Sunday, June 24, 2007

Splintering Identity:Modes of Filipino Resitance under Colonial Repression

Bienvenido Lumbera
National Artist
Keynote Address, "Performing Ethnicity" Conference City College of the City University of New York
October 2004

At the close of the nineteenth century, the Revolution of 1896 gave birth to the first Asian republic that called itself "Republica de Filipinas." The Filipinos had fought a successful revolution against Spain, drawn up a republican constitution and set up a government to secure the freedom they had won against the empire that ruled them for over three hundred years.


"Republica de Filipinas" was a fragile identity, for in 1898 the republic was internally racked by conflict among the leaders of the Revolution (vacillating ilustrados vs. dedicated nationalists), and troubled by anxieties raised by the presence in Manila of American troops that had settled in the city after defeating the Spaniards in the mock battle of Manila Bay. When the Treaty of Paris was concluded in late 1898, Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States for $20 million without the participation in the talks of the party most concerned, the Republic of the Philippines.

This paper recounts the American campaign to erase the identity of the Republic and the Filipinos' resistance to the U.S. imperial design the Treaty of Paris had set into motion. The resistance began a bitterly-fought military confrontation that by 1901 had lost its power center when General Emilio Aguinaldo, President of the Republic, was captured by the Americans in Palanan, Isabela, on 7 April 1901. From this date on, the struggle, without a center that would guide its course, was pursued on the patriotic initiative of scattered groups and intrepid individuals in a heroic but losing battle to keep intact the identity of the Republica de Filipinas. The divisive tactics of the U.S. colonial government and the resistance put up in various forms by Filipino artists from 1899 to 1941 will be the substance of the presentation that will follow.

At the outset, it must be emphasized that what official American documents habitually call "insurrection" was actually a war between a fledgling republic and a highly industrialized nation carving an imperial niche among the Western colonial powers at the turn of the century. A skirmish at a bridge in the outskirts of Manila on 7 February 1899 began the armed confrontation.


The confrontation between Aguinaldo's republic and President McKinley's imperial state was a contest heavily weighted against the Filipinos. To begin with, Aguinaldo had allowed himself to be taken in by American protestations of friendship and had consigned the siege of the city of Manila to the U.S. forces. When the Spaniards later surrendered Manila to the Americans, General Wesley Merritt then proclaimed America's intention to occupy Spain's former colony as its booty for victory in the Spanish-American War.

Cheated of final and conclusive victory over the Spanish colonizers, the army of the Republic, after a costly opening battle in Manila, retreated towards the mountains of northern Luzon while engaging the American troops in many fronts as guerrilla units. But the Filipino firepower was not equal to artillery bombardment and machineguns, and in a matter of months, armed resistance began to wane. Defections to the American side were induced by surrender and collaboration by elite leaders from Aguinaldo's cabinet who, in the early stages of the Revolution, had commanded respect as shapers of policy. The struggle continued, but by 1907, the execution of General Macario Sakay, supremo of the Republika ng Katagalugan in Southern Luzon now labeled "bandit" by American law, might be said to have put an end to organized armed resistance. The year 1907 was also the year when the Philippine Assembly was established by the Americans as an auxiliary lawmaking body subordinated to the American-dominated Philippine Commission from which over-all control of the colony emanated. Consisting of political leaders coming from the native socio-economic elite, the Philippine Assembly was U.S. colonialism's alleged concession to the people's agitation for "immediate independence."

An amalgam of racism, Macchiavellian politics, cultural ethnocentrism, naked economic opportunism and muscle-flexing imperial ambition dictated the American take-over of Cuba and the Philippines. Early in the agenda in running the Philippine colony was depriving the republic of its identity as an independent state. The non-inclusion of the republic in the negotiations for the Treaty of Paris was an indicative first step. In the eyes of the international community, the U.S. wanted to establish that it had simply acquired a territory, not arbitrarily grabbed a legitimate state.

