The growth of Philippine culture is closely linked with its political and economic history. It was a long-drawn and encumbered movement, but is was also a continuous and courageous struggle toward reality. Before monarchist Spain acquired the Philippines by discovery in 1521, under the leadership of Ferdinand Magellan who sacrificed his life for it, a considerable culture was developed. This culture took nourishments from the prodigal cultures brought by adventurous traders and missionaries from neighboring islands and countries. It was revealed in competence and excellence five hundred years later, when Spanish domination was broken by the most eloquent writers and thinkers who sponsored the upsurge of native cultural revival.

Politically, pre-Spanish Philippines was more advanced than the city-states of Europe during the same period due to its social structure which was based on a communal economy. It was this energizing economic arrangement which gave impetus to the birth and growth of a native culture that reached its highest development in the Shri-Visayan and Madjapahit empires. The flowering of this civilization which flourished throughout Asia and the Philippines was Buddhistic in character. Today there are still remnants of this civilization in the southern part of the Philipipne archipelago where Mohammedanism took a deep root in the life and thinking of the people.

Some of the first Spanish colonizers were dreamers and idealists who were principally concerned with the spreading of the positive virtues of Christianity in the islands. They were truly self-sacrificing and magnanimous to the natives, even to the point of paternalism. But the discovery of a new economic empire gave birth also the to rise of a gregarious power within the ecclesiastical hierarchy of Spain. Consequently the first colonizers were removed and gave way to the innovation of the new religious hierarchy that brought with it greed, superimposed by an accompanying political tyranny. These worked together in the merciless exploitation of the newly discovered natural wealth and manpower in the islands until the religious orders, because they had a firmer hold on the imagination of the natives, beam the dominant authority in Spain’s colonial policy. As a consequence, it paved the way to its shameful defeat and complete annihilation.

But the intellectual stupor that permeated the life of the people lasted a long time, so long that toward the end of the seventeenth century, they nearly lost their cultural heritage. The church was the imperious vehicle of destruction and oppression; it instated repressive measures against the continuation of an historical tradition which was at one time vigorous and promising. It violently uprooted every independent native cultural growth, imposing ignorance and illiteracy upon the people. Significantly, however, it was during this period of intellectual darkness that Francisco Balagtas, the first Filipino writer of historical importance, wrote Florante at Laura, which was the first notable creative work that attacked Spanish tyranny.

Spain was able to subjugate the Philippines for nearly four centuries of terror and cultural annihilation. But this condition could not exist forever in a land that had once known freedom, and among a people in whose conscience the dignity of mad had been revealed. The exploitation of the islands uncovered a tremendous natural wealth, and this eventually led to the exposure of the Philippines. It was also the beginning of the rapid development of its economy; and this was the historical factor that led to the culmination of Spanish domination over the islands, leaving on those aspects of European civilization which were conducive to native cultural growth. The exposure of the Philippines to widescale trade and commerce was also the beginning of a positive cultural contact with the civilized world. It signalized the birth of a political awakening that grew and spread throughout the archipelago until the Filipinos rediscovered the strength and magnificence of their cultural heritage.

While Filipinos were divided by the later colonizers, this awakening was an intellectual force that led them to discover a common social denominator on which they would work together toward the liberation of their country from foreign oppression. Even rudimentary education was still denied them; participation in the government was opened only to Spaniards and in limited degree to some affluent native families who bribed their way to secondary positions. Naturally, this confluence of native wealth and influence was the decisive factor that drove aware the masses from the government and their own leaders since they represented only their interests and the policies of Spain.

However, not all wealthy Filipinos played this shameful role. A few far-sighted families saw the impossibility of a continued subjugation of the Philippines under these conditions; and they started the agitation, not for complete severance from the mother country, but for liberal reforms, active participation in the government, and representation in the Spanish Cortes. Taxation without representation had a dynamic effect on the natives, especially on those who were following the course of the French Revolution and the progress of the young American Republic; liberal reforms, participation, and representation were the three overall programs which the enlightened leaders concretized into a common action of unity, and form this the stage was set for mass agitation and propaganda until the people wrested it away from them.

Before this anti-climax was reached, the Filipino families of means, realizing that education in the Philippines was restricted but that they were unable to liberate and universalize it for lack of a united political action, went to the most advanced cities in Europe. This was at the beginning of the nineteenth century when nearly all European countries were in turmoil and the peoples were revolting against monarchy. These Filipinos saw the crumbling citadels of kings and other royalties; they often returned to the Philippines inspired by and inflamed with the fiery cultural movements abroad. They witnessed the political maelstrom that was reshaping the social structures of many countries in Europe, and from this they found an education pattern for the enlightenment of their countrymen. More specifically, the valiant example of the short-lived Spanish Republic awakened them to the grave wrongs that their people were suffering at home.

