IN the time of the rise of the alternative media, one seems to forget that journalism is a noble profession. Yet one doesn’t have further to look for a time when journalists spoke truth to power, especially in a time of oppression. One can remember an old frail man facing water cannons in the 1980s to resist a dictator—Joaquin “Chino” Roces, founder of the Manila Times; or a man shot to death in his editorial offices by a municipal councilor—Ermin Garcia.
Journalists throughout history have laid their lives on the line to tell the truth. But there was one who also became one of our Founding Fathers. The man considered by many as the Father of Philippine journalism—the lawyer Marcelo H. del Pilar.
All the while, I had thought that Del Pilar’s journalistic contributions were made while he was in Spain, where one was free to write anything. But it was in 1882, when Rizal was already in Europe, when Del Pilar published the first Tagalog-Spanish newspaper called, Diariong Tagalog. In it, he used the language of the people to expose the abuses of the friars. The fortnightly only lasted five months but made a big impact. When his publications and activities against the friars endangered his life, he made a painful decision to leave the Philippines in 1888.
In Spain, he joined fellow Bulaqueño Mariano Ponce who had been organizing a newspaper in Spain for Filipino Propagandists to air their grievances against the colonial masters. Ponce founded the La Solidaridad and eventually Del Pilar, whose pen name among many others was Plaridel, became its long-term editor. In La Solidaridad, the propagandists wrote about their common misfortunes under colonialism and also about common history and identity, thus, becoming part of the creation of the Filipino nation at a time when we didn’t think that we could be one.
Financially, they were supported by Filipinos in the Philippines who were sending money to del Pilar through a lawyer named Apolinario Mabini, the paraplegic who could still walk around at the time. But eventually, Mabini broke the news that nobody wanted to send money anymore for his efforts and after six years they put to bed their final issue.
Plaridel told his wife that things had become so bad financially at the La Solidaridad in its final years that he had to rummage for used cigarette butts that he could still smoke in the middle of the cold. He expressed his wish to go back to the Philippines once he had enough money.
Antonio Valeriano, in his classic biography of del Pilar, claimed that his excessive frugality, homesickness and heartbreak caused by the failure of the reform efforts, had made his lungs weaker and eventually he contracted tuberculosis. Valeriano quoted Ponce who was with Plaridel in his last days in 1896: “Saksi ako sa mahahabang oras sa gabi ng hindi niya pagkakatulog, ng insomniya, nagawa nang walang tigil niyang pagiisip. Ang diwa niya’y laging puno ng mga isipin at katanungang nangangailangan ng matamang pag-aaral at malalim na paglilimi, at pagkatapos, kung lubusan na siyang iwan ng antok ay magbabangon sa gitna ng kalamigan ng mga gabi ng taglamig at magsisimulang gumawa hanggang sa ganap na pawiin ng liwanag ang ningas ng kanyang ilawan.” (I was witness to the long hours without sleep because of insomnia and his endless thinking. His mind was always full of thoughts and questions needing to be studied and analyzed deeply. And afterwards, when sleep had completely eluded him, he would get up in the cold of the winter night and start working until daylight.)
Realizing that his end was near, del Pilar decided to leave Spain for Hong Kong where he could closely watch the developments in the Philippines, and there decided when the right time was to return to the Philippines. The Spaniards actually feared his return more, believing that as a separatist, he was more radical because of his more forthright approach against them.
With the death of his collaborator Graciano Lopez Jaena earlier that year, also from tuberculosis, the only compatriot that remained with del Pilar was Mariano Ponce, who traveled with him from Madrid to board a ship in Barcelona. But because of his deteriorating health, he was forced to rent a house there to wait for his condition to get better. On June 20, 1896, Ponce had to admit him to the Hospital de la Sta. Cruz, where two weeks after at the 11th bed of the Sala de Sto. Tomas, Marcelo del Pilar entered immortality at the age of 45.His last words were: “Pakisabi mo nga sa aking kaanak na hindi ko na sila napagpaalaman; na ako’y mamamatay kasama ng mga tapat na kaibigan…. Idalangin mo sa Diyos ang mabuting kapalaran ng ating Inang Bayan. Magpatuloy ka sa iyong gawain upang matamo ang kaligayahan at kalayaan ng ating minamahal na Inang Bayan.” (Please tell my family that I was not able to say goodbye, but that I died with my true friends around me…Pray to God for the good fortune of our country. Continue with your work to attain the happiness ad freedom of our beloved country.)
He died thinking that he had failed. Mother Spain to whom he and his friends addressed their writings never listened. But the hero with a pen succeeded in one thing: his publications made an impact on the Katipunan, which appropriated their ideas, to utilize in forging the national consciousness and the creation of the Sambayanang Pilipino.