Not So Mabansay: A Review of Jose Fernando Obias’ Barlín Biography

By Jethro Calacday A recent publication from Ateneo de Naga University Press is worth noting, as it brings up a controversial figure not just in Bicolano history, but in the entirety of the Philippine nation. The biography of Bishop Jorge Imperial Barlín (2016) is the eighth instalment in the “Bansáy Bikolnon” biography series which features “historical figures, cultural workers, and social entrepreneurs in the Bikol region.” As it claims, the chapbooks are written for the “Bikolano youth so that [they] may know the achievers among our own kahimanwâ” and that in turn they may be inspirations to others by “emulating” these figures. Paz Verdades Santos’ terse introduction however cautions that the works are not “hagiographies to revere great persons.” This is an obvious contradiction in itself. That the youth should emulate the “mabansáy” or the excellent ones by means of the narrative presented is indicative that these “biographies” are indeed hagiographies, since one of the main functions of hagiography (which is a “sociological text” according to Michel de Certeau) is to instruct a certain group of people in virtue and value. Hagiographical writing is a “discourse of virtues” that presents the “saint” with the purpose of edifying and protecting a particular group of people—to which the subject belongs—from dispersion. The hagiographical subject, as de Certeau forwards, is an unchanging “effigy” which is crystallised, securing it from possible narrative mutations and reinterpretations, in order for it to be easily read and emulated, in stark contrast to the reality of the utter complexity, dynamism, and indeterminism of personal identity being written and pegged down by life writing. For extremely short pieces like the instalments of Bansáy, authors should find a definite angle from which to view the immense life of the biographed subject, delimiting the analysis to make it in-depth rather than just spouting a heap of data akin to the florid “life and times” biography. Jose Fernando Obias, the issue author, is a “veteran journalist, editor, and cultural worker based in Naga City.” Educated at the Ateneo de Manila, Holy Rosary Seminary, and the University of Nueva Caceres, he is reputed to be a historian and a prolific columnist. Traces of his highly Catholic education are conspicuously evident in his work on Barlin. Unfortunately, for a text published by an academic institution such as Ateneo de Naga, it is surprisingly deficient in its methodology and analysis. In terms of technicalities, Mr Obias failed to cite important quotations which he used to bolster his narrative. Even though utilizing only five sources, this never excuses him to use quotations indiscriminately. Moreover, the chapbook also failed to consistently acknowledge the sources of its photographs, such as the cover image which was lifted from the Augustinian journal España y America: Revista Quinceñal Publicada por los Padres Agustinos 12, no. 19 (1906). Obias merely parroted the equally hagiographical text of Domingo Abella’s Bikol Annals: The See of Nueva Caceres (1954). Abella made use of a number of sources, such as Los Padres Paules y las Hijas de Caridad (1912) which Obias cited blindly. Bikol Annals, though priding itself of being rooted in the primary sources deposited in Spain, the Vatican, and Mexico, is a work of an amateur historian (Abella was a medical doctor) lacking thorough and in-depth critical analysis. More than a work of history, Abella should be considered now, more than half a century later, as a historical text that needs to be scrutinised. Unfortunately, majority of Abella’s claim found its way to the popular knowledge on Barlín which are stereotypes rather than actual historical facts. For example, the much quoted one-liner allegedly telegrammed by Barlín to Aglipay: “Prefiero ser lampazero a ser la cabeza de su jerarquia cismatica”—I prefer to be a sweeper rather than to be the head of your schismatic hierarchy—is an unfounded quote never before published in any biography prior to Abella, which Obias again mentioned. Barlín never had a letter addressed to Aglipay in the archive of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (St Andrew’s Theological Seminary, Quezon City), and yet, this quote is etched and propagated immensely. It is nothing but a myth. Abella himself never cited any source for this, in addition to the many claims he made in his text. In the first place, Aglipay never nominated Barlín as bishop: it was Isabelo de los Reyes who did, and the two had an interesting exchange of letters published in the Dominican periodical Libertas, which by the way, can be accessed online through the University of Santo Tomas’ digital library. This brings me to another point: both Abella (in the 1950s) and Obias (in the present) grossly disregarded proper historical