Lisandro profile2

Lisandro Claudio

Lisandro Claudio is a Program-Specific Researcher at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University. He is also Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University. He is the editor of the arts and letters magazine, The Manila Review (

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Nationalist social scientists often caricature “Filipino culture” (as though one could homogenize such an entity) as having a penchant for “smooth interpersonal relations.” The implication is that Filipinos are conflict-averse, preferring double-speak and euphemism instead of transparent, adversarial, and even controversial discourse. A history of the Filipino essay, as found in newspapers and magazines, however, easily belies this view. The democratic tradition in the Philippines is deep. And because of this, its intellectual history is one of great polemics and debates.

Polemics were evident early on in the bi-weekly newspaper La Solidaridad (1889-95) published by liberal, reform-minded Filipinos in Spain. The paper became the backbone of the so-called “Propaganda Movement”, which lobbied for Filipino representation in the Spanish Cortes and produced articles from the leading Filipino ilustrados of the era: from national hero Jose Rizal to the deliciously anti-clerical Marcelo H. del Pilar. These authors were inspired by various ideologies and emerging fields of knowledge in Spain and Europe at the time: from liberalism, to anarchism, Masonry, and academic disciplines like ethnology and folklore studies. It was the consciousness raised by these ilustrados that served as the intellectual ferment that would prepare the ground for the Philippine Revolution of 1896.

Ilustrado nationalism, however, was not simply confined to Filipinos writing and publishing abroad. The same crusading nationalism, which exposed the abuses of Spanish civil and religious authority, took root in Filipinas. In 1889, the eccentric polymath Isabelo de los Reyes founded El Ilocano, which was the first newspaper published in a Philippine vernacular (in this respect, it was the progenitor of the popular Tagalog weekly Liwayway. “Don Belong” eventually made his way to Manila, where his nationalist journalism irked the Spanish authorities. In 1897, he was arrested and eventually jailed in Madrid.


The American occupation from 1902 onwards could not suppress the anti-colonial nationalism of the period. The newspaper El Renacimiento published the editorial “Aves de Rapiña”, which alluded to corruption in the American government, leading to a successful libel case against the paper. Despite the continued vibrancy of Spanish-language newspapers in the early 20th century, however, it was clear Philippine intellectual life was shifting to a new linguistic and literary universe.

The most crucial change to occur during the American occupation was the shift to the English language. The American occupiers sent not only soldiers to the Philippines, but also teachers, who taught Filipinos about the new colonizer’s culture, customs, and language.  As the country’s intellectual and political discourse began to transition to a new language, so did the country’s publications. Filipinos quickly learned English through a new public educational system. The colonial government also funded the education of talented Filipinos, who were to obtain tertiary and advanced degrees in the United States. These so-called pensionados were envisioned to become the backbone of the country’s intellectual life.

One such pensionado was the educator Camilo Osias, who would become the first Filipino to write textbooks for the educational system. In the 1910s and 1920s, Osias published a series of English-language readers for basic education, which introduced Filipino students to world literature and local folktales and mythology. These readers included selections as diverse as excerpts from Don Quijote, essays by Rabindranath Tagore, speeches of George Washington, and myths from Mindanao. This cultural eclecticism was a defining characteristic of many early twentieth century essay writers in English. But this was not only a function of their new American education. The writers of the early twentieth century were mostly still fluent in Spanish, even as they engaged English texts. This was a period when Filipinos looked outward, while simultaneously defining their inside.

English language writing was a state-building project. The Philippine Commonwealth (1935-41), which was the transitional government from American rule to an independent Philippines, heavily promoted English-language essays and literature. In 1940, for instance, President Manuel L. Quezon launched the Commonwealth Literary Awards. The award for essay writing was given to the young Salvador P. Lopez, for his essay collection Literature and Society, which advocated literature that was responsive to national and social problems.

Much of the critical work in this period was published through weekly magazines. The weekly was an ideal venue for the public intellectual: A weekly was topical, but it did not rely on straight reportage. Features and news reports were thus longer and, in the hands of stylistic masters like Nick Joaquin, they could be creative. The pages of weeklies did not just feature items on politics; they also had short stories, poetry, and in certain cases, cartoons. They were broad canvasses for national life.


