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The Rooster's Egg: Isabelo de los Reyes and El folk-lore filipino

Benedict Anderson15 June 2016

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Tracing the development of his methods of comparison in A Life Beyond Boundaries, Benedict Anderson writes:

It was not until...after I finally retired that I began to recognize the fundamental drawback of [the type of comparison that formed the method for Imagined Communities]: that using the nation and the nation-state as the basic units of analysis fatally ignored the obvious fact that in reality these units were tied together and crosscut by 'global' political-intellectual currents such as liberalism, fascism, communism and socialism, as well as vast religious networks and economic and technological forces. I also had to take seriously the reality that very few people have ever been 'solely' nationalist. No matter how strong their nationalism, they may also be gripped by Hollywood movies, neoliberalism, a taste for manga, human rights, impending ecological disaster, fashion, science, anarchism, post-coloniality, 'democracy', indigenous peoples' movements, chat-rooms, astrology, supranational languages like Spanish and Arabic, etc. My realization of this serious flaw helps to explain why my Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination (2005) focused not only on global anarchism toward the end of the nineteenth century, but also on global forms of communication, especially the telegraph and the steamship.

Below we present the prologue to 
Under Three Flags, published in paperback as The Age of Globalization.

Isabelo de los Reyes

In 1887, at the Exposición Filipina in Madrid, a 23-year-old indio named Isabelo de los Reyes, living in colonial Manila, won a silver medal for a huge Spanish-language manuscript which he called El folk-lore filipino. He published this text in unwitting tandem with compatriot José Rizal (then aged twenty-five), who, after wandering around Northern Europe for some time, published his incendiary first novel, Noli me tangere, in Berlin that self-same year. This book helped earn him martyrdom in 1896 and, later, the permanent status of Father of His Country and First Filipino.

Who was Isabelo?1

He was born on July 7, 1864 in the still-attractive northern Luzon archiepiscopal coastal town of Vigan — which faces Vietnam across the South China Sea — to parents of the Ilocano ethnic group, the vast majority of whom were, in those days, illiterate. His mother Leona Florentino, however, was evidently a poet of some quality, so that at the Madrid and later expositions her poetry was displayed for Spaniards, Parisians, and people in St Louis.2 This accomplishment did not save her marriage, and the six-year-old Isabelo was entrusted to a rich relative, Mena Crisólogo, who later put him into the grammar school attached to the local seminary run by the Augustinians. It appears that abusive behavior by the Peninsular Spanish friars aroused in the boy a hatred of the Catholic religious Orders which persisted all his life and had serious consequences for his career. In 1880, aged sixteen, he escaped to Manila, where he quickly acquired a BA at the Colegio de San Juan de Letrán; after that, he studied law, history and palaeography at the ancient (Dominican) Pontifical University of Santo Tomás, then the only university in all of East and Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, Isabelo's father had died, and the boy, obliged now to support himself, plunged into the burgeoning world of journalism, contributing to most of Manila's newspapers, and in 1889 even publishing his own, El Ilocano, said to be the first-ever solely in a Philippine vernacular. But while still a teenager, Isabelo read an appeal in Manila's Spanish-language news- paper La Oceania Española (founded in 1877) asking readers to contribute articles to develop a new science, named el folk-lore, followed by a simple sketch of how this was to be done. He immediately contacted the Spanish editor, who gave him a collection of "folk-lore books'' and asked him to write about the customs of his native Ilocos. Two months later Isabelo set to work, and soon thereafter started publishing — not merely on Ilocos, but also on his wife's township of Malabon, on the outskirts of Manila, on the Central Luzon province of Zambales, and in general terms, what he called el folk-lore filipino. It became one of the great passions of his life.

The New Science

The question, naturally, is why? What was the meaning of el folk-lore for a clerically educated native youth in the 1880s? Much can be learned from the Introduction and first pages of his youthful masterwork.3 There Isabelo described folk-lore, albeit with some hesitation, as a ciencia nueva (a new science), perhaps consciously echoing Giambattista Vico's Scienza Nuova, which, thanks to the efforts of Michelet and others, had burst on the trans- European scene in the mid-nineteenth century. Isabelo explained to his readers, in both the Philippines and Spain, that the word "folk-lore" — which he translated ingeniously as el saber popular — had only been invented in 1846 by the English antiquarian William Thoms, in an article published in the London Athenaeum. The first folk-lore society in the world had been organized in London as recently as 1878 — a mere six years before he started his own research.4 The French had followed suit nationally only in 1886 — just as Isabelo was starting to write. The Spanish typically had been caught intellectually napping; when their turn came, they had no thought but to incorporate the Anglo-Saxon coinage into Castilian as el folk-lore. Isabelo was starting to position himself alongside pioneering Britain, above and ahead of the tag-along Peninsular metropole. He was like a fast surfer on the crest of the wave of world science's beetling progress, something never previously imaginable for any native of what he himself called this "remote Spanish colony on which the light of civilization only tenuously shines.''5 This position he reinforced in several instructive ways.

