Tomás Apoy was the kind of person who always gave others the benefit of the doubt. He was an aspiring hunter, a pious Catholic, an errand boy, and a colonial subject to the Spanish crown.
Tomás believed in earning your place. He wasn’t educated, but he knew other things; the shortest route to town, how to fall out of a tree, and how much ink it took to write a letter, not that he could write.
On holy days he would go exploring after mass, or just lounge under a mahogany grove. Free from errands, he thought of new adventures, and how to have fun without getting in trouble.
As he gazed up through the trees he caught a glimpse of something, flying overhead. He got up quick. He didn’t think, he just ran, trailing it from below.
His best friend, Bing-bing, was exploring as well and noticed Tomás when he paused near a clearing. He called out to him by his nickname. “Tibay.”
“Tibay, what are you doing?”
“Che!” Tomás demanded he be quiet. Bing-bing complied. He returned his attention to the skies.
Bing-bing came closer and looked up in the same general direction. “Psst?”
“Oy, isn’t it obvious?” he whispered.
“The banog eagle.” Tomás crouched among the grasses before he could speak again. He pulled Bing-bing down too. He pointed with his lips. “I see it, there on the left.” The eagle had perched itself in a mahogany tree.
Bing-bing didn’t bother to look. “You’re still trying to catch one? We’ve tried for years. Remember – ”
“Shhh,” Tomás pleaded, but Bing-bing stood and waved his arms in the air to disrupt the hunt. The eagle twisted its head, spotting them.
Tomás tried to restrain him, grabbing his arms. They wrestled. Bing-bing began to mimic the call of the eagle to drive it away. It worked. Tomás tried to be angry, but Bing-bing’s antics were more funny than annoying.
“You’re ridiculous,” Tomás sounded stern, but his round eyes made it hard to look angry, even when he knit his brow.
“You can’t do it alone,” Bing-bing said. Tomás pushed him playfully to the ground and walked away. He got up and trailed behind. He made more noises, some of which sounded like an eagle.
Tomás never said, but he was rehearsing for battle. Young men of their background weren’t supposed to have great destinies, but Tomás still dreamt of conquering something. Was this a way of coping with his father’s death? Tomás worked hard to avoid his father’s mistakes. Maybe it was his ancestors calling.
Until he knew for certain, he fought with nature. He had the scars to prove it, not many, but enough. The most visible one, behind his left shoulder, was from falling out of a tree during a hunt. Tomás was eager to battle the wild. To control the wild meant you weren’t wild; it meant the opposite. Self-control kept you tame, and out of trouble.
When he was fourteen, he rescued a high-ranking bureaucrat’s daughter from drowning. The vessel had docked nearby due to an early monsoon, and she had fallen while disembarking. The receding waves pulled her below the surface. He was reprimanded for touching a Spanish woman, yet his gallantry was rewarded, and soon he was running errands for the local governor. This was the first sense of legitimacy he could remember. It was also the first time he had touched a woman of pure Spanish descent. There weren’t many of these women, but Spain had exported governors to the Spanish East Indies for centuries, and one or two brought their wives and daughters.
Tomás appeared wild to the Spaniards because he could climb every kind of tree. His love of the outdoors kept his skin a dark brown. The dangerous and impossible attracted him, whether it was the civet cats roaming the shoreline at night, or the banog eagles soaring above the canopy of trees. It provided balance to an otherwise passive tightly controlled community.
His boyhood dream of working on the Spanish Galleons was soiled because their proliferation ended by the 1840s. Fewer ships sailed through the Philippines in his lifetime. The silver from Potosí was depleted and South America was becoming independent from Spain. So there was less incentive for merchants to trade between the New World and Manila. Besides, the Chinese had dominated trade in the South Pacific for centuries and the competition remained stiff.
Tomás and Bing-bing hunted less now too. They were becoming men and had to find more work. They had too much time to lie about in their sitio and childhood was no longer an excuse.
“So, what will you do, continue running errands for the gobernadorcillo?”
“They don’t use me regularly,” Tomás said.
“There’s jobs in logging, you’d like that, and it’s steady.”
“Perhaps.” Tomás looked out towards the water.
“I’m fishing more with cousins. You could work with us.”
“Logging sounds better.”
“Or you can cart goods, travel around.”
“Hmm, not my first choice, you know that.”
“Then go to Acapulco perhaps?”
“So I can cart goods there instead?”
“Well, what about the gold mines?”
Tomás sat up, “What gold mines?”
“They say there’s gold in northern Mexico. They say there’s lots of it and you don’t even need to go underground to find it.” News of gold had spread quickly from Manila down to the province of Tayabas.
“That sounds great Bing-bing. Ay, why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
Bing-bing just shrugged. He wasn’t intrigued by it, but he knew Tomás would be, that he would find out soon enough, that he might leave.
Tomás stood up. If he couldn’t explore the world on a galleon carrying silver, he would sail to Mexico for gold.
Bing-bing told him what little he knew. “So much gold, the land is hilly. Every hill is a pile of gold covered with a thin layer of dirt and grass. No more daydreaming for you.”
“But, that’s… tell me more.”
“That’s all I know. Come on let’s ask Pepe.” Tomás felt his adrenaline surge. They ran to his brother Felipe since he was well connected, working in the local port.
“It seems to be true,” he told them.
“So maybe they’ll replenish the galleons kuya, trading across the Pacific?”
“I hope so. We’ll see. Now’s your chance Tibay,” Felipe added. Tomás didn’t hesitate in making a decision. He was going. “The land with all the gold is called California,” Felipe added.
Tomás would brave a journey across the ocean to a foreign land, and strike it rich. And what better way to express his filial loyalty, than to risk it all to help provide for his relatives. He began to dream of the gold, the glory, and the newfound respect it would give him. It may even win the heart of Lela.
Maricela was his childhood sweetheart, or at least he thought of her that way. As a girl, friends called her Lela. She was considered a Mestizo de Sangley on account of her Chinese grandfather. She was the darling of the region; even the Spanish were enamored with her. She knew better though, for the Spanish usually had their stint in government and then moved on to something better. Or they were already married. She could be someone’s mistress with temporary privilege, but would risk losing her family’s status as landowners. Another mestizo might be the best opportunity for a husband. Then there was Tomás, who had always been around when she needed praise.
Tomás never ventured away from home before. It was foreigners who came to them. In addition to the sun-colored Chinese were the fair Spanish, the pale Dutchmen, sometimes a dark Indonesian. Their languages were different; their ways were different. He knew it could be difficult navigating in another world. The Spanish had established territories in New Spain though, so it should allow for an easy transition, once he got there. He spoke Spanish fluently. Bing-bing and his other friends wouldn’t dare do something so bold. All the better, he thought.