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By Leon Ma. Guerrero
December 13, 1952—OF all our national heroes, Marcelo H. del Pilar was, perhaps, nearest to the modern Filipino. Modern in his concept of political activity, modern in his belief in organization, modern in his skillful and efficient use of propaganda, he was the prototype of the modern politician, lawyer, newspaperman and civic leader. Del Pilar should surely be ranked on equal terms with Rizal, Bonifacio and Aguinaldo as a leader of the victorious revolution against Spain.
Few Filipinos realize that the Spaniards, who were after all the best judges of their enemies, placed Del Pilar ahead of Rizal and the others. General Ramon Blanco, governor-general of the Philippines at the outbreak of the Revolution, said that Del Pilar was “the most intelligent [of the Filipino politicians], the true soul of the independence movement, very superior to Rizal.”
We do not have to take the judgment of the Spanish Governor-General. Our own historians uphold the proposition that Del Pilar inspired the organization of the Katipunan, if he did not actually found and direct it. Proof of this are the facts that the by-laws of the Katipunan were submitted for approval by Bonifacio to Del Pilar, that Bonifacio used the letter of Del Pilar sanctioning the organization to recruit adherents, and that the Kalayaan, official organ of the Katipunan, carried the name of the absent Del Pilar as editor. Thus was explicit and formal recognition given to the man whose ideas and ideals inspired the revolutionary movement. So intimately was Del Pilar connected with the Katipunan, and so highly was he regarded by its leaders, that Bonifacio reverently copied the letters of Del Pilar to his brother-in-law, Deodato Arellano, considering them as sacred relics and, together with the letters that he himself received, as guides for action.
Marcelo Hilario del Pilar was born on the 30th of August 1850. It is a pity that our people did not see fit to celebrate the centenary of his birth two years ago, but the opportunity has passed forever. His birthplace was the sitio of Cupang in the barrio of San Nicolas, municipality of Bulacan.
The real surname of the family was Hilario. Del Pilar was added only in obedience to the famous decree of Claveria in 1849, the same that added Rizal to the name of the Mercados. It is probable that noble blood ran in Del Pilar’s veins. His mother was a Gatmaytan, and the prefix Gat indicated her descent from the ancient Tagalog aristocracy.
From the beginning he came in conflict with the friars, who were to become his lifelong enemies. He was a fourth-year law student at the University of Santo Tomas when he quarreled with the parish priest of San Miguel, Manila, over some baptismal fees. He seems to have been so deeply affected by this incident that he interrupted his studies for eight years, during which he worked as a government clerk. When he was finally admitted to the bar, he was already 30 years old and married to his cousin, Marciana Hilario del Pilar.
To understand his subsequent career, it is necessary to realize the political situation at the time. The real and effective political power in the Philippines during the close of the Spanish regime was exercised by the religious orders. We had what Del Pilar termed “La Frailocracia” in one of his most renowned works, that is to say, a government by friars.
They had attained this position through a shrewd and masterful strategy. To the Filipinos they denounced the abuses of the civil government, and proclaimed themselves the only protectors of the common people. To the civil government, in turn, they accused the Filipinos of being anti-Spanish and proclaimed themselves the most effective defenders of the Spanish sovereignty.
Thus, playing one against the other, the friars were able to maintain their predominance over both, in much the same way that certain elements in our own time proclaim themselves the only ones who can get American assistance for the common people, and brand their political opponents as anti-American and anti-democratic (the present equivalent of the terms mason, filibustero, and libre-pensador, so useful to the friars.)
Such a strategy of duplicity and deceit could not then, as it cannot now, succeed forever. In the end it was exposed and defeated, as it will again be discredited and repudiated in our own time. But it still worked when Del Pilar, as a young lawyer, returned to his native province and immediately proceeded to oppose it.
His counterstrategy was simple, but it reveals his political talent. He allied himself in every possible way with the Spanish civilian officials, who did not relish any more than he did the soberanía monacal, the monkish regime. Most of us, looking back at the past through the pages of a textbook, have grown to believe that all the Spaniards were bad, that their government was uniformly oppressive, that they knew nothing of constitutions, democratic rights and modern political institutions.