Once the occupation of the Philippines had been sanctioned by the U.S. Congress, the colonial government proceeded to enact laws that punished any assertion by its supporters of the identity of the Republic. In 1901, in provisions meant to cover every act, whether in utterance, print or performance, that would advocate independence or separation from the U.S., the Sedition Law prescribed death or prolonged imprisonment for any person convicted of taking the side of the Republic against the colonial government. In 1902, the Bandolerismo Statute prohibited membership in any armed band, conniving or abetting "ladrones," and prescribed 10-20 years of imprisonment convicted of the stated offense. The law blurred any distinction between bandit groups and political organizations, the intention being to put in social disrepute or moral opprobrium anyone associated with an armed group. Repression of sympathizers of the Republic, whether active or passive, was the objective of the Reconcentration Act of 1903 which authorized the relocation of entire rural communities into towns to deny cover for rebels in the countryside. The law would encourage village people to denounce individuals or groups whose presence in the community might cause the "reconcentration" of the population in places away from their place of work or their work animals. But four years after the Reconcentration Statute was imposed, public expression of nationalism persisted in spite of harsh laws. The Flag Law of 1907 was passed and penalized the display of flags, banners, emblems or devices that might incite insurrection or rebellion against the U.S. Included in the prohibitions was the display of Katipunan flags, emblems or devices, the better to insure that memories of the struggle for the republic would be obliterated.

The year of the Flag Law and the Sakay execution was also the year of the establishment of the Philippine Assembly. The colonial government at the very outset had relied on defectors among the elite from the Republic to rally support for its continued control of the country. The Assembly was indeed the U.S. prize for the Filipino elite class for its participation in the political formation of the colony. Writing in The Filipino Reaction to American Rule 1901-1913, Dr. Bonifacio S. Salamanca notes that "the Philippine Assembly may be considered as an oligarchic body representing the dominant and leading families in the Philippines" (p.55-56), adding that its members "were elected by at most only three per cent of the population, could hardly be considered truly representative in the strict sense of the word."

Thus, even as the Philippine Assembly has been generally seen by certain Filipino historians as a significant step towards independence, it requires to be looked at as a colonial institution that is part and parcel of the American design of splintering the national identity of Filipinos. Its role in colonial administration was to demonstrate U.S. class bias for the educated, wealthy and traditional propertied leadership vis-à-vis the masses who composed the bulk of the forces of the Republic in the struggle against Spain. In brief, from 1907 onwards, "Filipinos" were the members of the elite who served as native signature models of the colonial order under the Americans.

Education, in the form of the public school system, is another much-lauded colonial project that pointed to the democratization of Philippine society. Indeed, it was the gate of opportunity for every Filipino, regardless of economic status, to avail of opportunities for social mobility. But it was a colonial project nevertheless, and the advantages it offered to Filipinos must be referred to the colonial objective of erasing the identity of the Republic at the back of the resistance that continued to plague American rule especially in the first two decades of the occupation. The public school system came with English as medium of instruction. Thus, the democratizing potential of the public school system was blunted by a language policy that put a premium on the use of the language of the colonizing power in acquiring an education. The language policy reduced the numerous Philippine languages to the status of "vernaculars/dialects," highlighting the multiplicity of Philippine languages and the linguistic divisions that regionalized ethnic cultures. With the native languages effectively downgraded, the culture and history embedded in them were suppressed and the consciousness of the youth in the schools was laid open for infusion of the alienating cultural load of the English language. The longer a Filipino would stay on in the educational system, the deeper the values of colonial culture would seep into his consciousness. The outcome in the long run was a society sharply divided between a privileged class buoyed by wealth and a borrowed culture and a class of impoverished citizens thriving on the trickle-down residues of elite culture and value system.

The St. Louis Exposition of 1904 that our conference commemorates has been read as the grandiosely grand material display of the wealth and power of imperial United States of America. It was a dream then and also a prediction that America of the turn of the 20th century would emerge in the next millennium as a world empire whose boundaries extend beyond geographical boundaries. For the Filipinos in the beginning of the twentieth century, it was a mind-boggling reminder of the might of the colonial power engaged in subduing all assertions that the Republica de Filipinas was an independent state and the splinters of its identity could be retrieved.

