W is for the Working Women of Old Manila

WIn Old Manila, we learned that there was a caste system of sorts, beginning – from the highest level – the Peninsulares (Spaniards born in Spain), Insulares (Spaniards born in the colonies, like Philippines or Mexico), mestizos (those of mixed Spanish blood), Sangleys (Filipinos with Chinese blood), and indios (natives).

Women within these classes also had roles to play to maintain their status, especially for the wealthy and educated classes. The rise of idealized version of the Filipino woman, as depicted by Jose Rizal’s mestiza or mixed-race Maria Clara, epitomizes an almost-universal view of how Filipino women continue to be seen by many,  as someone who is shy, timid, and unquestioning.

Yet there was another group of Filipino women in the 19th century that was so far removed from the mythical being or the idealized version of Maria Clara.  She was the india, the native or local Filipino woman, comprising rest of the population of women in Old Manila (apart from the wealthy mixed-race women of the upper classes).

Embroiderers in Old Manila with American troops in 1899
Embroiderers in Old Manila with American troops in 1899

These were the working women of Old Manila, and according to Ma. Luisa Camagay, they were:

  1. Cigarreras – those who rolled cigars
  2. Vendaderas or tenderas – vendors and shopkeepers
  3. Bordadoras and costareras – embroiders and seamstresses
  4. Criadas – domestic servants
  5. Maestras – teachers
  6. Matronas titulares – schooled midwives
  7. Mujeres publicas – prostitutes

Majority of the working women of Old Manila were employed by the tobacco factories as cigareras, the ones who deftly rolled cured tobacco leaves into cigars.   In 1816, cigareras staged a walkout after having had enough of the terrible working conditions.

“…One of their demands was for the tobacco leaves be given to them ready for rolling since, they claimed, they were not being paid for the added tasks of cleaning and stretching the leaves. In response, management acted immediately and favorably on all their complaints and demands.

The job of cigarrera ranked first as a career option for Filipino women in the 19th century Manila mainly because the tobacco monopoly, which was at the time a huge government business, aggressively recruited the women into the factory system.


"CIGARRERAS" [Cigarette Makers] Image Creator: J. Laurent [1816-1888] EXPOSICIÓN DE FILIPINAS, MADRID Date Published: 1887 Colorized by Reimbau Lluvia
[Cigarette Makers]
Image Creator: J. Laurent [1816-1888]
Date Published: 1887
Colorized by Reimbau Lluvia

“The cigar factories alone employed more than twenty thousand workers, mostly women.  Those who failed to get employment in the factories became labradora, lavandera, costurera, domicilla, or tindera.  Many of them became prostitutes as manifested in the court records (espedientes) of the period.

– Via Prostitution in Old Manila, Luis Dery, Ateneo de Manila (pdf file)

The vendaderas or vendors carried around their portable stores of vegetables, fruits, or fresh carabao milk watered down with coconut water or water left from the washing of rice to cut costs.  The tenderas or shopkeepers opened small shops from their homes, selling customers (who were usually their own neighbors) everything from eggs, fruits, and knick knacks.

The bordadoras and costareras, embroiderers and seamstresses, respectively, worked at making the beautiful clothes for the upper classes, often unable to even afford a yard of the piña cloth they wove or embroidered on from scratch.

“TEJEDORAS TRABAJANDO” [Female Weavers] Image Creator: Jean Laurent [1816-1886] Year Taken: 1883 (Pearl Orient Collection)
The criadas worked for the wealthy families.  Usually around 13 years old, they cooked the food, cleaned the house, fetched water for baths, and washed the clothes.

If one received a college education, one could work as a maestra although the pay was very low.  She educated many of the rich families’ children and traveled wherever the work took her.

1920167_611034148984988_1965046769_nThe matrones titulares (schooled midwives) were responsible for birthing the children of the wealthy, though she is not to be confused with the matrona or partera (midwife), who was without a degree or a license from the university.    However, she did not have the appropriate education to treat diseases.

The pay for these lines of work would often be so low that many of the women ended up as mujeres publicas or prostitutes.    They were known as vagamundas, indocumentadas (the latter two because of her traveling lifestyle and that she usually did not possess the cedula, the form of identification for tax purposes in Old Manila), and prostitutas, and often came from far-flung areas of the country.

