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Looking Back

‘La Pepa’

CADIZ, SPAIN—The Philippine Constitution of 1987 is taken up in Hekasi (high school), and in Philippine history and political sciences courses  (college) without a corresponding study of the various constitutions we have had in the past. If at all, passing reference is made to the 1897 Biak-na-Bato Constitution; the 1898 Malolos Constitution that was actually drafted in nearby Barasoain; the 1935 Constitution in force during the Philippine Commonwealth; and finally the 1973 Constitution in force during the martial law years until the Marcos years were finally ended by the 1986 Edsa revolt. Most Filipinos don’t even know that Feb. 8 is Philippine Constitution Day because it isn’t a nonworking holiday.

I remember our high school teacher going through the Constitution and emphasizing the Bill of Rights to bored students who were nevertheless sharp enough to know that this was legal fiction because anyone suspected of being against the Marcos regime had no rights. Students were made to memorize the Bill of Rights with the knowledge that this would be ignored by any abusive policeman or soldier one would be unlucky to encounter. Little wonder there was no attempt to trace our Constitution to the very first one that was enacted in Cadiz on March 19, 1812, signed by a delegate from the Philippines, Ventura de los Reyes, a name left out of textbook history.


I was prompted to look back to the Cadiz Constitution when Sen. Edgardo Angara informed me of the bicentennial celebrations being held in Spain this month. He explained: “This is a momentous event in the history of Spain and for her former colonies as it is from the same well that our collective thoughts and notions of liberty, social justice, and civil rights sprang.” When I accepted Angara’s invitation to join him in Cadiz, I forgot that the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona at the Senate was just starting to heat up; thus, I ended up in Spain, with two support staff, as his representative.

Upon arrival, I was proud to see the Philippine flag flying alongside those of the Ibero-American nations whose histories were influenced by the Cadiz Constitution. The Philippines is not part of the Ibero-American world because we are in Asia and do not speak Spanish anymore, but our shared colonial history provides a link that justifies our observer status in this group.


As I walked aimlessly around the historic center of Cadiz during the free afternoon, I came across a beautifully landscaped park with a postcard-pretty view of the sea. There I saw busts of the revolutionary leaders of what was once Spanish America and noticed the conspicuous absence of that of Jose Rizal. Then I remembered Angara saying: “The 1812 Cadiz Constitution embodied the liberal ideals that were spreading across Europe after the French Revolution. It primarily upheld equality before the law, which in due course gave the impetus for the intellectual leaders of the Philippines, and Spanish colonies in the Americas, to agitate for independence.” When I saw Philippine Ambassador to Spain Carlos Salinas later that evening, I said that unveiling a bronze bust of Rizal in this park would be something he could probably work out with the mayor of Cadiz and the honorary Philippine consul in Cadiz.

The Cadiz Constitution was drafted against the backdrop of Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. Napoleon kept the legitimate Spanish king, Fernando VII, a prisoner in France and installed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, as king of Spain and the Indies. The Spaniards did not take to their French king, so that when news of this arrived in Manila via Mexico, donations were collected for a fund to fight the French. An extraordinary Cortes was established in Cadiz that included elected representatives of all the Spanish colonies, with Ventura de los Reyes of Vigan as the Philippine representative. This extraordinary Cortes issued laws and decrees in the name of Ferdinand VII, “in his absence and captivity.”

It took a while for Ventura de los Reyes to arrive in Cadiz from Manila, so the Philippines was represented by his deputies: Pedro Perez de Tagle and Dr. Jose Manuel Couto. Soon after his arrival in Spain on Dec. 6, 1811, De los Reyes attended sessions where it is said that he checked out the delegate from Guatemala to prove to everyone that they did not sport horns and a tail! (Remember the American racist song “The Monkeys have no tails in Zamboanga”?) We do not know whether there was a selfish motive in his proposal to reduce Philippine representation from 25 to two delegates, on grounds that this was expensive for the colony and the long trip from Manila to Spain was difficult for those elected to the Cortes like him.

The Cadiz Constitution was enacted on March 19, 1812, in the Oratorio de San Felipe. It being the feast of San Jose, the constitution was given the nickname “La Pepa” (the nickname for Jose is “Pepe,” and its feminine form is “Pepa”). It took a year for La Pepa to be made public and proclaimed in Manila in April 1813. Textbook history does not tell us: that Joseph Bonaparte was once king of the Philippines; that we were part of the 1812 Cadiz Constitution; that La Pepa was signed by a 70-year-old businessman from Vigan named Ventura de los  Reyes; that a short-lived constitution, twice enacted and twice thrown out, was like a seed planted in Spain’s overseas colonies that later grew into independent nations.

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TAGS: cadiz constitution, Constitution, featured column, History, opinion
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