As displayed in the international exhibition, the Philippine colony was by design made to seem like a disparate mass of people belonging to distinct ethnic groups each of which was under guard by security officers needed allegedly to forestall any eruption of conflict among the groups. The Philippine Reservation, billed as the Expositions's center piece, cost over a million dollars and contained "75,000 catalogued exhibits and 1, 100 representatives of the different peoples of the archipelago" consisting of "18 Tinguians, 30 Bagobos, 70 Bontoc Igorots, 20 Suyoc Igorots, 38 Negritos and Mangyans, 79 Visayans, and 80 Moros." (Quoted in Displaying Filipinos: Photography and Colonialism in Early 20th Century Philippines (U.P. Press, 1995), by Bernardo M. Vergara, Jr., p 112) The representation of the inhabitants of the country was doubtless intended to put to rest any speculation outside the colony that what America had taken over was an integral state.


After the fall of Aguinaldo, resistance to U.S. colonialism kept up but this time without the direction laid down by a central government. This meant that individuals and groups often resisted the American agenda based on sometimes impulse-driven initiatives. The colonial machinery was already in place, and this stage sustaining resistance was taken up by creative artists, most effectively by those in performance arts like poetry, music and theater.
In Theater. Three plays from the period historian Teodoro Agoncillo had called "era of suppressed nationalism" represent the most confrontational of the forms of resistance by artists. "Kahapon, Ngayon at Bukas" (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, 1903) by Aurelio Tolentino present Ynangbayan (Motherland) ang Tagailog (Man of the River or the Tagalog) as central figures in an allegory of the Filipino encounters with the colonial regimes of Spain and America. Featuring incendiary dialogue inciting characters representing the Filipino masses to overthrow colonial authorities, the play was closed down on opening night by the colonial military, and the cast and the playwright were jailed. Particularly provocative was a scene in which the hero Tagailog, breaking out of prison, burns the face of an enemy soldier he has killed whom he intended to be mistaken as the dead Tagailog. Later in the plot enemy soldiers talk about the ghost of Tagailog leading rebel attacks, and audiences were then reminded that the Katipunan in the person of Tagailog was very much alive in spite of laws like the Sedition Act prohibiting references to the revolutionary association.
A similar situation was in "Hindi Aco Patay" (I Am Not Dead, 1903) by Juan Matapang Cruz. A revolutionary who is alleged to have died in battle is carried in a bier in a procession. Tangulan (Defender) at the climax of play rises from the coffin and shouts out, "I am not dead!" In "Tanikalang Guinto" (Golden Chain, 1903), playwright Juan Abad shows in his concluding scene the character representing America being dragged off to his grave by Death while the spirit of Kaulayaw (Lover), who is the Katipunan rebel, is crowned with flowers in heaven. Needless to say, Abad was arrested, fined and jailed.
In Music. Traditional fondness for music among Filipinos made the song an effective art form for communicating the message of love of country. Composer Nicanor Abelardo's "Mutya ng Pasig" (Deity of the Pasig River, 1920) is a composition in the classic mode by an eminent composer in the 1920s. The lyrics by poet and fictionist Deogracias A. Rosario speaks of a deity who lost the realm over which she reigned when she lost her lover. In the song, the deity demands that her lover be brought back so that she would continue to live, the implied narrative being a lament for the loss of freedom with the deity representing a dying Motherland.

The title of the zarzuela "Lakangbini" (Queen of Deities, 1920) refers to the nom de guerre of Andres Bonifacio's wife Gregoria. Bonifacio Abdon's "Kundiman" (Love Song) is an aria in which a lover sings about a fabled land and invokes the lovely deity who alone could restore the beauty of the realm. Patricio Mariano's lyrics refer explicitly to his native country so there is no mistaking the nationalist content of the song and its longing for freedom. Composer Constancio de Guzman and poet Jose Corazon de Jesus in 1928 collaborated on the song "Bayan Ko" (My Country) about a rich and beautiful country under captivity. A caged bird flapping its wings in frustrated flight is the lyricist's dramatic metaphor for a people in fetters and chafing for freedom. The song closes with the people's fervent hope of witnessing soon the country's total liberation.

