Monday, November 20, 2017
Re-visiting Carlos Bulosan
E. San Juan, Jr., Carlos Bulosan:
Revolutionary Filipino Writer in the United States
A Critical Appraisal
New York: Peter Lang, 2107
Carlos Bulosan: Revolutionary Writer in the United States is part of a project destined for the world’s libraries of the 21st Century. With its colorful cover and solid binding, it has the number 12 on the spine, indicating its sequence in the multi-volume project: Narrative, Dialogue, and the Political Production of Meaning, co-edited by Michael Peters and Peter McLaren.
The project underscores the importance of language that enables discourse and produces meaning. It is well to recall that when the Founding Fathers altered the tripartite goal of “life, liberty, and property” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the “meaning” of America was born and, along with it, the ideology of a monotheistic Deity.
E. San Juan’s Carlos Bulosan exemplifies the guiding philosophy of the series. Co-editor McLaren considers him “one of the leading public intellectuals of the United States,” and his engagement with Bulosan “magisterial” (p. xiii). McLaren reaffirms the contemporary relevance of Bulosan, “now a central figure in Asian America history,” and the “need to recover the submerged insurrectionary impulses in Bulosan’s discourse” (p. xi). San Juan attempts to fulfill that need in this “Critical Appraisal.”
San Juan distills the research and commentaries on the revolutionary writer, and presents his observations in sections or essays with catchy titles, e.g. “Point Counterpoint: Retrospective Beginning,” and “Witnessing Swerve.” Each essay produces a meaning or knowledge that serves to correct misguided or uninformed opinions, and initiate further discourse that, in turn, may produce more meanings. Take for example the entry “The Plagiarism Perplex,” (68) a topic that interests me. From this article, I can design “a great chain of reading,” (The New Yorker, 16 October ’17, p. 79), and link Bulosan to luminaries, such as Wallace Stegner and Martin Luther King, also touched by the same issue.
San Juan is most responsible for Bulosan’s canonization, the inclusion of his oeuvre in required readings in colleges and universities, e.g., The Heath Anthology of American Literature (2004). America is in the Heart, however, has been a staple of Asian American and Philippine Studies worldwide. San Juan accepts “blame” for starting the Bulosan trend (industry?) with his first book on him in 1972, and co-editing, with Russell Leong, an issue of Amerasia Journal (May 1979) devoted to Bulosan.
I owe San Juan a debt of gratitude for enlightening my colonial mentality. In the anthology, Sabong: Stories, Etc. (2015), and in the forthcoming “Spots of Time: Memoir of a Mind,” I document my evolving (self-knowledge of having a colonial or post-colonial mind-set. In May 1977, I published “From Colonial to Beleaguered Mentality: Busing and the Filipino American,” and in October 2012, I presented a paper at the Michigan State University Conference on Philippine Studies, entitled “The Diplopic Consciousness of Overseas Filipino Writers.”
I commend San Juan for re-visiting Carlos Bulosan, especially to colleagues and institutions in the Philippines with preconceived labels, e.g., “Marxist,” or “Socialist.” NVM Gonzalez once told me that he did not understand San Juan. If NVM read this book now, I’m quite sure he’d change his mind. (He died in November 1999.) The prose is as lucid as the best of NVM’s, and the logic much persuasive. To quote myself, “San Juan writes poetry in Filipino and polemics in English. He has the sensibility of a poet and the driving logic of a committed polemicist” (Sabong, 166).
Paulino Lim is a professor emeritus of English California State University, Long Beach.
Posted by Sonny San Juan at 6:03 AM
Saturday, November 04, 2017
CHARTING THE EMERGENCE OF THE NATIONAL-POPULAR IMAGINATION IN
THE PHILIPPINES (1896-1940)
by E. San Juan, Jr.
Polytechnic University of the Philippines
We did what we ourselves had decided upon—as free people, and power resides
in the people. What we did was our heritage…We decided to rebel, to rise up and strike down the
sources of power. I said, “We are Sakdals…No uprising fails. Each one is a step in the right
—Salud Algabre, a leader of the Sakdalista Uprising, 1935
Writers are, by the nature of their chosen task, the spearhead of progress. They voice the
grievances as well as the aspirations of a nation; they document its achievements; they treasure
for posterity the worthwhile efforts of man. They are the critics of things as they are; they are the
dreamers of things as they should be; they cannot escape a large part of the responsibiility for the
shape of things to come.
—Resolution of the First Filipino Writers Conference, 25 February 1940;
Philippine Writers League
Of all theoretical concepts dominating global exchanges, nationalism has proved
the most contentious and intractable. A wise commentator from Cambridge UK, John
Dunn, has probably seized the twin horns of the dilemma underlying the phenomenon.
He diagnosed contemporary nationalism as “a moral scandal because the official ethical
culture of almost the entire world is a universalist ethical culture.” Despite this, he
locates its efficacy in its paradoxical situation: “If democracy is the resolved mystery of
all constitutions, nationalism is perhaps the resolved mystery of all boundaries in a
world which is densely practically related across boundaries—a world of international
exchange and drastically unequal power and enjoyment” (1979, 62). Precisely this
international linkages would be inconceivable without the persistence of nations, or
nation-states, sanctified in Woodrow Wilson’s proposal to affirm the right of selfdetermination
for all nations, at least those already extant, but not for peoples under
colonial rule or about to be annexed.
