to leave them in their stupidity, to heed not their barbaric and clumsy ways, nor correct them so that they believe they say something good ... this way we will call them thieves, and a thousand other insults and abuses...” our Indio explains. "Isn’t that the idea your honours had from the beginning, to speak ill of us as you do? What is the poor Indio to do! If he responds reasonably, you will say he is obstinate, but if he doesn’t, that he is a mule. No doubt the Spanish have studied this philosophical system well... this is how natives will never be anything but bad but for God’s sake! Where am I to go!”

It’s a wonderful and brilliant bit of writing and Dr. Mojarro says there is much more such material. “Our knowledge of the colonial period is inadequate,” he explained, “My goal is to make such material known to people. I find that what you learn at school is science fiction.”

The voice of “The Aggrieved Indio” resonates more strongly down the centuries than most political writing does now. It is more direct, authentic and engaging, though at the time it was probably viewed as profoundly disturbing to the status quo. By 1823 writing like this no longer appeared because of a strict policy of censorship when the monarchy was restored in Spain, but the call had been made and the end of the empire was in the making.

Nowadays we are bombarded with information: we – the people, the governed – are asked where to place ourselves when we read the stories about what the politicians are up to, or watch television coverage of a hearing at the Senate. Maybe social media is so compelling because it has the same directness as the Indio Agraviado, bringing the politics right into our heads, stirring our imaginations and emotions. Perhaps it’s the mark of successful political language that it immediately places the reader or viewer as an equal participant in events.

We may have the technology to watch or listen in our own neighbourhoods, homes or even in the palm of our hands as political events unfold around the world, but there’s a disconnect, a sense that they are not so much matters that impact those being informed, as audience members keeping up with a new installment in a drama.

The new generation of Philippine historians, Mojarro says, speaks Spanish and he thinks that little by little Filipinos will discover more about the historical process from which the nation emerged and might explain why. I hope that it will also help to lift politics to a higher level by reminding Filipinos that we are not just spectators in a circus but part of the Philippine project that was started all those years ago. The job of coming up with a decent answer to the Aggrieved Indio’s question: “Where am I to go?” now falls to us.

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