On the one hand, he was quick to mention in his Introduction that some of his research had already been translated into German — then the language of advanced scholarly thinking — and published in Ausland and Globus, which he claimed were the leading European organs in the field. El folk-lore filipino also judiciously discussed the opinions of leading Anglo-Saxon contemporaries on the status of the ciencia nueva, politely suggesting that they were more serious than those of Peninsular Spanish folkloristas. He must also have enjoyed commenting that "Sir George Fox" had been in conceptual error by confusing folklore with mythology, and some Castilian contemporaries had been in similar error by muddling mythology and theogony.6

On the other hand, the newness of this ciencia had a special colonial aspect to it, which he did not hesitate to underline. He dedicated his book to "Los folkloristas españoles de la Peninsula, que me han dispensado toda clase de atenciones'" (the Spanish folklorists of the Peninsula, who have tendered me every manner of consideration). Isabelo's Introduction spoke warmly of "colleagues'" in Spain — the boards of directors of the journals El Folk-Lore Español and the Boletín de la Enseñanza Libre de Madrid in the imperial capital, and the Boletín Folklórico in Seville — who had kept him abreast of research in the Peninsula that ran parallel to his own work.

The Peninsularity — so to speak — of these colleagues was regularly underlined, as well as the Peninsularity of their research. Without explicitly saying so, Isabelo (rightly) insinuated that no colonial Spaniards or creoles were doing anything comparable in the Philippines. This suggestion, of course, permitted him to position himself as a far-ahead-of-the-colonial-masters pioneer of the new universal science. To explain this peculiar situation Isabelo resorted to an ingenious device — certainly made necessary by the violent, reactionary character of the clerically dominated colonial regime of the time. He described a series of courtly exchanges he had had in the Manila press with a liberal-minded (almost certainly Peninsular) medical doctor and amateur litterateur, who had contributed to local newspapers under the pen name Astoll.7 This move allowed him to quote the Peninsular as admiring Isabelo's courage and imagination but feeling deeply pessimistic about his chances of success in the face of the overwhelming indifference, indolence, and mental stupor in the colony. "Here the only things that grow luxuriantly are cogon grass and molave — two tenacious local weeds."8 And when Astoll finally broke off their exchange in despair, Isabelo, who had indirectly raised the question of why "certain corporations" (meaning the Orders) had contributed nothing, commented that in the circumstances "prudence warrants no other course." Into the mental darkness of the colonial regime, then, Isabelo saw himself as bringing the light of modern Europe.

Newness came in still another guise in El folk-lore filipino, and this was related to the idea of ciencia. The Introduction contains a most interesting discussion of the larger debate on the scientific status of folklore studies. Isabelo had fun noting that one faction of the Peninsular folkloristas was so impatient to turn el folk-lore into a theoretical science that its members soon could no longer understand one another — opening the way for a much-needed international discussion, in which the Anglo-Saxons appeared both more modest and more practical. At the other extreme were those Spanish folklorists who were merely sentimental collectors of vanishing customs and conceptions for some future museum of the past. Isabelo made clear what he himself thought folklore was about, and how he saw its social value. In the first place, it offered an opportunity for a reconstruction of the indigenous past that was impossible in the Philippines by any other means, given the absence of pre-Spanish monuments or inscriptions, and, indeed, the near-absence of written records. (When Rizal tried to do the same thing later, he saw no other way to proceed than to read between the lines of the work of the best of the Spanish administrators of the early Conquest era.) Serious research on customs, beliefs, superstitions, adages, tongue-twisters, incantations and so on would throw light on what he referred to as the "primitive religion" of the pre-Spanish past. But — and here the young Ilocano sharply distinguished himself from amateur costumbristas — he also underlined the importance of comparisons. He confessed that before the completion of his research he had been sure that the neighboring Tagalogs and Ilocanos were razas distintas (distinct races) on account of their different languages, physiognomies, behavior and so on. But comparison had proved to him that he had been wrong and that the two ethnicities clearly derived from a single source. The implication of the title El folk-lore filipino was that further research would show that all the indigenous inhabitants of the archipelago had a common origin, no matter how many languages they now spoke or how different their present customs and religious affiliations. All this meant that, contra the colony's clerical historiographers, who began their narratives with the sixteenth-century Spanish conquest, the real history of the archipelago and its pueblo/pueblos (here he hesitated often) stretched far further back in time, and thus could not be framed by coloniality.