contextualisation. Obias could simply have read Schumacher’s Revolutionary Clergy: The Filipino Clergy and the Nationalist Movement, 1850-1903 (1981) and Readings in Philippine Church History (1987) to give context to Barlín’s actions and find possible leads to readily available primary sources. He replicated Abella’s errors by failing to situate his work in the long line of articles and write-ups on Barlín and, at the very least, Philippine studies. Abella merely used contemporary biographies (such as Los Padres Paules) and a sprinkling of testimonies (from a certain Frank Wilkes Pye) to give weight to his opus, but is left wanting in terms of argumentation against a solid background of context. Jesus Esplana’s popular biography of Barlín is similarly stereotypic. It adorned Barlín with “various firsts”—an “alpha man” to be exact—and even depicted him as a Christ figure who came to Naga (Jerusalem) from Baao (Bethlehem). Esplana and Abella were impeccable writers in English, but their prose hides the absence of empirical data and proper analysis. I find it strange that authors from Naga who write about Barlín have never hitherto consulted the archive of the Archdiocese of Caceres where the majority of his pastoral letters and circulars are still extant. A look at the circulars of the diocese would show that Barlín was unable to celebrate Holy Week in 1908 due to a prolonged illness, and that in 1909 it was reported that he died of complications due to Nephritis. His scholastic records are also preserved in the museum of Holy Rosary Seminary, and a quick view would show us an average seminarian who never had a sobresaliente grade as boldly claimed by Jose Rojas in his supposedly scholarly article “Bonus Miles Christi Cacerensis: Jorge Alfonso Imperial Barlin” published in Hingowa (1999). A disheartening lacuna is strikingly observable in Obias’ text: he never tacitly mentioned Fr Vicente Ramirez of Lagonoy, one of the “priest-defectors” to the IFI who were “supported by their parishioners” against whom Barlín filed a legal suit. He mentioned indeed Barlín’s “legal triumph” which he said was “the culmination of a lifetime of meritorious services and display of personal worth,” but at the expense of alienating the Aglipayans of Lagonoy who, through their own volition, joined Ramirez. This is a question of ethics in representation that Obias glossed over in favour of an exclusively “Catholic” interpretation of Barlín. As a matter of fact (and this is based on data from the archive of the Archdiocese of Caceres, the IFI in Lagonoy, and the IFI archive in Quezon City) Lagonoyons were steadfast in their adhesion to Ramirez, and that Barlín had a difficult time enticing the people back to the Roman Church. He died not reclaiming the almas the Catholic Church lost to the IFI. Exaggerated in many biographies, Barlín’s supposed legal triumph must be viewed as an exclusively Catholic interpretation that dismantles the agency of the “dissident” IFI. As a final point of discussion (among still many), Obias mentioned the debate between a nationalist and a “Catholic” interpretation of Barlín in his final salvo. He seemed to reject a “nationalist” approach to Barlín, a stance which many pundits before him have already defended, while favouring his being a “soldier of Christ” through his peacemaking efforts and spiritual leadership. This unfortunately is a false dichotomy and an elementary response. What kind of nationalism are we talking about here? Abella, Obias and the pundits understood nationalism simply as how Teodoro Agoncillo and Renato Constantino in the 1960s envisioned it—the antithesis of colonialism. Barlín indeed coopted with the Spanish, the Americans, and for a time, the Filipinos; but to envision nationalism by means of the colonial-anticolonial dichotomy is an unfortunate analysis, ignoring perhaps the arguments posited by Resil Mojares and Patricio Abinales who incisively conceptualised “civic” and “colonial” nationalisms as nationalisms just the same. Yet, on the positive textual analysis of Obias’ work, we could see that he insinuated an exclusive and excluding Catholic stance. There is still a tremendous amount of things to talk about, but for the sake of brevity, I want to end here. Overall, the work is a dismal failure employing outdated strands of analyses in addition to a lack of proper historical research. In the age of alternative truths and fake news, scholars should always be precise, rigorous, and keen on details, lest we endanger our readers by letting them imbibe works that propagate stereotypes infested with factual errors. Extremely short texts such as the issues of Bansáy should not excuse authors from delivering consistently excellent works for the youth to whom the series is dedicated in the first place. After all, would you really want your kids to read blatant lies? *Jethro Calacday is an aspiring historian.