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The pensionados




Gemma Cruz Araneta

Gemma Cruz Araneta

Pensionado is a Spanish word for someone who receives a pension or is dependent on it, like retirees.It also refers to a student on scholarship. In our case, the pensionados were young Filipinos, mostly male, who were sent to the United States of America on scholarships, including free board and lodging.  How strange that the American colonial government should use a Spanish word.

On 10 October 1966, the Philippine Historical Association gave awards to surviving pensionados. Eminent Filipino historian Dr. Esteban de Ocampo described the pensionado system as “one of the wisest and most far-reaching steps taken by Civil Governor William H. Taft and the members of the Philippines Commission…”

On 26 August 1903, Act. No. 854, authored by Dr. Trinidad Pardo de Tavera, created the “Pensionado System” which sent Filipinos aged 16 to 21 to the United States of America to study and imbibe the American way of life.  The act established a screening committee composed of provincial governors (mostly Filipinos) and the American superintendent of schools. Out of approximately 20,000 applicants, 104 Filipino young men were chosen. Dr. De Ocampo did not say whether women were invited to compete. Aside from academic requirements, “social status and physical qualifications of the candidates” were important considerations. The first batch of ‘pensionados’ left for the USA on 10 October 1903, on board the SS Rohilla Maru.

After a month of sailing, the shipload of pensionados docked in San Francisco, dispersed to small towns, in southern California into  homes of previously selected American families. Some historians argue that the pensionado system was part and parcel of the “pacification” strategy of the USA. In fact, it was a San Francisco businessman, Mr. B. G. Dempster, who suggested the idea to Secretary Elihu Root. Mr. Dempster was convinced that “…the speediest method of civilizing the Philippines was to search the 5,100 villages for one or two young men and take them to the United States for their education…” Apparently, it was not a novel idea as the German colonial department had the same policy for their colonies.

Mr. Sutherland, the superintendent for pensionados, explained that, ” to prevent clannish association,” those young Filipino scholars were not placed in boarding houses or dormitories, but in the homes of American families, two to a house, as a rule, and not more than five or six in the same school. Each student was given an allowance of US$ 500 which was supposed to last the entire calendar year; some received additional funds from home, but this was discouraged because Mr. Sutherland believed that if the these Filipino youth had more than US$5 a month, “avenues of dissipation would be open to them.” However, they were allowed to take on odd jobs for extra income. That was how the enterprising Silverio Apostol saved enough to buy an Elgin watch he treasured all his life.

On 31 July 1904, the pensionados were sent to Missouri to work at the world fair called “Louisiana Purchase Exposition” where the principal attractions were the “Philippine Reservation” and the “Indian Reservation,” on opposite sides of a placid man-made lagoon. They were chaperoned by Mr and Mrs. William A. Sutherland. For an entire month, they lived in the “Philippine Reservation” where Igorrotes ate eat dog meat every day, a major attraction that Americans talk about to this day. The pensionados served as guides in the exhibition halls and as waiters in the mess hall. I wonder if they were paid extra and if they were given the proper briefing about the indigenous people on display. This made the pensionados the first   “tourism frontliners.”

In September, 1904, the pensionados were sent to selected colleges and universities. Mr. Sutherland reported that “his boys” were allowed to choose what they wanted to study, but were advised to select courses that would redound to the benefit  of the economic and social progress of the Philippines.

To keep in touch with each other and folks back home, the pensionados published a bi-monthly magazine, “The Filipino,” later renamed,”The Filipino Students’ Magazine.” There they wrote about their impressions of “a strange country” where there was dignity of labor, a sense of justice and fair play. They were  impressed with  the American democratic system.

After finishing their studies, the pensionados had to return home and were required to render public service equal to the number of years they had stayed in the USA. The first Filipino architects (the Arellano brothers) and engineers (Tomas Mapua) were pensionados and were immediately absorbed by the Bureau of Public Works and its Architecture Division. Many became physicians, lawyers, educators, university presidents, writers, politicians, businessmen, and officers of the army.

As expected, many suffered a kind of “cultural shock” when they returned to the Philippines because they had to re-adjust to a lower standard of living. On the other hand, there were pensionados who were only too happy to return to their affluent homes where a gaggle of servants pampered them.  The nagging problem of the returnees (according to Celia Bocobo Olivar, 1951) was, ironically enough, the prejudicial treatment they received from both Americans and Filipinos. The latter would call them “American boys” and taunt them for speaking English with a Spanish accent and Spanish with an American intonation. The resident Americans ridiculed them for trying to be like them, and even if they had graduated with flying colors from American institutions, many had to settle for low positions with unattractive salaries.  They could not breach the exclusive Army & Navy Club or the Philippine Columbian Club.  However, the more affluent pensionados dressed in “Americanas,” patronized restaurants serving American food, hobnobbed with American politicians, and were purveyors of American culture and policies.

In general, the pensionados became leaders in their communities because they could speak American English,  (essential to success) and had acquired American tastes that influenced the cultural and political development of generations of Filipinos.

Fifteen surviving pensionados received awards on that auspicious day in October, among them were: Arch. Jose Cuenco (Cebu), Dean Jose Espiritu (Pampanga), Don Carlos Lopez (Iloilo), Eng. E. Quisumbing (Manila), Justice Delfin Jaranilla (Iloilo), and Don. M. Mondoñedo (Isabela).


















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