In 1887, at the Madrid Exposición Filipina, a 23-year-old indio named Isabelo de los Reyes, living in colonial Manila, won a silver medal for a huge Spanish-language manuscript which he called El Folk-Lore Filipino. He composed this text in unwitting tandem with José Rizal (then aged 25), who was wandering around continental Europe composing the incendiary novel Noli Me Tangere, which earned him martyrdom in 1896 and, later, eternal status as Father of His Country and First Filipino.

Who was Isabelo? He was born in 1864 in the Northern Luzon archiepiscopal town of Vigan, to parents of the Ilocano ethnic group, the vast majority of whom were, in those days, illiterate. His mother, however, was evidently a poet of some quality, so that at the Madrid and later expositions her poetry was displayed for Spaniards, Parisians, and people in St. Louis. This accomplishment did not save her marriage, and the young Isabelo was entrusted to a well-off relative who sent him to a seminary in Vigan, where he organized a demonstration against abusive behaviour by the peninsular-Spanish Augustinians; then on to the College of San Juan de Letran and finally, for a degree as Notary Public, to the only colonial university then existent in Southeast Asia, the Dominicans’ Santo Tomás in Manila. Meanwhile Isabelo’s father had died, and the young man plunged into the burgeoning world of journalism. It is said that he eventually published, in 1889, the first newspaper in a Filipino vernacular.

But while still a teenager, Isabelo read an appeal in Manila’s Spanish-language newspaper La Oceania Española (founded in 1877), asking readers to contribute articles to develop a new science, named el folk-lore, followed by a simple sketch of how this was to be done. He immediately contacted the Spanish editor, who gave him a collection of ‘folklore books’, and asked him to write about the customs of his native Ilocos. Two months later Isabelo set to work, and soon thereafter started publishing—not merely on Ilocos, but on his wife’s township of Malabon, the Central Luzon province of Zambales, and in general terms on what he called el folk-lore filipino. It became, for a time, the passion of his life. The question, naturally, is why? What was the meaning of el folk-lore for a clerically educated native youth in 1884? Much can be learnt from the Introduction and the first pages of his youthful masterwork.footnote1

Isabelo described el folk-lore here, albeit with some hesitations, as a ciencia nueva (a new science), perhaps consciously echoing Giambattista Vico’s Sienza Nueva, which had burst on the trans-European scene in the mid-nineteenth century, thanks to the efforts of Michelet and others. Isabelo explained to his readers, in both the Philippines and Spain, that the word ‘folklore’—which he translated pungently as saber popular—had only been invented in 1846, by the English antiquarian William Thoms, in an article published in the London Athenaeum. The first folklore society in the world had been organized in London as recently as 1878—a mere six years before he started his own research.footnote2 The French had followed suit nationally only in 1886—just as Isabelo was starting to write. The Spanish had been caught intellectually napping; when their turn came, they had no thought but to incorporate the Anglo-Saxon coinage into Castilian as el folk-lore. Like his contemporary Rizal, Isabelo was starting to position himself alongside pioneering Britain, above and ahead of the tag-along colonial metropole. He was like a fast surfer on the crest of the wave of world science’s progress, something never previously imaginable for any native of what he himself called this ‘remote Spanish colony on which the light of civilization shines only tenuously.’footnote3 This position he reinforced in several instructive ways.

On the one hand, he was quick to mention in his Introduction that some of his research had already been translated into German—then the language of advanced scholarly thinking—and published in journals (Ausland and Globus) which, he claimed, were the leading European organs in the field. El Folk-Lore Filipino also judiciously discussed the opinions of leading Anglo-Saxon contemporaries on the status of the ciencia nueva, politely suggesting that they were more serious that those of peninsular Spanish folkloristas. He must also have enjoyed commenting that ‘Sir George Fox’ had been in conceptual error in confusing Folklore with Mythology, and some Castilian contemporaries in muddling Mythology and Theogony.footnote4

On the other hand, the newness of this ciencia had a special colonial aspect to it, which he did not hesitate to underline. He dedicated his book to Los folk-loristas españoles de la Peninsula, que me han dispensada toda clase de atenciones (the Spanish folklorists of the peninsula, who have tendered me every manner of consideration). His Introduction spoke warmly of ‘colleagues’ in Spain—the directors of El Folk-Lore Español and of the Boletin de la Enseñanza Libre de Madrid in the imperial capital, and of the Boletin Folklorico in Seville—who had kept him abreast of research in the peninsula which ran parallel to his own work on El Folk-Lore Filipino.

The peninsularity, so to speak, of these colleagues was regularly underlined, as well as the peninsularity of their research. Without explicitly saying so, Isabelo (rightly) insinuated that no colonial Spaniards or creoles were doing anything comparable in the Philippines. This, of course, permitted him to position himself as a far-ahead-of-the-colonial-masters scientific pioneer of the new universal science. To explain this peculiar situation Isabelo resorted to an ingenious device—certainly made necessary by the violent, reactionary character of the clerically dominated colonial regime at the time. He described a series of courtly exchanges in the Manila press with a liberal-minded (almost certainly peninsular) medical doctor and amateur litterateur, who had contributed to local newspapers under the penname Astoll.footnote5 This move allowed him to quote the peninsular as admiring Isabelo’s courage and imagination, but feeling deeply pessimistic about his chances of success in the face of the overwhelming indifference, indolence and mental stupor in the colony. ‘Here the only things that grow luxuriantly are cogon-grass and molave—two tenacious local weeds.’footnote6 And when Astoll finally broke off their exchange in despair, Isabelo, who had indirectly raised the question of why ‘certain corporations’ (meaning the religious orders) had contributed nothing, commented that in the circumstances ‘prudence warrants no other course’. Into the mental darkness of the colonial regime, then, Isabelo saw himself as bringing the light of modern Europe.