The Riches of Local Knowledge

On the other hand — and here Isabelo radically distanced himself from many of his Peninsular colleagues — the new science could not and should not be confined to sentimental excavations of the quaint. El folk-lore filipino is above all the study of the contemporary, in particular what he had termed el saber popular. (Today, we would use the term "local knowledge.") This saber was real knowledge, not "lore," with its musty, antiquarian connotations. He offered the hypothetical example of a selvaje (wild man, perhaps a savage) in the forests near his home region of South Ilocos who might any day (accidentally, Isabelo said) discover that a certain local fruit provided a better antidote to the cholera bacillus than that currently manufactured at the instance of the Spanish medical scientist Dr Ferran.9 The framing for such claims was the absence of serious scientific knowledge about almost everything in the Philippines. For example, Flora de Filipinas, a new compilation by some Augustinian friars, was very far from complete.10 The indigenes had a much deeper knowledge of medicinal plants, of flora and fauna, of soils and climatic variations than did the colonialists, and this huge reservoir of knowledge, contained in the saber popular, was still unknown to the world. The Philippines thus appeared not merely as a region containing a mass of exotica unknown to Europeans, but also as the site for a significant future contribution to mankind, springing from what the common people knew, in their own languages, but of which Spanish had no conception. It was exactly the "unknownness" of the Philippines that gave its folklore a future-oriented character that was necessarily absent in the folklore of Peninsular Spain. It was also, however, the living specificity of the Philippines that positioned it to offer something, parallel and equal to that of any other país, to humanity. This is the logic that would much later make the United Nations both possible and plausible. So far, so clear. Too clear, probably. For Isabelo's text, under the bright lights of its major themes, is not without its shadowy complications. We might provisionally think about them under three rubrics.

First, what was Isabelo to himself? To begin with, it is necessary to underline an ambiguity within the Spanish word filipino itself. During Isabelo's youth this adjective had two distinct senses in common parlance: (1) belonging to, located in, originating from, Las Islas Filipinas; (2) creole, of the locally born but "pure Spanish" social stratum. What it did not mean is what filipino means today, an indigenous nationality-ethnicity. One can see how much things have changed over the past century if one compares just one sentence in Isabelo's Introduction with its recent translation into American by two Philippine scholars. Isabelo wrote: "Para recoger del saco roto la organización del Folk-Lore regional filipino, juzgué oportuno contestar al revistero del Comercio y, aprovechando su indirecta, aparenté sostener que en Filipinas había personas ilustradas y estudiosas que pudieran acometer la empresa."11 This literally means: "To save the organization of the Folklore of the region of the Philippines, I judged it the right moment to rebut the view of El Comercio's reviewer, and, taking advantage of his insinuation, I pretended [presumed??] to maintain that in the Philippines there exist enlightened [ilustradas] and studious persons capable of undertaking the task." The published translation — completely anachronistic — has: "I tried to defend the establishment of Filipino Folklore by answering the accusation of the columnist of El Comercio, by bravely stating that there are indeed Filipino scholars ready and capable of undertaking the task."12 Where Isabelo was thinking of a sort of global folklore which included the regional portion of the Philippine Islands, and spoke of enlightened persons in the Philippines — no ethnicity specified — the translators have omitted "regional" to create a folklore of the Filipinos, and substituted for "enlightened persons" the novel "Filipino scholars."

Forest Brothers

In El folk-lore filipino, Isabelo did not describe himself as "a Filipino," because the nationalist usage was not yet familiar in the colony. Besides, un filipino was then exactly what he was not: a creole. He did, however, describe himself in other ways: sometimes, for example, as an indigene (but never by the contemptuous Spanish term indio), and sometimes as an Ilocano. In a remarkable passage he argued: "Speaking of patriotism, has it not frequently been said in the newspapers that, for me, only Ilocos and Ilocanos are good? ... Everyone serves his pueblo to his own manner of thinking. I believe I am here contributing to the illumination of the past of my own pueblo." Elsewhere, however, he insisted that so strict had been his objectivity that he had "sacrificed to science the affections of the Ilocanos, who complain that I have publicized their least attractive practices." Luckily, however, "I have received an enthusiastic response from various savants [sabios] in Europe, who say that, by setting aside a misguided patriotism, I have offered signal services to Ilocos, mi patria adorada, because I have provided scholars with abundant materials for studying its prehistory and other scientific topics relating to this ... province [sic]."13

