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PHILIPPINE LITERATURE IN THE SPANISH COLONIAL PERIOD

FRANCIS C. MACANSANTOS
PRISCILLA S. MACANSANTOS

The existing literature of the Philippine ethnic groups at the time of conquest and
conversion into Christianity was mainly oral, consisting of epics, legends, songs, riddles,
and proverbs. The conquistador, especially its ecclesiastical arm, destroyed whatever
written literature he could find, and hence rendered the system of writing (e.g.,
the Tagalog syllabary) inoperable. Among the only native systems of writing that have
survived are the syllabaries of the Mindoro Mangyans and the Tagbanua of Palawan.

The Spanish colonial strategy was to undermine the native oral tradition by
substituting for it the story of the Passion of Christ (Lumbera, p. 14). Although Christ
was by no means war-like or sexually attractive as many of the heroes of the oral epic
tradition, the appeal of the Jesus myth inhered in the protagonist’s superior magic: by
promising eternal life for everyone, he democratized the power to rise above death. It is
to be emphasized, however, that the native tradition survived and even flourished in
areas inaccessible to the colonial power. Moreover, the tardiness and the lack of
assiduity of the colonial administration in making a public educational system work
meant the survival of oral tradition, or what was left of it, among the conquered tribes.

The church authorities adopted a policy of spreading the Church doctrines by


communicating to the native (pejoratively called Indio) in his own language. Doctrina
Christiana (1593), the first book to be printed in the Philippines, was a prayerbook
written in Spanish with an accompanying Tagalog translation. It was, however, for the
exclusive use of the missionaries who invariably read them aloud to the unlettered Indio
catechumens (Medina), who were to rely mainly on their memory. But the task of
translating religious instructional materials obliged the Spanish missionaries to take a
most practical step, that of employing native speakers as translators. Eventually, the
native translator learned to read and write both in Spanish and his native language.

This development marked the beginning of Indio literacy and thus spurred the
creation of the first written literary native text by the native. These writers,
called ladinos because of their fluency in both Spanish and Tagalog (Medina, pp. 55-
56), published their work, mainly devotional poetry, in the first decade of the 17th
century. Among the earliest writers of note were Francisco de San Jose and Francisco
Bagongbata (Medina). But by far the most gifted of these native poet-translators was
Gaspar Aquino de Belen (Lumbera, p.14). Mahal Na Pasion ni Jesu Christo, a Tagalog
poem based on Christ’s passion, was published in 1704. This long poem, original and
folksy in its rendition of a humanized, indeed, a nativized Jesus, is a milestone in the
history of Philippine letters. Ironically — and perhaps just because of its profound
influence on the popular imagination — as artifact it marks the beginning of the end of
the old mythological culture and a conversion to the new paradigm introduced by the
colonial power.

Until the 19th century, the printing presses were owned and managed by the
religious orders (Lumbera, p.13). Thus, religious themes dominated the culture of the
Christianized majority. But the native oral literature, whether secular or mythico-religious
continued. Even among the Christianized ethnic groups, the oral tradition persisted in
such forms as legends, sayings, wedding songs such as the balayan and parlor theater
such as theduplo (Medina, p. 32).

In the 18th century, secular literature from Spain in the form of medieval ballads
inspired the native poetic-drama form called the komedya, later to be called moro-
moro because these often dealt with the theme of Christians triumphing over Moslems
(Lumbera, p. 15).
Jose de la Cruz (1746 – 1829) was the foremost exponent of the komedya during
his time. A poet of prodigious output and urbane style, de la Cruz marks a turning point
in that his elevated diction distinguishes his work from folk idiom (as for instance, that of
Gaspar Aquino de Belen). Yet his appeal to the non-literate was universal. The
popularity of the dramatic form, of which he was a master, was due to it being
experienced as performance both by the lettered minority and the illiterate but genuinely
appreciative majority.

Francisco Baltazar (1788 – 1862), popularly called Balagtas, is the acknowledged


master of traditional Tagalog poetry. Of peasant origins, he left his hometown in Bigaa,
Bulacan for Manila, with a strong determination to improve his lot through education. To
support his studies, he worked as a domestic servant in Tondo. He steeped himself in
classical studies in schools of prestige in the capital.

