by: Ma. Cielito G. Reyno

The anti-war and pro-democracy demonstrations of the 1960s culminating in the unforgettable student-powered First Quarter Storm of 1970; the Parliament of the Streets spawned by  the 1983 assassination of Ninoy Aquino; the formation of massive human barricades around Camp Crame leading in the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution; the coming together of millions of outraged Filipinos at EDSA in 2001, borne of a sense of injustice over the non-opening of a paltry envelope; today’s popular outcry for truth and clean governance manifested in rally after rally–all these had a forerunner in one of the rare instances of public protest against the powers-that-be during the Spanish colonial era—the call for the expulsion of the friars from the Philippines in March 1888.

      On March 1st (or the 3rd) 1888, around 300 residents led by a group of gobernadorcillos of Mania’s suburbs, chief among them the Filipino lawyer and gobernadorcillo of Santa Cruz named Doroteo Cortes, wound their way through the districts of Manila to the office of the civil governor of Manila to present a petition with some 810 signatures, addressed to the Queen of Spain seeking the expulsion of all friars from the Philippines.  The procession was calm and unmarked by any untoward incident- much like a   religious procession.  What distinguished it was the petition it presented.  Entitled “Viva España! Viva el Rey! Viva el Ejercito! Fuera los Frailes!”  (“Long Live Spain! Long Live the King! Long Live the Army! Down with the Friars!) it was a litany of what the petitioners believed to be the friars’ transgressions not only against the natives but also against the colonial government, among others: defiance of the ban of having corpses in churches; preventing the masses from learning Spanish; defending the Chinese who were disloyal to the government among others, in short, the friars were the reason the Filipinos were backward and the Philippines underdeveloped.  Even the Archbishop  (Payo) was not spared: the petitioners accused him of supporting the parish priests who defied the ban on corpses because it would be bad for business, and because of this, of flouting the authority of the Governor General.  To rectify this, the petitioners sought his return to Spain, the expulsion of the friars, and at the very least, their suppression through secularization of the parishes held by them- giving the parishes to secular priests, and the true assimilation of the Filipinos into Spanish nation.

      The procession and the petition were the culmination of a series of actions over the years in Manila, and in Malolos, Bulacan, made against members of the religious congregations- the friars- who also served as parish priests. While the anti-friar actions centered only in Malolos and several suburbs in Manila, they eventually evolved into a whole movement aimed not only at chipping away at the friars’ authority but in expelling the whole lot of them from the Islands.

       The friars’ intrusion into every aspect of the Filipino’s life was so encompassing as to impel Marcelo H. del Pilar to denounce it as “frailocracia”- monastic rule- a government of, by and for the friars, a virtual stranglehold on the neck of the Filipino nation.  While the early missionaries were impelled by a real sense of mission to spread the Christian faith in Spain’s new colony, risking disease and even death in far-flung villages as they defended – more often than not single-handedly- the newly-converted natives against the attacks, abduction and enslavement by non-Christian pirates, the succeeding generations of friars were seen by most Filipinos especially the reformists as having succumbed to corruption and greed and of exploiting the ignorant masses to sustain their luxurious lifestyles.

       According to Teodoro Agoncillo: ”While the laws of the Indies had vested [him] with the duty to defend the natives…the parish curate caused much suffering among the masses.  He exercised multifarious political and economic, patently non-spiritual, powers.  He controlled the educational system and public works of the municipalities, supervised the collection of taxes and the taking of the census, certified to the correctness of the cedulas, supervised the conscription of the natives into the army and the police force and, as the censor of plays and reading matter, determined the cultural fare of the people.  He controlled the municipal elections and acted as adviser of the municipal council.  He was also a member of the provincial board…Indeed, in the eyes of the people, the parish priest was the real representative of the king…”  With this kind of system giving the friars a monopoly on colonial administration, it was no wonder that they often succumbed to graft and abuse of power at expense of the Filipinos.

       This oppressive social system was bound to produce a counter force starting in the 1870s when the call for the secularization of parishes- the turnover of parishes from the friars to the secular priests- was first sounded by Filipino priests.  Despite the public garroting of its accused leaders –GOMBURZA- the authorities failed to destroy the movement, succeeding only in suppressing its remnants.  By the 1880s, secularization became but a part of a larger cause, a means to achieving an end- the call for an overhaul of Philippine colonial society by way of political and economic reforms- including changes in the educational system and in political administration.

         In a fortuitous turn of events, developments occurring in the central administrative government in Manila aided in no small measure the work of Filipino activists- or as they were then known- reformists such as Marcelo H. del Pilar and his group.  These included the replacement of the conservative civil governor of Manila by Jose Centeno, who because he was a Mason had liberal ideas inimical to friar authority; and the appointment of a progressive administrative official -Benigno Quiroga- who revived a law passed in 1856 banning corpses in churches as a public health measure, considerably diminishing the income and influence of the parish priests.  Non-compliance meant arrest and imprisonment.  These developments naturally boosted the reformist cause and emboldened its champions such as del Pilar – to further push the limits of their fight.

       In 1884, del Pilar and other reformists succeeded in getting one of their own elected as gobernadorcillo of Malolos against the candidate supported by the parish priest.  Del Pilar and his group succeeded initially in flouting the clout of the friar over the issue of residence taxes by refusing to follow the parish list of taxpayers, although later they were ordered by the colonial administration to follow the old list.  On another front, in Binondo, Manila in 1887, the native Filipino community- using their numerical strength – succeeded in snatching from the Catholic Chinese/Chinese mestizo community their traditional task of leading the celebration of the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary- by way of an order from the Governor General himself giving the preeminent role to the natives–despite the Chinese community’s having the backing of the parish priest. This turn of events caused the parish priest to absent himself from the celebrations, thus riling the Governor-General who ordered him as well as the Chinese gobernadorcillos relieved, which in turn angered the Archbishop.  The whole affair became a moral victory for the Filipino reformists.

          Other reformist moves followed including the order by official Quiroga for the establishment, in Malolos, of an agricultural school and another of trades and arts, and excluding any friar involvement- a virtual slap on the faces of the friars and a boost to the cause of the reformers.

         Thus was paved the path leading to the March 1888 demonstration/procession.  Its aftermath, however, was the opposite of their expectations:  not only did the petition fail to reach the Queen, it turned the Archbishop into the underdog, the aggrieved party who was inundated with visits even from Spaniards known to be against the friars.  The civil governor distanced himself from the petitioners and resigned shortly thereafter.  Quiroga sent an emissary to the Archbishop, and when Gov. Gen. Terrero resigned, his successor overturned many of the official moves made during his term which were inimical to the friars: the ban on corpses in churches was rescinded; the former parish priest of Binondo was restored to his parish, etc.  Worst of all some of the instigators and leaders of the political procession were arrested and imprisoned, and exiled. While Cortes was banished to La Union, Del Pilar, the suspected author of the petition (although more likely according to some accounts, he co-authored the petition with Cortes) evaded arrest and by October permanently eluded his enemies by fleeing to Spain.

         To del Pilar and his fellow reformists, the aftermath of the demonstration was but a step backward for the movement, in their hearts they believed they had gained a giant step forward in the politicization and nationalist awakening of the Filipinos.