The Dark Side of Manuel Quezon
Some four months ago, the film Quezon’s Game was released to general acclaim. The film depicted the personal efforts of Manuel Quezon to rescue as many as 10,000 Jews from what would eventually become the Holocaust. Well received for its portrayal of an obscure topic in Philippine history, the Quezon in Quezon’s Game was a lively character. He was bombastic, charismatic, and a womanizer, a more humane picture than the Quezon we know and have read.
But against this seemingly glittering depiction is a version of Quezon that is usually swept under the carpet. Unlike the much-touted “Ama ng Wikang Pambansa” taught to us in childhood, this Quezon was cynical and ambitious. With his friend Douglas MacArthur and the United States at his back, the Commonwealth ruled for the benefit of big businesses and landowners, in sharp contrast to its self-image as a democracy. It was a government that directly and indirectly repressed workers, farmers, and all but heralded a dictatorship.
One episode that was shut out in this narrative was a story of macabre cruelty. During Quezon’s presidency, some 57 peasants who barricaded themselves in a church in Cabuyao were shot by the Constabulary in cold blood. They belonged to the group known as the Sakdalistas, the most daring critics of Quezon and his reign over the nation. The Sakdalistas advocated independence, social reform, and above all, a government run by ordinary Filipinos.
The Complicated Quezon-Ramos Relationship
Philippine society in the 1930s was deeply polarized. There was an influx of luxuries and other conveniences on one hand and destitution on the other. The beneficiaries of this arrangement were those who participated and collaborated. While art and literature blossomed from the long period of refinement, its effects were only limited to the most educated classes. The increase in wealth of the cities created a great mass of laborers working in deplorable conditions. This same ascription can be also said to the peasants, who were maltreated by landlords and the banks.
It was this era that Benigno Ramos belonged to. A modernist poet and a skillful orator, Ramos’ writings were directed against the ruling establishment, highlighting its incompetence and indifference. His poems, always full of passion and vigor for its advocacy of independence, won him a dedicated audience. A darling of the progressive scene of poetry, Ramos used his literary talents in service of the Nacionalista Party, which was then the vanguard of Filipino interests, and he eventually became a confidant of Quezon himself.
However, his political career was cut short by a disagreement. His decision to sympathize with the students on strike at the Manila North High School, an incident involving an American Thomasite saying a racist remark to a student, was reprimanded by Quezon, who wanted to keep his good graces with the officials in Washington. Evidently disgusted, Ramos left his post and handed over his resignation. It was this lack of action that propelled Ramos to distance himself from the conventions of politics and use his abilities to expose the abuses of what he saw as a regime of liars, fatcats, and scoundrels.
With help extended by friends and relatives, Ramos established the Sakdal.
Who were the Sakdalistas?
The name Sakdal, in a nod to its mission, was chosen for its association with Emile Zola’s "J’accuse!", an editorial decrying the French Republic’s handling of the Dreyfus affair. Unlike the more established newspapers or tabloids, the Sakdalistas were dedicated to exposing government ineptitude and corruption, targeting American interests, the colonial hold of America over the Philippines, the Senate, and Quezon himself. Proclaiming themselves as the people’s voice, they rallied against the bourgeoisie, whom they believed were deceivers to the cause of nationhood.
Their massive popularity and their association with the “spirit of 1896” gave Ramos the impetus to formally establish a political party in time for the 1934 legislative elections. Known locally as the Lapiang Sakdal, it garnered popular support from the masses of the rural and urban poor. It championed land reform, industrialization, restructuring of education, establishing a Filipino Army against foreign aggression, and protection of workers from exploitation. Included in its manifesto was this statement, a summary of its convictions:
“We neither want the government of the Soviets, of the Fascists of Italy and of the Nazis in Germany. What we want is a government in line with Filipino thoughts and its well-being.”
