Mariano Ponce’s low profile

Mariano Ponce always kept a low profile probably because he was the tallest among the Filipino expats in Europe. In that iconic Gomburza-like “triumvirate “ studio photo with Jose Rizal and Marcelo del Pilar, Mariano Ponce had to sit down sideways on a stool with legs outstretched in front of his two shorter companions. In those days, photographers meticulously styled the pictures they took.

A native of Baliwag, Bulacan, physician and writer, Ponce was two years younger than Rizal. He was a member of the Propaganda Movement, co-founder of the Asociacion Hispano-Filipino and the consistently compelling spirit behind “ La Solidaridad”. Not only did he contribute articles signed Kalipulako, Ponce kept the newspaper going, making sure that deadlines were met, subscriptions paid, copies printed and mailed. He had an eye for detail and a heart for politics.

A compilation of his letters from 1897 to 1900 was printed by the Philippine National Library ( Biblioteca Nacional de Filipinas) then headed by the eminent Teodoro M. Kalaw. I own a 1932 edition published by the Manila Bureau of Printing which my husband, Tonypet Araneta, purchased at a second hand bookstore in Manila, while I was living in Mexico. Mariano Ponce’s letters are hinges of history, the cooled magma of volcanic times.

As soon as the Philippine Revolution broke out, Mariano Ponce hurriedly left Madrid because those who were involved with the Propaganda Movement and “La Solidaridad” were in danger of being arrested and imprisoned. He went to Hong Kong, joined the colony of revolutionary Filipino expats and became the secretary of the Hong Kong Junta. When Emilio Aguinaldo and the Biak-na-Bato passel arrived in Hong Kong after signing the eponymous pact, Ponce became Aguinaldo’s private secretary until the latter returned to the Philippines in May 1898, aboard the USS McCulloch.

Ponce stayed behind in the British colony. He wrote more than a hundred letters to friends in the Philippines like Vergel de Dios, F. Resurrección Hidalgo, F. Agoncillo,, F. Lichauco, E, de Lete, A. Apacible, Antonio Luna, etc. He corresponded with two women: Consuelo was obviously just a friend with whom he shared his political views; but, he was in love with a certain Elena whose silence hurt him deeply. Ferdinand Blumentritt and Ponce exchanged long letters, some very nostalgic. Once he wrote that only the two of them were left standing. Blumentritt was a dear friend and mentor of Jose Rizal and a frequent contributor of “La Solidaridad.” Ponce wrote the Austrian professor detailed accounts of the war against Spain: The recapture of Imus by Spanish forces was not a blow to the Revolution, Aguinaldo and his troops had already vacated the town and gone to the mountains with their families, weapons and supplies. The Revolution had a standing army of 150,000 patriots, 100,000 were in Batangas, Cavite, Laguna and 50,000 in Nueva Ecija, Bulacan in Pampanga. But, they needed arms desperately. There were only a thousand rifles grabbed from the enemy, so they had to make their own machetes, gun powder, cartridges, canons and sharpen bamboo spears into deadly weapons. Blumentritt sent news clippings about the Philippine revolution from European newspapers, these included homages to Jose Rizal.

Ponce communicated with Cuban and Puerto Rican revolutionary leaders whom he had met during student days at the Ateneo de Madrid. Jose A. Izquierdo was based in Paris, so was Ybanez Vega, Gonzalo de Quezada headed the Cuban delegation in Washington. Dr.Ramon Betances, the Puerto Rican independence advocate, asked Ponce to look for his compatriot, Manuel Rovira y Munoz, who was conscripted by the Spanish army and sent to the Philippines. Ponce obliged, wrote Apolinario Mabini, so Rovira was located among the prisoners of war in Pangasinan. Ponce was also in touch with Filipinos who settled in New Orleans. He wrote all his wealthy friends in Manila to stoke their patriotic fervor because the Revolution needed funds.

The Cuban revolution was the template. Ponce asked his Caribbean friends to send him manifestos of Jose Marti, books about Cuba ( he knew the titles) and catalogues of arms and ammunition; he asked for advice about suppliers and bank transfers. They also exchanged stories and views about Spain’s belated reforms and USA’s not so hidden agenda. Cuba was granted independence, did the Philippines need USA’s protection? Learning how Cuban General Maceo was treacherously killed by the Spaniards, Aguinaldo rejected an invitation to meet with the enemy and saved his life.

Before Emilio Aguinaldo returned to the Philippines in May 1898, he made three significant appointments: Galiano Apacible became head of the Central Committee in Hongkong; Felipe Agoncillo was sent to the USA as envoy plenipotentiary. Mariano Ponce was assigned to Japan from where he wrote a hundred more letters that have filled silent spaces of our history.