Indeed, long before Pampanga became the country’s 2nd largest producer of sugar, it had rice for its main crop. Rice agriculture after all, started in Southeast Asia, where monsoon rains are conducive to its growth , and today, rice remains the staple food of half of the world’s population. Governor de Sande, in his 1576 report, writes: “The province which in all this island of Luzon produces the most grain is that called Pampanga…Manila and all the region is provided with food—namely rice, which is the bread here by this province; so that if the rice harvest should fail there, there would be no place where it could be obtained”.
When the Spaniards surveyed Pampanga towns, they found rice growing predominantly in riverine towns of the south, where the ground was lower, thus allowing the Rio de Pampanga to supply the soil with much-needed water needed to grow and nourish the crop. In fact, only in southern Pampanga was it possible to grow two crops of rice a year, unlike northern towns which had drier, sandier soil. The Frenchman Le Gentil writing in 1766, marveled at the fertility of Pampanga and its ability to produce more rice crops than other provinces. Pampanga’s rice belt included Apalit, Minalin, Santa Ana, San Simon, Candaba, Santa Rita, Floridablanca, San Fernando and Lubao.
With the realization that Pampanga could be important to the Spanish administrative center in Manila with its abundant rice harvest, Spaniards lost no time in demanding rice sustenance from the province. Manila’s dependence on Pampanga’s rice supply often had terrible consequences. In 1583, when Kapampangans were forced to go north and work in Ilocos gold mines, Pampanga’s rice fields were neglected, resulting in a great famine for the country. This turned out to be the last straw for 2 native elites, Don Juan Manila and Don Nicolas Managuete, who led a failed uprising and invasion of Manila. In 1589, an issue was made of the agricultural slaves kept by Kapampangan chiefs. The chiefs came to plead in Manila, negotiating successfully for the continued use of Negrito slaves by using the importance of rice to leverage the merits of their case.
The peak months for planting rice are May, June, July and November, when monsoon rains prevail. The initial wet-field process begins with preparing the soil by plowing, using the trusty damulag. The seeds are sown in the wind or are dropped into holes punched by digging sticks. It takes from 90 to 120 days for the grass to mature, depending on varieties. Working together in the fields gave rice to the spirit of comradeship—the bayanihan. When the rice plants are a foot high, they are transplanted accompanied by rhythmic singing. However, the long wait between the planting and harvesting season often built up a debt relationship between tenants and landlords.
For many years, Pampanga, with its expanding population, found it hard to satisfy the country’s demand while meeting its local needs. Finally, in 1910, Pampanga produced a surplus of rice. In 1917, Pampanga ranked 4th in national rice production with an output of 1.422 million cavans. In 1919, a new rice crisis developed. Sugar found favor when new demands in the world market caused a shift from rice to sugar production.
Though cultivated not as extensively as before, the wonder grain continues to sustain us in our daily life, feeding our hunger while contributing to the economy. Of course, rice has also enriched our culinary heritage. Our language is filled with word references for rice in its various states. Unhusked rice is called “pale”. When husked, it is called “abias”. And when cooked, it becomes “nasi”. Ground in a stone gilingan, glutinous rice becomes "galapong", the main ingredient for our mouth-watering bibingkas, suman, sapin-sapin and palito. For Kapampangans, rice is, and will always be the staff of their life.
( 22 November 2003)