The Underrated Ilustrado Isabelo de los Reyes was a Filipino Renaissance Man
Ilustrados occupy a unique space in Philippine history. They combined the economic freedom of Chinese mestizos and the ideas of Western liberalism to direct the nation toward a whole new path, away from the colonialism of Mother Spain and into an “enlightened” age.
There are a great many ilustrados, but some don’t get as much attention as others. Let’s take a look at one of the most influential, yet underrated ilustrados: Isabelo de los Reyes.
Isabelo de los Reyes, the family man
Isabelo de los Reyes described himself as “having enough chaos in [him] for God to create another world.” And that description is more than apt—it is impossible to talk about everything De los Reyes, or Don Belong, did in his life. There is a reason why he was the Father of Philippine Folklore, the Father of the Philippine Independent Church, the Father of Filipino Socialism, and the father of 27 children.
Over the course of his long and prodigious life, De los Reyes was married thrice. His first wife was Josefa Hizon Sevilla, a daughter of a Malabon capitan. He was barely 20 at the time and his mother did not approve of the marriage. Regardless, she gave the newlyweds P1,000, and they used it to open a pawn shop, which failed. They also opened a bookstore, which similarly failed because Belong did not “sell the good books.” They eventually managed to build a modest fortune selling rice, tobacco, indigo, and other key products.
From 1884 until Sevilla’s death in 1897, the couple had 10 children together. De los Reyes was in jail on charges of conspiracy when Sevilla died. When his son Jose broke the news to his father, he wept openly in prison.
He remarried the next year while exiled in Barcelona. During his stay there, he met Maria Angeles Lopez Montero, or Geluz, the daughter of a Spanish infantry colonel. De los Reyes wooed her through letters, poetry, and scribbles in a book that the two lovers shared. They were married on Christmas Eve of 1898.
The couple lived happily in Spain, and eventually, the Philippines. They also traveled together to different countries. In 1909, Montero fell ill due to the Philippine climate, so they decided to go to Japan to recuperate. She passed away on February 10, 1910, while giving birth to twin daughters that sadly died within a week. Their remains were interred in Tokyo.
De los Reyes married one last time in 1912, this time to Maria Lim, a mestiza from Binondo. Not much is known of their life, except that she, too, died in childbirth on May 27, 1923. They had nine children together. De los Reyes was pushing 60 at the time, and this was the last time he married.
All in all, De los Reyes had 27 children and three wives. He survived all his wives and 12 of his children, all of whom went on their separate ways.
Isabelo de los Reyes, the prolific writer
De los Reyes was, before anything else, a writer. He was madly prolific, the corpus of his texts easily dwarfing his contemporaries’. He started out in journalism, easily making his mark as a firebrand liberal journalist and defender of press freedom in an era of conservatism. His passion for journalism did not fade as he grew older. He owned a printing press and founded the El Ilocano, the first fully indio-owned publication.
Aside from journalism, he was also a prolific researcher. A lifelong student of folklore, he pioneered research into the customs and traditions of the Filipino people, compiling them into El Folk-Lore Filipino. His two-volume work laid the foundations for studies on Philippine culture, touching on topics as diverse as pre-colonial religion, customs and practices, origin myths, and other pieces of lore from all over the country. Today, El Folk-Lore Filipino is used in groundbreaking research on Philippine Folk Literature and Anthropology, both by Filipino and foreign researchers.
Though he had a distaste for the Catholic Church, De los Reyes was also a religious man. He first translated the Bible into Ilocano during his stay in Spain. Thanks to his involvement in the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, he essentially wrote the Church’s basic documents and doctrines, serving as the unofficial church theologian. His works defined the IFI’s tenets and practices, as well as its ideology separate from the Catholic Church it broke away from.
Isabelo de los Reyes, the unionist and obispo
Perhaps two of De los Reyes’ most tangible legacies to Philippine society can be found in the movements he helped establish: the labor movement and the Iglesia Filipina Independiente.
De los Reyes had his first brush with socialism during his stay in Barcelona, where he mingled with anarchists, syndicalists, socialists, and other ideological thinkers. The new way of thinking resonated with him, and on his return, he set out to organize the workers of Manila. His patriotism fed into his desire for unionism: Only through the unity of workers could they can defeat the imperialists.
In 1902, De los Reyes was approached by a group of lithographers for help in forming a workers’ cooperative for rice and other staples. He convinced them to form a federation instead and began working on organizing the workers. In a month, the Union Obrera Democratica was formed, with De los Reyes as its first president. The labor federation represented workers in various disputes, supervised educational discussions, and lead the country's first May 1 protest-celebration, an annual tradition that is still held today.
During the same period, De los Reyes was also busy advancing the religious revolution. Ever since Gregorio Aglipay and like-minded priests agreed to break the Spanish-dominated Church hierarchy, the two of them were in constant correspondence. Aglipay even asked De los Reyes to represent the Philippine clergy in talks in Rome. These talks, sadly, did not bear fruit.
On De los Reyes’ return to Manila, he immediately began consultations with both Aglipay and American Protestants regarding the establishment of an independent Church. However, disagreements on theological doctrine led De los Reyes to conclude that the only way for the Philippines to achieve religious freedom was to form its own church. On August 3, 1902, he proclaimed in front of members of the UOD the formation of a Filipino independent church, denouncing the Pope as the “caudillo of [their] eternal enemies, the friars.”
Aglipay initially wanted to distance himself from the schismatic Church, but he eventually took on the role of Obispo Maximo and committed himself to the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, formally inaugurating the Church with a mass at a make-shift altar in Tondo.
Today, the IFI still stands and enjoys membership all over the country. It is still especially strong in the north, owing to the founders’ Ilocano origins. The church in Tondo still stands, as well, and there is a bust of De los Reyes on the church grounds.
It is hard to understate just how influential Isabelo de los Reyes was to the Philippines. He was a firebrand, an unorthodox intellectual in every sense of the word, and an unrelenting patriot. He was a writer, an activist, a revolutionary, a politician, and a researcher, sometimes all at once. What De los Reyes represented was more than just his actions: It was the idea that a Filipino, an educated indio, could become someone great.
Mojares, R. (2006). Brains of the Nation: Pedro Paterno, T.H. Parde de Tavera, Isabelo de los Reyes, and the Production of Modern Knowledge. Ateneo de Manila University Press.
Agoncillo, T. (1990). History of the Filipino People, 8th ed. Garotech Publishing.
Richardson, J. (2011). Komunista: the Genesis of the Philippine Communist Party, 1902-1935. Ateneo de Manila University Press.