Dunn’s Eurocentric view seems unconscionable in light of the emergence of
socialist nation-states such as China, Cuba, Algeria, Vietnam. We understand that Dunn
was addressing the excesses of Nazi racial nationalism, while ignoring the British
Empire’s claim to moral superiority and Europe’s ascendancy over people of color in
Africa, Asia and Latin America. We need to be reminded that Rudyard Kipling’s famous
poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” was a triumphallist apology for US troops marching
into the islands and civilizing those uncouth, sullen Filipinos. Since the Filipino
American War of 1899-1913, the yet “uncivilized” masses of Guinea-Bissau and Cape
Verde Islands, to cite just one instance, have begun to build their nation on the ruins of
the Portuguese empire in 1974, a year before the victory of the Vietnamese over the US
empire and its surrogates (Davis 1978).
President Wilson’s “14 Points” proposal came with the breaking-up of the Austro-
Hungarian Empire in 1918. It offered breathing space for tribal groups in Africa, as well
as a motive or rationale to discover a self, a political medium or state, which can
undergo a “recognizable process of self-determination”. Such aspiration is supposed to
be a political reaction to the Napoleonic conquest of Europe, but surely it preceded
Napoleon. Nations such as France or England had long realized such aspiration
“grounded in some existing sentiment of national or racial identity associated with
common territory, language or religion—to form its own sovereign state and to govern
itself” (Scruton 1982, 421). Following this model, the break-up of the Spanish Empire in
the 19th century led to the formation of Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, Peru, and Mexico
in the South American wars of independence. Led by creoles disillusioned with
theocratic colonialism, the various nationalities or ethnic communities revolted not so
much in the name of national self-determination but with the ideals of the Frencn
revolution—“liberty, equality, fraternity”—in mind.
Clearly, as Lenin once put it, we need to distinguish the “nationalism” of the
oppressed peoples against the jingoist/chauvinist “nationalism” of the oppressor nation
(Lenin 1968; San Juan 2002). This is due to the geopolitical law of unequal and uneven
development between metropolitan powers and subordinate, peripheral formations (for
a succinct formulation, see Harvey 1977). In this context, it might be heuristic to pose
the following inquiry. Was the Spanish colony in 1899, about to be annexed by the
United States, just “an imagined community,” as Benedict Anderson (1983) would label
it? Was it an artifice simply generated by print capitalism and commercial exchange
which triggered consent from the letrado minority? Or was it, in Eric Hosbawm’s (1994)
phrase, an “invented tradition”? Or was the Filipino “nation” a process of active genesis
with plural components, not ethnic purity, as the active catalyzer for the national-popular
patria? This “nation” seems to be still undergoing neocolonial metamorphosis today.
Arguably we find elements of all these in analyzing nation-formation as a
collective, heterogeneous process. Print culture certainly displaced orature and
ritualized speech-acts when the galleon trade ended in 1815 and the country was
opened to international trade. But it was not books or printed manifestoes that marked
the advent of integral if syncretic consciousness; it was a rebellion. The consensus is
that the Cavite Mutiny of 1872, the sacrifice of three priests involved in the
secularization movement ushered a widespread consciousness of shared identity.
Rizal, Mabini, and others confirm this view. Renato Constantino sums up this
conjuncture: “Where the concept of Filipino used to have a racial and later a cultural
limitation, the repression that followed the Cavite mutiny made the three racial groups—
creoles, mestizos and natives—join hands and become conscious of their growing
development as a Filipino nation” (1975, 143). Thus, it was the experience of a
“common historical fate” or destiny (Bauer, quoted in Lowy 1998, 46; see also Davis
1978) and the constellation of responses that midwived Filipino nationalism, not print
technology and its bourgeois mediators that spelled the difference.
The 1896 revolution against Spain was initially a product of Filipino creolized
ilustrados, foremost of whom were Jose Rizal, Graciano Lopez Jaena, and Marcelo del
Pilar. In Barcelona and Madrid, the propagandists collaborated on the newspaper La
Solidaridad in 1889. Using Spanish, their declared aspirations were universalistic, not
particularistic, namely: “to combat reaction, to stop all retrogressive steps, to extol and
adopt liberal ideas, to defend progress; in a word, to be a propagandist, above all, of
democratic ideas in order to make these supreme in all nations here and across the
seas” (Agoncillo and Guerrero 1970, 143). There was no mention of a common
language, distinct territory, cohesive economic unit—the prime characteristics of a
nation, not of a tribal or racial assemblage.
The Spanish colony then was an assemblage of feudal-managed haciendas,
scattered ethnolinguistic communities dominated by the Church. The secularist
reformers espoused democratic, libertarian principles. If we follow the classic Marxist
formula, they should have demanded the creation of a national market for a
homogeneous population. Even when Rizal initiated La Liga Filipina to replace the
periodical, the focus transcended the cultural or ethnic qualities of “peoples without a
history” (to use Engel’s phrase) destined to extinction or incorporation by a larger
superior group. The Liga aimed to “unite the whole archipelago into one compact,
vigorous and homogeneous body,” provide “mutual protection” and “defense against all
violence and injustice” (Agoncillo and Guerrero 1970, 156). In effect, Rizal expressed a
revolutionary aim by envisaging the creation of a separate, independent social order,
overthrowing the colonial polity.
