‘Hermano Puli’: religion, rebellion, and nation

Showing at some local cinemas since last week—and I hope it’s not pulled out soon for lack of viewers—is the historical movie “Ang Hapis at Himagsik ni Hermano Puli.” Competently directed by Gil Portes and with Aljur Abrenica in the lead role, the film depicts the “agony and fury” of Apolinario de la Cruz (aka “Hermano Puli”) and tells the story of the Cofradia de San Jose, a religious movement he founded in the province of Tayabas (now Quezon) in Southern Tagalog.

The movie is very much worth watching because it is another reminder that our people’s march to nationhood was not unilinear and did not happen overnight. Indeed, the Filipino nation has its beginnings in the early struggles of our ancestors for dignity in various domains of colonial society. We can say that the 1896 revolution harvested the energy of these early revolts, and imbued it with a national consciousness it had lacked.

Just as the film “Heneral Luna,” which recently had a successful run in the theaters, depicts the complexity of the revolutionary process, “Hermano Puli” shows how the Christian religion that Spain had used to domesticate the will of the Filipinos itself became the wellspring of their rebellion. In Hermano Puli’s case, as in the countless others that came before and after him, the seeds of early grievances had to do with religion.

The friars—the gatekeepers of Hispanic Christianity—saw some of the cofradias evolving into dangerous cults that promoted beliefs and practices contrary to Christian doctrine. The colonial authorities began to view these religious movements as anything but harmless prayer groups. Yet, we can be sure that these cofradias’ own self-understanding was far from radical. Contrary to the Spanish authorities’ paranoid view, these movements did not deliberately use religion as a cover for sinister political objectives.

How revolutionary conflict assumes religious forms is eloquently explained by Marx in his famous “Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.” In studying the period of revolution, he writes, “it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic—in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.”

Hermano Puli’s initial awakening to the contradictions between the ideals of Christian equality and the racism of the religious orders is shown in the film in the innocent conversation between Puli as a young boy aspiring to be a priest and his mother who encourages his vocation while warning him of the difficulty of breaking through the racial barrier within the Church. It is in the pursuit of his religious vocation that Puli becomes aware of the contradictions inherent in Spanish colonial society. Even as his understanding of this conflict is tempered by his religious piety, the struggle he and his followers are later forced to wage is revolutionary at its core.

Apolinario de la Cruz was a charismatic preacher. Had he been given the chance to study for the priesthood, the deteriorating conditions of Spanish colonial society would have radicalized him in the mold of the native Catholic priests Gomez, Burgos and Zamora.

Puli miraculously survived the Nov. 1, 1841 massacre of the members of the Cofradia de San Jose in the hills of Tayabas. Wounded, he was making his way to Sariaya when some barrio folks he thought were sympathetic tied him up and surrendered him to the Spanish authorities in Tayabas. There he was tortured and shot by a firing squad on orders of the Spanish commander.

Hermano Puli died at age 27. He was, like many of the ordinary people who joined the Katipunan half a century later, steeped in Christianity’s promise of a New Jerusalem, confident about the justness of their cause, and hopeful that their faith and their amulets would protect them from harm. Had he lived longer, he would have been the natural leader of a massive self-organized popular movement against all forms of oppression.

The spirit Hermano Puli embodied reappears through various upheavals in our nation’s history. It remains alive until today, and is found almost everywhere in our country, thriving in the shadows of the institutional Church and the State, and inhabiting the interstices of a superficial modernity. The mountains are the natural habitat of this mystical energy. Mount Banahaw, with its beautiful streams, gulleys, waterfalls, and caves is probably the most famous of these sacred mountains. At various times, this enchanted place has sheltered and nurtured mystics, dissidents, cultists, and every Filipino rebel who has ever felt as an outsider to his own country’s conventions.

In one of the closing scenes of “Hermano Puli,” the mangled body of the hero is shown beneath a sign that says, “Ito’y isang erehe, Huwag tularan (This is a heretic, Don’t copy).” I don’t know if the sign has historical basis, but it certainly has a contemporary resonance.

If the movie wanted to establish relevance to our times, it didn’t have to go further than to show—to borrow from O.D. Corpuz’s account of that tragedy—the “slaughter of defenseless old people, women, and children who did not fight back because in their piety they believed they would come back to life.” (“The Roots of the Filipino Nation,” vol. I) More than anything else, the film prompted me to ask why it is the defenseless simple folk that usually bear the first blows of state violence during major turning points in our nation’s history.

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