First Filipino TNTs | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

First Filipino TNTs

/ 05:06 AM October 25, 2023

Trinitrotoluene is the active ingredient of explosives once known as “TNT.” Over the years, the same letters have come to mean different things to different people. TNT for people who send packages means “track and trace.” For Philippine mobile phone users, it means “Talk and Text.” For Filipinos hiding from United States Immigration, it means “Tago Nang Tago.”

Well, some of the earliest and most prominent Filipino TNTs in the United States were Felipe Agoncillo, Juan Luna, and Galicano Apacible, diplomatic agents of the Malolos Government who were sent to Paris in 1898 and Washington in 1899 to lobby for the cause of Philippine Independence. Upon the outbreak of the Philippine-American War on Feb. 4, 1899, the Filipino diplomats were trailed by US Secret Service agents until they escaped to Canada and back to Europe.

Apacible is the most obscure of the three as he does not appear in the current 1898 exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. Unlike Agoncillo, represented by an oil portrait by Félix Resurrección Hidalgo, and Luna who appears in an archival photograph together with Cuban and Puerto Rican nationalists also working for recognition and independence of their countries that also became US possessions at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War.


A few months ago, I was invited by historian Jose Victor Torres on a tour of Taal, Batangas, where we visited the home of Marcela Agoncillo, who led the ladies who worked on the first Philippine flag in 1898 from a design provided by Emilio Aguinaldo. We also visited the home of Leon Apacible, interesting design-wise because it has an old “bahay-na-bato” exterior and a modern art deco interior. Renovated before World War II and now under the care of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, the ground floor of the house has been converted into a museum, while the second floor provides a glimpse into upper-class home life when the Apacibles still lived in it.


On a previous visit to the Apacible house decades ago, I saw Leon Apacible’s diary written in Bontoc circa 1898 or 1899. I regret not having a smartphone then and hope this unpublished manuscript has been preserved, digitized, and added to existing first-person accounts of the Philippine revolution. I am more interested in Leon’s brother Galicano Apacible because of the Rizal connection. They were cousins and in correspondence, Jose and Kanoy addressed each other as “primo.” Looking at Galicano or Kanoy objects in the museum, I was drawn to an engraved bronze plaque that reads: “G. Apacible, Medico” and provides his clinic hours as afternoons from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. From the vaginal clamps on display, I presumed he was a gynecologist. This was confirmed by further research that revealed this fun fact: when Kanoy returned to the Philippines after his medical studies in Europe, one of his first patients was Leonor Rivera. The woman who gave up Rizal, her fiancé, for an English railway engineer named Charles Henry Kipping.

In 1898, when Kanoy arrived in Paris to seek a seat at the table where the peace treaty between the US and Spain was being negotiated, French Customs and Immigration mistook him for the Prince of Siam and rolled out the red carpet. He was discovered after hailing a taxi and asking to be brought to a cheap hotel. Kanoy’s exciting life, narrated in his letters home, can feed a movie.

He wrote Leon: “Since last December [1898], I have been continually traveling … Paris, London, Canada, and the different states of the USA … at the Auditorium Hotel in Chicago, traveling as a wealthy Mexican paying $6 a day for my room; at a hotel in the Bowery, New York City, posing as a Greek immigrant looking for work and paying 25 cents a day for a room. Sometimes I pose as a Japanese; at other times a Chinese, etc. using different names and only on very formal occasions and to very few persons when circumstances demand it do I reveal myself as G. Apacible. Filipino. Sometimes I wear a mustache, at other times side whiskers, then without them. In short and without exaggeration in this mission I lead a most risky and novel-like life that you can imagine … causing me continuous moral and physical tension. This continuous pretense, fleeing from pleasant company when we see danger … shunning snares … and what snares—very beautiful women … we are happy thinking only of the independence … of our dear Philippines …”

Kanoy crossed the US-Canadian border on foot, in freezing -24 degrees weather. Surely, there is a lot more where this came from. I have only read excerpts from Apacible’s letters and look forward to the publication of his memoirs which will surely focus the light of truth on dark corners of our history.

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TAGS: Felipe Agoncillo, Filipino illegal immigrants, Galicano Apacible, Looking Back, Philippine history

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