Andres Bonifacio was one of the original members of the Liga. With the Liga
proscribed, Bonifacio and others organized the Katipunan. Using Tagalog—the native
tongue of the central provinces of Luzon—they articulated the political goal of
separation from Spain, the moral objective of individual rational autonomy, and the civic
ideal of defending the poor and oppressed. Following the credo of mutual aid and
reciprocity, the Katipunan vowed to pay the funeral expenses of it members to undercut
the exorbitant fees of the Church. It demonstrated the dialectic of universal ideals and
concrete action in the process of fashioning a new nation.
One Divides Into Two
Given the anticolonial thrust of the 1896 revolution led by the Katipunan, Filipino
nationalism from its beginning was forged from a national-popular matrix. It was national
in ascribing to the subjugated Indios, the native inhabitants, a cluster of singular
qualities: fraternal sharing of goods, commitment to promises, faith in the enslaved
subalterns’ wisdom and power to create a prosperous, free future. This is the message
of Bonifacio’s manifesto, “Ang Dapat Mabatid ng mga Tagalog”: “Panahun na nagging
dapat na lumitaw and liwanag ng katotohanan, panahon na dapat nating ipakilala na
tayo’y may sariling pagdaramdam, may puri, may hiya at pagdadamayan….Kaya o mga
kababayan! ating idilat and bulag na kaisipan at kusang igugol sa kagalingan ang ating
lakas sa tunay at lubos na pag-asa na mag tagumpay sa nilalayong kaguinhawahan ng
bayang tinubuan” (Agoncillo 1963, 69). From this perspective, one can infer that the
nation being formed will be rooted in the dynamic relations of oppressed, toiling subjects
who have become conscious of their collective plight and, in forging solidarity, begun to
to fashion a liberated future.
Despite the defeat of the Ilustrado-compromised Malolos Republic, and the
capture of the Katipunan-inspired General Sakay, I would argue that Filipino nationalism
preserved its national-popular kernel up to the outbreak of World War II. This implies an
organic connection between intellectuals, the pedagogical agents of knowledge, and the
the affective-feeling sensibility of the masses that can be mobilized for structural
change. The peasant majority and its offshoot, the middle stratum of craftworkers and
pettybourgois traders, supplied the organic intellectuals of the nascent body politic.
The revolution of 1896 survived in underground and legal struggles.
Bonifacio and the inheritors of the Enlightenment tradition—Isabelo de los Reyes, Tagalog writers
Faustino Aguilar, Jose Corazon de Jesus, and Benigno Ramos, as well as the partisans
of the Philippine Writers League—continued to define the parameters of national
becoming. The anti-imperialist intelligentsia endeavored to synthesize universal
knowledge and local sentiments into a “structure of feeling” (Williams 1961) capable of
mobilizing the masses. The Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci conceived of the reciprocal
interaction between understanding (intellectual) and feeling (the grassroots
constituency) as the foundation of the emergent nation. Writers using the vernacular
proved to be the most effective builders of this shared, communicated “structure of
The failure of the 1896 revolution sharpened the social division of labor, with the
US occupation destroying the productive linkages of family, village and kindred
institutions. The crisis widened the division between city and countryside. Filipino
nationalists tried to resolve their historical predicament by “feeling the elementary
passions of the people, understanding them and therefore explaining and justifying
them in the particular historical situation and connecting them dialectically to the laws of
history and to a superior conception of the world, scientifically and coherently
elaborated-i.e. knowledge” (Gramsci 1971, 418). Thus the revolutionary artists’ project
of historicizing emotional patterns was translated into the task of constructing the
hegemonic (moral-intellectual) leadership of the working class, in alliance with the
peasantry, as the foundation of the emerging Filipino nation (San Juan 2015).
Folk and Proletarian Synergesis
The intellectual practice of Isabelo de los Reyes exemplifies an early attempt to
bridge thought and feeling in quest of a hypothetical nation. Only a sketch of his
complex career can be given here to indicate one example of a nation-building project
(see Mojares 2006; Scott 1982; Anderson 2005).
In 1889 Reyes launched the first vernacular newspaper in the Philippines, El
Ilocano. Pursuing the historiographic recovery embodied in Rizal’s annotations on
Morga’s Sucesos and his recuperation of native poetics, Reyes’ ethnographic
researches—El Folklore Filipino (1889) and Historia de Ilocos (1890) strove to articulate
an identity rooted in specific localities across temporal divides. But, for our purposes, it
was his prison memoirs in Spanish, La Sensacional Memoria sobre la Revolucion
Filipina (1899), and his attack on American imperialism, Independencia y Revolution
(1900), that reinscribed the Katipunan tradition in the annals of labor organizing. In
February 1902, Reyes founded the first labor union under American occupation, Union
Obrera Democratica Filipina; he also edited the first labor-union newspaper, La
Redencion del Obrero. Engaged in the debate on class and national concerns, Reyes
also operated in the ethico-ideological domain of struggle. He collaborated with Father
Gregorio Aglipay in launching the nationalist-oriented Philippine Independent Church
with trade-union members as core followers. Reyes distinguished himself at this time
by spearheading a general strike of factory workers and farm tenants against American
business firms and friar-owned haciendas for which then governor William Taft had to
call the U.S. cavalry to disperse the crowd (Zaide 1970, 461).