The fact is that Spain itself had undergone a long and ferocious revolution and civil war, and that the Spanish people had proved with their blood their understanding, devotion and right to constitutional government. There were Spanish liberals as well as Spanish reactionaries; the issue in the Philippines, as Del Pilar and Rizal saw it, was whether the liberals or the reactionaries, as represented by the friars and their supporters, would gain the upper hand in the distant colony, and whether or not the Spanish constitution and its bill of rights, and the Spanish system of representative government through the Cortes, would be extended to the Filipinos.
One may appreciate this in a flash from the title of one of Del Pilar’s pamphlets, which was called simply: “Viva España! Viva el Rey! Viva el Ejercito! Fuera los Frailes!” That is to say, “Long live Spain! Long live the King! Long live the Army! Throw the friars out!”
Such was Del Pilar’s political slogan, and he put it into practice by winning to his side liberal Spanish laymen, Filipino local officials, and the officers of the guardia civil. His father had been three times gobernadorcillo of Bulacan, and Del Pilar was used to the ways of provincial politics. He maneuvered to have one of his relatives, Manuel Crisostomo, named gobernadorcillo of Malolos, and, when the latter was relieved on suspicion of subversive activities, to have another relative, Vicente Gatmaytan, appointed in his place. Del Pilar also seems to have exercised great influence on the Spanish governor of the province, Manuel Gomez Florio.
With this organization behind him, Del Pilar took the side of the cabezas de barangay of Malolos in a bitter dispute with the parish priest over the collection of excessive taxes. Subsequently, in another controversy over the control of the civilian authorities in public funerals, he even convinced the Spanish governor to order the arrest of the friar-curate. In 1887 and 1888 he expanded his field of activities and prepared eloquent denunciations and memorials directed to the Governor-General and to the Queen Regent herself.
Obviously, the daring provincial politician could not for long escape the vengeance of the religious orders. At their instigation, a confidential investigation was held. Del Pilar was accused of being “anti-Spanish”—familiar phrase—and the counsel of subversive elements against the friars. The case was taken to Malacañan itself. This time, even his friend, the Spanish governor of Bulacan, was unable to protect him. On the 28th of October 1888, Del Pilar hurriedly took a ship to Spain as the decree for his exile from his native province was about to be signed.
In the Spanish metropolis, he plunged once more into political activity. He intrigued with the principal Spanish politicians, trying to secure promises and concessions. But above all he embarked on the gigantic one-man propaganda campaign which was to become his lifework and his main contribution to the Revolution. He edited La Solidaridad almost single-handedly, but with such rare ability that Rizal contented himself with occasional contributions from abroad.
Unlike Rizal, furthermore, Del Pilar had a modern sense of mass publicity. While the poet-hero wrote his tremendous novels in Spanish, a language that few Filipinos could read, Del Pilar flooded his native country with smuggled pamphlets written in simple Tagalog, a Tagalog that is still a model of lucidity, directness and force.
Del Pilar was no academician or theorist; he was ribald, sometimes coarse, even blasphemous. He wrote parodies of the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Apostles’ Creed, the catechism—all ridiculing his enemy the friar—and as a masterstroke of propaganda, he printed them in the same size and the same format as the pious catechism and novenas distributed by the friars to the faithful in the provinces.
It was modern propaganda; ruthless, unscrupulous, popular and tremendously effective. Yet Del Pilar was, also, a generous enemy. When his hated antagonist in polemics, the simple friar Rodriguez died, Del Pilar paid a heartfelt tribute to his sincerity, charity, love of truth, and honor, pointing out that the good father had received an exceedingly mystical education and was not to blame if he stubbornly idealized the facts of life.
When he learned from his wife that enemies, probably agents of the friars, had burned their house in Bulacan, he wrote to her: “I am not surprised over the burning of our house. Our enemies are capable of worse misdeeds! If the criminal hired for the job is one of our people, I know he was misled by his ignorance of my sincere love for him, for I cannot believe he would otherwise have sunk so low to do me harm. There is not a bit of resentment in my heart.”
How painful it was for this man to live separated from his wife and children! It was not only the penury which he suffered in Madrid; it was most of all the absence of his loved ones that drove him to distraction. His letters to his family reveal all the goodness of that heart, hidden under the truculent and combative visage of the propagandist.
