Fidel A. Reyes, the Lipa-born Nationalist Writer of the Early American Era, and the Case of the Bust to Honor His Memory
In the year 1901, while the Philippine-American War was ongoing, Filipino nationalists founded a Spanish-language newspaper which they called El Renacimiento or The Rebirth. Sheila Coronel described the newspaper as “the voice of the native intelligentsia and reflected their aspirations for self-rule, even as they had, by then, accepted the reality of American sovereignty1.”
In 1908, the newspaper published an editorial entitled “Aves de Rapina” or “Birds of Prey.” The editorial was a thinly-veiled denunciation of the activities of one Dean C. Worcester, an American zoologist and public official2 who at the time was Secretary of the Interior of the United States colonial government.
According to Coronel, while the article made mention of no particular names, “…there was no doubt in the readers’ minds who the target of the editorial was.” That would be Worcester, whose travels around the Philippines, or so El Racimiento alleged, was really to prospect for land and gold instead of for scientific purposes as was officially announced.
The editorial was written by El Renacimiento’s City Editor, one Fidel A. Reyes, born on the 3rd of May 1878 in the then-town of Lipa in Batangas. Reyes was a graduate of the Colegio San Juan de Letran who worked for the nationalist papers El Nacionalismo and La Independencia during the Philippine Revolution3.
He also wrote for a weekly periodical called Columnas Volantes de la Federacion Malaya and also edited an afternoon daily Spanish language newspaper called La Vanguardia4.
When Spanish rule over the Philippines ended, Reyes took up a second bachelor’s degree at the University of Santo Tomas, then tried to work as a pharmacist in his hometown of Lipa. This did not turn out well, so he returned to Manila to work as a journalist. He joined El Renacimiento in 19063.
Although essentially an exposé on Worcester’s activities, Reyes’ editorial “Aves de Rapina” could also be construed as a summation of how Filipino nationalists, who still dreamed of having an independent Philippine nation, saw the American imperialists’ real intentions in the country.
For his part, Worcester, who evidently believed it was he whom the article alluded to as having “the characteristics of the vulture, and owl and the vampire,5” filed what would ultimately turn out to be the landmark libel suit of the era against El Renacimiento. Among those named in the suit were Martin Ocampo, publisher of the newspaper; Teodoro M. Kalaw, the paper’s editor-in-chief; editorial author Reyes; and other directors, writers and redactors6.
As could only be expected given the political environment of the era, American Judge James C. Jenkins sided with the plaintiff Worcester. While the decision was appealed, it was subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court. Reyes himself was released3 but Kalaw and Ocampo had to pay then-astronomical damages of ₱35,0001 and even served jail time until pardoned by Governor-General Francis Burton Harrison5.
Although El Renacimiento lost the case, historians are not fooled by its ramifications, the negative verdict notwithstanding. Gloria Cano, for instance, saw the verdict as an example of United States censorship, something that its own constitution guaranteed to its citizens but was apparently at the time not applicable in the Philippine Islands.
Cano wrote, “This publication (El Renacimiento) suffered from the strictness of U. S. censorship. It was denounced several times for sedition and libel, for condemning abuses committed by American officials against Filipinos, and for openly advocating the continuity of Spanish as the official language in the Philippines.7”
In 1984, in recognition of Reyes’ role as one of the daring journalists who fought for the Philippines’ independence, the National Historical Commission (or the National Historical Institute as it was known at the time), commissioned the sculptor Abdulmari Imao to create a bust of the Lipeño nationalist.
The bust was officially unveiled in front of the Reyes family home at the corner of P. Torres and G. Solis streets in Lipa City by his three children Isabel Reyes Katigbak, Alicia Reyes Bautista and Josefa Reyes Luz. The marker was presented by Dr. Serafin D. Quiason, then acting chairman of the National Historical Institute and Director of the National Library of the Philippines4.
Notes and references:1 “Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Journalism from Around the World,” edited by Anya Shiffring, published 2014. Sheila Coronel’s description of El Renacimiento is taken from her introduction to Fidel A. Reyes’ “Birds of Prey.”
2 “Dean Conant Worcester,” Wikipedia.
3 “Fidel Reyes,” Dutch Wikipedia.
4 “Rites to Honor Nationalist Journalist Slated in Lipa,” by Amada T. Valino, published 1984 in the Manila Bulletin.
5 “Five Faces of Exile: The Nation and Filipino American Intellectuals,” by Augusto Fauni Espiritu, published 2005.
6 “Dean Worcester v Martin Ocampo, Teodoro Kalaw, et. al.,” online at the LawPhil Project.
7 “Filipino Press between Two Empires: El Renacimiento, a Newspaper with Too Much Alma Filipina,” by Gloria Cano, published 2011 in the Southeast Asian Studies Journal of Tonan Ajia Kenkyu of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
8 “2012 Guidelines on Monuments Honoring National Heroes, Illustrious Filipinos and Other Personages,” from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.