Class struggle nourished the national-popular organism in insurrectionary praxis,
a synthesis of economic and political activities in civic society. By deploying flexible
organizing modes, Reyes’ actualized an inchoate theory of radical nationalism that
coalesced national, class, and religious sentiments. His links with rural and urban
agitation provided the catharsis of the economic to the political, the strategic and tactical
requirements, of the campaign against colonial rule. He fused dialectically the particular
nativist elements of culture with universal notions of proletarian emancipation derived
from the socialist and arnarchist movements of Europe. It was Reyes’ activism that relocated
the emergent nation in the arena of the class war against the landlordcomprador
bloc and its American sponsors. In vindicating the ideals of the Katipunan (in
his book Religion of the Katipunan), Reyes suggested that their ultimate goal was really
a “communist republic” (Werning 2011, 88).
Reyes was a political realist, not a doctrinaire syndicalist, so that he participated
in electoral-parliamentary struggles from 1922 to 1928. While his belief in the value of
popular knowledge and other indigenous practices cannot be over-emphasized, or
made polysemous to erase the gap between the universal and particular, it would be
disingenous to overlook his dependence on the virtues of conceptual elaboration
inspired by Proudhon, Bakunin, Marx, and others in the socialist archive. Such a
“problematic indigenism’ “ (Mojares 2006, 363) needs to be dialectically configured with
his intimate associations with versatile intellectuals such as Hermenegildo Cruz who
aided Reyes in founding the first labor federation and who played a crucial role in
connecting the intelligentsia with grassroots insurgency.
It was in this milieu that the first consistent articulation of class hopes and
nationalist sentiments received symbolic prefiguration in Lope K. Santos’ novel, Banaag
at Sikat (1906). Rendered through allegorical manipulation of typical characters, the
novel focused on the antagonism between capital and labor, with the “national question”
subsumed in the atmosphere of repressive police action and looming treacheries.
Unlike Reyes or the ilustrado Dr. Dominador Gomez, Santos was a soldier in the
revolutionary army in the forests of Laguna and Batangas. He admired Zola, Gorki,
Eliseo Reclus, and other radical thinkers. Together with Cruz, Santos edited the paper
of the printworkers’ union which carried on its masthead the Marxist slogan, “The
emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class
itself” (Richardson 2011, 21).
But Santos did not succumb to sectarian workerism (unlike
the US-tutored communists) since his idea of socialism emphasized chiefly moral and
legal egalitarianism. He favored a broad united front of all democratic sectors. The hero
of his novel Delfin, for example, found the U.S. Constitution filled with “socialist
aspirations” informing government policies (Santos 1959, 236). This might explain why
Santos’ book was not prohibited (on this issue, see Torres Reyes 2010; on his refusal to
commodify his novel, see his autobiography Santos 1972, 70-71.). Was Santos trying to
include the ilustrado elite in a hegemonic project of building consensus, even
confounding bourgeois liberal reforms with Marxian socialism?
In the interregnum before English became widespread and Spanish as the
language of public exchange declined, the Tagalog novel blossomed in the midst of
intense mobilization of urban workers. This affected also the pettybourgeois sector of
white-collar workers whose affairs were intimately bound with their worker friends and
relatives in city and countryside. This is reflected in the uniquely psychologized
dramatization of individual, family, and racial conflicts in Faustino Aguilar’s Pinaglahuan
(1907). The “national question” is evoked right at the outset of the plot, giving way to the
plight of the lovers and the imprisonment of the worker-intellectual Luis Gatbuhay by the
collusion of the American factory-owner Mr. Kilsberg and the cunning merchant Rojalde
(Reyes 1982, 45). Rojalde traps the heroine’s father in a scheme that leads to Rojalde’s
possession of her body, already pregnant by Luis—an emblem of the commodified
object of desire, the motherland, caged by the comprador usurper. Focusing on the
hero’s agony in prison, Aguilar’s novel registers obliquely the shock of Sakay’s
execution and the suppression of the last guerilla resistance even as echoes of the
massive May Day 1903 march still resound in the cries of protest from the impoverished
victims of the market system and the decadent feudal patriarchy.
Traditionally, the novel form in the West often dramatized the individualist quest
for a cosmic purpose and meaning in life. This quest is refracted by Santos and Aguilar
in a social-realist direction, via a mimesis of the dialectical interaction of the collective
whole and its parts. In both Santos and Aguilar’s style, we encounter a realism diverging
from the raw slice-of-life, sensational naturalism of Zola and Norris. Their models were
Rizal, Tolstoy, Hugo, and Balzac. Tagalog realism, often didactic or homiletic, sought to
“lay bare society’s causal network” (Brecht 1975, 424) in delineating the countours of
the country’s development, pointing out where the broadest solutions to the most
serious problems afflicting the majority may be found. It is an elaborate refinement of
the melodramatic historicizing realism found in Rizal’s inflammatory Noli Me Tangere
and El Filibusterismo.