Rizal opened his enraged novel Noli me tangere with a celebrated Preface addressed to his motherland, which included these words: "Deseando tu salud que es la nuestra, y buscando el mejor tratamiento, haré contigo lo que con sus enfermos los antiguos: exponíanlos en las gradas del templo, para que cada persona que viniese á invocar á la Divinidad les propusiese un remedio." (Desiring your well-being, which is our own, and searching for the best cure [for your disease], I will do with you as the ancients did with their afflicted: exposed them on the steps of the temple so that each one who came to invoke the Divinity would propose a cure).14 And in the last poem he wrote before his execution in 1896, he too spoke of his patria adorada. But was it Isabelo's?

There is a beautiful sentence in the Introduction to El folk-lore filipino in which Isabelo described himself as "hermano de los selváticos, aetas, igorrotes y tinguianes" (brother of the forest peoples, the Aeta, the Igorots and the Tinguians). These so-called primitive peoples, most of them pagan before the twentieth century dawned, and many never subjugated by the Spanish colonial regime, lived and live in the long cordillera that flanks the narrow coastal plain of Ilocos. In his boyhood, Isabelo would have seen them coming down from the forests in their "outlandish garb" to trade their forest products for lowland commodities. To this day, a form of Ilocano is the lingua franca of the Gran Cordillera. No one else in Isabelo's time, certainly no one who counted himself an ilustrado, would have spoken in such terms of these forest-dwellers who seemed, in their untamed fastnesses, utterly remote from any urban, Hispanicized, Catholicized milieu. (And in those days Isabelo did not speak of any other ethnic groups in Las Filipinas as his hermanos.) Here one begins to see how it was possible for him to think of his province as a big pueblo and a patria adorada, since in the most concrete way it linked as brothers the "wild" pagans of the mountains and a man who won prizes in Madrid. Here also one detects an underlying reason why, in his proto-nationalist strivings, Isabelo went to folklore rather than the novel or the broadsheet. Folklore — comparative folklore — enabled him to bridge the deepest chasm in colonial society, which lay not between colonized and colonizers — they all lived in the lowlands, they were all Catholics, and they dealt with one another all the time. It was the abyss between all of these people and those whom we would today call "tribal minorities": hill-people, nomadic swidden-farmers, "head-hunters," men, women and children facing a future of — possibly violent — assimilation, even extermination. Out of el folk-lore, child of William Thoms, there thus emerged a strange new brotherhood, and an adored father/motherland for the young Isabelo.

Strange Beauties

What were the deeper purposes of the folklorist's work in Las Islas Filipinas? Apart from its potential contributions to the modern sciences, and to the reconstruction of the character of "primitive man," we can uncover three which have a clear political character. First, there is the possibility — the hope — of local cultural renaissance. With a certain sly prudence, Isabelo allowed Astoll to speak on his behalf:

Perhaps folklore will provide the fount for a Philippine poetry [poesía filipina], a poetry inspired by Philippine subjects, and born in the mind of Philippine bards [vates]. I can already hear the mocking laughter of those braggarts who have made such fun of you. But let them laugh, for they also laughed at other manifestations of the pueblo's genius [ingenio], and then had to bow their heads in confusion before the laurels of [Juan] Luna and [Félix] Resurrección. And these traditions and superstitious practices which you are making known could one day inspire great poets, and enthusiastic lovers of the strange beauties of this rich garden.15

Elsewhere Isabelo quoted Astoll once again:

If Sr de los Reyes's studies and investigations make connections to pueblos como el filipino [like the Philippine one? or is it perhaps even the Filipino one?] where the character of the indigenes [naturales] has been depicted solely by the brush strokes of dull-witted daubers, one can see how much potential value they have for the future.

Here Isabelo's work, printed in Manila, could open up the possibility of a great flowering of literary and poetic talent among the naturales, a talent before which boorish Peninsulars and creoles would have to hang their heads in confusion. This is the normal hope and strategy of anticolonial nationalists: to equalize themselves "up" with the imperialists.

