OPINION: The first naturalized Filipino-American

Buddy Gomez -- Cyberbuddy

Posted at Mar 30 2018 12:12 AM

Long before the epithet “Americanista” was used by Filipino nativists and angry nationalists to describe, and even smear, all who were pro-American after the fall of Spain, and even up to the present, there was truly a singular Filipino who was not only an avowed ‘Americanista’ but actually became an American citizen even before the Philippines became a colony  of the United States.   

“A Native of Manila,” Filipino Ramon Reyes Lala was able to achieve US citizenship by naturalization, presumably in the early 1890s.

Image courtesy of Amazon.ca

I came upon this information from an American  book about the Philippines. It turns out to be the very first book about the Philippines written in English by a Filipino. “The Philippine Islands,” copywritten in 1898 and published by the “Continental Publishing Company, 25 Park Place, New York” in 1899.

This book is now an antiquarian rarity. Only less than a handful of the first edition are still available. Depending on the book’s condition, the price can range from $150.00 to over $300.00. I would estimate that in a spirited auction among avid bibliophiles and collectors in Manila, such a copy could fetch a price in excess of 15,000.00 pesos. It could very well be a notable acquisition for any Filipiniana aficionado. On the other hand, just like many out of print volumes that would attract book lovers and collectors, “reprint on demand” copies are available at reduced prices. These are normally available through publishing firms in India which for some reason  have pursued the “reprint” business and are thriving.

However, the  reprints, more often than not, do not contain  photographs. The Ramon Reyes Lala original has over 120 rare black and white photographs which accounts for the appeal such antiquarian volumes possess.

It appears that Ramon Reyes Lala became an expatriate student in the 1870s when he was sent off for further schooling at St. John’s College in London and at a French school in Neuchatel, Switzerland.
 
Of the very scant information I have, that the Reyes Lala family must have been of the ‘comerciante’ class and, of course ‘ilustrado’, being able to send off to England and the Continent a son for further education. There is an old photograph of a Binondo two-story edifice under a tiled-roof in the book. It is said that this structureserved as offices and warehouse of the pioneering American trading firm, Russell and Sturgis. Eventually, the building became a hotel, Fonda Francesa, owned by the Reyes-Lala family.
 
Unfortunately, there seems to be no longer any recent information available concerning the “Reyes Lala”  family or clan. I am of course hoping that by writing about him and his magnum opus, we could cyber-crowdsource contributed information about the Reyes Lala.  Who knows, there may still be some relatives and /or descendants around who now go by different surnames.

I am hoping that followers of this blog as well as contributors and participants of the very popular website for old Manila memories--the “Nostalgia Manila,” especially its amazing repositories of treasured and relevant trivia cum memorabilia Isidra Reyes and Paquito de la Cruz, might be able to provide more information.

Image courtesy of www.gutenberg.org

The book “The Philippine Islands” came about as a response  to the many inquiries that the author received from the many people he encountered during his student days as well on  his travels. After all, in those days, nothing in English has yet been written about the Philippines. It was then that “the idea of writing a history of my own fatherland...occurred to me. It was mortifying then to think that the glories of my native land were no better known.”

Upon his return to the Philippines, he began to lay the foundation for his work. He went through the Archives of the Governor-General’s office, consulted older historians’ output which were all in Spanish, and started to gather valuable data, accumulating all these. However, because returning scions of ilustrado families sent to Europe for advanced education were suspiciously eyed by the authorities and regarded as subversives (Filibusteros), he also found common cause with the rising insurgency. And it was getting uncomfortable.
 
It was after 1887, when decided to go to the United States, taking with him all that he had so far written, resolving to finish his project under “a more congenial environment.” After acquiring American citizenship, he had occasions to travel back to the Orient and maintained relations with Manila. “I have kept pace with the march of events in the colony,” he writes. He claimed acquaintanceship with Jose Rizal and the Luna brothers. 

He had  almost completed the manuscript of his history of the Philippines when Commodore Dewey sank the ageing Spanish flotilla of Admiral Montojo in Manila Bay on May 1, 1898. American  victory in The Spanish-American war was to denote “a new era for the Filipinos, and, hence, made the addition of several chapters necessary.” He had to include a few chapters that now included “the capture of Manila by the American forces.”

As a consequence, the book’s publication carried an additional  page. It read: “To  Rear-Admiral Dewey, whose recent great victory over the Spanish fleet has begun a new era of Freedom and Prosperity for my country,  and to President McKinley, in whose hand lies the destiny of eight million Filipinos, this book is dedicated.”  

Ramon Reyes Lala, as the first Filipino “Americanista,” expressed an obviously heartfelt sentiment to his countrymen. “….To all loyal, ardent Filipinos…they eventually will live to recognize and appreciate the unsullied manifold advantages and benefits incident to American occupation…and  to a close contact with this honest, vigorous type of manhood.”

SURPRISING REVELATION

There is a very interesting sidelight to this “very first book about the Philippines written in English by a Filipino.”  It is surprisingly revelatory. It is about Jose Rizal’s   “Mi Ultimo Adios,” his sad “My Last Farewell”  written with such amazing composure, just hours before his appointment with the firing squad. 

We were all taught in school that the English translation was written by Charles Derbyshire, which was published  in 1911, a year earlier than his English translations of Noli and Fili. (The twin Rizal Classics: Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo).

Ramon Reyes Lala says that Dr. Rizal’s farewell poem’s English translation was first published in the “New York Herald” and proceeds to quote the entire poem on pages 297-298  of his book. It was titled  “My Last Thought.” 

While he does not mention who the English version was  translated by, my calculated hunch is that Ramon Reyes Lala is himself  the translator. Who else in the United States, at that time, would have? 

It will require further confirmatory research to establish the exact date of publication. But certainly, it could only have been possible between the dates of December 30, 1896 and May 1, 1898. The date of Dr. Rizal’s death and the Dewey’s Manila Bay victory.

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