The year 1907 also marked the dissolution of the Union del Trabajo de Filipinas
headed by Lope K. Santos. While engaged in union militancy, he edited the daily
newspaper, Muling Pagsilang, which serialized his polemical novel which sold three
thousand copies within the first few weeks—a sign of popular acclaim for a dangerously
provocative act for American censors (Saulo 1990, 7). These two novels deployed the
conventional romantic plot of unrequited or frustrated love as a symptomatic testimony
of how the 1896 revolution (Filipinas figures as adored paramour-cum-mother) was lost
due to betrayal, inherited inadequacies, or fatal convergence of forces beyond the
Traversing Metropolitan Boundaries
We need to contextualize these authors in the local-global-regional cross-currents
of the time. Reyes, Aguilar and Santos were all influenced by developments in Europe
at this period, from the Boer Wars (1902), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) and the
outbreak of the first Russian revolution (1905-06). In March 1906, the most horrendous
massacre of Moros occurred in the battle of Bud Bagsak, Jolo, where 600 men, women
and children were slaughtered by troops commanded by Gen. Leonard Wood (Tan
2002, 176}. Such non-Christian victims were not yet fully accounted for in the maturing
conscience of nationalists. But workers in Manila in the first two decades of American
rule were clamoring for Philippine independence, perhaps not having yet heard that the
“working men have no nation,” as the Communist Manifesto proclaimed (Kiernan 1983,
344). But they inhabit a place and time that determined their identities whose
physiognomy was actualized in the manifold contradictions of sociopolitical forces that
shaped the rhythm and texture of their everyday lives.
From a synoptic angle, it was the old bondsman’s struggle for recognition by the
aristocratic lord, as Hegel described it.. The ilustrado class (epitomized by T. Pardo de
Tavera and Pedro Paterno) sought modernization via assimilation to the U.S. nation;
they spoke English and joined the bureaucracy. But given the power of feudal oligarchic
instutions and practices that the US colonial regime utilized to control the dissident
population, the democratic ideals purportedly legitimizing it proved ironically discordant.
This created the space for a limited public sphere in which the intellectuals close to the
productive majority can articulate their collective passions by positing an antagonistic
image of the Filipino identity. The utopian promise of independence was translated into
a pretext for crisis that manifested in public discourse. Questions were posed: why and
how can Quezon, Osmena or Roxas speak for the exploited, impoverished nation when
they represent particularistic landlord-comprador interests? Which class can truly
represent the productive populace as “the Filipino nation”?
We can diagram the narrative of this conflict between the national-popular
protagonist versus the elitist politicians of the English-speaking landlord-comprador bloc
by concentrating on a few revealing instances when Filipino artists confronted the
imperative of choosing sides, specifically moments when personalistic aesthetics
clashed with ethico-political demands, precipitating a crisis of the whole body politic.
It began even before Aguinaldo surrendered to General Funston. When the
capitulationist ilustrado class defected to the U.S. colonial masters, a significant group
of intransigent intellectuals, represented by Apolinario Mabini (1969), remained faithful
to the principles of the Katipunan. They articulated the cause of the peasant-worker
alliance kept alive up to Sakay’s capture in 1907. The Moros continued their resistance
up to 1913.
Dramatists like Aurelio Tolentino, Juan Abad, and others resorted to
allegorical modes using Tagalog for wider appeal, defying the Sedition Law of 1901
prohibiting “scurrilous libels against the Government of the United States.” Though
persecuted and censored, they conducted guerilla underground polemics. Periodicals
like the Spanish El Renacimiento and the Tagalog Muling Pagsilang opposed colonial
impositions such as the use of English as the medium of instruction in public schools. In
1908, El Renacimiento published a scathing attack on Dean Worcester, then Secretary
of the Interior, for using his office to enrich himself. Charged for libel, Teodoro Kalaw,
editor, and Martin Ocampo, the publisher, were sentenced to a jail term and fined. In
1909, Kalaw ran for delegate to the Philippine Assembly and won, testifying to the
support of a community larger than the Spanish-speaking citizens (Agoncillo and
Guerrero 1970, 298-300).
It was only during the administration of Francis Burton Harrison and his
Filipinization of the bureaucracy that the function of articulating the popular content of
nationalism passed on to Quezon and the Nacionalista Party. In the fight against
Leonard Wood, the famous scourge of the Moros, Quezon seized the opportunity of
symbolizing the struggle for independence.
Read symptomatically, the intramural “Cabinet Crisis” 0f 1923-27 staged a battle
for hegemony in the realm of the state apparatus and its agencies. Quezon lost but
gained moral high ground when he asserted: “I would rather have a government run like
hell by Filipinos than a government run like heaven by Americans” (Agoncillo 1974, 31).
But this did not alleviate the worsening plight of the majority. In particular, the peasant
majority, severely exploited by rapacious landlords, suffered quietly until 1935. This
predatory caciquism originated from the inquitous land-tenure system that the American
administators preserved, thus keeping the economy underdeveloped and their
oligarchic parasites in power. Various quasi-religious, nativist uprisings occurred
throughout the islands, the most serious of which were led by Ruperto Rios (Tayabas),
Felipe Salvador (Central Luzon), Dionisio Magbuelas or Papa Isio (Negros), the
Pulajanes in Leyte, the Colorums during the 1920s, followed by the Tangulan
movement, the Tayug Uprising, and the Sakdalista in the thirties (Constantino 1975,
We need to remember that metropolitan Manila was only a narrow island in a
larger archipelago of manifold sociopolitical tensions. Aside from the synergistic workerintellectual
collaboration in the first decades of US colonial rule when novelists,
dramatists and poets played central roles, the crisis in the twenties and thirties
witnessed the shift of hegemonic struggle to the countryside. The first significant novel
dealing with the tenancy problem is Lazaro Francisco’s Ama (1929), among others.
Meanwhile, the ideological struggle to assert the popular dimension of culture as
embodied in the vernacular continued with the most celebrated practitioner of the
balagtasan nationwide ritual, Jose Corazon de Jesus, sacrificing his job as columnist in
Taliba. It seemed a deja-vu scenario.
