The 1930s Filipino newspaper that fought American occupation

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Sakdal, a newspaper founded by prolific poet and journalist Benigno Ramos in June 1930, became a platform for the oppressed, and later helped establish an underground movement that soon primed itself as a revolutionary group against the American occupation. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In October 1587, the first Filipino-American History Month was observed in the United States, a national event commemorating the first Filipino immigrants to have landed on the shores of California. Boarding a galleon, these immigrants escaped the Philippines during the earlier phase of the Spanish colonization. Little did they know, in a matter of a few centuries, their newfound home would lead the next war against their motherland.

After 333 years under the Spanish occupation, the Philippines ended the revolution against its colonizers and officially declared its independence in July 1898. Spain and the US would dismiss this independence as the former surrendered its colonized territories, including the Philippines, to the latter, who emerged as victor in a separate war.

The early years of the American occupation eclipsed the beginning of the age of modern media. Newspapers were introduced in 1989, followed by film in 1904 and radio broadcasting in 1922. The new media became instruments of the colonizers, giving birth to many English-language newspapers we now consider as household names, most of which were founded by American men to serve as their mouthpiece.

Amid the exclusivist treatment of media, one publication was created as an alternative source for Filipinos. Founded by prolific poet and journalist Benigno Ramos in June 1930, Sakdal became a platform for the oppressed, and later helped establish an underground movement that soon primed itself as a revolutionary group against the American occupation.

There is much to know about Sakdal and its rich history, a necessary glimpse at a time when journalism was bravely weaponized by the silenced. Here are some facts about the Sakdal newspaper and the movement it managed to foster, mostly sourced from Motoe Terami-Wada’s 1988 research on the Sakdal Movement.

Sakdal was highly critical of Manuel L. Quezon, but the newspaper’s founder started off as his close associate.

Ramos worked as a clerk in the Philippine senate under Quezon’s leadership, and was a former member of the Nacionalista Party. In February 1930, news surrounding Mabel Brummit, a Manila-based American teacher who insulted students at Manila North High School, came to light. A walk-out and subsequent rallies were organized by the students and supporters who sought to have the teacher dismissed. A sympathizer of the victims, Ramos was driven to take a stand alongside them.

Quezon was not pleased when he learned of Ramos’s participation in a wildcat strike. He wanted to stay in the good graces of the US government, and so he hoped to keep the Manila North High School issue under wraps. As a result, Ramos was asked to resign from his post.

Less than two weeks after leaving government service, Ramos founded Sakdal, an alternative newspaper which he officially launched in June 28, 1930. Not to be confused as a form of personal vendetta, Sakdal was the product of a common Filipino’s rage against an administration that valued its alliance with its colonizer over the cries of its citizens.

Sakdal introduced a movement that sought to change the political climate, instantly gaining public trust.

The Sakdal newspaper served as a venue for free speech where Ramos, acting as representative of the common Filipinos, condemned the American occupation and questioned the Philippine government, particularly Quezon’s senate leadership. Ultimately, the publication became an “organ” for the Sakdal Movement to reach the people and flourish. The movement intended to demand immediate independence from the US, which went against the Nacionalista Party’s acceptance of gradual independence. It also shed light on social issues experienced by the masses.

Its promise to fight for social change immediately reached public attention and trust. Both the newspaper and the movement quickly gained following across Luzon, particularly in Rizal, Cavite, Batangas, Tayabas (now Quezon), Laguna, Bulacan, Pampanga, and Nueva Ecija.

Readers were encouraged to share their copies with others. In the provinces, it was said that one copy was read by more or less 10 individuals. In communities with illiterate citizens, groups of 10 to 20 people would listen to the pages read aloud. An estimate of around 200,000 to 400,000 readers was recorded.

No one is certain as to what the title references to.

It is said that Ramos must have chosen to name both movement and newspaper as “sakdal,” a Tagalog word which translates to “to accuse” in reflection of these anti-Quezon sentiments. Additionally, Filipino historian Gregorio F. Zaide speculated that the name was a nod to “J’Accuse…!”, an open letter penned in 1898 by the French writer Émile Zola who accused France’s Faure administration of anti-semitism.