The second of Isabelo's purposes would be to subvert the dominance of the reactionary Church in the colony, and is best shown in a wonderfully deadpan chapter entitled "Ilocano Superstitions that are Found in Europe." It opens in this vein:

Taking advantage of the folkloric materials gathered by D. Alejandro Guichot and D. Luis Montoto in Andalusia, by D. Eugenio de Olavarría y Huarte in Madrid, by D. José Pérez Ballesteros in Catalonia, by D. Luis Giner Arivau in Asturias, by Consigliere Pedroso with his Tradiçoes populares portuguezas in Portugal, as well as others, I have drawn up the following list of superstitions which I believe were introduced here by the Spaniards in past centuries. The list should not surprise anyone, given that in the early days of Spanish domination the most ridiculous beliefs [las creencías más absurdas] were in vogue on the Peninsula.16

Mischievously, the list begins thus:

When roosters reach old age or have spent seven years in someone's house, they lay an egg from which hatches a certain green lizard that kills the master of that house; according to the Portuguese and French, however, what hatches is a snake. If it spots the master first, the latter will die, but that fate will strike the former if the master sees the snake first. The Italians and the English, as well as some Central Europeans, believe it is a basilisk that is hatched. Father Feijóo says: "It is true, the rooster, in old age, really does lay an egg." The Portuguese and the Ilocanos, however, agree that what is in the egg is a scorpion.17

Other irresistible examples are these: "To make sure visitors do not overstay, Ilocanos put salt on their guests' chairs. The Spaniards place a broom vertically behind a door, while the Portuguese put a shoe on a bench in the same spot, or throw salt on the fire." "In Castile, as in Ilocos, teeth that have fallen out are thrown onto the roof, so that new ones will grow." "According to the people of Galicia, if a cat washes its face, it means that rain is coming; the Ilocanos say it will rain if we give the animal a bath." "The people of Galicia say that a gale is coming when cats run about like mad; people in the Philippines substitute cockroaches for these cats." Finally: "Sleeping with the headboard facing the east is bad for Ilocanos. But for Peninsulars (Spaniards and Portuguese) it is good. All three agree that a headboard facing south is unlucky."

One can see why Isabelo felt a singular placer in dedicating his book to Peninsular folklorists, since they had offered him the scientific materials that would demonstrate the "ridiculous beliefs" of the conquistadors, and prove that, if the colonialists sneered at Ilocano superstitions, they should recognize many of them as importations of their own: any bizarreness in Ilocano folk beliefs had easy analogues in the bizarreries of Iberia, Italy, Central Europe, even England. 

The third aim was political self-criticism. Isabelo wrote that he was trying to show, through his systematic display of el saber popular, those reforms in the ideas and everyday practices of the pueblo that must be undertaken in a self-critical spirit. He spoke of his work as being about "something much more serious than mocking my paisanos, who actually will learn to correct themselves once they see themselves described." In this light, folklore would be a mirror held up before a people, so that, in the future they could move steadily along the road toward human emancipation. It is clear, then, that Isabelo was writing for one and a half audiences: Spaniards, whose language he was using, and his own pueblo, whose language he was not using, and of whom only a tiny minority could read his work.

Where did Isabelo position himself in undertaking this task? At this juncture we finally come to perhaps the most interesting part of our enquiry. For most of the hundreds of pages of his book, Isabelo spoke as if he were not an Ilocano himself, or, at least, as if he were standing outside his people. The Ilocanos almost always appear as "they," not "we." For example: "There is a belief among los Ilocanos that fire produced by lightning can only be extinguished by vinegar, not by water." Better still:

Los ilocanos no pueden darnos perfecta idea acerca de la naturaleza de los mangmangkík, y dicen que no son demonios, según la idea que los católicos tienen de los demonios.

The Ilocanos cannot give us a complete idea about the nature of the mangmangkík, and they say that they are not devils according to the Catholics' idea of what devils are.18

Isabelo here placed himself in the ranks of world folklore's savants, peering down at "the Ilocanos" from above, and dispassionately distinguishing their superstitions from the parallel credulities of "the Catholics."

At the same time, a number of passages have a rather different tonality. At the start of the exposition of his research results Isabelo wrote:

The Ilocanos, especially those from Ilocos Norte [Northern Ilocos], before starting to cut down trees in the mountains, sing the following verse:

Barí, Barí!
Dika agunget pári
Ta pumukan kamí
Iti pabakirda kam

Literally translated these lines mean: barí-barí (an Ilocano interjection for which there is no equivalent in Spanish), do not get upset, compadre, for we are only cutting because we have been ordered to do so.

