Why the Spaniards Feared Marcelo H. Del Pilar More Than They Did Jose Rizal
When it came to being a judge of their enemies, the Spaniards were often spot-on, inerrant. They identified threats and nipped them in the bud. After all, they weren’t a global superpower for nothing. Spain had numerous enemies, but for its colonial government in the Philippines, the most potent was Marcelo H. Del Pilar.
Such was the Spaniards’ fear of Del Pilar that Governor-General Ramon Blanco described him as “the most intelligent of the Filipino politicians, the true soul of the independence movement, very superior to Rizal.”
Governor-General Ramon Blanco (in office 1893-1896)
"Very superior to Rizal"—they feared him more than they feared the national hero. More important, they considered him the engine of the independence movement among Filipinos.
For the Spaniards, Del Pilar was a force to reckon with, not only equaling Rizal in wit and prose, but even surpassing him in clout and political prowess. Being wary of him was only pragmatic.
Del Pilar Came from a Powerful Family
Del Pilar was born to a family with a storied history. Like Rizal, Del Pilar’s ancestry traced back to the principalia or the noble class of Filipinos, who originally descended from former datus. His mother, Blasica Gatmaitan, was a descendant of ancient Tagalog nobility. Historian and journalist Leon Ma. Guerrero (1915-1982) wrote that the prefix “Gat” in Filipino surnames (Gatdula, Gatmaitan, etc.) indicated noble ancestry or being descended from the great datus.
His father, Julian Hilario Del Pilar, had been a three-time gobernadorcillio (“little governor”) of Bulacan, the highest position that Filipinos could hold in government at that time, and then later served as the clerk of Bulacan’s provincial governor.
The Del Pilars controlled vast tracts of agricultural land. They cultivated rice and sugarcane, and maintained a number of fish ponds. They also owned a mill. Compared with the Rizals who controlled rice farms, the Del Pilars were significantly wealthier. Their connections to government also afforded them more influence, which especially worked out for them against the powerful friars.
Why Del Pilar Was Such a Threat
Among the Ilustrados of the Propaganda Movement, it was Del Pilar who was most vociferous in his writings. He, together with Graciano Lopez Jaena and Rizal, are considered as the triumvirate of the propagandists. If Lopez Jaena was most potent in orating and Rizal’s bread and butter was writing novels, Del Pilar specialized in parodies.
As a firebrand, Del Pilar operated with blasphemous humor to wage war on the friars. With his use of the Tagalog language instead of Spanish (Rizal used Spanish), his propaganda in the Philippines became a double-edged sword: a castigation of the friars which agitated them, and a call to action among Filipinos. His works, Caiigat Cayo (Be Like the Eel) and Dasalan at Tocsohan (Prayers and Mockeries) are examples of this. For mass effect, he printed these in pamphlet formats and distributed widely in the provinces.
Filipino Ilustrados in Madrid, Spain (1890)
Guerrero described Del Pilar as a writer who had a sense of mass publicity, which was something that came difficultly for Rizal. For Rizal, the Spanish language was a weapon of refined eloquence. For the Pilar, Tagalog was a language that was more realistic, direct, and forceful. Guerrero described it as “ruthless, unscrupulous, popular, and tremendously effective.”
Some historians even put forward the theory that Del Pilar masterminded the Katipunan, making him a dangerous enemy of the state.
“Proof of this are the facts that the by-laws of the Katipunan were submitted for approval by Bonifacio to Del Pilar, that Bonifacio used the letter of Del Pilar sanctioning the organization to recruit adherents, and that the Kalayaan, official organ of the Katipunan, carried the name of the absent Del Pilar as editor,” wrote Guerrero.
How Del Pilar had a Friar Arrested
It wasn’t only his writings that struck fear among the Spaniards, especially among the friars. Rather, they feared his political prowess and his ability to use that to muster support from powerful people, including fellow Spaniards.
According to Guerrero, a friendship with the Spanish provincial governor of Bulacan proved useful. When a controversy over the control of public funerals erupted, he convinced the governor to arrest the friar-curate (today’s equivalent of a parish priest) who opposed its transfer to civilian authorities.
Del Pilar Lobbied for Filipinos While in Spain
After Del Pilar printed a series of indelicate publications about the Governor-General of the Philippines and the Queen-Regent of Spain, the friars successfully instigated and accused him of being anti-Spanish. He was also pinned as an advisor of anti-friar elements in the country, which was not far from truth. Because of fear of imminent exile and deportation, Del Pilar quickly boarded a ship to Spain in 1888. There, he once again worked his political talent and befriended important Spanish politicians to lobby for the welfare of Filipinos and subsequent assimilation of the Philippines into Spain.
In 1889, he succeeded Lopez Jaena as editor of La Solidaridad, affectionately called La Sol or the Sun. He became its most prolific writer and long-time editor for six years until 1895.
During those five years as La Solidaridad’s editor, Del Pilar singlehandedly ran the paper, and consequently, became the backbone of the entire Propaganda Movement. Funds for the paper were sporadic, coming from various sympathizers in the Philippines. When funding stopped in 1895, Del Pilar used his own money to keep it running. It came to a point that Del Pilar became so poor that he scavenged for cigarette butts to smoke just to keep himself warm.
Although he was well-off in his hometown, he was nothing but excessively frugal in Spain. Antonio Valeriano, who did a biography on Del Pilar, wrote that the hero also suffered homesickness and heartbreak because of the reform’s failures.
Mariano Ponce, who was with Del Pilar days before he died in 1896, told Valeriano of the pathetic conditions of Del Pilar:
“I witnessed the sleepless nights he spent 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.”
On top of this, Del Pilar missed many meals because of his extreme poverty, and suffered from tuberculosis, the disease that killed Lopez Jaena months earlier.
Del Pilar Died Thinking He Failed the Country
Knowing that he didn’t have much time left to live, Del Pilar decided to travel back to the Philippines. However, because of being emaciated and severely weakened by tuberculosis, Ponce took him to a hospital. There, he spent a month where his condition only worsened. He died merely weeks after being admitted.
His final words to Ponce were: “Pray to God for the good fate of our country. Continue with your work so you can attain joy and freedom for our beloved motherland.”
Del Pilar died a without a single peso to his name. Even more gut-wrenching was the fact that he died depressed thinking he had failed his country.
Somehow, history has footnoted the extensive narrative of Marcelo H. Del Pilar as the most vigorous propagandist in acute favor of Bonifacio, Rizal, and other notable heroes. The point is not to diminish the greatness of the aforementioned, but to recognize the equal heroism and sacrifice of the Filipino whom the Spaniards feared the most.
Marcelo H. Del Pilar Shrine in Bulakan, Bulacan
Dasalan at Tocsohan: Schumacher, John N. (1997). The Propaganda Movement, 1880-1895: The Creation of a Filipino Consciousness, the Making of the Revolution. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.