This story was taken from Bulatlat, the Philippines's alternative weekly newsmagazine (,,
Vol. VII, No. 4, Feb. 25-March 3, 2007


Historical Commentary

Semantics of Colonization and Revolution

A review of Philippine history shows an analysis of certain events and historical figures like Andres Bonifacio that border on the ridiculous and the sinister.

Contributed to Bulatlat

Too often we transfer ourselves into what we see, hear or read. The author’s meaning and intent can therefore affect our own predisposed ideas. Add to this predisposition the unfortunate habit of some writers in loosely using terminology and in blindly borrowing foreign concepts.  The result could range from the comical to the insidiously erroneous.  My favorite description of this ailment is “changing the terrain to fit the map.”


Andres Bonifacio has been known to Filipinos as “the great plebian,” the anak pawis (member of the toiling masses) who inspired thousands of other anak pawis to fight the hated Spanish oppressors with only their bolos (long knives) and the pitifully small firearms available to them.  For reasons known only to themselves, certain writers began portraying Bonifacio as middle class, albeit low-middle class, and not the anak pawis who led the Revolution of 1896. To support their claim, they point to his clothes, his marriage to the relatively wealthy Gregoria de Jesus, and his being a mason and membership in Jose Rizal’s La Liga Filipina that supposedly admitted only the “middle class” and the principalia


What exactly do they mean by “middle class” in Rizal’s time?  Was there a middle class during at least three decades before the Americans exported their brand of democracy to their new colony the Philippine islands that they bought from Spain for $20 million through the Treaty of Paris?


Throughout the Spanish colonial regime, there were only two distinct classifications: the colonizer and the colonized. There were two types among the colonizer: the Peninsular who was a Spanish born in Spain, and the Filipino who was a Spanish born in the colony that was then called Las Islas Filipinas.  Among the colonized were three major groups: the Indio, that is, all natives except the Muslims in the South who were called Moro. The third was the Sangley or the Chinese.  What should have been a fourth group consisted of the non-christian and non-moro like the Igorot, Manobo and Tiruray who were either conveniently ignored or simply lumped together with the Indio. Intermarriage resulted in a new type, the mestizo.  Since the Spanish regarded themselves as a people separate – and quite a different “species” – from the colonized, the country was peopled by two different societies. Clearly, the social classes assigned by historians cannot apply to the country’s total population. 


At the risk of being facetious, I shall use an analogy, assigning social classes in a land populated only by cats and dogs. There could be a middle class among the dogs and a middle class among the cats, each specific to the species, but there can neither be a cat-dog nor a dog-cat as an equivalent of the “middle class.”


To insist on doing so results in a species or social class that I can only call the “hotdog.”  As we know, a hotdog is neither a dog nor hot; and the proportion between the meat and the other ingredients is better left unexamined.  To assign a middle class for the whole society of the Philippines before 1900 can thus be described as a sandwich:  the colonizer as one piece of bread, the colonized as the other piece of bread; and the hotdog between the two pieces.


Andres Bonifacio was a plebian as were the great majority of the colonized, but what is a “plebian”?  The latter, simply defined, refers to the “common people.” Let us review what the inhabitants were like before the Spaniards consolidated their rule. Chapter 8 of Antonio de Morga’s The Philippine Islands has a description of the country’s social structure then. On top are the chiefs in each island and province who had their own followers and subjects. Morga wrote:


These principalities and lordships were inherited in the male line and by succession of father and son and their descendants. If these were lacking, then their brothers and collateral relatives succeeded. Their duty was to rule and govern their subjects and followers, and to assist them in their interests and necessities. What the chiefs received from their followers was to be held by them in great veneration and respect; and they were served in their wars and voyages, and in their tilling, sowing, fishing, and the building of their houses. To these duties the natives attended very promptly, whenever summoned by their chief. They also paid the chiefs tribute (which they called buiz), in varying quantities, in the crops that they gathered. The descendants of such chiefs, and their relatives, even though they did not inherit the lordship, were held in the same respect and consideration. Such were all regarded as nobles, and as persons exempt from the services rendered by the others, or the plebeians, who were called timaguas.


De Morga’s book was originally published in 1609 in Mexico, annotated and republished by José Rizal, and the above quote was from the translation of Blair and Robertson, now available at the Project Guttenberg website.  Instead of “social classes,” de Morga used the term “conditions.” He wrote, “There are three conditions of persons among the natives of these islands, and into which their government is divided: the chiefs, of whom we have already treated; the timaguas, who are equivalent to plebeians; and slaves, those of both chiefs and timaguas.  Clearly, the timagua were the freemen, which Blair and Robertson translated as “plebian.”


Tracing the origin of the word “plebian” then places Bonifacio among the timagua or freemen, but using that term was no longer possible during Spanish colonization.  Everyone who was not Spanish simply became Indio who were decidedly not free and who hardly had property rights. José Rizal – supposedly the “First Filipino” which was, incidentally, the title of a Rizal biography written by Leon Ma. Guerrero – belonged to the ilustrado class and his family was among the principalia. However, his family did not own the hectares of land that gave them wealth and high social standing. Despite their wealth and social status, the Mercado-Rizals had “land troubles” and they could easily have lost all their property. To use present-day terminology, the Mercado-Rizals were in reality landless tenants because the many hectares they farmed were only leased to them from the vast friar estates. In short, those who were not Spanish were slaves to the foreign colonizer. This was the slavery that “the great plebian” Bonifacio attempted to eradicate.


