A day at the Marcelo H. del Pilar Museum

The other day, I was guest speaker at the opening of the new Marcelo H. del Pilar Museum in Sitio Cupang, Bulacan, Bulacan, where the famous Filipino writer and leader of the propaganda movement in Spain was born.  Located in the same site where a shrine to his name has long stood, the Del Pilar museum is one of the 21 museum-libraries built all over the country by the National Historical Commission under the leadership of Dr. Maris Diokno.

I took along my 15-year-old granddaughter, Julia, an incoming Grade 11 student, who, like many of her English-speaking generation, continues to grapple with the polysyllabic sounds of the Filipino language. As we left the North Luzon Expressway and made our way through the interior streets of Bulacan, I told her about the historic significance of this province. “How much do you know of Marcelo H. del Pilar, one of its greatest sons?” I asked her.

“I remember this place, Lolo,” she told me when we reached the Del Pilar shrine.  “I was here on a field trip with my classmates, but there was very little to see then.” The museum was filled with students when we got there. They were busy navigating various topics in Philippine history on the monitors of about 15 computers, all connected to the museum’s Wi-Fi. At the short program, I spoke of the deep friendship and falling out between Rizal and Del Pilar, the two headstrong leaders of the Filipino community in Europe. Later, Maris Diokno and her team of young writers and creative designers took us on a tour of the different rooms that constitute the core of the museum’s tribute to Del Pilar and his times.

I was deeply moved by the ardor and care that pervaded the entire exhibit. This is the exact antidote to the amnesia that seems to afflict our people, I told myself. I realized how much we have taken for granted the existence of the Filipino nation, and how little the effort we have exerted to instill national consciousness in every generation. I began to see why it has seemed so easy for many Filipinos living abroad to give up their citizenship and to swear allegiance to another country. They never had a chance to understand and appreciate the struggles and personal sacrifices that went into the formation of the Filipino nation.

Our nation had modern beginnings. It was not sprung from the self-assertion of any particular ethnolinguistic or racial or religious community.  Indeed, it was first conceived in the imagination of a group of educated young people in whose veins a mixture of Malay, Spanish, Chinese, and other foreign blood flowed. In Europe, they were often mistaken for Japanese or Chinese. Their occasional reference to each other—“indios bravos”—was an ironic appropriation of a pejorative word that signified inferiority. In time, they took pride in calling themselves “Filipinos,” a term originally used for Spaniards born in the Spanish colony.

If there was anything that bound this group together, it was the shared belief that, regardless of their racial or ethnic roots, they owed the country of their birth the duty to work for its collective wellbeing and progress. Jose Rizal was the most persistent advocate of this nationalist view, which is why he is sometimes called “the first Filipino.”  But there were many others of his generation who, like him, yearned and actively campaigned for a country of their own in which reason, justice, and equality would be available to everyone regardless of ethnic origin or station in life.

That campaign took many forms as it evolved. It was neither separatist nor revolutionary at the beginning. Believing that the situation in the colony might greatly improve through representation in the Spanish Cortes, these young Filipinos initially worked for the recognition of the islands as an autonomous province of Spain. They enlisted the support of progressive Spanish politicians and intellectuals, careful not to alienate them with strident anti-Spanish rhetoric. They sought to drive a wedge between the friars and the civilian authorities that governed the islands.

At a certain point in their work, each in their own time, our nation’s founders felt that the campaign for reforms had reached a dead end.  Rizal came home in 1892 to organize La Liga Filipina, an association that aimed to establish the foundations of a self-reliant society through training in active citizenship and cooperative work. Despite his efforts to make his moves transparent, the Spaniards saw the organization as no more than a cover for insurrectionary activities, and promptly arrested and exiled Rizal to Dapitan. The Katipunan was born in the wake of La Liga’s untimely demise.

Left alone in Spain to put together and publish the fortnightly La Solidaridad, Del Pilar, who missed his family so much he begged them to send money for his return trip, fell into penury and contracted tuberculosis.

Rizal’s final letters to Del Pilar dripped with resentment over an unfortunate misunderstanding. His “hugot,” as my young granddaughter puts it, read thus: “The scratches inflicted by a friend hurt more than the wounds inflicted by an enemy.” But, the last of these letters hinted at a longed-for reconciliation. Rizal: “I wish to see you in Manila or here [Hong Kong] so that we can come to an understanding and we can once again be what we always were.” Del Pilar: “[Y]ou know that no other idea encourages me more than that of unity and fraternity with the coreligionists. We reserve our energies for the enemies of our tranquility.”

They never saw each other again. Del Pilar died in Barcelona on July 4, 1896, a few months before Rizal’s execution by a firing squad in Manila.

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