25 April 2017

Why Marcela Agoncillo was asked to Design the Philippine Flag

Marcela Agoncillo by Unknown - Jackeline, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3021448.  Philippine flag by Emilio Aguinaldo - Watawat.net, Mandirigma Research Organization, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38277620.

It is one of those quirks of history that Marcela Mariño de Agoncillo, in all honesty a peripheral figure to the Philippine Revolution, is arguably better remembered than her husband Don Felipe. The latter was very much involved in the revolution as well as in efforts to secure independence for the Philippines after the surrender of Spain to the Americans in 1898.

That Marcela is better remembered will always be down to a singular contribution to History that will always be in the consciousness of the public for as long as this nation exists, and that this contribution is not only tangible but also ubiquitous.

We are talking, of course, about none other than her execution of the first flag of the Philippine Republic, which she did not even design. While this flag would be modified several times over the years, by and large the colors and elements are the same as that which reminds us in the present day of who and what we are as a nation.

Sometimes, History is preoccupied with telling us the whats, wheres, whens and the whos; but often leaves it to us to figure out the whys and hows. For instance, why was Marcela of all Filipino women at the time of the revolution the one given the task of executing what would ultimately become the national flag?

Before we ponder the answer to this question, let us first try to ascertain who Marcela was as a person. She was born on the 28th of June in the year 1860 in the town of Taal to Franciso Mariño and the former Eugenia Coronel. Her parents were affluent and known for being religious.1

When she was old enough, she was sent away to be educated at the Colegio de Santa Catalina, a convent operated by Dominican nuns. In her elementary and secondary years, she was found to be a “bright student with a remarkable aptitude for needlework, Spanish and music.2” The skill with needlework was hardly surprising and probably inevitable. She was, after all, from Taal, a town renowned for its embroidery.

At the age of 30, she married Don Felipe Agoncillo, like herself from another of Taal’s most affluent families. The latter was a practicing lawyer known for championing the poor in Taal against Spanish oppression. He was a personal friend of and would later act as adviser to both General Emilio Aguinaldo and General Antonio Luna, two key figures of the Philippine Revolution. He would also attempt to secure Philippine self-rule after the conclusion of the Spanish-American War but failed as the Spaniards ceded the Philippines to the Americans in exchange for the sum of US$20 million.3

In 1896, word got to Don Felipe that General Ramon Blanco, the Spanish Governor General, was planning to have him expelled from the country for his involvement in the nationalistic movement. He left his family behind and headed out to Japan before he could be accosted by Spanish colonial authorities.

He stayed only briefly in Japan and soon sailed out to Hong Kong where he joined other Filipinos who went on exile when the revolution broke out. Marcela and his children soon joined him and they lived in a rented house at the Wan Chai district of Hong Kong. Their house became something of a sanctuary for other Filipinos who, like them, went into exile because of the revolution.

Upon the signing of the Pact of Biak-na-Bato, which for the meantime ended the insurrection against Spanish rule, Aguinaldo and other officials of the revolutionary government headed out to Hong Kong as part of the terms of the treaty. Aguinaldo was, therefore, reunited with his friend Don Felipe, who hosted meetings of the government-in-exile at his own rented house.

When it became apparent that the Spanish colonial government was not exerting any real efforts to meet the terms of the Pact of Biak-na-Bato, the exiled Filipino patriots in Hong Kong formed the Junta Patriotica, a council headed by Aguinaldo that aimed at organizing the Filipino forces again to put an end to Spain’s rule over the Philippines once and for all.

A new national flag was needed, one that would represent a Philippines independent from the yoke of Spanish colonization. Aguinaldo himself sketched the design for the new flag4, one that would have a “white equilateral triangle on the left side… had a bursting sun in the center with eight rays to represent the first eight provinces that had risen in revolt against the Spaniards. The three-five pointed stars placed in each corner of the triangle symbolically represented… Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. The flag had fields of blue and red.5

At this point, we attempt to answer the question why Marcela was commissioned to execute Aguinaldo’s design. That she was chosen appears to be no more than a case of the wife of one of Aguinaldo’s closest friends and trusted advisers coincidentally and propitiously being skilled at needlework, partly because she was from Taal and was likely exposed to the craft at an early age and partly because of the training she received in school at the Colegio de Santa Catalina. There was also the matter of her being conveniently available, since junta meetings were held at her own house.

Marcela accepted the commission and created the new flag with the help of her eldest daughter Lorenza and Delfina Herbosa de Natividad, Jose Rizal’s niece. The flag was made with fine silk purchased in Hong Kong and embroidered in gold1.

The flag was first raised after Filipino forces defeated the Spaniards at Alapan in Cavite upon the resumption of hostilities between revolutionary forces and Spanish troops when Aguinaldo returned to the Philippines6. It was raised again at Kawit in Cavite when Aguinaldo proclaimed the country’s independence from Spain on the 12th of June 1898. The raising of the flag was accompanied by the playing of the Marcha Filipina Magdalo, to become in subsequent years the “Lupang Hinirang” or the Philippine National Anthem7.

Notes and references:
1 “Marcela Agoncillo,” Wikipedia.
2 “First Filipino Diplomat: Felipe Agoncillo, 1859-1941,” by Esteban A. De Ocampo and Alfredo B. Saulo, 1977.
3 “Felipe Agoncillo,” Wikipedia.
4 “Sewing History: Origin of the Philippine Flag,” online at Balikbayan.
5 “A Brief History of the Filipino Flag,” by Pura Villanueva Kalaw, 1947.
6 “Battle of Alapan,” Wikipedia.
7 “Lupang Hinirang,” Wikipedia.

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