Here Isabelo positions himself firmly within the Ilocano world. He knows what the Ilocano words mean, but his readers do not: to them (and by this he intends not only Spaniards, but also other Europeans, as well as non-Ilocano natives of the archipelago) this experience is closed. Isabelo is a kindly and scientific man, who wishes to tell the outsiders something of this world; but he does not proceed by smooth paraphrase. The reader is confronted by an eruption of the incomprehensible original Ilocano, before being tendered a translation. Better yet, something is still withheld, in the words barí-barí, for which Spanish has no equivalent. The untranslatable, no less; and beyond that, perhaps, the incommensurable.

Isabelo suspected, I am sure, that his Spanish was not perfect, and might be laughed at by "dull-witted daubers" and "braggarts." He probably was also aware that the particular folklore methodology he was using might be doubtful in its systematics, and perhaps was soon to be superseded as science continued its grand world progress into the future. But he had barí-barí, in particular, and Ilocano in general, safely up his intellectual sleeve. On this ground he could not be contested. However, he needed to show, or half-show, his trumps. This is the satisfaction of the tease: Dear readers, here is Ilocano for you to view, but you can only see what I permit you to see; and there are some things that you are actually incapable of seeing.

There is still a third position, which complicates matters further. In a chapter on "Music, Songs and Dances," Isabelo wrote the following:

The lyrics of the dal-lot are well worth knowing. The dal-lot is composed of eight-line stanzas, with a special Ilocano rhyming scheme which you can see from the following refrain:

Dal-lang ayà daldal-lut
Dal-lang ayà dumidinal-lot.

I transcribe it for you, because I do not know how to translate it, and I do not even understand it, even though I am an Ilocano. It seems to me to have no meaning.19

But it remains "well worth knowing" because it is authentically Ilocano, perhaps even because it is inaccessible to the puzzled bilingual author himself. Isabelo leaves it at that. No speculations. But there is an intimation, nonetheless, of the vastness of the saber popular.

Three ill-fitting situations therefore: Outside (they cannot give us a complete idea); Inside (there is no Spanish equivalent of barí-barí); and Outside Inside (even though I am an Ilocano myself, I do not understand this Ilocano-language refrain; but I am telling this to "you," not to "us").

Comparative Reflections

From the end of the eighteenth century down to our haggard own, folklore studies, even if not always self-consciously defined as such, have proved a fundamental resource to nationalist movements. In Europe, they provided a powerful impulse for the development of vernacular cultures linking especially peasantries, artists and intellectuals, and bourgeoisies in their complicated struggles against the forces of legitimacy. Urban composers foraged for folk songs, urban poets captured and transformed the styles and themes of folk poetry, and novelists turned to the depiction of folk countrysides. As the newly imagined national community headed towards the magnetic future, nothing seemed more valuable than a useful and authentic past.

Printed vernaculars were almost always central. Norwegian folklorists would write in "New Norse" (against Danish and Swedish) to recuperate the Norwegian saber popular; Finns would write in Finnish, not Swedish or Russian; and the pattern would be reiterated in Bohemia, Hungary, Rumania, Serbia, and so on. Even where this was not entirely the case — a striking example is the Irish revivalist movement which operated both through Gaelic and through a colonially imposed English well understood by many Irish men and women — the ultimate object was national self-retrieval, "awakening" and liberation.

At first sight, Isabelo's endeavor strikes one as quite different, as he was writing as much as anything for non-nationals, and in an imperial language, which perhaps 3 percent of the indios of the Philippines understood, and maybe only 1 percent of his fellow Ilocanos could follow. If in Europe folklorists wrote mostly for their paisanos, to show them their common and authentic origins, Isabelo wrote mostly for the early globalizing world he found himself within — to show how Ilocanos and other indios were fully able and eager to enter that world, on a basis of equality and autonomous contribution.

Isabelo's study also marks his country off from the many neighboring colonies in the Southeast Asian region. In these other colonies, most of what we can informally classify as "folklore studies" was carried on by intelligent colonial officials with too much time on their hands in an age still innocent of radio and television; they were intended mainly to be of use to the colonial rulers, not to the studied populations themselves. After independence was achieved, these ex-colonies' folklore studies have led a marginal existence, while they have done significantly better in the postcolonial Philippines. Why should this have been so? One possible answer is that in all the other colonies there survived a substantial written record from precolonial times — royal chronicles, Buddhist cosmologies, monastic records, Sufi tracts, court literatures, et cetera — and it was these, more than folklore, that provided aboriginality and glorious authenticity when nationalist movements got under way. The remote Philippines had no tradition of powerful, centralized and literate states, and had been so thinly touched by Islam and Buddhism that most of the inhabitants were Christianized with remarkably little violence. Seen from this angle, folklore could substitute for ancient grandeur.