With the cooperation of republican Spaniards they formed a program of united political action in Madrid, which spread to Paris, Heidelberg, and London, and finally to Hongkong and Manila, and then to the rest of the Philippines where a coordinated struggle was effected with native leaders. There appeared a body of revolutionary literature which had its fountainhead in the Filipino colony in Madrid, and that moved on to Paris when Spain was again under the iron heel of the monarchy. Wherever there were Filipino colonies, this new literature spread in the capitals of Europe simultaneously with the growing underground movement in the Philippines, a mass movement that was to decide which of the social classes was best prepared and suited to handle the problems of independence and the construction of freedom’s edifice.

Out of this period came a stream of writing truly political in nature. Its most ardent exponents were M. H. del Pilar, Graciano Lopez-Jaena, and Jose Rizal. The first two were propagandists who had escaped persecution and perhaps the Spanish garrote in the Philippines; in Madrid they edited La Solidaridad, a newspaper designed to arouse the sympathies of the remaining republican elements in Spain. But they were self-exiled, so they lost touch with the day-to-day struggles of the Filipino people; they were unaware of the fact that their agitation for reforms, participation, and representation had already penetrated many of the remotest villages in the islands. Moreover, Spain, like the other countries in Europe, was undergoing a bloody turmoil; the republican government was overthrown and the monarchists came into power again. These two sudden turns of events, spreading diametrically from each other and irrevocably irreconcilable, antiquated their program and made it obsolete in the face of the new situation.

But the spirit of the period found full expression in the two powerful novels of Jose Rizal. Noli Me Tangere, published in Germany when Rizal was twenty-sex, was an exposé of the atrocious conducts of the church and the state in the Philippines. Here for the first time, when it was treasonable to use the world “liberty,” was a book revealing to the Filipinos that their rulers came, not to cultivate and guide their potentialities as a people toward a flowering, but to exploit the abundance of their natural wealth and to corrupt their innate spiritual-treatise severely attacking the Spanish regime. While it lacks the literary qualities that permeated the first novel, it gains in its hammer-like blows against the flagrant chicaneries of the church and the shady maneuverings of the state. It broke the opening wedge for the masses to lose faith in the cabalistic mission of the church and its amplitude, the altruistic nature of Spanish colonial policy.

The first novel translated from the Spanish into English under the title Social Cancer reveals that Rizal believed “the Filipinos had the right to grow and develop and any obstacles to such growth and development must be removed gradually under suitable guidance.” In this, however, he was merely expressing the opinions of contemporary liberal Filipino leaders for reforms, participation in the government, and representation in the Spanish Cortes. This was his conviction also when he returned to Europe after observing personally the growth of Spanish tyranny in the islands; then he came to realize the not only political but also social reforms must be planned, if the growing rupture between Spain and the Philippines was to be avoided. And this is the them of his second novel, translated into English under the title Reign of Greed. But there is a new element in this book: a deep sense of frustration confounded by an anarchistic idea to arm the people.

Rizal’s loss of faith in reforms and his consequent confusion were the aftermath of his visit to the Philippines, where his compatriots’ and his own agitational works in Europe were already translated by native leaders into the fabric of their undivided struggle and common good. However, hoping that a peaceable arrangement could still be effected between Spain and the Philippines, he forsook fiction and directed his energies to historical work. He edited and also annotated the only and earliest history of the Philippines – Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas  by Antonio de Morga – an honest account of the Philippines in pre-Spanish times. He revealed in his serious of articles, “The Philippines a Century Hence,” that the Philippines, geographically speaking, was within the sphere of the surging American imperialist expansion; so it was absolutely necessary for Filipino leaders to study the history of the United States, and to schematize therefrom their fight for independence in order to be able to cope with the inevitable twists of history. The only answers to his persistency pleas for an enlightened relationship between his peep and the rulers were the delay bullets fried into his back when he was executed for treason by the Spanish government. But nothing was treasonable in his acts, works, and life. His execution was only the hysterical reaction of a crumbling despotism.

Thus Spanish sovereignty over the islands sounded its won death knell. The Philippine Revolution broke out under the leadership of Andres Bonifacio, a self-taught, self-disciplined stevedore at the port of Manila, backed up by his underground organization called the Katipunan. Membership in this organization was widespread, and the revolution was national in scope and had its main resource in the people. The Spanish regime fell after nearly a year of sanguinary warfare and the Philippine Republic was proclaimed. Under this government one of the most human documents was written and approved.

The wreckage of revolution and the delicate problems of reconstruction split the leadership of the provisional government into two warring factions. Bonifacio backed by his faithful Katipuneros, lost in the election of the first president of the Philippine Republic. General Emilio Aguinaldo, who was commander-in-chief of the revolutionary forces, won the presidency. The denouement gravitated to the final overthrow of Bonifacio and his shameful assassination, and to the eventful supremacy of General Aguinaldo who took command again, when, due to a misunderstanding of Admiral John Dewey, a war began between the United States and the Philippines.

However, the Philippines produced one of the finest intellects in Apolinario Mabini, who was prime minister under General Aquinaldo’s presidency. He was the intellectual guide of the revolution, now that Rizal was dead, and the leading thinker of the constitutional convention called by the provisional government. Mabini, a paralytic and a self-educated man, is the Filipino counterpart of Thomas Jefferson. He was deported to Guam when the United Sates conquered the Philippines, in defiance to the oath of a subjugated people, but he complied with the request of the American government by writing the history of the Filipino-American War in English, a language he learned in exile.

