Fr. Fernando Cuenca
Father Fernando Cuenca, Augustinian Recollect
While I was in Bacolod over the weekend, I sought to find out more about my family’s progenitor, Fr. Fernando Cuenca (or, as I like to call him, Lolo Friar). What I’ve learned about him so far suggests he was a good priest (the obvious indiscretion notwithstanding) who contributed much to the development of the province of Negros. He was apparently well-loved, as people still leave flowers at his statue in the San Sebastian Cathedral.
Gran bienhechor de Negros; Fundador del molino “la hidraulica”; Medico; Constructor de las carreteras provinciales de Negros y Parroco de Talisay por 50 años.
The inscription on his statue reads: “Great benefactor of Negros; Founder of the hydraulics mill, Doctor, Constructor of the Negros provincial highways, Parish priest of Talisay for 50 years.”
A brief account of “The Spaniards” in the Negros Museum mentions that “Recollect Father Fernando Cuenca modernized sugar production by building the first water-powered mill in the 19th century.”
In the Negros Museum: a photo of Fr. Fernando Cuenca from a book, what looks like a page of his handwriting, and a tile with his name and some kind of coat of arms
There’s a short description in Spanish next to his picture, but I only understood the part about him being “Castillan of the city of his name” and the rest I could not translate.
A few years ago I came across a short paragraph about him in the first volume of “Documentary Sources of Philippine History” by Gregorio Zaide, which says that he introduced the use of geothermal energy in Negros. There were no details but I’m assuming that this had something to do with the water-powered sugar mill.
Somewhere in my paternal grandparents’ house there is a book about him that I intend to unearth when I have more time.
Some notes about the Spanish friar as a historical figure:
We would like to think that the Philippines had flourishing civilization before the Spaniards arrived on the scene. But “civilization” presupposes certain tools: wheel, plow, road, bridge masonry, paper, book, etc. We didn’t have any of those things before the Spaniards came, and therefore we cannot claim to have been a great civilization.
We would not have had those tools if the Spaniards – specifically the friars – hadn’t introduced them to us. We owe the friars for our civilization, and yet the friar is portrayed as the villain in our history. When we think of the friar, we think of Padre Damaso. We think of abuse and oppression and exploitation. We fail to acknowledge that the friars were our economic and cultural heroes.
The friars shaped our economy with the crops they planted: tobacco, cotton, coffee, sugar, melon, guava, and many others. We take for granted that these crops are not indigenous to the Philippines — the friars brought them here. When we broke away from Spain, we did not fear economic upheaval. We weren’t a colonial economy, tied to the factories and markets of Spain. We were economically independent.
They revolutionized our agricultural production by introducing the wheel and plow. Most Filipinos seem to think that the image of a carabao pulling a plow is intrinsically Filipino, but it is not. The pre-Hispanic carabao was meat, not a work animal. The wheel and plow lifted a mountain of labor off the farmer’s back and expanded his ability to produce.
The friars’ revolt against their superiors in Spain resulted in independent friar provinces in the Philippines.
They organized our dialects into grammars. The propagation of dialects instead of Spanish resulted in an independent Philippine Christian culture that is not merely a mirror of the Spanish or Mexican culture.
They opened up and mapped our lands.
They pulled us out of the midst of folklore and into the era of written history.
They built churches, bridges, damns, and irrigation systems that we still used today.
It’s not widely know that there were never many Spaniards in the Philippines and that lack of manpower translated to an inability to commit widespread abuses. Not that there weren’t any abuses in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but the bulk occurred in the nineteenth century as a consequence of the political strife in Spain and the decline of the empire.
It was in the nineteenth century that civil administrators and soldiers from the colonies Spain had lost came flocking to the Philippines and only then did the widespread abuse become possible. I think that it’s extremely important to make that qualification because otherwise our perception of colonization and the impact of friar influence becomes skewed.
(As an introduction to the historical role of Christianity and the Spanish colonization in constituting the Filipino and the Philippine nation, I recommend the following writings of Nick Joaquin: (1) A Question of Identity: Bringing Out the Invisible Filipino in History; and (2) Culture and History: Occasional Notes on the Process of Philippine Becoming.)