Prostitutes arrested in the 19th century were in their late teens and early 20’s. Older prostitutes who were in their 30’s or 40’s were either married or widowed.

“Spanish legalization of gambling as a source of revenue added to the inhabitants’ demoralization.  In many cases, it was a major reason for men made destitute by gambling to induce their wives or women friends to engage in prostitution or to commit crimes…Even Governor William H. Taft noted that the gambling habit among the inhabitants was ‘so great that men will gamble the chastity of their daughters and their wives” just to satisfy their vice.”

– Via Prostitution in Old Manila, Luis Dery, Ateneo de Manila (pdf file)

There were four categories of prostitutes, depending on where they worked and who their clients were.

The first category were the ones who worked in prostitution houses, usually ran by an ama or amo, a pimp.

“…They were native Filipinos who stated their profession as cigarrera or costurera. The Filipino amo identified himself as a sastre so it was not surprising that this tailor would act as an amo considering that he did have access to the male population who might desire the services of a prostitute.

Another category of prostitutes included those who plied their trade by posting themselves along certain streets like Calle Iris of Quiapo, Paseo de Azcarraga, Gandara, and Santa Cruz, Binondo and Singalong, Herran, San Marcelino in Paco Dilao under the supervision of amas or amos.

….Another category of prostitutes visited their clients in their own homes. These were the prostitutes who, from the archival sources, rendered service to Chinese males who came to the Philippines both single and married. Serapia was the name of their pimp, or corredora.

Finally, the last category of prostitutes included women who invited clients back to their own homes. Belonging to this category were Madame Sanchez, a Spaniard who lived in No. 6 Calle Uli-uli in San Miguel; Antonelle, an American who lived in No. 16 Calle Labasan in Sampaloc; and Lorenza, an Englishwoman who lived in No. 20 Calle Balmes in Quiapo. Presumably these women catered to men who belonged to the higher echelons of society.”

via The oldest profession | Sunday Life, Lifestyle Features, The Philippine Star | philstar.com.

If they were arrested, punishment usually meant being exiled to far-flung areas such as Davao in the southern island of Mindanao or Palawan.  However, they could be saved from such fate in two ways – (1) petition from their parents to the governor-general or the friar-curate or (2) an offer of marriage.

“Petitions of mothers and father of prostitutes were made to the Governor-General. Invoking reasons such as ill health, citing that the daughter was the sole breadwinner of the family or even issuing an outright denial of her activities as a prostitute by mothers was a common ploy used to avoid being deported to Mindanao.

Marriage or the offer of marriage circumvented the deportation of a prostitute. The Servidumbres Dometicas of the National Archives reads that, in 1849, Romana Pablo was on the list of those to be deported to Davao but was spared from exile because of Gilberto Escueta’s request for permission to marry her. Sotera Almario was likewise spared from serving this punishment when Don Jose Maria Medina, a Spanish mestizo, requested that she be released from prison because he planned to marry her.

….Marriage was viewed as a means of reforming prostitutes. For these prostitutes, marriage was thought to be a means of “sobering them up.” Based upon available records after three years, a deportee could petition the Governor-General to end her deportation.

via The oldest profession | Sunday Life, Lifestyle Features, The Philippine Star | philstar.com.

Wow, I never thought I’d have way more information about prostitutes in Old Manila than any other.  Well, there was a lot to write about the cigarera, but nothing, I believe, can trump the idea of reformation by marriage.

Just. Wow.

A to Z Challenge

Update for 03/25/2021: While some of the links may no longer be available, I have found another source regarding Prostitution in the Philippines:

From Oripun to the Yapayuki-San: An Historical Outline of Prostitution in the Philippines
D’oripun à yapayuki-san: un aperçu historique de la prostitution aux Philippines
François-Xavier Bonnet
p. 41-64

6 thoughts on “W is for the Working Women of Old Manila

  1. I was fortunate to meet many Filipino people in my travels and universally found them to be warm, talented, and engaging people. It was a pleasure to learn more on the history of old Manila and try to come to understand how the country’s culture evolved from those old days.

    1. Thank you so much for visiting my blog! The country sure has evolved so much since those old days, and it’s something I’m trying to study in an effort to learn more about its present culture and how (and why) we are the way we are today.

  2. I expect that apart from the Cigarreras those occupations were quite common in most countries for women, at least for those not “high-born”.
    Impressive prostitute research 🙂

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