Ilaw Sa Hilaga (Lazaro Francisco, 1980)

Ilaw sa Hilaga by Lazaro Francisco, Published 1980 by The University of the Philippines Press (first published 1931)

The novel, Ilaw sa Hilaga (Northern Lights) was originally published  as “Bayang Nagpatiwakal” in 1931. It depicts the 1920s, during the American colonial period in the Philippines. By this time, the war for independence which started in 1896 had already subsided and the colony had entered into a delicate period of peace time. There is hardly any reference to the conflict aside from the mention of a revered “Heneral” who is said to have fought  in two wars, one against Spain and the other against America, and who stands as the foster father of the main protagonist.

This period also saw the struggle for independence move from the battlefields to parliament with the introduction of the Tydings-Mcduffie Act in the American Congress which would grant autonomy to the Philippines under a Commonwealth and subsequent independence. While the law guarantees self-governance, it also grants preferential rights to the Americans to continue to hold and conduct businesses within Philippine territory.

The novel’s premise is set in a rivalry in the transport business in the town of San Carlos (a fictionalized version of Cabanatuan in Nueva Ecija, described as a “Bangan ng Sangkapuluan/ Granary of the Islands”) , between a bus company set up by American Father and Son named Hansen and one set up by a Filipino colonial subject named Javier Santos (later Rei Vajt Ossan in disguise). The American is supported by the local aristocracy and this among many other things leads the Filipino’s enterprise to bankruptcy. He resolves to burn all his possession before mysteriously disappearing from the town only to return in the fashion of Jose Rizal’s “Simoun” in “El Filibusterismo” as Rei Vajt Ossan. He plots revenge against all foreign business, even against Chinese businessmen and plans to heighten the oppression against his countrymen as a devil’s advocate to catalyze their uprising. Javier succeeds in raising the consciousness and nationalist sentiments of the townsfolk but is haunted by his own transformation.

San Carlos as Place and Capital

The fictional town of San Carlos is said to be situated near Manila and can be reached back and forth within the day (magagawang lakbayin papunta-pabalik sa loob ng isang araw). As a provincial capital (pangulong bayan), it is physically, economically, and ideologically, related to Manila, the nation’s capital.  Most head offices of banks and government offices are located in Manila, and the daily busses that link both places represents and creates the meaning of being a “pangulong bayan/ capital”. San Carlos is a place apart from but at the same time inseperable in its existence to Manila. It receives and follows the economic and political practices of the center. The entrance of foreign business which is at the heart of the novel’s plot is a result of the signing into law of the Tydings-Mcduffie Act, one of the many terms that connect to America’s new colonial policy of “benevolent assimilation”, best encapsulated in Mark Twain’s satirical poem “White Man’s burden”. The novel illustrates the hierarchy of the imperial order in placing the characters within significant locations in the town: The heir to the old man Hansen’s fortune lurks in the richest aristocrat’s house. The hierarchy signifies that the Colonial is the highest in the order and the aristocrat sits between them and the workers and farmers. Lazaro seems a shy away from fully describing Marxian class theory.

As a “pangulong bayan/ capital” and because of American influence, the cultural archetypes within the town of San Carlos are also transformed. The town became a place for negotiation in both language and culture of the native Filipino. In one of Javier’s conversation with the younger Hansen, he describes the nature of two kinds of civilization in San Carlos. One was inherited from their ancestors and the other delivered to them by foreigners. He explains that the colonial lives with two identities and shifts between them in order to show that they have learned to become civilized:

Nagkaroon kami, Ginoong Hanzen, ng dalawang uri ng kabihasnan: ang kabihasnang pamana ng aming ninuno, at ang kabihasnang inihatid dito ng mga dayuhan! Salit na ginagamit namin ang bihisang sarili at ang bihisang dayuhan upang ipakilala lamang na natuto kaming mabuhay sa dalawang uri ng kabaihasnang iyan.

Javier’s use of a foreign language (he argues with Hansen in English) proves that in the colonial order, it is the native who needs to learn the foreigner’s language not only to understand them in conversation but in order to address anyone who uses that language, even fellow Filipinos who speak other languages and who shun the use of national language for being largely based on Tagalog during that time.

“…dito’y kailangang manghiram ng wikang dayuhan upang magkasundo ang lahat sa isang wikang pambansa at pampamahalaan! Makalilibong masarap sa amin ang mapailalim kaming lahat sa wikang banyaga kaysa masabing sinahis ng Tagalog ang Ilokano, ang Bisaya, ang Bikol, ang Kapampangan, at iba pa, o iyon kaya ng alin man sa mga ito!”

San Carlos becomes a hatchery of cultural kitsch, of imitation and appropriation. The main protagonist speaks of this cross as a fusion between Rizal’s Simoun and the betrayal of his own identity as a colonial by adopting the eccentric name “Ossan”. His foster father who was a General in the revolution takes the place of Rizal’s Pilosopong Tasyo, an elderly Illustrado deemed by everyone in the colony as a madman. The local aristocrats also approximate the fashion and behavior of the Americans. The mimicry often falls flat or results in farcical exaggeration– and this is where Lazaro pegs the changing Filipino identity.