The first major weekly was the Philippines Free Press, founded in 1907 by the Scotsman R. McCulloch Dick and eventually passed on to Filipino journalist Teodoro M. Locsin, Sr. The Free Press would become the paper of record for most of the 20th century, and it was in its pages that the best writers of the time cut their teeth. Apart from Joaquin, who wrote under the nom-de-plume Quijano de Manila, The Free Press published essays and stories from the likes of Kerima Polotan, Gregorio Brillantes, Jose Lacaba, and Resil Mojares. In its pages, for instance, Lacaba documented the student unrest in the first quarter of 1970, now known as the First Quarter Storm.

Alongside the Free Press was the Graphic, founded by Ramon Roces in 1927. It covered similar topics and also attracted the luminaries of Philippine arts and letters. It was in the Graphic that pioneering poet N.V.M. Gonzalez published his first poem in 1934. It was also the Graphic that launched a revolution in Philippine history-writing when it published nationalist historian Renato Constantino’s “The Mis-education of the Filipino” in 1966, which criticized American-centric histories of the Philippines.

Complementing these weeklies were semi-academic arts and letters journals that addressed a learned but general readership. In 1966, novelist and journalist F. Sionil Jose founded the magazine Solidarity, after receiving a generous grant from the Congress of Cultural Freedom (CCF). Like other CFF-funded publications across the globe (i.e., Stephen Spender’s Encounter in the United Kingdom), Solidarity was broadly liberal and anti-authoritarian. The publication featured works from prominent political figures like Carlos P. Romulo and Benigno Aquino Jr. and even Indonesian newspaperman and novelist Mochtar Lubis. Similar to Solidarity was the Jesuit Philippine Studies, established in the Ateneo de Manila University in 1953, which also straddled the line between academic scholarship and popular writing.

The period of vibrant, postwar publishing ended during the dark years of martial law and the Marcos dictatorship. Along with weeklies like the Graphic and Free Press, the Marcos government shut down newspapers like The Manila Times, The Manila Bulletin, and The Manila Chronicle when it declared martial law in 1972. As the dictatorship took hold of the press, very few maintained their credibility. At one point, the only newspaper publishing viewpoints critical of the Marcos regime was The Philippine Collegian, the school newspaper of the University of the Philippines.

During the latter years of the Marcos regime, especially after the assassination of opposition senator Benigno Aquino Jr. in 1983, critical voices began once again to reassert themselves. In 1985, writers once associated with the Free Press and the Graphic revived the weekly tradition by founding the National Midweek. This was also the time of the so-called “mosquito press”—illegal newspapers with anonymous authors, detailing the protest movement against the dictatorship. Many of the mosquito press’s writers would converge around the weekly Mr. & Ms., which began as an innocuous home and garden publication founded by Eugenia Apostol in 1983. Despite its origins, however, it slowly became the most important outlet of the anti-Marcos opposition. In 1986, after the fall of the dictatorship, many of the movers behind Mr. & Ms. became part of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the country’s present-day paper of record.


Freedom of the press was restored after the fall of the dictator in 1986, and writers have been nominally free ever since. And yet some of the vibrancy of the mid-20th century has been lost. For one, the Philippine weekly is practically dead, with the collapse of the Free Press in 2010 and the growing anemia of the Graphic. As for daily newspapers, the Inquirer is slowly becoming a gerontocracy of baby-boomers, who refuse to make way for a new generation of writers.  Despite this, the critical, polemical tradition of Philippine publishing lives on. Some of the freshest voices can be found in online news sites or in the ever growing list of glossy, monthly magazines. With the increased professionalization of academe, we are also seeing an increase in Philippine scholarly journals, which hopefully will not confine themselves to being the echo chamber of academe.

The Philippine essay, of course, will live on, as Filipinos continue to debate issues relevant to their democracy. What kind of publications will be sustained, however, remains an open question.