Great social and political changes in the world worked together to make Balagtas’
career as poet possible. The industrial revolution had caused a great movement of
commerce in the globe, creating wealth and the opportunity for material improvement in
the life of the working classes. With these great material changes, social values were
transformed, allowing greater social mobility. In short, he was a child of the global
bourgeois revolution. Liberal ideas, in time, broke class — and, in the Philippines —
even racial barriers (Medina). The word Filipino, which used to refer to a restricted
group (i.e., Spaniards born in the Philippines) expanded to include not only the
acculturated wealthy Chinese mestizo but also the acculturated Indio (Medina).
Balagtas was one of the first Indios to become a Filipino.

But the crucial element in Balagtas’ unique genius is that, being caught between
two cultures (the native and the colonial/classical), he could switch codes (or was
perceived by his compatriot audience to be switching codes), provide insight and
information to his oppressed compatriots in the very style and guise of a tradition
provided him by a foreign (and oppressive) culture. His narrative poem Florante at
Laura written in sublime Tagalog, is about tyranny in Albanya, but it is also perceived to
be about tyranny in his Filipino homeland (Lumbera).

Despite the foreign influence, however, he remained true to his native traditions.
His verse plays were performed to the motley crowd. His poems were sung by the
literate for the benefit of the unlettered. The metrical regularity and rhyme performed
their age-old mnemonic function, despite and because of the introduction of printing.

Printing overtook tradition. The printed page, by itself, became the mnemonic
device, the stage set for the development of prose. The first Filipino novel was Ninay,
written in Spanish by Pedro Paterno, a Philippine-bornilustrado (Medina p. 93).
Following the sentimental style of his first book Sampaguitas (a collection of poems in
Spanish), the novel endeavored to highlight the endearingly unique qualities of Filipinos.

National Hero Jose Rizal (1861 – 1896) chose the realistic novel as his medium.
Choosing Spanish over Tagalog meant challenging the oppressors on the latter’s own
turf. By writing in prose, Rizal also cut his ties with the Balagtas tradition of the figurative
indirection which veiled the supposed subversiveness of many writings at that time.

Rizal’s two novels, the Noli Me Tangere and its sequel El Filibusterismo, chronicle
the life and ultimate death of Ibarra, a Filipino educated abroad, who attempts to reform
his country through education. At the conclusion of the Noli, his efforts end in near-
death and exile from his country. In the Filibusterismo, he returns after reinventing
himself as Simoun, the wealthy jeweler, and hastens social decay by further corrupting
the social fabric till the oppressed react violently to overthrow the system. But the
insurrection is foiled and Simoun suffers a violent death.

In a sense, Rizal’s novels and patriotic poems were the inevitable conclusion to the
campaign for liberal reforms known as the Propaganda Movement, waged by Graciano
Lopez Jaena, and M.H. del Pilar. The two novels so vividly portrayed corruption and
oppression that despite the lack of any clear advocacy, they served to instill the
conviction that there could be no solution to the social ills but a violent one.
Following closely on the failed reformist movement, and on Rizal’s novels, was the
Philippine revolution headed by Andres Bonifacio (1863 – 1897). His closest aide, the
college-bred Emilio Jacinto (1875 – 1899), was the revolutionary organization’s
ideologue. Both were admirers of Rizal, and like Rizal, both were writers and social
critics profoundly influenced by the liberal ideas of the French enlightenment, about
human dignity. Bonifacio’s most important work are his poems, the most well-known
being Pag-Ibig Sa Tinubuang Lupa. Jacinto wrote political essays expressed in the
language of the folk. Significantly, although either writer could have written in Spanish
(Bonifacio, for instance, wrote a Tagalog translation of Rizal’s Ultimo Adios), both chose
to communicate to their fellowmen in their own native language.

The figure of Rizal dominates Philippine literature until the present day. Liberalism
led to education of the native and the ascendancy of Spanish. But Spanish was
undermined by the very ideas of liberation that it helped spread, and its decline led to
nativism and a renaissance of literature in the native languages.

The turn of the century witnessed not only the Philippine revolution but a quieter
though no less significant outbreak. The educated women of the period produced
significant poetry. Gregoria de Jesus, wife of Andres Bonifacio, wrote notable Tagalog
poetry. Meanwhile, in Vigan of the Ilocano North, Leona Florentino, by her poetry,
became the foremost Ilocano writer of her time.

About the Authors:


Francis C. Macansantos is a Palanca Literary Award veteran winning first prize for
poetry in 1989 with UP Press publishing his book “The Words and Other Poems” in
1997.
Priscilla S. Macansantos has won in the 1998 Palanca Literary Awards for her poetry
“Departures” and is now an Associate Professor at the University of the Philippines.