You know labor unions, but do you know Isabelo de los Reyes?

BAGUIO CITY, Philippines – He might as well be the Father of Anthropology and Indigenous Studies in the country. He introduced Marxism to the Philippines. He was jailed among the anarchists in Europe. He fought the Catholic church by helping establish another. He is the reason why we’re having May Day.

Now why are there no movies about him? Or, evidently, why haven’t you heard of him?

The only faults his contemporaries (Jose Rizal included) could ascribe to Isabelo de los Reyes was that he wrote too fast and just about anything. And also because he came from Ilocos, which, even a hundred years ago, was not considered part of the Filipino Olympus where heroes were manufactured.

It is only now that De los Reyes is given his due. In Benedict Anderson’s In Three Flags and its updated version, The Age of Globalization, De los Reyes is placed in the same pedestal as Rizal.

Resil Mojares also wrote two books on Delos Reyes: Brains of the Nation: Pedro Paterno, T.H. Pardo de Tavera, Isabelo de los Reyes and the Production of Modern Knowledge lump De los Reyes with the two other forgotten scholars and analyzed their lives and works to deconstruct the nascent concept of Filipino nationalism and identity. Isabelo’s Archive was written like Isabelo’s own folklore with miscellaneous essays on Filipino culture and history, mostly during the Spanish times. His essays here on Isabelo were among the first to be written about this unknown hero.

“Who was Isabelo?” Anderson asked. “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. This accomplishment did not save her marriage, and the 6-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 paleography at the ancient (Dominican) Pontifical University of Santo Tomás, then the only university in all of East and Southeast Asia.”

Leona Florentino and Mena Crisologo just happened to be two of the greatest writers Ilocos has produced. Isabelo was another, but he was out to prove that he was more than a poet.

What intrigued Anderson and Mojares about Isabelo was that in 1887, during the Exposicion Filipina in Madrid, the then 23-year-old Ilocano won silver medal for a huge manuscript called the “El Folk-lore Filipino.”

Both scholars lengthily discussed the importance of the el folk-lore which Isabelo described as a new science. 

“Filipinos needed to build an archive of local knowledge, storehouse of distinct materials and repertoire of forms. Folk-Lore Filipino responded to this need for building local sources and providing an epistemic base, as it were, for an ‘autonomous’ history of the Philippines, one that is worked out from within the culture instead of the appended to an already-written imperial or “universal” history,” wrote Mojares.

Anderson said that, in coming out with a national folklore from the natives themselves, Delos Reyes is equalizing the indios with the colonizers. Anderson said that, in many neighboring colonies, “folklore studies” were done by intelligent colonial officials intended for the colonial rulers and not to the studied populations. Isabelo also tried to “subvert the dominance of the reactionary Church in the colony,” particularly with the chapter about Filipino superstitions which had their roots in Europe.

“The third aim was political self-criticism. Isabelo wrote that he was trying to show, through his systemic display of el saber popular, those reforms in ideas and everyday practices of the pueblo that must be taken in self-critical spirit,” wrote Anderson.

Both scholars compared El Folk-lore Filipino with Rizal’s Noli me Tangere in rousing the Filipino intellectualism.

De los Reyes also wrote La Islas Visayas in 1887 and Historia de Ilocos in 1890, and attempted the first Filipino history book written by a Filipino, although only the first volume, Prehistoria de Filipinas.

In Isabelo’s Archive, Mojares also wrote an essay about Calendario ti El Ilocano, a series of almanacs, “Kalendariong Maanghang,” and another essay about Isabelo’s Ilocano version of Verdi’s Aida. Isabelo also established from 1889 to 1896 the first genuinely Filipino periodical known as El Ilocano, which was published fortnightly and was so successful that he established his own printing press. Another newspaper which Isabelo established in 1890 was La Lectura Popular.

Isabelo was so prolific (Del Pilar used the term “deplorable fecundity”) and working mostly solo that he earned the ire of the proper Tagalog revolutionaries who saw him as less introspective and haphazard.

Isabelo, working in quaint Vigan, was eventually arrested “in the immediate aftermath of Bonifacio’s uprising,” as Anderson had it. His ailing wife died while he was in jail. Eventually, Isabelo, because of “his audacity of temperament and his love of notoriety,” was transferred from Bilibid to Montjuich in Barcelona. His cellmate turned out to be Ramon Sempau, a poet and anarchist who later translated Rizal’s Noli me Tangere into French. Isabelo was later freed but opted to stay with the populist Radical Republican Army in Barcelona. He later went to Madrid, where started publishing a fortnightly named Filipinas ante Europa, which was against American imperialism. Like fellow Ilocano Antonio Luna, he was critical of the ilustrados who jumped ship and groveled to the American yankis.

He came back to the Philippines in 1901. The American regime immediately banned Isabelo’s planned newspaper El Defensor de Filipinas as well as his proposed Partido Nacionalista, Anderson said.
But Anderson also noted that Isabelo brought with him the first copies of the works of Kropotkin, Marx, and Malatesta, the authors who were influential in rocking the world with anarchism.

Barcelona-style, Isabelo, upon arrival, organized the Filipino printers and encouraged others to join them in what would be known as the Union Obrera Democratica (UOD). He started in the Philippines the tradition of upholding the workers every May 1.

“The American rulers watched with disbelief and alarm the huge wave of strikes in Manila and its surroundings, many of them successful because they were unexpected by capitalists and administrators alike,” Anderson wrote.

De los Reyes was arrested again in June 1902, but was freed after a few months. Isabelo then formed with the vastly popular Ilocano priest Gregorio Aglipay the nationalist Aglipayan Church. The UOD collapsed in 1903, but many other labor organizations owed their existence from this party started by De los Reyes, who at this time was fondly called “Don Belong.”

Isabelo won as Manila municipal councilor in 1912 and the championed Manila’s poor. He returned to Ilocos and ran for the Senate as an independent. He preferred staying in Tondo and even built an apartment building for the poor who were never evicted even if they didn’t pay their rent. Don Belong died on October 10, 1938. – 

Isabelo’s Archive by Resil B. Mojares was published by Anvil Publishing in 2013. The Age of Globalization: Anarchist and the Anticolonial Imagination by Benedict Anderson was first published as Under Three Flags in 2005, and was published by Verso under the current title in 2013.