Isabelo delos Reyes - Filipino Anthropologist, writer and publisher of the first Ilocano newspaper

Today, I came to know and truly appreciate the life of a fellow-Ilocano, Isabelo delos Reyes... He could have probably became a national hero because he was imprisoned for the same reason that Rizal was and was about to  die in the same way, but probably because he had so many children that God spared him from martyrdom. I wonder why he has not been hailed as one of the known heroes. Was it because he defied so strongly the Roman Catholic Church by founding the Philippine Independent Church?

I was particularly struck that he published the first Ilocano newspaper and he became a self-taught anthropologist. He was counted among the intelligentsia but maintained solidarity with the grassroots. The following write-up is taken from the program guide of the Phil Anthropology Day Celebration at the UP College of Education on July 8, 2013.

Anthropology Day activities draw inspiration from Isabelo de los Reyes, a seminal figure in the practice of anthropology in the Philippines...

Isabelo de los Reyes, born on July 7, 1864 in Vigan, Ilocos Sur to the Ilocana poet Leona Florentino, was at an early age placed under the care of his uncle Mena Crisologo, a lawyer and a prominent member of Ilocos' literary intelligentsia. In 1880, at only sixteen years of age and without his uncle's consent, Isabelo struck out for Manila. He studied at the Colegio de San Juan de Letran and completed the bachelor's program with honors in 1883; eventually he graduated from law at the University of Santo Tomas (in 1887). As a teenager he found work with a Spanish-language newspaper whose editor Jose Felipe del Pan mentored him and introduced him to the study of folklore. Isabelo de los Reyes went on to distinguish himself in a remarkable career as a writer in a politically repressive, socially conservative, and race-conscious era. In his life he married three times and had 27 children. He became a councilor of Manila and a senator. He died in 1938.

Isabelo de los Reyes confronted both Spanish and American colonialism in prolific and incendiary writings. He would own a printing press, build political parties, campaign for Philippine representation and eventually independence, be instrumental in the formation of an independent national church (Iglesia Filipina Independiente in 1902), and organize the first Philippine labor federation under socialist principles (Union Obrera Democratica, 1902). De los Reyes wrote in Spanish and in Ilocano, he published what was said to be the first vernacular newspaper in the Philippines (El Ilocano, founded in 1889, and widely distributed in 12 provinces of Luzon) even as he also wrote articles for newspapers in the Visayas. His writings ranged from social commentary to historical papers that were hailed as 'extensive and thorough' in utilizing both documents and primary sources.

At age 20, he had submitted an article to a Spanish folklore journal which had “established him as a leading authority” (Kramer 1998:1028)—he corresponded with Ferdinand Blumentritt and other European scholars. Blumentritt translated his writings to German where they saw publication in Vienna by the Geographic Society. At age 23, de los Reyes won a silver medal for El Folk-Lore Filipino (1889) at the Madrid Exposicion Filipina (at around the same time when Jose Rizal, age 25, was composing Noli me Tangere in Europe [Anderson 2004:197]). Imprisonment in Bilibid in 1898 on suspicion of subversion became occasion for him to gather material from fellow prisoners and to write on the religion of the Katipunan (“Memoria sobre la Revolucion”), which he saw as the true and ancient Filipino faith brought to life by the revolutionary society. This work was completed after being deported and incarcerated in Montjuich Castle in Barcelona where he continued to gather revolutionary details among Spanish anarchists and labor leaders (Kramer 1998:1029).

Among his other published works are the books Ilocanadas (1887), Filipinas: Articulos varios sobre ethnografia, historia y costumbres del pais (1887 [contains articles on the Tinguians, the Lima Hong invasion of Luzon in 1574, and on the first rulers of Manila for which he interviewed Lacandola's descendants]), Las Islas Visayas en la epoca de la conquista (1889), Prehistoria de Filipinas (1889), the two-volume Historia de Ilocos (1890), Ang Comediang Tagalog (1904), Religion Antigua de los Filipinos (1909).

