By Francis Kristoffer L. Pasion, Museum Researcher II
Most of us associate the name “Epifanio de los Santos” to that main thoroughfare in Metro Manila, the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, or EDSA. The name has effectively been overshadowed by the toxicity of the traffic that was known to have emanated from the street, which used to be called Highway 54. Even the historical events of 1986 that happened there that ousted the Marcos dictatorship indirectly contributed to the relegation of the name “Epifanio de los Santos” to a mere footnote. But who was the man behind the name?
On 7 April 1871, one hundred fifty years ago, Epifanio de los Santos y Cristobal was born in Malabon, Rizal to the wealthy couple, Escolastico de los Santos and Antonina Cristobal y Tongco. His father was an alumnus of Ateneo de Municipal and was a haciendero, while his mother, a skilled musician, was educated at the Colegio de la Consolacion. The privilege he was raised into would not blind him to the cause of emancipation. Instead, as we would see, Epifanio would use this privilege to give back something of value to his people.
It was clear that his parents’ love of learning was inculcated in him. Like his father before him, Epifanio was enrolled at the Ateneo de Municipal, and like his mother, tried his hand on music and the arts, even painting. It was well known, according to his contemporary Rafael Palma, how he became an avid collector of flora and fauna in Nueva Ecija, and befriended the locals, seeking the names of these plants and finding out their medicinal properties. Everything changed when he enrolled in the Universidad de Santo Tomas, where he decided to take up Law. It may have been influenced by the changing zeitgeist, as his contemporaries on campus were those who would become Filipino leaders campaigning for reform. It was here when Epifanio began exploring Spanish literature. He was enamored by the writings of the liberal diplomat and author Juan Valera and was greatly influenced by his ideas of equality and the honest assessment of the human condition. He also explored German, French, and ancient Greek literature, which further expanded his knowledge. He finished Law in March 1898.
While not having been involved directly in the first half of the Revolution, he was an active participant of its second half, upon Emilio Aguinaldo’s call to resume it in 1898. De los Santos wrote for the Malabon newspaper Libertad, and even became an editor of Antonio Luna’s newspaper, La Independencia. He was also an avid columnist for El Renacimiento, La Democracia, La Patria, and Malaysia.
In September 1898, De los Santos was elected as one of the three representatives of Nueva Ecija in the Malolos Congress, that body that ratified the Proclamation of Independence, and drafted, ratified and promulgated the constitution of the First Philippine Republic in early 1899.
But even when the Republic’s congress capitulated amidst the Philippine-American War, Epifanio de los Santos began his practice of Law in April 1900, and in 1902 tried his hand on politics, as he was elected governor of Nueva Ecija. Never forgetting the aspiration for independence, even under the American dispensation, De los Santos fought for it in the realm of knowledge. Hence, he faded from the public scene for a while, and began his lone journey in the libraries and archives of Europe to find the rarest documents and ephemera on the Philippines. Upon his return, De Los Santos continued to dispense his office as governor. Even as he became the provincial fiscal of Bulacan and Bataan in 1906, as a true passionate scholar, with the documents he had retrieved, De los Santos began to write on the history and literature of the country. He became known as a pioneering Filipiniana collector and historian.
His home in Intramuros was a famous Filipiniana home library where the rarest books & materials not found even in Europe or the U.S. Library of Congress could be found. It also became a haven for Filipino literary luminaries—Cecilio Apóstol, Fernando Ma. Guerrero, José & Rafael Palma, Lope K. Santos, Jaime de Veyra, Macario Pineda, etc.
Tirelessly, De los Santos published numerous books on Philippine history, literature, and culture, with some of his works delving even into the socio-political issues of his day— Algo de Prosa (1901), Literatura Tagala (1911), El Proceso del Dr. José Rizal (1914), The Tagalog Theater, Folklore Musical de Filipinas (1920), Criminality in the Philippines 1903-1908, Fraudes electorales y sus remedios, and authoritative biographies of Trinidad Pardo de Tavera, Marcelo H. del Pilar, Andres Bonifacio, Emilio Jacinto, and Ignacio Villamor. He even had Francisco Balagtas’ Tagalog literary classic, Florante at Laura translated in Spanish in 1916, attempting, albeit successfully, to preserve its lyrical poetry from Tagalog to the Spanish language.
As such, given his proven rigors of scholarship, U.S. Governor-General Francis Burton Harrison, who sympathized with the Filipinization of positions in the American government in the Philippines, appointed him the technical director of the Philippine Census done in 1918, and published in 1921.
Upon his colleague Trinidad Pardo de Tavera’s death on 26 March 1925, U.S. Governor-General Leonard Wood appointed De Los Santos as the new director of the Philippine Library and Museum (the precursor to the National Library and the National Museum) on 16 May 1925. He passed away in 1928.
His immense contribution to Philippine studies cannot be underestimated. While overshadowed by his other contemporaries, his was an expansive pioneering endeavor in Philippine scholarship. His work seen through numerous monographs, writings, and collated collection marked his passion and drive to bring out the identity and intellectual heritage of the Filipino and proudly share it to the world. It is no wonder that Epifanio de los Santos was an acknowledged genius, recognized even by his foreign contemporaries like the Spanish writer Wenceslao Retana. De los Santos’ mastery of several languages was legendary, in that he would be accorded the honor of being the first Filipino to become a member of the Real Academia Española, the Spanish royal institution dedicated to the stability and preservation of the Spanish language.
In 1959, his prominence as “Filipino scholar, jurist and historian of his time” moved Congress to pass Republic Act No. 2140, naming the main highway along Metro Manila, Highway 54, to Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA).
On his 150th birth anniversary, we commemorate Epifanio de los Santos’ life and legacy that exemplifies the insatiable thirst for learning and achievement, driven by an all-consuming love for the Nation that bequeathed to him a proud heritage of freedom.