The Sakdalistas were able to elect three representatives to Congress, mayors in Southern Luzon, and councilors in local governments across the provinces. This success was met with uncertainty by the ruling elite, who decried the entry of the so-called “reds” and “semi-communists.” Within the sections of the communists and the socialists themselves, the Sakdal was seen as an outsider, despite having a cordial relationship. Conversely, the Sakdal saw both groups as agents paid by the Soviets. In response, the left accused Ramos as a charlatan and a Fascist demagogue.
But this was not the end of its problems. Routinely arrested and marginalized by the government, coupled with Ramos’ absence as he went to Tokyo to negotiate with Japanese officials for support, its leadership called for an insurrection. On May 2, 1935, 60,000 of its members stormed the provinces overlooking Manila, surprising everyone. At San Idelfonso, Bulacan, they were able to raise a crimson flag and proclaimed a revolutionary government in existence.
The Cabuyao Massacre
Alarmed by these distressing reports, Quezon decided to crush the movement once and for all. He unleashed the Philippine Constabulary under Basilio Valdez in Sakdal-controlled towns. The Cabuyao massacre was simply among a wave of repressions that followed. Things came to a downward spiral in Laguna, as the Constabulary opened fire at the Church. Its commander at that time was Juan Cailles, a veteran of the Philippine Revolution. The episode concluded with the piles of corpses lined over the Church’s entrance, as a warning to all potential rebels.
Political factions were in shock. Reactionaries used it as an excuse to warn of the oncoming revolution, while the liberals ridiculed it. The communists, on the other hand, extended solidarity and referred to them as the gallant liberators of the Philippines.
While downplaying the Sakdalistas in public, Quezon expressed his worries. The revolt, along with other labor incidents, would form the basis of his program for social justice. Still away from the lofty promises of the reforms, what it did was crush dissent and mold his vision of a party-less democracy, which according to Leia Anastacio, would be echoed 40 years later by Ferdinand Marcos’ project of the New Society.
The failure and violence of the revolt caused the Sakdalistas to splinter. Ramos gathered his remaining followers to the Partido Ganap, which was openly pro-Japanese, and its members would later form Makapili. The anti-Ramos faction joined the United Front of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas, which became Luis Taruc’s Hukbahalap. Others retired from politics altogether. To this day the closest link of the Sakdal Movement is the Iglesia Watawat ng Lahi, a sect within the Rizalistas. But those are long—complicated—stories for another day.
One can still see the Sakdal in the news reports and headlines. Whether be it against exploitation, land reform, the rights of the marginalized, or resistance against the oppressors, the Sakdal legacy lives on, albeit unrecognized. History for them is unkind in contrast to Quezon’s fame, for they have been reduced to footnotes, like their ancestors and their successors. They belong to the history of the masses, and not of the starlets.
History doesn't play the game of heroes and villains—in fact, it's not nearly as black and white as we're taught. While Quezon is heralded for many admirable actions when he was in office, the man was not perfect, despite depictions of him that say otherwise.
A German philosopher once noted that while men may create their own history, they cannot make it as they please, for it will still depend on the suppressed generations, which continue to haunt the living. The story of the Sakdalistas demonstrated the still existing problems that continue to plague our society and grind millions into poverty, with these problems recurring throughout our history. History does indeed repeat, first as tragedy, then as a farcical comedy.
Anastacio, L. (2016). The Foundations of the Modern Philippine State: Imperial Rule and the American Constitutional Tradition in the Philippine Islands, 1898-1935. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
Constantino, R. (1975). The Philippines: A Past Revisited. Quezon City, Philippines. Tala Publishing.
Richardson, J. (2011). Komunista: The Genesis of the Philippine Communist Party, 1902-1935. Quezon City, Philippines. Ateneo de Manila University Press.
Sturtevant, D. (1976). Popular Uprisings In the Philippines: 1840-1940. New York, United States of America. Cornell University Press.
Terami-Wada, M. (2014). Sakdalistas’ Struggle for Philippine Independence, 1930–1945. Quezon City, Philippines. Ateneo de Manila University Press.