Column: Escudero and Bonifacio, ilustrado

Published on November 30, 2010. It was a thrill to receive, a few days after the column came out, a letter from Jim Richardson (about whom, well, see below).

I don’t think there is any question that Senator Francis Escudero’s campaign support for the vice-presidential candidacy of Jejomar Binay proved pivotal in the May elections. One political ad of Escudero’s was especially well-timed and well done; it featured the popular first-term senator asking the simple question, Who is my vice president? against a backdrop of Binay images. His lengthy answer began this way: “Ang bise-presidente ko, hindi mayaman, hindi ilustrado, kulay Pilipino (My vice president is not rich, not an ilustrado, looks Filipino).”

It is tempting to critique this answer as a set of criteria that disqualifies Escudero himself from higher office. After all, he was born into wealth and influence; studied at elite universities (he is an alumnus of Georgetown in Washington, D.C., like Bill Clinton and Gloria Arroyo); and like millions of other Filipinos, will fit right in in Singapore or Hong Kong, or in Schwarzenegger’s California. But I would like to focus instead on his notion of ilustrado, and to point out that like too many of us,
he labors under a consequential mistake.

Escudero’s use of “ilustrado” in the campaign ad takes out the original meaning of “enlightened” (that is, learned) and substitutes for it a mix of class and racist meanings: he equates the term with both the idea that comes before it (rich) and the idea that comes after it (not brown, therefore mestizo). This is not an original achievement; there is something in our culture that allows us to define “ilustrado” in these erroneous but resonant terms.

How erroneous? Well, here’s a test. The hero whose life and cruel death we honor today, the revolutionary Andres Bonifacio, was he an ilustrado?

Many of us would perhaps answer no. Isn’t Bonifacio known as The Great Plebeian? Didn’t Teodoro Agoncillo, author of the standard history of the Katipunan, describe it, in the first paragraph of the first chapter, as “a distinctly plebeian society”? Wasn’t Bonifacio merely an unschooled “bodeguero”?

In fact, Agoncillo erred—and the proof is right there in his famous book, “The Revolt of the Masses.” To lay the predicate, let me quote a crucial paragraph from that small classic of my time, “Roots of Dependency,” by Jonathan Fast and Jim Richardson. “The customary point of departure for proponents of the thesis that the insurrection was organized by ‘the most ignorant element’ of the Filipino people had been the figure of Andres Bonifacio, popularly commemorated as the ‘Great Plebeian,’ founder of the Katipunan and its president at the outbreak of the 1896 revolution. Agoncillo, for instance, despite his own evidence to the contrary, contends that Bonifacio was ‘almost illiterate’ and ‘belonged to the lowest class.’ Even from the scanty information available on Bonifacio’s life, it is certainly clear that the Katipunan Supremo was not of the ‘lowest class’ of Philippine society.”

Agoncillo’s “own evidence to the contrary” includes proof of Bonifacio as an enthusiastic reader, a consummate organizer, a conscientious writer—proof, that is, that Bonifacio was not “almost illiterate” and was in fact an advanced autodidact.

There’s more. Agoncillo also identifies Bonifacio as a Freemason (a fact confirmed, among others, by the account of Gregoria de Jesus, Bonifacio’s widow, in 1928.) “This points to another inconsistency in the view of the Katipunan leader as a simple plebeian,” Fast and Richardon write. “The majority of Filipino Masons in the late nineteenth century were men of some substance and education, and Masonry constituted the principal organizational focus for the domestic following of the expatriate ilustrado propagandists.” When Rizal founded La Liga Filipina, he turned to Masons like himself. But this group, Agoncillo had written, “personified the middle class.” Fast and Richardson then note: “Yet Bonifacio was one of Liga’s
founding members.”

What prevented Agoncillo from seeing the full meaning of the evidence he had himself put together? This blinkered approach has unfortunately hardened into doctrine, with the ascendancy of what the scholar Resil Mojares has called the school of pious nationalism. The very sin Agoncillo warned us against is the same sin too many of us are now guilty of: uncritical acceptance of a famous author’s conclusions. The uncritical reader “takes for granted that the fame of an author is sufficient guaranty of reliability and competence,” Agoncillo wrote. “Such mental outlook smacks of hypocrisy and cowardice.”

Renato Constantino, in his equally influential “A Past Revisited,” does make allowance for the evidence; but he uses shifting, highly nuanced terms both to “place” Bonifacio economically and to define the ilustrado class as “this broad stratum with an uneven consciousness.” This leads John Schumacher, SJ to note, in a lengthy, critical review in 1975: “In spite of all these careful distinctions and reservations, in later parts of the book, ilustrado is continually used as synonymous with elite and wealthy.” (To be sure, it was Constantino who shepherded Fast and
Richardson’s game-changing study into print, in 1979.)

Fine. Bonifacio may not have been a member of the proletariat, but did that make him ilustrado? I can only hazard a guess based on the example of other personalities of that heroic era who were indisputably ilustrado too, even though they did not, like Rizal, study in Spain—men like Emilio Jacinto, Bonifacio’s closest co-worker, and Apolinario Mabini.

In the sense then that the enlightened ones were those who were learned and who
placed their learning at the service of an emerging nation, Bonifacio, like Escudero, like Binay himself, must be classified an ilustrado too.


1 Comment

Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

One response to “Column: Escudero and Bonifacio, ilustrado

  1. Pingback: Column: Binay in the Katipunan « Newsstand

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