In September 2012, the municipality of Biliran in Biliran Province will commemorate the Third Centennial of its founding as a pueblo. It has a monument of its contribution to national history, the “Bantayan ng Biliran,” which was installed a marker by the National Historical Institute in 2008.
A Testament to Padre Gaspar’s Legacy
Dr. Rolando O. Borrinaga
Professor, School of Health Sciences
University of the Philippines Manila
(Remarks at the Unveiling of the Historical Marker for the Bantayan ng Biliran in Biliran, Biliran Province, September 10, 2008.)
Today’s unveiling ceremony for this historical marker at the Bantayan ng Biliran marks the formal recognition by the National Historical Institute (NHI) and the history community of a distinct and significant contribution of our province to the history of Eastern Visayas and of the country.
Let me read to you my English translation of the marker’s Tagalog text. It says:
“Watchtower of Biliran
“Erected on this hill [upon his initiative] by Father Gaspar Ignacio de Guevara[,] including the church and fort that served as sanctuary of the faithful, 1765-1774. [The] only remnants when this area was burned by Moro pirates, 1774. Used in [the] propagation of communal religion in Biliran, Leyte and Samar. Example of architecture made of corals and stone during the time of the Spaniards. Rehabilitated, 2000.”
Until the early 1970s the tales about Padre Gaspar, who was accorded the status of a saint and prophet by old folks of this town, were dismissed as myth or legend and his legacy was degraded as superstition by schooled people and sectors outside of this town.
However, the myth converted to history in the early 1970s when the late Fr. Cantius J. Kobak, OFM, an American Franciscan missionary and historian formerly assigned in Calbayog, Samar, unearthed in the Philippine National Archives the appointment papers of Don Gaspar Ignacio de Guevara, dated October 10, 1765, as curate of San Juan Nepomuceno Parish in Biliran.
In my research, I had attributed to Padre Gaspar the leadership of what I called the “Biliran Religious Revolt” from 1765-1774. I consider this event as probably the most successful native revolt against the Spanish regime in the Philippines in terms of impact and future influence, although it is not yet included in our history textbooks. The commune established by Padre Gaspar in Biliran also seems to have been the Asian equivalent of the famous Jesuit-inspired experiment in commune society living among the Guarani Indians of Paraguay, in South America, around the same period.
Padre Gaspar’s legacy gave women the virtual monopoly as worship leaders in performing novena prayers for the dead and related religious rituals in Leyte and Samar. And his experiment in communal religion provided the spiritual inspiration for the Dios-dios movement, which threatened the Spanish colonial regime in Samar in the 1880s, and the Pulahan movement in Leyte and Samar from 1902 to 1911, which greatly threatened the early American colonial rule of our region. These related social movements were attempts to establish a native Utopia, a way of life of a communal and egalitarian nature, during times of crisis and uncertainty. Unfortunately, these movements displeased our colonizers and were brutally suppressed, the first by the Spaniards, the second by the Americans. But they would not disappear.
In our time, under a different set of crisis and uncertainty, aspects of Padre Gaspar’s legacy continue to exist in one form or another among some religious cults in Biliran, Leyte and Samar, other islands of the Visayas, and parts of Mindanao. Like it or not, their search for that elusive native Utopia is also shared even by the less religious among us.
The ceremony today, held on the 296th founding anniversary of Biliran pueblo, which was created on September 10, 1712, should assure us that Biliran has started to assume a historical personality. We are no longer in the backwater of our national historical experience. On the contrary, we just proved that we are one of its significant facets. Indeed, our small province could be situated in the context of national history, if we only care enough to attempt to situate the developments in this place that we call home in the light of similar situations in the rest of the Visayas and the rest of the country.
So far, we have made a great start. I only hope we can keep some focus, attention and support towards encouraging local historical awareness in the years ahead.