On Feb 21, 1930, students at the Manila North
High School boycotted their classes to protest Miss Mabel Brummit’s racist conduct.
This was a repeat of the desecration of the Filipino flag by another American teacher in
March 1921 which de Jesus used to attack imperial arrogance by denouncing uncouth
behavior: “Bago ka magturo, /dapat mong makuro, / na bawat bandila ay mahal sa puso
/ ng bumabandilang sa lupa ko tubo,/ Kung ang isipan ninyo’y baluktot at liko, / dapat
kang itapon sa banging malayo./Ikaw’y isang guro / na salat sa turo” (Atienza 1995,
Nine years after, De Jesus felt compelled to intervene again. He asserted
national pride by defending the students who were expelled: “Kung ang ituturo natin
naman dito. / panay na pagyuko sa Wika ng amo, / panay na sumision at lambot ng ulo,
/ ay gagawa kayo ng lupaing hilo” (quoted in Almario 1984, 35). This form of political
engagement via “secondary orality” (e.g., the balagtasan) witnessed in de Jesus’s
intervention, evokes an aura of authority and charisma that surrounds the letrado as a
political leader found in Latin America. The Philippines shares a similar tradition in which
the practice of the spoken word “conjures together the presence of the communal and
the sacred” (Beverley and Zimmerman 1990, 16), the unlettered voice of the people
finding resonance in a nation-oriented discourse opposed to the official culture of the
educated English-speaking elite. By the end of the thirties, however, the writers using
English had become politicized by circumstances following the insurgencies in the
countryside, the post-1929 Depression, and the rise of fascism in Spain, Italy and
Germany, as well as in militarizedJapan.
Art for Whom?
Mark Twain’s satiric anti-imperialist blast, “To A Person Sitting in Darkness,” was
unknown throughout the first two decades. But the Genteel Age was ending. Filipinos
had become aware of works by John Steinbeck, Langston Hughes, Lillian Hellman,
Richard Wright, Thomas Mann, among others (Lopez 1976,9). The establishment of the
Philippine Writers League in 1939, twelve years after the 1927 founding of the Writers
Club at the University of the Philippines which fostered the school of “art for art’s sake”
led by Jose Garcia Villa, marked the convergence of the nationalist and the popular
tendencies in the discursive arena. Salvador P. Lopez’s award-winning collection of
essays, Llterature and Society (1940). may be considered the model of the praxis of the
dialectical synthesis of the national-popular posited by Gramsci for societies in
transition. Between the death of the old feudal system and the aborted birth of
capitalism, we encounter morbid cultural symptoms of the passage. The manifesto of
the League envisioned writers as “workers in the building up of culture” whose values
reject “economic injustice and political oppression”; they are urged to organize to benefit
the community (Lopez 1940, 117-18). Several members, prominent of whom was
Manuel Arguilla, sacrificed their lives fighting Japanese aggression.
In his book, Lopez cited the case of Teodoro Kalaw who quickly moved from the
Ivory Tower to the civic arena as editor of El Renacimiento. In the confrontation with
Governor Wood. Kalaw discovered that “the only true basis of lasting beauty in literature
is—power,” by which Lopez means the ”power” to speak the truth on behalf of improving
man’s condition and the defense of human freedom everywhere (2004, 297, 303).
Contrary to Herbert Schneider’s notion that the Filipino writers succeeded in capturing
“the Malayan Spirit” (1967, 587) under the twin guidance of Villa’s craftminded teaching
and Lopez’s warning against propaganda, we can argue that the nation projected by
both writers in English (such as Arguilla and Rotor) and in the vernacular reflected the
urgent demands of the peasantry and working class that constituted the nation from the
founding of the Socialist Party by Pedro Abad Santos in 1929 and the Communist Party
of the Philippines in 1930 (a year after which it was outlawed and its officers jailed). In
any case, the “Malayan Spirit” found its incarnation in a poignant story of Narciso
Reyes, “Tinubuang Lupa,” published on the eve of World War II: mourning a dead
relative, the young protagonist listens to his grandfather’s recollection of his father’s
courtship days, memory fusing with anxiety and dreams, instilling in him a profound
cathexis of love for the ancestral home, a sense of national belonging (Reyes 1954,
Before the outbreak of World War II, the struggle for hegemony of the nationalpopular
concept began to engage with the problem of emancipating the “productive
forces” in the countryside. The peasantry constituted the largest mass base of the
nationalist struggle before and after the inauguration of the Commonwealth, a
transitional period before the grant of formal independence in 1946. With the
Communist Party suppressed and union activism controlled, intellectuals were forced to
pay attention to the public sphere and reconstruct the strategy of the united front of
peasant-workers. The mediation of organic intellectuals became the necessary agency
to effect the catharsis of the economic nexus to the political realm. This was carried out
in Carlos Bulosan’s stories and essays between 1933 and 1940 (San Juan 2009), in
stories by Hernando Ocampo and Brigido Batungbakal, among others(Lumbera 1982,
Radicalization of the intelligentsia deepened after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution,
the global Depression after the 1929 Wall Street crash, Japanese occupation of
Shanghai in 1932, the Nazi victory in 1933, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in
1936, and Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. Of the many versatile intellectuals who
performed that mediating role was the poet-orator, Benigno Ramos (after him, the most
illustrious was Amado V. Hernandez whose activism in the fifties and sixties is beyond
the scope of this paper; for Ramos’ influence on Hernandez, see Almario 1984). What
significance did Ramos’ poetic praxis hold for understanding the possibilities and limits
of artistic intervention in radically transforming colonial society at that specific
Storm over Arcadia
The stage was set for the inauguration of the Philippine Commonwealth on Nov.
