World Press Freedom Day

[Ilonggo Notes] Ilonggo icons of press freedom and nationalism

Vic Salas

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[Ilonggo Notes] Ilonggo icons of press freedom and nationalism

HEROS. (L-R) Graciano Lopez-Jaena and Don Rosendo Mejica.

'Interestingly, just 16 years separate Lopez-Jaena and Mejica. It is tempting to speculate on the connections between the two, who lived less than five kilometers away from each other.'

May 3 this year is the 30th anniversary of the UN proclamation of World Press Freedom Day. According to UNESCO, the day is meant as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom. It is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics, a day of support for media which are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom, and a day of remembrance for journalists who lost their lives in the pursuit of a story. 

This brings to mind Iloilo’s own icons of press freedom and nationalism – Graciano Lopez-Jaena, national hero, and Rosendo Mejica, the “Dean of Visayan Journalists.”

Lopez-Jaena, La Solidaridad, and the propaganda movement in Spain

The brightest, most articulate, and fieriest orator the country has ever produced was Graciano Lopez-Jaena, son of Placido Lopez and Maria Jacoba Jaena. He was born on December 18, 1856 in Jaro and was among one of the first students at the Seminario de Jaro, where he was once adjudged “Best Theologian.” He wanted to be a physician but lacked a Bachelor’s degree; nevertheless, he worked as a medical assistant in the San Juan de Dios hospital for two years, and then returned to Iloilo, where he started a practice. Much of what we know about Graciano today is from the 1964 biography Mightier than the Sword by Ilonggo historian Demy P. Sonza.

Seeing inequities and abuses first-hand, Graciano was fired up with concepts of freedom and equality. At 18, he wrote a scathing piece that lambasted abusive clergy, “Fray Botod (Big-bellied Friar).” Later persecuted for his views, he fled to Spain in 1880, intending to study medicine, preceding Rizal and MH Del Pilar who arrived several years later. He was taken under the wing of several prominent politicians and officials and started to link up with others who, like him, were pushing for reforms. Medical studies were abandoned. 

Lopez-Jaena initially was not an advocate of independence; he agitated for assimilation of the Philippines as a regular province of Spain, for equality of Spaniards and Filipinos, Filipinization and secularization of parishes, expulsion of the friars, representation in the Cortes, and granting of liberties such as freedoms of speech, of the press, and of association.

He was unable to return to Iloilo, but managed a short trip to Manila in 1890 using an alias. He narrowly evaded capture in Manila and was in Hong Kong from 1890-91, organizing an association to step up for reforms with fellow Ilonggo Jose Maria Basa.

The last five years of his life in Barcelona were difficult. He took on menial jobs to survive, as his sponsors were pressured to drop their support. He contracted TB and died in early 1896, at the age of 39. Before the year was over both Rizal and Del Pilar were dead, too. He was buried in an unmarked grave in a public cemetery in Barcelona; his remains have not been recovered.

Rizal considered Lopez-Jaena “the most talented Filipino he had ever known.” His rhetoric and passionate oratory moved audiences throughout Europe. Lopez-Jaena is best known as the founder and editor of La Solidaridad, mouthpiece of the short-lived but highly influential propaganda movement, that was first published in early 1889 in Barcelona.

In a 1956 speech marking the centenary of the birth of Lopez-Jaena, President Carlos Garcia waxed effusive: “Rizal was the idealist, the cultured and learned leader of his people. The apostle capable of supreme sacrifices for his country…. Del Pilar was the political realist, the suave diplomat, the shrewd strategist, the cautious but fearless crusader, and Lopez-Jaena was the carefree bohemian, dauntless and impulsive fighter, the indefatigable writer, the orator with Pentecostal eloquence, the spellbinder of the masses.”

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Rosendo Mejica – educator, community organizer, writer-publisher, labor leader, accountant, municipal councilor

Don Rosendo Madrazo Mejica (1873-1956) rose from poverty to become the foremost educator, labor leader, and publisher of his time. He was at various times a sakada, construction worker, teacher of French, first municipal treasurer of Bacolod, one of the first recognized accountants, and publisher of Hiligaynon works and translator of Rizal’s novels (with Ulpiano Vergara), while managing and publishing a long-running (1913-1946) local language newspaper, Ang Makiugalingon, printed at his own Makiugalingon press. The Iloilo Press Club named him “Dean of Visayan Journalists” in 1954.  

He was an esteemed nationalist and advocate for local languages and literature, and elected a city councilor for 30 years running. Mejica organized a community of seaside dwellers in Molo, leading them to establish the first elementary public school in the country in 1905, two years before Congress passed laws (the Gabaldon law) on funding a public school system. Mejica donated his land for the Baluarte Elementary School. My mom, uncles, and aunts all studied there in the 1930s.

Across the school is the Rosendo Mejica House, named a national historical landmark in 1971. Recently a major restoration was done. The ancestral home has memorabilia, rare publications, pre-Independence periodicals, printing machinery, and personal family possessions from the early to mid-20th century. Furniture and fixtures are well-crafted and practical, classic but not ostentatious. A brief biography by local academic Renz Trance, source of most of the information here, is on display.  

Interestingly, just 16 years separate Lopez-Jaena and Mejica. It is tempting to speculate on the connections between the two, who lived less than five kilometers away from each other. Mejica translated some Lopez-Jaena works into Hiligaynon, and funded the construction of a Lopez-Jaena bust in the Baluarte Elementary School compound. The street where the elementary school is located was named Lopez-Jaena Street under Don Rosendo’s initiative. Both were also Masons. 

Don Rosendo passed away at the age of 83, during the centennial year of Lopez Jaena’s birth. Lopez-Jaena has a statue in the Jaro Plaza, and his birthplace in Fajardo street has a bust and historical marker.  Of his personal memorabilia nothing exists. Don Rosendo’s life and works, on the other hand, are well-documented. –

Vic Salas is a physician and public health specialist by training, and now retired from international consulting work. He is back in Iloilo City, where he spent his first quarter century.

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