Filipino Identity as an American colonial subject

Rei Vajt Ossan, Javier Santos’s nom de guerre, describes the new Filipino Identity that is dictated by the conditions of American colonial’s idea of place and time. Javier Santos’s identity belongs to the Spanish colonial past and his native culture, and it is this “nativeness” that seeks to restore the “ginhawa” (roughly, abundance and freedom from want) that was the nature of life before the Spanish colonization. This idea looms large in during the revolution and persisted even after the Americans hijacked Philippine independence.

The ‘native’ resurges and merges with the ‘Castilian’ identity in adapting their conservative morality and ethics to combat imperialist American assimilation. Inspite of this, Javier Santos’s traditionalism fails and he needed to reinvent himself in a previously unauthored identity, with a name that was created as a puzzle of his real name–’Rei Vaj’ is the reverse of ‘Javier’ and ‘Santos’ of ‘T Ossan’. The enigmatic and deceitful character of the colonizer is co-opted by the colonized native to face off with the foreigner Hansen. But the foreign sounding new name also speaks of the alienation of the character from his true self. In Japanese “Ossan” means an old person.

The act of adaptation and co-optation to defeat the foreigner results in a clumsy excess. Even if in the eyes of the people, Javier only sought equal footing by inducing foreign capital into his business, this resulted in the inevitable creation of a another self, one that has more similarities to his competitor than himself. This became apparent near the end of the story when Javier/Ossan becomes successful in merging the capital of both rich and poor in his desire to end the economic domination of foreign competitors.

About the novelist

Lazaro Francisco is an eminent Filipino novelist. Born on 22 February 1898 in Orani, Bataan to Eulogio Francisco and Clara Angeles before they moved to Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija. He studied at the Central Luzon Agricultural School and attended courses in English and bookkeeping. He worked as a clerk in provincial treasurer’s office. After passing the Civil Service Examination he became a provincial assessor until 1963. In 1958 he organized  the Kapatiran ng Alagad ng Wikang Pilipino (KAWIKA), an organization that advocated fro the advancement of the national language. . In 1970, he was honored with a Republic Cultural Heritage Award and elevated to the Order of National Artists in 2009.

Francisco’s literary output consists of 12 novels, seven short stories, and an essay written in the popular magazine, Liwayway. His first novella, Binhi at Bunga (Seed and Fruit, 1925) earned him critical acclaim. This was followed by three novels Cesar (1926), and the short story, Deo (1926). His novels, Ama (Father, 1927), Sa Sa Paanan ng Krus (At the foot of the cross, 1933) for which he garnered a Gold Medal from the group Ilaw at Panitik (Light and Letters), Pamana ng Pulubi (Inheritance of the Pauper, 1936), Bago Lumubog ang Araw (Before the Sun sets, 1938), and Singsing na Pangkasal (Wedding Ring, 1940) which was honored by  the Commonwealth Literary Awards in 1940, have been translated to different languages and adapted as plays and scripts for movies. Lazaro is best known today for his novels, Ilaw sa Hilaga (originally published as Bayang Nagpapatiwakal), Sugat ng Alaala, Maganda Pa ang Daigdig, at Daluyong which have been republished by the Ateneo De Manila University Press and the University of the Philipppines Press.

According to the critic Bienvinido Lumbera  Lazaro Francisco, “occupies an eminent position in the history of the Filipino novel”. After the war, he revised his Bayang Nagpatiwakal (1932) and released the book as Ilaw sa Hilaga (1948) as a reaction to the American economic dominance in the aftermath of the war. A string of novels: Sugat ng Alaala (1950) according to writer Francis Macasantos “reflects the horrors of the war experience as well as the human capacity for nobility, endurance and love under the most extreme circumstances.” Written almost four years apart from each other, his novels Maganda Pa Ang Daigdig (1956) deals with the agrarian issue, and Daluyong (1962) deals with the corruption bred by the American-style and American-educated pseudo-reformers. Soledad Reyes notes that Lazaro Francisco tackled issues in his novels which would only be fully assessed by social scientists a decade after during the outbreak of the First Quarter Storm and the subsequent declaration of Martial Law. Some of the issues discussed are the peasant movement and the imperialist neo-colonial policy of the United States towards the Philippines. “In the case of the Tagalog Novels of Francisco, he has often preceded history books.” His works, according to the writer Francisco Macasantos are realist novels infused “with social and moral ideals”.

Ilaw sa Hilaga by Lazaro Francisco, Published 1980 by The University of the Philippines Press (first published 1931)

Notes and Acknowledgements

  1. The main article above was translated to English from a review by John Barrios at November 2011.
  2. Francisco, Lazaro. In V. Almario (Ed.), Sagisag Kultura (Vol 1). Manila: National Commission for Culture and the Arts. Retrieved from March 2015
  3. Macasantos, Francisco. Philippine Literature in the post war and contemporary period. NCCA Website. April 2018.
  4. Reyes, Soledad. 2018 Adrian Cristobal Lecture Series on the Filipino Novel. Ateneo De Manila. March 2018


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