An inside story: Ilustrados in Spain fighting for reform

Published November 1, 2021, 12:12 AM

by Jaime Laya

Wala Lang

PARIS IN THE EYES OF FILIPINO REFORMISTS La Vie Parisienne, Juan Luna (GSIS Collection, National Museum).

The impression one gathers from textbooks is that ilustrados in Spain were one in advocating reform in the motherland. This was apparently not the case. The Filipino community was divided, some supporting the status quo, others reform, and still others revolution. There were spies, counterspies, and double agents, funded by friars aiming to ferret out agitators. Duels were legal and young hotheads were ready with sword and pistol aimed at unsympathetic Spaniards and even at themselves.

The inside story is recounted by Galicano C. Apacible, victim of racism at UST. Indios were discriminated against and after a fight with a friar-professor, Apacible left for Spain to continue his medical studies. He arrived in Barcelona in 1888, an idealistic 24-year-old who promptly joined Filipinos agitating for reform.  

Unlike Cuba and Puerto Rico, the Philippines was unrepresented in the Cortes (the Spanish Legislature) and grievances against the Philippine colonial administration had to be aired elsewhere.

Filipino activists lobbied the Cortes, the Ministry of the Colonies, journalists, and sundry influencers to call attention to colonial government and religious order abuses. Apacible cites arbitrary deportations, confiscation of private property, imprisonment without trial, warrantless search of houses, press censorship.  The religious orders, too, had supporters in the Filipino community, however, and had their own well-funded lobbies. Reformists therefore got nowhere.

Hoping to be heard more clearly, students organized the La Solidaridad Association of Barcelona over opposition from a segment of the Filipino community. Rizal, by then in London, was elected honorary president. Apacible was elected president and Graciano López Jaena, vice president. 

With López Jaena and Marcelo H. del Pilar as its first editors, the association began publishing the fortnightly La Solidaridad to report on abuses and be the voice for reform. It was of course dangerous to possess copies in the Philippines and the few subscriptions had to be sent surreptitiously. Association members contributed to cover costs. The colonial government, however, apparently created obstacles to block or delay remittances. Without ATMs, GCash, or online banking, remittances from home, already meager, were often delayed. Keeping La Solidaridad going was always a problem.

Tempers were hot and when Spanish journalist Mir Deas wrote an article calling Antonio Luna an ingrate, a filibustero, indecent, filthy, etc., the enraged Luna rushed to Barcelona from Madrid, hunted and found Deas, spat on his face, and challenged him to a duel. Deas fled and thereafter avoided Filipinos.  

Another Spaniard Wenceslao Retana who constantly denounced the Filipino cause was believed to be in the pay of the religious corporations. An expert swordsman, Apacible and others tried unsuccessfully to provoke Retana to a duel. He was publicly insulted, pushed to the ground while at Parque el Retiro, to no avail. Retana was eventually dismissed as a coward.

Freemasonry was for freedom and dignity, mutual assistance, and brotherhood. It supported nationalist aspirations among its members. Apacible, Rizal, and like-minded Filipinos therefore became Freemasons and formed a Lodge, Logia Solidaridad in Barcelona. Apacible later joined the Logia Solidaridad de Madrid when he moved there for further medical studies. 

The Filipino community was divided. La Solidaridad’s editor Marcelo H. del Pilar was criticized for refusing to publish articles that he considered “too radical or too mild,” disturbing supporters and contributors. Del Pilar was considered “a moderate and a partisan of assimilation” while Rizal was “more radical… regarded as one hundred percent separatist.” A choice had to be made between “Pilaristas” and. “Rizalistas” and, in a hotly disputed election that took four days of repeated balloting, the Pilaristas won. Along the way there were fistfights and, at one point, Apacible (leader of the Rizalistas) physically threw a Pilarista out the window. In the end, Rizal left Spain, del Pilar took over, and members lost interest.

It was not all study, lobbying, and serious business. During spring and summer, the Filipino student group went picnicking with feminine company and liquid refreshments. Once matters got out of hand and tipsy, Antonio Luna challenged Rizal to a duel that the latter accepted. Luna was remorseful and the following morning, the duelers’ seconds on their own reached an honor-saving solution and the duel did not take place.

Filipinos flocked to Paris for the 1889 Universal Exposition and Rizal took the opportunity to organize a conference on Philippine affairs. For his part, the French-speaking Apacible found Parisian life pleasant, with the “very feminine French girls,” French cuisine, and the “gaiety of the boulevards.”

Our great-great grandparents (make that great-great grandfathers) knew how to enjoy themselves while watching their backs and spreading propaganda for reform.

Note: This article is based on Encarnacion Alzona, Galicano Apacible: Profile of a Filipino Patriot (Manila: National Historical Institute, 1971).

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