Column: Binay in the Katipunan

Published on December 14, 2010.

Very interesting feedback in the last two weeks, in response to the column on Chiz Escudero and Andres Bonifacio, moves me to revisit the topic. Instead of worrying the definition of “ilustrado” again, however, I would like to discuss the class composition of the Katipunan—and argue that somebody like Vice President Jojo Binay would have fit right in.

I am sure I am not the only one to wonder, reading the standard accounts of the Philippine Revolution, about Pio Valenzuela, the medical doctor, co-founder and Katipunan emissary to the exiled Rizal. What was someone like him doing in a revolutionary organization described (by the fecund Isabelo de los Reyes) as “a plebeian association” consisting of the “pobres y ignorantes” or (by the influential Teodoro Agoncillo) as “a commoners’ society” made up of “the unlettered masses.”

Agoncillo’s answer is that Valenzuela (a source of his, on whom I think he relies too much) was unrepresentative of the organization. Four decades after completing “The Revolt of the Masses,” his landmark and still-definitive textbook on Bonifacio and the Katipunan, he belittled ongoing attempts to describe with greater precision the very demographics of Katipunan membership he seemed to take as proven.

“The attempts of some uninformed students today to rob the masses of what rightfully belongs to them is rather awkward since the alleged participation and leadership of the middle class and the intellectuals [in the Katipunan] was limited to two—Dr. Pio Valenzuela who lost no time in surrendering to the Spanish authorities less than a week after the outbreak of the Revolution, and Edilberto Evangelista. Bonifacio, on the other hand, is claimed by people who never even had any dealing with the Katipuneros to have belonged to the middle class, being, it is claimed, photographed wearing coat and tie.”

Agoncillo was a larger-than-life figure, erudite and fiercely opinionated. Reading him, however, I sometimes get the sense of an ill-tempered Cheshire cat; when his arguments fade, only his sneer is left behind. Fortunately for all of us, some of those uninformed students he may have referred to continued with their research.

Jim Richardson, for instance, has built on the early promise of “The Roots of Dependency” to build a sterling reputation as one of the leading scholars on the Katipunan. (His excellent website on the Katipunan can be found at Sometime in 2007, he used Katipunan documents seized in 1896 and kept in Spanish military archives, plus a first tabulation by Spanish officials, to produce an outline of the revolutionary organization’s class composition. (See “Notes on the Katipunan in Manila, 1892-1896.”) It makes for fascinating reading.

Over 200 names of Katipunan members are included; 136 have their occupations identified. And what did Richardson find?

“Most commonly and typically, therefore, the Katipunan activists were clerks, employees, agents, tobacco workers, printers and service personnel. They were indubitably proletarians in the Marxist sense, because they did not own any means of production and had to sell their labor in order to earn a living. Nevertheless, it is clear that Isabelo de los Reyes, Teodoro Agoncillo and others were wrong to classify them as collectively belonging to “the lowest stratum of society.” Their wages or salaries were either around or above the median for the city in the mid-1890s. Clerks were generally paid about 25 pesos a month, but those who reached senior positions, as did Roman Basa (Bonifacio’s predecessor as KKK president) at the Comandancia de Marina, earned over twice that amount. Dependientes and personeros would mostly earn between 15 and 20 pesos monthly, and the wages of
skilled workers in the tobacco and printing industries were in much the same range. Andres Bonifacio was paid 20 pesos a month for his labors as a bodeguero, and supplemented his income by making stylish walking canes and paper fans and by employing his talent for calligraphy.

“Lower-paid occupations, by contrast, are conspicuously absent, or at least under-represented, in the cohort ….”

“If many Katipunan leaders were not ‘poor’ by contemporary standards, neither were they ‘ignorant.’ Again the information is highly incomplete, but five KKK activists are known to have graduated from the University of Santo Tomas, the pinnacle of higher education in the colony—Pio Valenzuela in medicine; Feliciano Jocson in pharmacy; Ladislao Diwa and Teodoro Gonzales in law; and Jose Turiano Santiago as a perito mercantil. Three others started law courses at the university but did not finish—Teodoro Plata, Aurelio Tolentino and Emilio Jacinto—and several of the escribientes [clerks] had completed at least two or three years of the segunda ensenanza at the Colegio de San Juan de Letran, the Ateneo Municipal or in private schools, and would therefore have been regarded as well-educated by the standards of the day. The printers would likewise need to have attained a relatively high standard of literacy.”

To bring all this down to the 21st century: Part of Binay’s mass appeal is his self-identification as a self-made man, a diligent student who supported himself through school and made savvy investments on the side. (The topic of his latter-day wealth was the subject, among other stories, of a prize-winning report by Gigi Go, formerly of “Newsbreak.”) If a dossier had been compiled on him during the late 1960s or early 1970s, he would have been described in Katipunan-like terms: as a non-propertied militant activist, an orphan and a scholar, working as a claims
adjuster in a big insurance company—in other words, a living, breathing, modern-day escribiente.


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