Not since Bonifacio has an anak pawis inspired thousands of common folk to pledge their heart, mind, and life to break the chains of enslavement.  More than a hundred years after José Rizal composed the kundiman (native love song) that begins with “Tunay ngang umid yaring dila at puso” (The tongue and heart indeed convey nothing), the common folk are still mute, inarticulate and filled with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.


Instead of valor and patriotism, there exists among them a kind of  “slave psychosis,” made more tragic because the oppressor is no longer a foreign colonizer but the slaves turned master.  The enemy is from within, not easily recognized because they are cleverly disguised.


The next attempt to organize the common folk was among the landless tenants in the central plains of Luzon. One of the active organizers was Luis Taruc, rightly or wrongly charged as a communist, then the worst accusation that can be made against anyone. Thus it happened that when the Americans were caught totally unprepared for the Japanese invasion, Taruc’s people had the only organized groups that can be used to fight the new invaders. They came to be known as the Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon (People’s Army Against the Japanese) that was shortened to “Hukbalahap” and then simply to “Huk.”  Instead of getting recognition for their war efforts in the United States Armed Forces Far East (USAFFE), the Huks became the new enemy—hunted as communists who threaten the established government and democracy. Ramon Magsaysay, the Philippine President described as the “man of the masses,” came up with not-so-brilliant idea of solving the “Huk problem” by wholesale transport of the Huks to Mindanao.


Ironically, the Huks were deported to Mindanao in much the same way that Rizal was deported to Dapitan in Zamboanga del Norte. As later events proved, Mindanao as “the land of opportunity” became one of the major causes of bitter enmity between the Muslims and the Christian migrants that would erupt into the Muslim secessionist movements. 


From a people’s organization, the Hukbalahap movement gave rise to a political party that came to be known as the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP).  One of their members was Jose Maria Sison who headed its youth arm.  Sison was eventually booted out of the PKP because he had been “listening to other voices” other than that of Lenin, and he founded his own party that he called Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) inspired by Maoism. Its military arm was the New People’s Army (NPA). 


One can very well ask, “What’s in a name?” Sure, a rose by any other name is just as sweet to quote from William Shakespeare. But that is not so in the Philippines.  The connotations of  “filibustero“ (filibuster), “Huk” and “NPA” made these words more dreadful than what they actually signify. Although “plebian” is somewhat appropriate for Andres Bonifacio, classifying him as “low-middle class” has sinister implications. That is tantamount to saying that the common folk or the masses are incapable of organizing themselves and initiating collective action that could topple a government. Shall the ordinary Filipino be deprived of a hero that came from among their ranks? Who then shall be their voice? (Surely not the “hotdogs”!)


The ilustrado class has been replaced by the Philippine “intelligentsia.” The latter refer to men of letters and those who have gone to the university to get that priceless diploma so they can attach alphabet soup letters after their names. However, they hardly speak for the common folk, not until they can think, speak and write in their national language – the only way they can truly understand the heart and spirit of Juan and Juana de la Cruz. 


There is another type of “hotdog,” those who live in the United States of America – the land of the free and the home of the brave – where they can be Filipino-Americans or Fil-Ams who have the option of holding dual citizenship.  Frankly, I cannot understand how one can pledge allegiance to two flags, unless in their minds the Philippines is really but an unacknowledged function of the USA.


Andres Bonifacio never took the title “general”; nor did anybody use it in referring to him, even if it was Bonifacio who took charge of deploying his forces, apportioning the scant resources and planning everything from the political to the military and down to the personal needs of families of members of the Katipunan.  Bonifacio was called the “Supremo” (supreme head) but that was obviously to distinguish him from the many presidents of the Katipunan councils. It should be remembered that the Katipunan grew too slowly in numbers while they used the three-member cell in recruitment and membership. When they shifted to “councils,” the Katipunan increased its membership.


It is said that Rizal was the first to call himself “Filipino,” one evidence presented being one of his letters to Ferdinand Blumentritt where he wrote that there were many of them in Europe but they just call themselves “Filipinos.”  In the memoir of a high-ranking Katipunero, Rizal requested the officer certifying his identity on the morning of the execution that his designation as “Chinese mestizo” be crossed out and changed to “Indio”.  That was certainly not a denial of his Chinese ancestry but a clear statement that he was born Indio and will die as one.


In contrast to Rizal and Bonifacio, the two most heroic sons of the Philippines, Emilio Aguinaldo used the title “generalissimo” almost immediately after he was proclaimed President of the Republic. We shall not argue here whether Aguinaldo was president of the Republic of Imus or of the entire Philippines. But before the Tejeros convention that elected him president, Aguinaldo held the rank of captain. It was with an almost indecent haste that Aguinaldo used the title “President and Generalissimo” of the republic. Obviously titles and ranks were as oxygen to certain Filipinos then as they are now.


The saying “let sleeping dogs lie” means that one should not dig up old and ugly issues. To let sleeping “hotdogs” lie, however, could be interpreted in two ways.  It could be taken as in the preceding sentence, or it could be interpreted as letting the “hotdogs” continue the lies that they have been feeding the common folk. 


However one chooses to understand the statement, one has first to decide on his or her identity: timagua or “hotdog”?  Only when a person has decided on his or her identity, who and what he or she is, can one begin to think independently. To quote from Rizal’s essay in “To the Young Women of Malolos,” one has to learn how to use his or her own torch. Bulatlat


© 2007 Bulatlat  Alipato Publications

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