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Was Juan Luna the First Filipino Socialist?

It's still up for debate.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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It is uncontested that a vast majority of people are only familiar with Juan Luna as an expatriate painter. Like all other heroes discussed in school textbooks, rarely do teachers and students pay any attention to their idiosyncrasies and character flaws, which places a veil that cannot be easily torn down without any semblance of critical inquiry and discourse. If we are to look beyond the cookie-cutter depictions of the so-called brains of the nation, a lot of us may be surprised or even shocked to learn that heroes are human after all.

Luna is one of the intriguing and colorful characters of the international Filipino diaspora scattered across Europe. A painter who won accolades from a relatively stable Restorationist Spain, Luna was set for professional success. Before his fame in his later life post-Madrid, he first decided to try his luck by residing in the busy suburbs of Paris, which is still considered as the world capital of art and literature. Like all other propagandists, Luna conversed with people of various political or apolitical affiliations within the corridors of the Parisian cafes and salons.

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Juan Luna in his Paris studio

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Some could say that Luna's emigration to Paris was a decision that had its roots in seeking refuge in a more cultured part of the West, though not as alien as the Protestant lands that Rizal had visited and spent time in (this author is talking about the German Empire and the Scandinavian kingdoms). By the middle to the late 1880s, the façade of normalcy in Spain was shockingly disrupted by the rise of socialist agitations and anarchist trade unions in the urban centers. Spain responded to these agitations with brute force and dehumanizing repressions; thousands of those with socialist sympathies found themselves arrested, tortured, and put to death by the notoriously traditionalist Guardia Civil. The participants of the socialist attempts to bring down the government were no strangers to revolution. The legacy of the First Spanish Republic and Francisco y Margall were still fresh causes to fight for. The latter in particular is known to have deeply influenced Rizal's subsequent publication of "The Philippines, A Century Hence," in which Rizal theorizes that the Philippines may end up as a Federal Republic due to the diversity of the cultures inhabiting the archipelago.

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There is little doubt that Luna, despite his position as a darling of the elite, would be also influenced by Madrid's explosive politics and ideological dynamism. The decision to reside in Paris was more or less a measure by Luna to further expand his knowledge in European affairs. In Paris, Luna no longer feared the midnight inspections by the police, nor the excruciating routine of the Bourbon court, which he considered as archaic figures in the age of constant modernization. He was free to pursue his passions, provided that he had money to pursue his passions. It was in Paris that Luna may have been first exposed to the ideology of socialism, just like how anarchism could have shaped Rizal's thinking and the subtle contexts of his novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.

'The Parisian Life' by Juan Luna

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In fact, by 1891, Luna wrote through a letter addressed to Rizal that he had embraced socialism as his personal ideology:

"I am now reading Le socialisme contemporarire by E. de Lavelaye, in which he has summarized the theories of Karl Marx, Lassalle, etc., Catholic socialism, conservative, evangelical, etc. The book interests me very much, but what I would like is a book that would highlight the miseries of contemporary society, a kind of Divine Comedy, a Dante who would walk through the workshops where one can hardly breathe, and where men, little kids, and women live in the most wretched conditions one could imagine."

"My dear fellow, I have myself gone to see an iron foundry. I spent five hours there, and believe me, no matter how hardhearted a person may be, the spectacle I witnessed there made the deepest impression upon me. Despite all the evil that the friars commit over there, our compatriots are fortunate compared to this misery and death. There was a workshop there for grinding up sand and coal, which, converted into the finest dust by the action of the milling machine, swirled up in huge black clouds, and the whole room seemed swathed in smoke."

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But such reflections were to be overshadowed by more personal woes. A grisly murder committed by Luna forced him to live once again in the Spain he detested. The affair was not just a simple murder, for he had killed the scion of the Tavera family and its unica hija in cold blood out of jealousy. After the Parisian court acquitted him of murder, Luna was torn and melancholic. Overnight, his fame was replaced by notoriety, and his image was converted to that of a broken man reminiscent to Icarus during his maiden flight. Though he was able to find himself among the ranks of the sympathizers of the Revolution that broke out with surprising implications in his native land, his reputation would not fully recover.

His last work was political and esthetic in nature, for he was single-handedly responsible for the creation of a Filipino uniform that his brother, the feisty general Antonio Luna, had contracted him to do. Eager to see the Philippines he had left since his youth, Luna was full of hope that he would redeem himself from the tragedies abroad. His sudden death on December 7, 1899, was received with shock by the artistic world and the revolutionary Republic of Letters.

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Does Juan Luna fit the criteria as the first Filipino socialist? From the single letter he authored, it could be rightly so. However, this will likely provoke academic disputes. In a country desperate to chase after its past glories through written historical works, there are some details that we often tend to conveniently ignore or overlook.

Sources:

Anderson, B. (2005). Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination. London, United Kingdom: Verso Books.

Mojares, R. (2006). Brains of the Nation: Pedro Paterno, T. H. Pardo De Tavera, Isabelo De Los Reyes and the Production of Modern Knowledge. Manila, Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Reyes, R. (2008).  Love, Passion and Patriotism: Sexuality and the Philippine Propaganda Movement, 1882-1892. Seattle, United States of America: University of Washington Press.

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