From Balagtas to the American colonization of the Philippines, there was a continuous tradition of intellectual rebellion against the hampering of native cultural development. Besides Balagtas, Rizal, M. H. del Pilar, Lopez-Jaena, and Mabini, there were also those who rebelled not only for cultural freedom but also for economic and political liberty. Among these courageous intellects were Pelaez, Burgos, Panganiban, Luna, Bonifacio, Jacinto, Palma, I. de los Reyes, Apostol, and Pardo de Tavera. Moreoever, these were the men who shaped and gave direction to the revolutionary heritage of the Filipino people.

Now the Philippines was under the United States. The revolution was broken. The leaders were either in exile or in jail. Some were dead. Those were were still in Europe gradually lost contact with native leaders. Another century had come and a new twist of history turned westward to the Pacific, heralded by American imperialism, embracing fanwise all islands in its swilling wake. The remaining leaders of the old generation were scattered, but another generation was born to taste the tyranny of a new regime. It was after all a labyrinthine circle of revolutionary upsurge and temporary defeat.

There followed long years of reconstruction and readjustment. The native cultural movement was disrupted and the richest elements of its character were destroyed by the new colonizers. The linguistic homogeneity that had been incorporated in Spanish was uprooted by the English language, and the dialects of the people succumbed one after the other without any favorable effects on the invading or invaded culture. All that had been tested for national growth, each tribe contributing to the common cultural fund, was relegated to a secondary function in the anarchy of new values. It seemed that the culture which was indigenous to the people and the land had become obsolete in this, the latest interpretation of native aspirations and life.

Dollar diplomacy prevailed, and with it there burst forth a superficial understanding of Philippine history. This was a novel purging of the red corpuscles, common to the imperialist countries of the west, from the bloodstreams of the people. Filipino writing was a sophomoric imitation of inorganic American writing, technically backward and utterly limited to the expression of sentimental middle class ideals. The Filipino middle class and petty bourgeoisie, as they had done under the darkest period of Spanish dominate, came out again with their wealth and influence to collaboration in the administration of American colonial policy. Their latest collaboration gave birth to a new class: the government officials and the military, since the Filipinos were given partial and then full participation in the affairs of the government and the army. This was followed by the rise of the compradors or merchants, and the middle man, a liaison group that acted as contact and an advisory board for the petty bourgeoisie and top government officials. And this again was accelerated by the cooperation of the professionals, especially those engaged in law and jurisprudence, which had become the measure of success in the new act of values subtly imposed by American imperialism.

But the people,e, the peasants and the rising proletariat – where were they doing all this time? Back to their fields and factories, back to their villages and grass houses. Back to their wounds and scars, to their poverty and diseases. Yes, back to their broken lives to contemplate on the grandeur of a once glorious dream of national freedom and the nobility that crowns the brows of men. Back, back to their roots and soil, germinal again for another decade of plowing and sowing. Alas, that they had to undergo another generation or two of confusion and suffering.

After more than three decades of American influence, through various social, political, and economic changes, native writing commenced to nourish a positive cultural revival. This was the resurgence in the thirties of Filipino writers who took up where their predecessors left off in the cultural chain; they outlined a national program and compacted alliances with progressive writers’ movements abroad. Inspired by the social consciousness of American writers who had awaked to the dangerous cross-currents in international politics, Filipinos began to examine their cultural heritage and to utilize its fundamental idealism in the awakening of a national consciousness. They directed a righteous indignation against the “culture-mongers” and social parasites that culminated in the creation of a broad organization of progressive writers.

A critical reevaluation of native culture appeared under the leadership of the younger writers and won support form government sources. Philippine literature perceived the importance of native folklore; it devoted a concerted effort to universalize education and to relate culture with political liberty. Spanish and American cultures were fusing and melting with the native culture, creating a rich and genuine Philippine synthesis. Filipino writers went back to the social roots – the peasantry and the proletariat – and began to weave the threads of their folklore with the national tradition. It was only then that cultural activity became a national consciousness, spreading simultaneously with the growing industrialism.

When the Filipinos enjoyed more economic security and poetical freedom their potentialities emerged and demanded full expression. Therefore, the social awakening of workers and farmers were supplemented by the emergence of vigorous talents. The body of writing from this period, due to improved political relations and better economic opportunities, was suffused with new national hopes and ideals. Filipino consciousness emerged into a world of unlimited intellectual possibilities; it found configuration in poetry and the short story, which sprang format he depths of Philippine life Athena-like, full grown, generous and abundant. From these branches of literate, converging in time and space, the new cultural revival was to draw positive nourishments for a national flowering.

Originally published in Teacher’s Journal 5 (May-June 1951): 1-18. Transcribed from On Becoming Filipino (Edited by E. San Juan Jr.) (April 1995): 115-123.