In Poetry. Jose Corazon de Jesus and Amado V. Hernandez are the quintessential artists of a time looking forward to the day of the country's liberation. De Jesus in 1928 wrote a romantic verse narrative on the Filipino quest for freedom under Spain and under the U.S. "Sa Dakong Silangan" (Where the East Lies) tells in allegorical terms the story of King Pilipo (Filipino) and his rescue of Queen Malaya (Freedom) from the prison where Spain had confined her, only to find his kingdom taken over by America. Framed in the genre that the classic nineteenth century Tagalog poet Francisco Balagtas had used for his "Florante at Laura" (Florante and Laura, ca. 1838), "Sa Dakong Silangan" gains in cultural and political relevance by shunning the earlier poem's happy ending. De Jesus' narrative closes with the arrival of "a king from the West" named Samuel who wears a cape "full of stars" and has come to help King Pilipo's kingdom regain its freedom. The visiting king overstays, occupies King Pilipo's throne and does not want to go home. De Jesus concluding stanzas address the youth of the land who are tasked to "seek freedom through the book or the sword."

In earlier years, the explicitness of the poem would have caused the poet's incarceration. Perhaps it is an index to the achieved stability of the colonial order in the late 1920s that De Jesus could be openly subversive and yet escape reprisal from the Americans. Similarly, Amado V. Hernandez in the poem "Kung Tuyo Na ang Luha Mo, Aking Bayan" (When Your Tears Have Dried Up, My Beloved Country, 1930) was free to imply, even advocate, the use of bullets to break the fetters of the Motherland. Hernandez's metaphorical frame opens with a depiction of the country as a woman ever in tears over the loss of her freedoms and wealth. The woman is urged to shed all her tears until her eyes begin to weep blood and her blood turns into molten steel. Then she will let out a scream and she will use bullets to break her "ancient chain." Perhaps, on second thought, it is not the stability of colonial rule that is the reason for governmental tolerance, but the perception by the colonial authorities that the native demand for independence after two decades of suppression would have to be satisfied sooner than later.

Balagtasan is a poetic contest invented by a gathering of poets brainstorming on a commemorative program to honor Francisco "Balagtas" Baltazar on the 62nd anniversary of the poet's death. The contest involves two poets who take opposing viewpoints on a topic commonly agreed upon and is performed before an audience which is usually asked to decide which poet, through his verbal wit, reasoning and oral delivery, has been most persuasive. In 1929, the poets De Jesus and Hernandez tangled in a joust in print, each one writing in his column in the newspaper where he was employed (De Jesus was running a verse column in Taliba titled "Mga Lagot na Bagting ng Kudyapi" [Broken Strings of a Guitar]; Hernandez in his column in Pagkakaisa titled "Sariling Hardin" [My Own Garden]) on the topic of "Philippine Independence." The exchange of arguments lasted for over a month, with De Jesus arguing for "immediate independence" in nine installments, and Hernandez for "autonomy" also in nine installments. Unlike in the usual oral balagtasan, there was no judging as to the winner of the joust, although it was clear that the colorful verbal assaults and emotive rhetoric of De Jesus consistently put Hernandez on the defensive and placed him in the ranks of collaborationist ilustrados. That the issue of independence could be openly discussed in print once again demonstrated that the colonial government could no longer suppress the expression and profession of Filipino nationalism in 1929.