15, 1935. It is now public knowledge that the Tydings-McDuffie Law sealed the abject
dependent nature of the country as source of raw materials and dumping ground for
finished, industrial goods. With the economy and state apparatus (legal system, foreign
affairs, military, currency) controlled by the corporate interests in Washington, the
groundwork was set for stabilizing a neocolony. An oppositional movement was needed
to expose the Commonwealth fraud. Conceived by Ramos, the Sakdal party had been
campaigning against maldistribution of wealth, excessive taxes, and for the confiscation
of large landholdings for redistribution to the landless. Luis Taruc, the leading figure of
the Huk rebellion in the forties and fifties, connected that historical specificity (land
hungry peasantry) and the global actuality of that time in his memoir, Born of the
It had been that way under the Spanish regime for centuries. When the
Americans came, they made boasts about having brought democracy to the
Philippines but the feudal agrarian system was preserved intact.
On the haciendas there were laborers who were paid less than ten
centavos a day. Thousands more earned less than twice that much. From ten
thousand miles away the Spreckles sugar interests in California reached into the
sugar centrals of Pampanga and took their fortune from the sweat of Filipino
labor. (de la Costa 1965, 268).
Ramos’ mobilizing organ was the weekly newspaper Sakdal, using Tagalog as
the medium of communication. It began as a vehicle of Ramos’ criticism of the Quezon
regime as composed of lackeys of American imperialism, the landlord-comprador bloc,
the Church hierarchy, and the Philippine Constabulary whose brutal treatment of
peasants sparked violent resistance. The self-righteous Stanley Karnow echoes the
Establishment dismissal of the rebel: “Filipinos thrive on abusive polemics, and Ramos’
vitriolic genius made him an instant celebrity” (1989, 273). Other groups like the
Tanggulan, a patriotic secret society founded by writer Patricio Dionisio, a former
member of the Communist-led Congreso Obrero, voiced their grievances in Sakdal,
making it a national-popular tribune of the disenfranchised masses.
In effect, the Sakdal movement replaced the official political parties as the
articulator of mass sentiments and aspirations, the grassroot “structure of feeling.” The
Sakdal program targetted the educational system glorifying American culture, the
American military bases, and the U.S. stranglehold on the economy. Their leaders
advocated “complete and absolute independence” by December 1936. In the 1934
election, several Sakdal party’s parliamentary strategy proved effective in electing three
representatives, a provincial governor and several municipal posts in provinces adjacent
to the metropoitan center of power. Ignored by Quezon and the oligarchic clique, the
Sakdalista movement mounted an uprising that spread through the provinces of
Laguna, Rizal, Cavite, Tayabas and Bulacan which the Philippine Constabulary crushed
in one day before its fire spread throughout the islands.
A few days before the plebiscite on the Constitution designed to legitimize the
Commonwealth, the peasantry staged a bloody uprising on May 2, 1935 involving at
least sixty thousand armed partisans in nineteen towns. Earlier their peaceful
demonstrations were harassed and permits for assemblies revoked. In the three towns
where the rebellion centered, fifty-seven peasants were killed, hundreds wounded, and
over five hundred jailed (Agoncillo 1970, 418). Ramos was then in Japan, negotiating
for support; eventually he was extradited and jailed. His admiration for the Japanese
ethos and achievement failed to be critical of the reactionary, racist patriotism of its
leaders then gearing up for brutal imperial conquest of his homeland (see Moore 1966).
The Sakdal leadership’s opportunist stance abandoned its mass base by
devoting itself to the propagation of the Japanese-sponsored program of “Asiatic
Monroeism” (Constantino 1975, 370). Notwithstanding its inadequacies, the Sakdal
movement performed a decisive and necessary pedagogical function: it raised the level
of political consciousness in a nationalist-radical democratic direction by connecting the
poverty of the people with the colonial system and its ideological state apparatuses
(education, media, diplomacy). Renato Constantino’s judgment assays the positive
impact of Ramos’ praxis: “The Sakdalista movement, despite its opportunist and fascistinclined
leadership, was a genuine expression of protest, and a milestone in the
politicization of the people” (1975, 370).
Long before his Sakdal engagement, in 1912 Ramos reacted to the
Westernization of the literary tastes and standards of his milieu: “…it is not pleasing to
be told that on sounds like Victor Hugo, Zamacois, Blasco Ibanez, or any other foreign
writer. We have started to demonstrate that in our country, we have our own literary
masters” (quoted in Lumbera 1967, 311). The imposition of English has been regarded
as the most powerful instrument to commodify culture since the valorization of
exchange-value (profit) over use-value (need) transforms art and literature into saleable
goods no different from copra, sugar and hemp, the bulk of the dollar-earning export
crops. Enforced American English also fragmented the polity, dividing the educated elite
from the plebeian subalterns. Given his pettybourgeois background, Ramos as a key
translator in the Philippine Senate could have easily switched to writing in English. He
did not. In the marketplace of social media, he chose the down-to-earth idiom of the
productive forces, the working class and peasantry, and transformed himself into their
organic intellectual voice.