Another, maybe better, answer lies in the nature of nineteenth-century Iberian imperialism. Spain and Portugal, once the great imperial centers of the world, had been in decline since the mid-seventeenth century. With the loss of Latin America, the Spanish empire had been drastically reduced — to Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Rio de Oro. Throughout the nineteenth century, Spain was rent by the most violent internal conflicts as it struggled to make the transition from feudal past to industrial modernity. In the eyes of many of its own inhabitants, Spain was backward, superstitious, and barely industrializing. This understanding was widely shared not only in Europe generally, but also by the young intellectuals of the residual Spanish colonies. (This is why Isabelo was proud to have his writings published in Germany, while his later equivalents in other colonies tended to seek publication in their "own" imperial metropoles.) Progress was thus the flag of an Enlightenment (Ilustración) which had scarcely begun to prevail in Spain. Isabelo saw himself as an ilustrado, great-grandson of Denis Diderot; and thus naturally involved in a common struggle alongside substantial numbers of Spaniards in the Peninsula itself. This kind of transcontinental alliance was on the whole uncharacteristic of struggling nationalists in Europe itself. It thus seemed quite normal to the youthful Ilocano to dedicate his work to his colleagues in Spain. 

At the same time, however, as we have seen, the "backward" Philippines was also the one colony in nineteenth-century Southeast Asia to have a real university — even if this was dominated by the ultra Dominican Order. Santo Tomás schooled Isabelo and many of his nationalist companions; here, ultimately, lay the reason why the Philippines became, at the century's end, the site of the first nationalist revolution in Asia.

Enlightment came to the Philippines through the unbackward language of "backward" Spain, and its prime agents, in every sense of the word, were therefore (at least) bilingual. (Many of the first generation of Philippine intellectuals also learned Latin, with some French, in Manila; if they went abroad, they might acquire some English and German as well.) Nowhere does one detect any marked aversion or distrust towards this Romance language so heavily marked by Arabic, the common vehicle of both reaction and enlightenment. Why this should have been so is a very interesting question. One answer is surely that, in complete contrast to almost all of Latin America, Spanish was never even close to being a majority language in the Philippines. Dozens of mainly oral local languages flourished then, as indeed they do today; nothing in Isabelo's writing suggests that he thought of Spanish as a deep menace to the future of Ilocano. Furthermore, Castilian appeared to him as the necessary linguistic vehicle for speaking not only to Spain but also, through Spain, to all the centers of modernity, science, and civilization. It was more an international language than it was a colonial one. It is striking that Isabelo never considered the possibility that, by writing in Spanish, he was somehow betraying his pueblo or had been sucked into a dominant culture. I think the reason for this seemingly innocent stance is that, in the 1880s, the future status of Las Islas Filipinas was visibly unstable, and some kind of political emancipation was looming on the horizon.

This instability had everything to do with local circumstances, but it was ultimately grounded in the emancipation of Latin America more than half a century earlier. Spain was the only big imperial power that lost its empire in the nineteenth century. Nowhere else in the colonial world did the colonized have such examples of achieved liberation before their eyes. Here one sees a situation wholly different from that of the twentieth-century New World, where Spanish became the "eternal" majoritarian master over all the indigenous languages in Latin America, and over an equally "eternal" oppressed minority in the United States. No emancipation visible on the horizon in either case.

Nonetheless, as indicated above, there are instructive reticences in Isabelo's youthful work, marked by the uneasy pronominal slippages between I and they, we and you. He was always thinking about two audiences, even when writing for one and a half. "The worst of men is the wretch who is not endowed with that noble and sacred sentiment which they call patriotism," he wrote. Spanish was not for him a national language, merely international. But was there a national language to which it could be opposed? Not exactly. The local languages with the largest numbers of speakers — Ilocano in the north, Tagalog in the middle, and Cebuano in the south — were all relatively small minority languages, and only just starting to burst into print. Was there a clear-cut patria to which his own language could be attached? A hypothetical Ilocano-land? He never spoke of it as such. Besides, there were those Aetas and Igorots, with their own languages, who were his hermanos. There were also those Tagalogs who, his investigations had shown him, were not a "race distinct" from the Ilocanos; but he knew, as the discoverer of this truth, that as yet few Tagalogs or Ilocanos were aware of it. This state of fluidity thus led him back, at twenty-three years old, to the obscurely bordered culture out of which he grew, and which he sensed he had partly outgrown. Ilocano popular knowledge, or culture, thus came to its young patriot as something to be investigated from the outside, as well as to be experienced from within, to be displayed to the whole world, but also something to be corrected — of course, by the Ilocanos themselves. His mother tongue, Ilocano, thus became something to be translated, yet partly untranslatable. And at some points it even slipped quietly away beyond the sunlit horizon of the Enlightened young bilingual himself.