Understanding the link between the production of knowledge and the maintenance of colonial power, Isabelo de los Reyes engaged in nationalist counter-representation. Writing as a lawyer, he critically annotated Spanish legislation. He defended the comedia as a 'Filipino' art form, not just against denigration by Spaniards, but also against the Filipino elite who were embarrassed by 'backwardness' in Filipino culture. He engaged with the dominant knowledge of the West as critic- scholar and also as culture-maker; he wrote and published almanacs and compilations, and attempted translation of the Italian opera Aida into an Ilocano comedia. He espoused local knowledge and trusted in folk wisdom and 'intuition', but was not a purist; he stressed “analogues, borrowings and adaptations across cultures” (Mojares 2006:359). El Folklore Filipino contains descriptions of religious festivals, the varieties of anitos, the “names of sites and places not written on maps”. Mojares writes that Isabelo de los Reyes'

 “...primary contribution lies in the trails he opened up in the study of culture”, In El Folk-lore Filipino he “saw his work in folklore as a Filipino project, one that did not only primarily address Filipinos but involved them in a collective endeavor. He conceived it as an emancipatory project, one that did not exoticize the native or the past but was fully engaged in the realities of the present and the possibilities of the future... he “de-exoticizes” local customs by pointing to parallels elsewhere in the world, and, in a more overtly political move, arguing that “backward” superstitions may have been introduced into the country by the Spaniards themselves. 

He “de-primitivizes” folklore by focusing on its living presence in the Philippines of his own time, expanding the “folk” to include the “popular” such that the workings of the irrational colonial bureaucracy are as much the people's lore as a Tinguian ritual. In the process what he calls into view are not mere relics or survivals but the entire range of a people's lived experience.

... He subverts the pretentions to intellectual and moral superiority of Spaniards and friars by citing not only analogues between local and European superstitions but, in his style of radical mischief, positing that some of the local “barbaric” beliefs (even the Devil himself) may have been invented by the Spaniards themselves. Raising the example of a “savage” in southern Ilocos who may discover in a local fruit a better antidote to cholera, he points to what local knowledge can add to Western medical science. Alluding to the depth of indigenous knowledge about flora and fauna and climatic variations, he unsettles the reign of Western knowledge by boasting of what remains “hidden”.

More important, he looks toward the future—of Ilocos and the “nation” by claiming folklore as a means for establishing a history deeper and longer than that framed by Spanish coloniality and uncovering a cutural unity for groups characterized as an anarchy of tribes and races.... Moreover, he sees his project as a means for social selfcriticism since, seeing themselves in the mirror of their own practices, people can then proceed to reform what in their culture does not conduce to their common progress. (Mojares 2006:353-4) 

Isabelo de los Reyes presented himself as one who also “knew what the Europeans knew”. Yet among his illustrado contemporaries, de los Reyes was different; the home-grown intellectual also called himself 'brother of the forest peoples, Aetas, Igorots and Tinguians' (“hermano de los selvaticos, aetas, igorrotes y tinguianes” [Anderson 2004:204]). His comparative folklore “enabled him to bridge the deepest chasm in colonial society” which, says Anderson, lay not between colonizer and colonized lowlander, “they were all Catholics and dealt with one another all the time”, but “between all of these and those whom we would today call 'tribal minorities' – hill people, hunters and gatherers, 'head-hunters'; men, women and children facing a future of – possibly violent – assimilation, even extermination” (Anderson 2004:204).

Engaging the questions on language, race and origins of Filipinos, Isabelo worked within the grid of Western ethnology while assuming a critical stance towards Western scholarship. A 'native' writing about his own country, proud of his provincial and ethnic origins, he took perspective from both the 'inside' and the 'outside' (in his writings, the Ilocanos were 'they' and not 'we'). Isabelo de los Reyes saw in popular knowledge (“saber popular”) “the 'genius' out of which modern science itself has evolved, arguing that it is out of its specificities that Filipinos can make their own distinctive contribution to world knowledge” (Mojares 2006:363).


Benedict Anderson. (2004). The Rooster's Egg: Pioneering World Folklore in the Philippines. In Christopher Prendergast (ed.), Debating World Literature. Verso, London. pp.197-213

 Paul Kramer. (1998). Folklore, Science and Filibusterismo Between Empires, 1879-1901. In Elmer A. OrdoƑez (ed.), The Philippine Revolution and Beyond, Vol.2. Philippine Centennial Commission, National Commission on Culture and the Arts, Manila. pp.1026-1033

Resil Mojares. (2006). Isabelo de los Reyes. In Brains of the Nation: Pedro Paterno, T.H. Pardo de Tavera, Isabelo de los Reyes and the Production of Modern Knowledge. Ateneo de Manila University Press, Quezon City. pp.253-380