Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

The yellow ribbon/confetti was a powerful protest symbol during the last years of the Marcos dictatorship in the 1980s. Then, Filipinos used it to mourn the death of former President Cory Aquino. Unfortunately, the yellow mafia inside the Liberal Party usurped its power by transforming it into an election gimmick of Noynoy Aquino. It is now the political symbol of the most powerful politician in the country yet it is still being paraded as the only acceptable and effective symbol of change. So if activists and other reform advocates continue to display the yellow ribbon, it means they have become partisans of the party in power and they have already abandoned the quest for genuine change.

Since the yellow ribbon is now associated with the ruling class, what symbol should be used to represent the yearning of the collective to dismantle the oppressive structures of the state? The best alternative is the ancient script (baybayin or more popularly known in the past as alibata) of ka or the k symbol. In the past 100 years, dissident forces like the Katipunan and Kabataang Makabayan (1964) have used it to signify their revolutionary advocacy. Even mainstream political actors like Sen. Chiz Escudero and the Oakwood Magdalos have adopted it. Malacanang’s directive during Gloria Arroyo’s incumbency to hide the ka script in a mural painting commissioned by the National Press Club means that the reactionaries are aware of the symbol’s subversive meaning.

To further appreciate the radical history of the ka symbol, we should study why Bonifacio and other revolutionaries have chosen to adopt the Katipunan name. It seems that the decision to use the name Katipunan was already deemed as radical during that time. This was lucidly discussed in a paper written by Megan Thomas from the University of California in Santa Cruz.

We may be familiar with the letter K today but it was not part of the Tagalog alphabet during the time of Rizal and Bonifacio. Since Filipinos at that time were using the Spanish writing system, the letter k was represented by letter c. The Kataastaasan Kagalang-galang na Katipunan should have been spelled as Cataastaasan Cagalang-galang na Catipunan. There were many katipunan groups during the last decade of Spanish rule in the Philippines but what distinguished Bonifacio’s Katipunan was its adoption of the letter k in its name and even in its flags.

In 1889, there was a proposal to devise a new orthography by incorporating the letter k in order to rationalize the Tagalog alphabet. Isabelo de los Reyes, Pardo de Tavera and Pedro Serrano Laktaw were among the Filipino intellectuals who pushed for this spelling reform. (For example: cumusta should be kumusta, cabayo should be kabayo).

But not all students and advocates of the Tagalog alphabet were supportive of the revised orthography. Pascual H. Poblete, a Tagalog writer, branded the proposal as anti-Spanish:

“Furthermore, Tagalog compatriots: If our religion, our laws, our customs and our entire mode of being are Spanish, why do we have to use some letters that are not genuinely Spanish? Are the letters that have been taught to us not enough for us to express our ideas and thoughts?”

He further reminded his readers that the letter k is of German origin. Rizal, who was once accused of being a German spy, defended the popularization of the new orthography:

“When you were attending the town’s school to learn your first letters, or when you had to teach them to the littler ones, your attention must have been drawn, as mine was, to the great difficulty that boys encountered when they got to the syllables ca, ce, ci, co . . . because they didn’t understand the cause of these irregularities or the reason that the sounds of some consonants change.

“Why, then do the children of the towns have to kill themselves in learning the syllabary of a language that they will never have to speak? The only thing that they can gain is a hatred of their studies, seeing that they are difficult and useless.”

Three years after this debate, the Katipunan was founded. The acronym KKK (instead of CCC) was used in some of its numerous flags. Thomas has some probing questions on the usage of the letter k by the Katipunan:

“…their orthographic choices suggest a continuity between those who advocated the new orthography in 1889, and those who founded and directed the new society of the Katipunan a few years later.

“While research remains to be done to better understand these connections, that the Katipunan adopted the “k”—when it had only recently been introduced and had quickly disappeared from public use—requires explanation.

The link between Rizal and Bonifacio is already established. Bonifacio was a member of the short-lived La Liga Filipina which Rizal assembled before his arrest. Bonifacio’s decision to use the letter k when he founded the Katipunan could be one of the legacies of the propaganda movement.

If the new orthography was an issue that concerned the educated segments of the population in 1889, it gained popularity among the masses when the Katipunan adopted it in 1892. It was an idea which became a material force capable of generating a radical consciousness when the revolutionaries used it to recruit new members in the independence struggle.

And Bonifacio also recognized the political value of using the k symbol to propagate the creation of a new government and a new society. Thomas quotes Kathryn Woolard who explains the meaning of ‘flagging the nation’

“In countries where identity and nationhood are under negotiation, every aspect of language, including its . . . forms of graphic representation, can be contested. This means that orthographic systems . . . are symbols that themselves carry historical, cultural, and political meanings.”

Through this concept of ‘flagging the nation,’ Thomas interpreted Katipunan’s use of the letter k as an act of defiance against the Spanish colonizers

“In this case, the banner of the letter “k” might be taken to indicate the way that the distinctiveness of the language—its difference from Spanish—was part of the claim of the revolutionaries to self-rule. We have our own language; we should have our own government.”

Soon after gaining independence, the Philippines adopted the new orthography system. And Bonifacio, Katipunan, and Rizal are now part of our Kasaysayan.

To use the ka symbol today is not only to express our commitment to create history, it is also our special way of honoring the revolutionary heroes who fought for our independence.

Reference: Megan C. Thomas. K is for De-Kolonization: Anti-Colonial Nationalism and Orthographic Reform. Comparative Studies in Society and History 2007;49(4):938–967.

Related articles:

Thailand’s colored protesters
Cry of Bonifacio

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