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[PULITIKULTURA] Layà and its modernity

By Marian Pastor Roces

Press and freedom

Kalayaan, freedom, erupted in the imagination of woke Filipinas in mid-March 1896 with the publication of Ang Kalayaán.

The newspaper founded by Emilio Jacinto and named by Pio Valenzuela—both elevated to the status of heroes in the republic they helped birth—articulated the radical ambition of their organization, the Katipunan. It was not possible for the underground org to publish as early 1892, its establishment.

Their printing press was purchased with a donation from two Aklanon Katipunan recruits, Candido Iban and Francisco del Castillo, who were pearl fishers in Australia. But once printing got going, the Kapitunan numbers swelled.

The advent of the first Republic in Asia was attended by the melded concepts of sovereignty and freedom of expression. The urgency of a truthful mass medium was clear to Andres Bonifacio, in whose home the printing press was first installed.

Earlier and half a world away, in 1889 in Barcelona, expatriate Filipinos of a liberal bent published La Solidaridad—its namesake organization preceding solidarité movements of liberation in 20th century Eastern Europe by half a century—with a political reform agenda. As most Filipino school children are taught, the propagandist editors were Graciano López Jaena and Marcelo H. del Pilar, and the coterie around this propaganda movement, so-called, included the sainted José Rizal.

What was gradually lost to Filipino schoolchildren, and most of their parents, is the sine qua non relationship of press freedom with national sovereignty. In the last decades, it should have been clear to educators and policy makers that the rote intonation of the heroes in school and holidays does not guarantee recollection of the non-negotiable role of press freedom in a democracy.

Nation’s modernity

These Siamese twin ideas bear repeating. Sovereignty is inseparable from the right of free expression and press freedom in a democracy. These are not legal constructs alone. These are muscle of Philippine culture. To be exact, a modern culture; belonging an event horizon of which the precedent is something else entirely.

The word layà does not exist in the well-researched Vocabulario de la lengua tagala by the Jesuits Juan de Noceda and Pedro de Sanlucar, published 1754; nor in the good padres’ basis, the volume of the same title compiled by a Franciscan, Pedro de Buenaventura and published 1613. All other dictionaries between 1754 and 1613 did not have layà either.

The nearest entries are layag, to sail; and layao, to roam at will. Hence, when kalayaán arrived in Philippine political discourse (albeit secretly) with the publication of the Jacinto-Valenzuela-Bonifacio paper, it was a willful seizing of old concepts of sailing away and roaming freely, to serve as the modern concept of individual and collective freedom. It seems this was Pio Valenzuela’s idea.

Fodder for many scholars of old Tagalog and its transitions, to be sure. But for today’s recollection of the declaration of Philippine independence from Spanish rule, on June 12, 1898 in Cavite, it is the locally-produced modernity of Philippine nationalism that deserves more than passing attention.

Its roots in earlier concepts are vital of course: a maritime imagination that conjures the expansive feelings associated with sailing into open sea, and the untrammeled movement of independent spirits. Philippine political modernity therefore took and reworked old Tagalog (at least in this case) to articulate unprecedented aspiration; that of a national community.

The Acta de la Proclamacion de la Independencia del Pueblo Filipino is a globally important, pioneering declaration of independence. That it was buttressed by independent political writing on the expatriate front in Europe, as well as among home-grown revolutionary actors, should count for a true revolutionary event.

And the signal importance of a free press—in fact much more powerfully expressed in Tagalog as malayang pamamahayag—was a stunning cultural threshold.

Cultural lineage

The lifetimes of Jacinto, Jaena, Bonifacio, Rizal, del Pilar, and their peers—who thought differently from each other—were the first to unfold around the modern aspiration for the freedom of a community called nation in Asia.

Dimasilaw (the 21-year old Jacinto, describing himself thus as impervious to glare), Agapito Bagumbayan (Bonifacio naming himself the new polity), and Madlang-Away (Valenzuela citing popular unrest) writing in Ang Kalayaan also embedded traditional concepts in their nommes de plumes as avatars of the modern project of nation.

They were not the only ones in their milieu who grasped the centrality of truthful, courageous journalism in a republic. Among the first members of the Katipunan were workers in the fledgling print industry. Aguedo del Rosario and Apolonio Cruz were printers at the Diario de Manila; Alejandro Santiago, at El Resumen; while Deogracias Fajardo and Juan Fajardo were printers as well.

During the early decades of the new nation, it is remarkable that the first labor union was the Unión de Litógrafos e Impresores de Filipinas, established by the esteemed writer Isabelo de los Reyes in 1901. The Unión Obrera Democrática Filipina founded in 1902, consisted of an estimated 140 printers and lithographers.

And in 1906, a national trade union for the printing trade was established: the Unión de Impresores de Filipinas, whose President was a lithographer and Secretary-General was a typesetter.

So much ink, literally, was impressed onto paper with engravers’ movable fonts and Bavarian stones, to articulate the nascent Philippines as a democracy.

The decoupling of issues of sovereignty from journalism and media of mass circulation in the last decade can hence only be seen for what it is: an assault on a century-old democracy and its concomitant cultural forms.

It is an assault on a cultural tradition of free expression that in the last century was animated by a sustained lineage of brilliant and courageous media personalities—of which Maria Ressa, Raffy Lerma, Jover Laurio, and Ed Lingao are only the latest generation.

On Independence Day, it matters that freedom is understood as a Filipino modernism, paid for with intelligence in the service of the national body politic and the costs of endurance.

Marian Pastor Roces works internationally as an independent curator, critic of institutions, and analyst of culture and politics. Through her corporation, TAOINC, she curates the establishment of museums. She is also a founding Partner of the think tank, Brain Trust, Inc.

She has long argued that governance, civil society action, and policy making in the Philippines are weakened by the absence of cultural analysis. Such analysis, in turn, needs to work with updated data. Hence Pulitikultura, Roces' platform for probing the intersection of culture and politics.

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