In Fiction. Resistance in fiction as represented by three novels suggests the same development in the practice of the Tagalog novel. Banaag at Sikat (Dawn and Plain Daylight, 1904) by Lope K. Santos is about the rising dominance of capitalism and modernist values in a feudal society, with two pairs of lovers representing the response of youth to the changing times. The young newspaperman Delfin who espouses socialist politics has won the heart of Meni, daughter of one of the prominent capitalists in the country. On the other hand, Felipe, scion of a wealthy provincial landlord-owner of a vast coconut plantation, is an anarchist whose sweetheart Tentay is from the slums, daughter of a sickly factory worker. Santos prescinds from a critique of the role of Americans in Philippine society, but his depiction of the capitalist economy in the colony and the moral corruption it has bred among the upper classes is itself a denunciation of the colonial order. In the final chapter, Delfin and Felipe, along with their wives, reject the money and lifestyle of their respective families. A youth who witnesses such steadfast fidelity to political convictions extolls them as precursors of deliverance dawning upon his native land.
A novel by Faustino Aguilar shares Santos' socialist leaning but is more explicit than Santos in his denunciation of American colonialism. Pinaglahuan (Overcome by Darkness, 1907) has an American capitalist significantly named Killsberg who whose false testimony causes the incarceration of the hero Luis Gat-Dula, a member of the union of workers in his carriage factory. As a prisoner, Luis is fatally hurt by an accidental explosion while working at a road construction. While dying, he sees in the distance a fire that has broken out in a Manila district and imagines the conflgration that one day would herald mankind's liberation from injustice and oppression. Bayang Nagpatiwakal (The Town that Committed Suicide, 1932) by Lazaro Francisco tells about a provincial town that is obviously an allegorical portrayal of a Philippines supine under U.S. colonial hegemony. Javier Santos, a native capitalist, finds himself unable to compete with an American capitalist whose business is well-patronized by the townspeople. He burns down his establishment and disappears from the town. In time, he comes back disguised as a foreign businessman who goes by the name of Rei Vajt Ossan, sets up a business complex that successfully drives the American out of business. Ossan's exploitative profiteering at the expense of the townspeople pushes local businessmen to pool their money together and buy out the foreigner. Ossan then leaves the town without revealing his identity. He has taught the townspeople a lesson in nationalism and business. Francisco's Bayang Nagpatiwakal was addressed to a popular audience (it was serialized in a weekly popular magazine) and its message about colonialism and business was a blow for nationalist economic planning.


The splintering policies the colonial government had a lingering effect on the consciousness of the generation who came of age during the American Occupation and the generations that followed. The Sedition Law, the Reconcentration Statute, the Bandolerismo Law and the Flag Law were clear-cut in their objective of naked display of power. In criminalizing any attempt to assert the identity of the Republic, the laws were a demonstration of who was in control in the colony. At the same time, they imposed a taint on the spirit of resistance, making it "irresponsible," "shameful," even "ignoble" to protest against duly constituted authorities in the colony. Members of the native elite who were most conscious of their social status could not but be intimidated by this threat of tainting.

It was, however, measures with ambiguous intent that sank deep roots in the consciousness of the elite. These were the establishment of the Philippine Assembly and the installation of English as the medium of instruction in Philippine schools. Both measures combined the repressive with the benevolent. On the one hand, the Philippine Assembly sealed the partnership of the ilustrados and the colonizers in the management of the colony. On the other, it was a project that effectively squelched the cry for "immediate independence" which might revive the issue of a power grab that could make the U.S. appear as an aggressor.

When the colonial authorities decreed that English be the medium o instruction in the schools, the move was made to seem like a generous gesture, a marked contrast to the policy of Spanish colonizers of denying natives access to the world of knowledge that offered the possibility of liberation. But American generosity was lined with repressive power, for in time educated Filipinos who learned to think and express themselves in English would unawares begin to think and express themselves as Americans. The Filipino-American War was fought because a people in the course of their struggle against Spanish oppression had earned for themselves their identity as "Filipinos" and wanted other peoples to recognize them as such. Another Western power came and would deny that a Republic, the Republica de Filipinas, was already in existence when it paid for the territory that Spain had already lost. Colonial policies splintered the identity of the people and the Republic, and the movement to retrieve the pieces and reconstruct that identity all over again continues to this very hour, and the consciousness that is giving it shape is no longer exclusively that of the elite. ###

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