On the other hand, members of the Sakdal Movement believed the name to be derived from a Bible verse, particularly the Letter of James 1:4, which provides another meaning for the word. The verse goes, “At dapat kayong magpakatatag hanggang wakas upang kayo’y maging sakdal at ganap at walang pagkukulang.” In this line, “sakdal” is translated as “perfect,” an accurate yet ironic definition in comparison to the aforementioned.

Sakdal voiced out the concerns of the rural population, particularly landless peasants.

Several articles published in Sakdal advocated for radical land reform and tax reduction, which were the most urgent concerns of local peasants at the time. This won the support of other peasant organizations, such as the Kapatirang Magsasaka from Baliwag, Bulacan, which joined the Sakdal Movement as it was “radical enough in its view on the nationalist issues.” Luis Taruc, former head of the peasant-based Huk rebellion, also took part in the Sakdal Movement.

Moreover, the newspaper stood in defense of rebels. When a rebel attack took place in Tayug, Pangasinan in January 1931, commercial papers were quick to portray them as “ignorant” and abusive. Captured rebels explained that they sought for “social justice in the form of equal partition of land and elimination of abuses of the local policemen and the Constabulary.”

Sakdal argued that the rebels were, in fact, educated, with many of them having reached high school, presumably a notable educational attainment for a Filipino at that time. Calling critics of the government as “colorums” (used to refer to religious fanatics) only underlined the administration’s dire misunderstanding of the core problem. The Tayug uprising was recognized by the movement as “the strong cry of oppressed people,” later promising never to stop fighting any obstacle in attaining independence. The government attempted to censor Sakdal through threats of imprisonment, but Ramos did not bow down.

Sakdal promoted the boycotting of foreign-made products and services.

Through Sakdal, Ramos was able to influence public perception of the government, shaping critical minds. In just two months after the newspaper was first published, Sakdal urged the public to boycott foreign-made products and the upcoming elections. This ensued some months later, by the end of the year and the decade. Followers of the Sakdal Movement stopped patronizing products such as automobiles, men’s suits, cigarettes, and foreigner-owned restaurants.

The Sakdal Movement reportedly took inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent civil disobedience, which brought about the movement’s “Mapayapang Pagsuway,” its own campaign for civil disobedience, by the end of 1931. Boycotting foreign-run services, including non-payment of taxes and refusal to enroll children in pro-foreign schools, was the campaign’s primary intent.

Members of the Sakdal Movement assumed public leadership through the Sakdalista Party.

Candidates under the formed Sakdalista Party envisioned an independent country where “no one was poor, and therefore no one had to commit crimes.” They vowed to eliminate most taxes, distribute land to landless peasants, prioritize the welfare of the working class, nationalize industries, develop and provide a “truly Filipino education,” establish a pro-people judiciary system, and maintain a corrupt-free political slate once elected into position. Aware that said objectives were elaborate and idealistic, the party called for “complete unity among all Filipinos” in order to attain their goals. In early 1934, party chapters were established in Central and Southern Luzon, Ilocos, Bicol, and Visayan region.

People admired the fearless pursuit to expose corrupt politicians. The movement was perceived as “truly of and for the poor and oppressed people” and “uncompromising in its stand on the independence issue.” It also upheld integrity in its principles and did not chase after profit. Expectedly, the Sakdalista party did well in the 1934 election, having secured a significant number of seats across the country.

Having found confidence in their numbers, the Sakdal Movement was urged to hold an uprising a year later in the agricultural areas of Central Luzon in May 1935, which is now dubbed as the Sakdal Uprising. Partially armed mobs reportedly attempted to take over 14 towns, and failed the following day. Ramos left the country for Tokyo, causing the disbandment of the Sakdal Movement. One hundred lives were lost due to the failed uprising, but never in vain as the same frustration and principles that fueled the movement remained as the driving force behind peasant rebellions that eventually followed suit.