A Filipiniana book lover’s delight

Buddy Gomez -- Cyberbuddy

Posted at Aug 03 2019 04:15 PM

“The Philippine Islands” by Ramon Reyes Lala, (MDCCCXCIX Continental Publishing Company, New York, copyright 1898) is the first book about the Philippines, written in English by a Filipino, in the United States.
Adding more significance and singularity, the book’s last three chapters were devoted to the revolution; the coming of Dewey/the Spanish-American War; and the beginning of the American Occupation. That would make it the very first historical account of our distinct era, of colonial change from Spain to America, recorded and rendered by a Filipino. And also in English.

The volume has 342 pages plus 134 photographic illustrations in black and white of various sizes. Profuse is one word to best describe it. Indeed, it is treasure trove of vintage photographs of the Philippines--individuals, places and situations--all taken during the last quarter of the 19th century.

The New York Herald newspaper which was carrying a continuing reportage of the Spanish-American War, had a ‘side bar’ news item on its September 11, 1898 issue. It says: “Ramon Reyes Lala, now in New York, is the only native of the Philippines at present in the United States. Mr. Lala is a member of a wealthy and influential native family and was for many years prominent in business and social life in Manila. ……. He has written a book on the Philippine Islands, which is to be published by the Continental Publishing company of New York. In it he contends that the prosperity of his country will be secured under United States rule.”

Who is Ramon Reyes Lala anyway? As a wide reader such as I, I have unfortunately never heard of a ‘Lala’ Manila family name until I came across this volume. Through the auspices of a very popular Facebook site devoted to old Manila memories, “Manila Nostalgia,” there was posted recently a photo of an old edifice somewhere in Binondo which displayed a big sign indicating that it was a hotel (?) with the name “Lala.” There has got to be available information about the Lalas somewhere. Crowdsourcing from our readership might perhaps produce clues and leads? I think, I know who to ask and will report back.

Our mysterious author must have come from a family of means. He was one of a scant number of Filipino young men sent to Europe by their parents to pursue higher education. He recounts, in his Preface, that in the 1870s, while a student at St. John’s College, London, of being frequently asked information about his country. He notes that ”….there was in English no good book on the subject.” He adds: “It was mortifying then to think that the glories of my native land were no better known.” Thus, “the idea of writing a history of my own fatherland occurred to me.” Ramon Reyes Lala embarked upon what he referred to as “a permanent contribution to historical literature.”

Upon his return to Manila, he began gathering and collecting every available data about the country’s early history. His friendship with the Governor General (Domingo Moriones, 1877-1880) also gave him access to the colonial archives. Then in 1887, because of his sympathies with the emerging cause of the revolution against Spain, he ran into some political problems. Without giving details, he may have been forced into asylum or even sanctioned with banishment, a similar fate having befallen other prominences of the time. He left for and chose the United States, carting along with him all the work that he had commenced to write.

As it turns out, Ramon Reyes Lala may also have been the first Filipino to become a naturalized American citizen long before the coming of the Americans to our shores! Although he did not specifically claim to be such a “first,” his book is the only available documentation of a Filipino ever so specifically stating that he had applied for and became a naturalized American citizen as early as the late 1880s or early 1990s.

I am mindful, nonetheless, of the high probability that there may have been many others who could have achieved U.S. naturalization among our countrymen who earlier found themselves in the US mainland, and there were many indeed. Reyes Lala may have heard of Filipino seamen who joined the service of American trading sailing ships who found themselves settling down in the dock areas of New York and other East Coast sea ports. In fact, “Manila Men” (proto-Filipinos) settled in the Parish of St. Malo in the Louisiana bayous as early as the 1760s, some of whose descendants fought for the U.S. in the War of 1812. Who knows, they may have themselves availed of naturalization?
While already an American citizen, Ramon Reyes Lala revisited the Orient and “kept up my relations with friends in Manila.” He retained his new American citizenship, “rather than again put myself under the iron yoke of Spain.” That is one explanation for the relevant timeliness and currency of his “The Philippines Islands,” as of the time of its publication.

In his chapter “Struggle of the Filipinos for Liberty,” I encountered a quaint discovery that would be of greater interest to Rizaliana enthusiasts. Call it significant trivia. It is about that celebrated poem our national hero wrote on the eve of his execution, (Dec.30, 1896) the “Mi Ultimo Adios.” The title was reputedly contributed by Dr. Jose Rizal’s friend, Mariano Ponce. We also came to know this immortal national elegy as “My Last Farewell.” The supposedly first English translation was written by Charles Derbyshire. He was the first translator of Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo into English. These translations were made in 1911-1912.

Well. Lo and behold, Jose Rizal’s classic elegy had found its way to the United States by way of the New York Herald long before Derbyshire, already in its English version! (The New York Herald was sold in 1924 to the New York Tribune, to become the New York Herald-Tribune, until its demise in 1966.)
Ramon Reyes Lala cites that Rizal’s “farewell” poem’s English “translation….was first given in the New York Herald.”

Unfortunately, in his book, he did not mention the specific date of that particular NY Herald’s issue. For certain, however, the publication date could only have been anytime from later 1897 but not before the end of 1898. (After Rizal’s execution and before publication of Ramon Reyes Lala’s “The Philippine Islands.”) He also does not mention who translated Rizal’s entry into an American newspaper.

Historical sleuthing through the archives of the New York Herald-Tribune will most probably provide the answers to what Ramon Reyes Lala left out. My presumption is that Ramon Reyes Lala himself is the translator of the poem, as well as in having given it its new title of “Mi Ultimo Pensamiento,” and its translation, “My Last Thought” as appeared in the New York Herald.
Who knows, it may have been in connection with a patriotic attempt at making known “the glories of my native land” by simultaneously exemplifying the greatness of the foremost Filipino, thus generating attention upon America’s newly acquired territory. Or assisting and promoting the then forthcoming publication of his “The Philippine Islands!”

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