History from Bilibid prison

By: Ambeth R. Ocampo - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | June 02,2023 - 07:45 AM

It is ironic that C.M. Recto Avenue in downtown Manila has gained notoriety for made-to-order fake documents. After all, Claro (clear) Recto (straight) was a Filipino senator who left us with a legacy of integrity and staunch nationalism. In his youth, Recto published a compilation of poetry in Spanish “Bajo los cocoteros” (Under the coconut trees, 1911) that is unfamiliar to a generation separated from their past because of language. I used to frequent Recto in my youth for the mountains of used textbooks that could be mined for interesting or even rare Filipiniana. It was in Recto that I completed my set of the prewar “Philippine Readers,” textbooks used by my parents enriched with illustrations by Fernando C. Amorsolo. Just opening the old books gave one a sense of history, particularly those that carried the stamp of censors during the Japanese Occupation. Law books were aplenty, so interior decorators could fill empty shelves with thick, leather-bound volumes to simulate a sense of knowledge and character.

From the mass of law books, I singled out “Philippine Reports” that were annual compilations of Supreme Court decisions that make for hours and hours of fun. In these volumes, one can find documentation for squabbles over inheritance, land, and money that made for much gossip in Manila’s upper crust society then and now. I was also interested in sedition because what was seditious to the American colonial administration was patriotic to those who aspired for a free and independent Philippines. While Philippine judicial records have been preserved and collected, with much of it made accessible through transcription, indexing, cross-referencing, and annotation, there are many supplementary documents that have been lost to history through time and neglect.

Prison records, for example, can be used as primary sources for Philippine history. Up till a few years ago, I was told that the data cards of Bilibid that go all the way back to the early 1900s were still extant. These cards had the photographs and biodata of people, men and women, admitted to Bilibid. I wonder if Bilibid has records from the Spanish period (pre-1898), and if they do, how far back do these go? There are stray Spanish prison records in the National Archives of the Philippines, and I would think copies were also kept in archives in Spain.

One day, I will go back to the Newberry Library in Chicago to go over the archival prison documents from the Philippines preserved in their vault. On Dec. 5, 1865, Bernabe España, alcalde mayor of Cavite, visited the jail on inspection and asked the inmates if they had any complaints about food or the way they were treated. Obviously coached or threatened by prison officials, all the prisoners answered that they had no complaints. When the alcalde asked individual prisoners about their crime and the length of jail time they had spent, he was shocked that many of the prisoners did not even know the reason for their detention!

In a bundle of documents on Bilibid prisoners from 1883 to 1889, I was struck by many people with the surname Aguinaldo: Lorenzo Aguinaldo (admitted 1893), a daily wage worker from Orani named Julian Aguinaldo (admitted in 1895), and Carlos Aguinaldo admitted twice in November 1893 and May 1895. None of these three were related to Emilio Aguinaldo, but Benigno Aguinaldo, admitted in October 1883, was his elder brother. The 25-year-old was a school teacher who had various scars on the thumb and index finger of his left hand. His crime was not indicated. On Nov. 24, 1885, a 19-year-old pharmacy student named Antonio Luna, with a line on his right cheek, was admitted into Bilibid with Mariano Vivencio del Rosario and Justo Martin. We do not know their crime, but they were released the next day. On Oct. 12, 1896, 33-year-old Apolinario Mabini was admitted to Bilibid but entrusted to the San Juan de Dios hospital because of his disability. He was released eight months later on June 17, 1897. On June 12, 1898, he arrived in Kawit, Cavite, transported on a hammock from Batangas and became Emilio Aguinaldo’s closest adviser for 11 months. Nobody seems to bother with archival prison records, but in them, we see how criminals are heroes to the enemy and patriots to Filipinos and Philippine history.


Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu


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TAGS: Bilibid, criminals, Emilio Aguinaldo, heroes, inmates
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