— A Life Beyond Boundaries by Benedict Anderson is out now


1. Although Isabelo had a long and honorable career — aspects of which will be discussed in the final chapter of this book — no remotely adequate professional biography yet exists. The account of his youth that follows is drawn from the work of his eldest son, José de los Reyes y Sevilla, Biografia del Senador Isabelo de los Reyes y Florentino, Padre de los Obreros y Proclamador de la Iglesia Filipina Independiente (Manila: Nueva Era, 1947), pp. 1-6; José L. Llanes, The Life of Senator Isabelo del los Reyes (monograph reprinted from the Weekly Magazine of the Manila Chronicle, July 24 and 31, and August 7, 1949), pp. 1-6; and the entry under his name in National Historical Institute, Filipinos in History, vol. 2 (Manila: NHI, 1990), pp. 137-9.

2. According to Leona Florentino's semi-official minibiography, she was born into a rich Vigan family on April 19, 1849. Her parents had the same surname and were probably cousins of sorts. It seems that both were also close relatives of José Rizal's maternal grandfather. She was a precocious child, and started to compose verses at the age of ten, in Ilocano and in the Spanish her friar tutor taught her. She was married off at the age of fourteen, and gave birth to Isabelo at sixteen. Alas, she died at thirty-five, leaving five children behind. See the entry for her in National Historical Institute, Filipinos in History, vol. 5 (Manila: NHI, 1996), pp. 141-2.

3. References hereafter will be mainly to the original text, published in Manila in 1889 by Tipo-Lithografia de Chofre y C. Where relevant, comparisons will be made with a recent reprint combined with an English translation by Salud C. Dizon and Maria Elinora P. Imson (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1994), to be referred to henceforth in abbreviated fashion as Dizon-Imson. This new version, a valuable endeavor in many ways, is nonetheless marred by hundreds of errors of translation, and some mistakes in the Spanish transcription.

4. El folk-lore filipino (henceforward EFF), p. 8.

5. Ibid., p. 19.

6. Dizon-Imson, p. 30. 

7. Isabelo identified him as José Lacalle y Sánchez, a professor of medicine at the University of Sto. Tomas. EFF, p. 13.

8. EFF, p. 14.

9. Dizon-Imson, p. 24. 

10. Ibid., p. 11. The editors say that the book, a compilation by various hands and edited by Fr. Andreás Naves, was published in Manila in 1877 by Plana y C.

11. EFF, p. 13.

12. Dizon-Imson, p. 13. 

13. EFF, pp. 18 and 17.

14. José Rizal, Noli me tangere (Manila: Instituto Nacional de Historia, 1978), frontispiece.

15. EFF, p. 15. Juan Luna (1857-99), whom we shall meet again, was a fellow Ilocano who became the most famous native painter of the Spanish colonial era. His The Death of Cleopatra won the second medal at the 1881 Fine Arts Exposition in Madrid, his Spoliarium a gold medal at the same venue in 1884, and his The Battle of Lepanto a gold medal at the Barcelona Fine Arts Exhibition in 1888. Félix Resurrección Hidalgo y Padilla (1853-1913) was only slightly less successful. Hidalgo was a Tagalog, born in Manila and raised there like Luna.

16. Ibid., p. 74. In successive footnotes Isabelo gives the titles of these authors' works: El Folk-Lore AndaluzCostumbres populares andaluzasEl Folk-Lore de MadridFolk-Lore GallegoFolk-Lore de Asturias. He also casually mentions an earlier work of his own, described as a largo juguete literario (long literary skit), entitled El Diablo en Filipinas, según rezan nuestras cronícas (The Devil in the Philippines, as our chronicles tell it).

17. Ibid., p. 75. Sources given are: Pedroso's above-cited work; Rolland's Faune populaire de la France; Castelli's Credenze ed usi populari siciliani; V. Gregor's Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East Scotland (sic); and Larousse's Grande dictionnaire encyclopêdique du XIX siècle. From Isabelo's footnotes, we can see that he was able to move out of Spanish to the other big Romance languages (French, Italian and Portuguese), and to English. German, which, as we shall see, was crucial for Rizal, seems to have been beyond his orbit.

18. Dizon-Imson, p. 32.

19. Ibid., pp. 258-9.

Filed under: a-life-beyond-boundaries, history, imperialism, philippines