There’s a story about Nick Joaquin that’s been going around the creative writing circle for as long as I can remember. It’s said that during a writer’s workshop, the National Artist got so annoyed at a participant’s work that he allegedly told the poor workshop fellow that they should stop writing and just “go home and plant kamote.”

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

I don’t know if this story is true, but I first heard it in college as an example of how mercurial Joaquin was and how rigorous that specific writing workshop can be. Even then, the anecdote didn’t sit well with me. Why was farming used as an insult? And why is kamote something to be ashamed of?

It’s ironic and highly worrying that a country that prides itself on its agricultural heritage also uses farming images as insults. By allegedly saying “go home and plant kamote,” Joaquin was saying that the writer had no talent and should just farm. Not only is this a horrible way to encourage a young writer, it also propagates the notion that farming is easy, farming is undesirable, and farming is beneath writing. I may not be a National Artist, but I disagree with points one and three.

Farming is not easy. It doesn’t have to be excessively difficult either, but it is not the smooth sailing simple life that a lot of media (I’m looking at you, Amorsolo) makes it out to be. Running a farm is running a business, one that is highly dependent on nature. To be a farmer is to be very comfortable with uncertainty. One typhoon could wipe out months of hard work.

The statement implies that farming is beneath writing, another thing that I, a writer, disagree with. Think of it this way: in every apocalypse film, what is the first thing people establish to survive? Farms. Every human being needs food to survive. Ergo, every human being is dependent on those that produce food. Only the privileged can afford to consider farmers dispensable and given the climate crisis, not many will be privileged in that way for long.

Unfortunately, there is some truth to farming being undesirable. So many people equate farming with poverty, and who can blame them? Farmers remain one of the poorest sectors in the Philippines. If this trend continues, our already shaky food security status is going to get even worse.

Though I don’t see people using “go home and plant kamote,” or even “utak kamote” (to denote stupidity, though I’m old enough to actually have had it used on me) anymore, there’s another farming-themed insult still in vogue. “Hampaslupa,” or if someone wants to be fancy, “slapsoil,” means someone poor, and has been a favorite word of Pinoy contrabidas since the 80s.

It’s taken from the words “hampas” (slap) and “lupa” (soil) and refers to how farmers prepare soil for planting. Since many of our TV and film dramas tend to have a classist bent and because of this, the bad guys tend to look down on the poor, that they would call the hero a name associated with tilling the land makes narrative sense. However, the public has taken the wrong message from it, and instead of wanting to emulate the good guy, aspire to be the contrabida instead. Not that I blame them. Contrabidas are often good looking. They get the most lavish lifestyles and the best lines. They are depicted as having no material problems at all, which, in today’s economy, is something everyone (justifiably) aspires to have. However, that they look down on farmers should be seen as something to despise them for, not copy.

These examples may just be words, but words are important. Words have power. In occult traditions, knowing the name of a demon gives one power over them. It’s kind of the same case here. Using insults are undesirably linked to farming is putting down the whole industry in the mindset of society. You may not think about where the term hampaslupa comes from, but your subconscious does, and because of this, your subconscious learns to look down on farmers, making you look down on farmers without being aware of it. Now multiply that by the entire Philippines. No wonder the industry continues to suffer.

Everyone knows that farmers are some of the poorest Filipinos, but no one is interested in changing the system that keeps them that way. Buying local is a start, but its roots are more systemic than that. The regular citizen may not have the means to enact laws, but they have the means to watch what they say. Speaking favorably of farmers colloquially may not look like much, but it has repercussions that span generations.