Vicente Sotto: The Rise and Fall of Cebuano Literature
Illustration by Ramon Kristoffer Tiu
A nationalist. A libre pensador or freethinker. The father of Cebuano letters. A Carolinian.
The late senator Vicente Yap Sotto, apart from being the man in whose honor a well-known hospital in Cebu was named, was also one of the forerunners of Cebuano literature, paving the way for the use of vernacular language in the radical expression of nationalism and secularism.
Born in 1877 to a Catholic family, Vicente Sotto was among the few intellectual elite during his time, having finished his secondary education in the University of San Carlos, , and having earned his degrees in San Juan de Letran, University of Sto. Tomas and Manila College of Law, formerly the Escuela de Derecho.
At 22, Sotto started his career as a journalist by publishing La Justicia, the first Filipino newspaper in Cebu. Unfortunately, it was suspended by the U.S. military authorities for its advocacy of Philippine independence and for containing writings that were perceived as anti-American. However, Sotto, being persistent and fearless, published another nationalist periodical, El Nacional, a week after the suspension of La Justicia. Shortly after that, the former senator was imprisoned at Fort San Pedro in Cebu and the publication, in turn, ceased its operations.
After his release from prison, Sotto founded El Pueblo and later published the story Gugma sa Yutang Natawhan (Love of Native Land), for which he got accused by American authorities of allegedly advocating dukot or the kidnapping of collaborators with the American government. A total of 54 cases of libel, sedition and others were charged against Sotto, three of which he was found guilty but was eventually pardoned by the court.
Finally in 1901, Sotto began the first ever publication in Cebuano, Ang Suga (The Light), laying the foundation for the emergence of other Cebuano periodicals. It was Sotto’s longest-running publication and also the means through which other Cebuano writers were made known.
What is apparent in Sotto’s works is his determined effort toward press freedom. Coming from the repressive Spanish colonial system that prohibited the circulation of nationalist and revolutionary newspapers, the people were just starting to be aware of the importance of the freedom of thought. Although Sotto was having conflicts with the American regime and was involved in many cases of libel and sedition, he undauntedly wrote numerous stories about press repression even during his self-exile in Hong Kong in 1907.
In his collection of short stories entitled Mga Sugilanong Pilipinhon (Philippine Stories), Sotto did not only stress the importance of press freedom. He also expressed his views on religion and freethought, constantly questioning the authority of the friars and touching upon the persistent conflict between religious dogma and human reasoning. The character of the freethinker often mocked the contradictions and mysteries stated in the Bible and the illogical way of thinking of the friars.
Also evident in Sotto’s writings are the use of local and contemporary settings even though he incorporated events from the international domain, and the realistic manner to which he wrote his stories instead of resorting to traditional folklore. His writing style was described as newand progressive in a way that it contravened the rules of writing literary fiction at that time.
Furthermore, Vicente Sotto, like any other man in history, had his own weaknesses and shortcomings. The late senator became involved in the abduction of a woman under 18 years old in 1906 and was followed by his self-exile in Hong Kong for seven years. His negative views about women — their so-called deceitfulness and shallow promises — were clearly presented in most of his stories about romantic love. It should be noted that during the Spanish and American rule, the patriarchal ideology, perpetuation of male dominance and subordination of women were strongly embedded in the Philippine society and are therefore manifested in Sotto’s writings such as Don Benigno and Ang Pasaylo ni Barbara (The Forgiveness of Barbara).
Taking a glimpse of Sotto’s life as a writer, patriot and fighter, one would agree that Sotto indeed played a large role in the development of Cebuano culture and literature. At first it was with the urging of his friends that Sotto started publishing in his local language, but later on, he developed the desire to be understood by his people. Venturing out of his comfort zone and challenging the literary norm in his time, Sotto was able to reach a greater majority of people and help uplift national consciousness among Filipinos. In his dying day, he remained firm and true to his identity of being a nationalist, seeking independence for the country, inculcating the nation with a sense of freedom to think beyond the deep-rooted tradition and struggling against any form of repression.
The times have since changed. Very rarely do we find ourselves promoting the use of the vernacular language in any literary piece, questioning the unreasonable use of authority or agonizing over our lack of cultural identity. We celebrate at the thought of our country sinking deeper and deeper into a Westernized culture that we have become apathetic to the point of tolerance to the oppressive and exploitative forces around us.
The courage of the patriotic men and women in history is the part that we take great pride in and that is all there is to it. The love for one’s country that is portrayed in books is left hidden and untouched in the corners of libraries, except for academic purposes. We visit these written accounts and glance at them once in a while, but afterward forget about them as we succumb to embracing everything that is Western, unknowingly making ourselves strangers to our own language and culture. Are we, as what late Senator Sotto used to say, betrayers of our Mother Land or are we merely victims to the colonial mentality still ingrained in our minds?
The radical and nationalist senator passed away 65 years, ago but the struggle toward cultural identity remains. Sotto emerged as one fearless man who stood up for the country’s honor and whose works became crucial to the development of Cebuano literature. It is through digging deeper into our roots that we will, hopefully, become aware of how others fought for the culture that we now refuse to
Mojares, R. (1976). Vicente Sotto and the Rise of Realism in Cebuano Literature. In Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society (2nd ed., Vol. 4, pp. 101-109). Cebu City: University of San Carlos Publications.