Earlier we noted how the orator-poet Jose Corazon de Jesus was fired from his
job for criticizing an American teacher, Miss Brummit, for insulting Filiinos. Ramos joined
his fellow writer and lambasted Quezon’s shameless public subservience to the
American colonizers, for which he was immediately fired. Ten days after, Ramos set up
the periodical Sakdal, followed by the founding of the Sakdalista political party in
October 1933. Language became again, as in the first decade, the crucial arena of
ethical and ideological struggle. Given the fact that “all poetry is in origin a social act, in
which poet and people commune” (Thomson 1946, 58), Ramos’ use of the vernacular—
essentially magical and emotive—was a wager of affirming the communicative praxis of
his art. His verses reflect constellations of feeling directed and controlled by the social
ego, by necessities of his particular time and place, in order not only to interpret but to
change the entire social order (Caudwell 19370.
From his youth, Ramos depended on his audience for realizing the value of his
declamatory talent. Without the crowd of listeners and their responses, he is not an
artist; with them he became poeta revolucionario (Almario 1984, 17). He forfeited the
individualist hubris of Villa and chose the task of actualizing the popular virtues inherent
in the tradition of revolutionary Tagalog writing. Under the aegis of winning hegemony
for the plebeian citizenry, “popular” art means (in Brecht’s aphoristic lexicon) “intelligible
to the broad masses, taking over their own forms of expression and enriching them/
adopting and consolidating their standpoint / representing the most progressive section
of the people in such a way that it can take over the leadership: thus intelligible to other
sections too / linking with tradition and carrying it further / handing on the achievements
of the section of the people that is struggling for the lead” (1975, 423). I quote Ramos
”Filipinas” composed in the transitional years 1929-30 before he was expelled from the
colonial bureaucracy and committed himself to the redemption of its victims:
Kay-rami ng layak nitong aking Bayan!
Kay-rami ng dumi, kay-rami ng sukal!
Pati na ang hanging aking pagkabuhay
kung aking langhapin ay may amoy-bangkay!
Nasaan ang aking mga iniibig,
ang mga anak kong may pusong malinis?
Nahan ang panulat na namimilansik
upang ang kadimla’y mawala sa langit?
Nahan ang matapang na mga makatang
tutula ng aking puhunang dalita?
Nahan ang maraming anak na nanumpang
tutubusin ako sa aking pagluha?
Kung kahapon ako’y inapi ng Dasal
ngayon ay lalo pang kaapi-apihan.
Namatay ang aking Magiting na Rizal
at patuloy pa rin ang kanyang kaaway.
Ang mga lupa kong kinuha’t ginaga,
nahan, o anak ko, nangabalik na ba?
At kung hangga ngayo’y di mo nakukuha
ano’t natitiis na ululin ka pa?
(Ramos 1998, 180)
Unlike the typical didactic and moralizing poems that were commodified in the
mass periodicals, Ramos’ poem departs by ascribing this lament of sorrows to the
maternal figure of the nation. This follows a long allegorical tradition from Hermenegildo
Flores’ “Hibik ng Filipinas sa Ynang Espana” (Ileto 1998, 11) to “Joselynang Baliwag”
and Bonifacio’s “Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa” (Maceda 1995, 209-212). The imagistic
cluster of pollution, abandonment, mourning, and dispossession suggests a miserable
predicament that cries for urgent remedy, so antithetical to the utopian pastorals of
Fernando Amorsolo and his counterparts in literature (see examples in Abueg 1973).
The tone is simultaneously elegiac and hortatory. Not only does the poem advance the
popular tradition, enriching and transmitting to the next generation the standpoint of the
masses, but it also challenges the “children” to assume leadership. The mother’s
exhortation to reclaim the stolen homeland and to stop enduring such privations
invokes Rizal, the national icon and martyr.
We observe in the structure of Ramos’ poem the dialectic between land/blood
and the ideals of sovereignty and sacrifice for collective liberation. Abstract, rhetorical
notions of patriotism and autonomy are concretized in intelligible terms (more vividly
nuanced in many poems collected by Delfin Tolentino Jr. in Gumising Ka, Aking Bayan).
The poet’s fidelity to the struggle for liberation is unequivocal and uncompromising.
While Ramos’ is generally censured for being a “traitor” by sympathizing with the
Japanese anti-US imperialism during the war—a still contentious issue that defies
stereotypical reductionism (Steinberg 1967)—there is no doubt that, on the whole,
Ramos’ poetic achievement may be taken as the most eloquent, innovative expression
of the national-democratic imagination in the first three decades of American
Not even the eloquent “social justice” slogan of Quezon could distract from
the Sakdal’s collective dream of emancipation, as passionately voiced by Salud Algabre
(quoted as epigraph) in the vernacular. Ramos’ speech-acts effectively communicated
to a people yearning for dignity and self-determination, at a conjuncture where the
commodification of the slogan of “independence” seduced the more privileged stratum
of the citiznery whose preferred language (English) detached them from the pain, joy,
anguish, and dreams of the majority of Filipinos. This situation of subalternity has
worsened today in the neoliberal intensification of commodity-fetishism against which
progressive Filipino artists are uniting with cultural activists in other countries, just as
Rizal, De Los Reyes, Ramos, and the Philippine Writers League did in the last turbulent
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