His heart bled when his youngest daughter Anita, hearing that her father needed money in Spain, sent him one peso, which she had hoarded out of the Christmas gifts given to her. Upon receiving the touching present, Del Pilar wrote to his wife: “I can’t seem to forget the peso Anita sent me. I wish you had contrived somehow not to send it so that you could have bought her a pair of shoes instead. My heart bleeds every time I think of the hard life you and our children lead, and so I am very eager to return home to be able to take care of you and our children.”
Why did he not go back? He was not living in Madrid in the style of those of our contemporaries who have access to the favors of the Central Bank. He had no dollars for nightclubs and gifts. Indeed, as he said in one of his letters to his wife: “For my meals I have to approach friends for loans, day after day. To be able to smoke, I have gone to the extreme of picking up cigarette butts in the streets.…” But his friends in Spain, as well as the family council in his native land, urged him to stay, and conscious of his duties to his people, he himself knew he had to stay.
Besides, and this is a revealing episode in his life, he did not want to bring disaster upon his family and native town. It was not without bitterness that he saw the entire population of Calamba dispossessed in the furore over Rizal’s return. He wrote to his wife: “Regarding your advice about not following the example of Rizal…it is indeed very unfortunate! That man not only does not build, but also wrecks what others have built inch by inch by dint of hard labor. Of course, he really does not mean it, but because of his headlong ways, he brings misery to others. If my misfortunes bring blessing to others, I really would not mind them; but if they bring misery and disaster to many, then they are useless indeed!”
It is difficult to believe that these are words of Del Pilar on Rizal. But heroes are also human; they disagree among themselves. Rizal had his own reasons for returning, just as Del Pilar had his own for remaining in Spain. They had, one might say, two different concepts of sacrifice: Both were prepared to make a supreme sacrifice; Rizal was ready to die; Del Pilar was willing to face what was, to him, worse than death: exile.
But in the end, Del Pilar himself was convinced that it was useless to remain in Spain any longer. The time for practical politics had passed. Concessions would no longer be sufficient. He had learned enough from Bonifacio’s messages to know that the hour had struck for armed revolution.
Racked with tuberculosis, his constitution broken by years of hardships and hunger, penniless in a foreign land, Del Pilar dragged himself to Barcelona to wait for a ship back home. He was so wretchedly sick that, like an animal, he had to climb on hands and knees up to the poor garret where he lived.
He grew so much worse that he had to suspend his trip. He was taken to a charity ward. There, on the 4th of July 1896, a few days before the Cry of Balintawak, a few months before the execution of Rizal, and half a century exactly to the day before the proclamation of our independent Republic, Del Pilar died, a pauper, almost deserted, far from his beloved family, consoled only by the last sacraments of his old enemy the Church. There was not even enough money to pay for a grave. His body was buried in the private crypt of the family of a friend, on a hill overlooking the sea that lay between him and home.
Thus died the greatest of the Bulakeños, and one of the greatest of the Filipinos.
How many of us know even now where the remains of Del Pilar are buried?
With characteristic indifference, we let his body rot in a borrowed grave in Barcelona until a passing traveler took initiative, many years later, to bring back the poor bones and ashes. Today he rests in the mausoleum of the Veterans of the Revolution in Manila. He does not even have a grave to call his own. Perhaps he would rather rest there, in a common grave with those who fought for his ideals. Del Pilar was always a believer in unity, cooperation, brotherhood. That was, after all, the name he chose for the newspaper which was his lifework: La Solidaridad.
There are many kinds of heroism. There is the heroism of the martyrs like Rizal, pure and spotless victims offered in atonement for the sins of mankind. There is the heroism of the fighters like Bonifacio, bold and gallant in the vanguard of the struggle.
And there is also the heroism of those who, like Del Pilar, work and make their sacrifices in the sustained devotion of their daily tasks. Theirs is not the spectacular glory of the battlefield or the tragic splendor of the scaffold. But it is nonetheless heroic to starve for an ideal, to be lonely among many enemies, to suffer indifference and ignorance, to die a beggar and lie buried in a borrowed grave. Such was the heroism of Del Pilar.