Revolutionary Routes: Elias wrestling the crocodile

By Elmer Ordonez

IN the center of Tiaong, Quezon, stands a run-down mansion with a sculpture of Elias, the rebel in Rizal’s Noli , wrestling a crocodile. Both house and sculpture were designed by Tomas Mapua for the Herrera-Umali family in 1928 in a period of growing radicalism. The Elias sculpture may well be the “objective correlative” of Angela Stuart Santiago’ s Revolutionary Routes, a family saga dating back to early people’s struggles during the colonial/post-colonial periods.

As Nita Umali-Berthelsen (the author’s aunt) notes: “The crocodile was a symbol of greed. The struggle between Elias and the monster gave rise to many suppositions, some flattering, others not at all.” (Tayabas Chronicles, The Early Years, 1886-1907, 2002). Revolutionary Routes (2011) sheds new light on the context and meaning of the sculpture.

Creative non-fiction is a relatively new term for biography/autobiography, family chronicles, memoirs, and other literary forms that hew closely to fact but may be written in a style akin to fiction, modern or post-modern, with an eye for detail. As family history, Revolutionary Routes focuses on five characters, forebears of the author, starting with Paula, a peasant woman from Bina-ngonan. who marries Julio Herrera of Tiaong. For refusing to pay the exorbitant fee for the church burial of a child cholera victim, and burying instead the remains outside the church, Paula is jailed and then forced to walk with four guardia civiles from Tiaong to Tayabas. This recalls the experience of Rizal’s mother who was accused wrongly and made to walk from Calamba to Sta. Cruz, Laguna to be jailed.

Paula’s husband, Julio Her-rera, is also a peasant who manages to acquire land which produce enables them to send their son, Isidro, to school. He works as personal secretary of the commissioner of religious affairs, escribano, and notary. Through diligence Isidro Her-rera becomes a landowner who actively takes part in the revolution, and is jailed by the Americans.

A rising young politician Manuel Quezon befriends the Herreras and plays a role in the misfortune of Isidro’s son-in-law, Tomas Umali of Lipa, Batangas.

Tomas Umali, lawyer/writer running a school in Manila, meets Conchita Herrera, and doesn’t relent his courtship which leads to their union in marriage. He gives up his school and law practice in the city, and settles with Conchita in Tiaong. Quezon and Tomas are partners in a railroad expropriation case in the province. Later Umali is charged with estafa but Quezon, on his way to become resident commissioner in the US Congress, is not. Tomas flees to Macau where he joins the revolutionary council made up of political exiles Artemio Ricarte, Vicente Sotto, Macario Adriatico, and others. In time no less than US president William Howard Taft intervenes toward Umali’s exoneration in the railroad expropriation case. Who was behind this? The author speculates it was Quezon himself or his fellow masons who had earlier abandoned him.

Tomas’s son-in-law Crisos-tomo Salcedo’s run-in with Vicente Umali in UP law school yet and later over the job of justice of the peace in Tiaong is said to be at the root of his tragedy. Both are members of the PQOG (President Quezon’s Own Guerrillas); their rift ends with the brutal murder of Crisostomo.

Narciso Umali, Tomas’s son, also a guerrilla officer, enters post-war politics marked by electoral fraud in 1949 when Elpidio Quirino won over Jose P. Laurel in what was then said to be the dirtiest election ever. Narciso wins as Nacionalista congressman but is later falsely charged with rebellion complex with murder and arson over the Huk raid and burning of the house of the town mayor and the death of some policemen. This is the most trying ordeal of the Herrera-Umali family who struggle, Sisyphus-like, to win justice for Narciso. In 1958 Narciso is pardoned by President Carlos Garcia, and outlives all his tormentors.

The above summary does not do justice to the rich but somber tapestry that the author weaves from family memoirs, testimonies, letters, newspaper clippings, published historical material, court orders, petitions and interviews. It catalogues the friar abuses, corruption, double dealing in patronage politics, insurrections, and colonial /neocolonial greed as well as the customs, mores and cuisine at the turn of the century. In parts the book reads like a Jacobean play full of intrigue, betrayal, violence, and retribution.

The Narciso Umali case occurred during the height of the anti-communist drive involving President Magsaysay and his CIA adviser Col Lansdale in the early 50s. (My older brother, a scout ranger, was killed in action in 1953. As student and later instructor in UP I saw and became a victim of McCarthyite witch-hunting on campus.)

Revolutionary Routes is not only a social history of Tayabas but of a feudal/colonial country marked by rebellions and oligarchic politics. Historian Reynaldo Ileto says the book could well be an alternative history of the Philippines.

The author admits to an “anti-colonial bias” in writing the book. But aren’t histories written from the “perspective” of victors in the war or those who were vanquished and exploited by colonialism? Who else will express the racial memory and struggles of a people but writers and artists bearing witness.

Revolutionary Routes is indeed creative non-fiction at its best.


  1. Frankly, I just started to read the book three days ago. I thought i was already familiar with what I know from stories sometimes i heard from Lola Concha, but after reading up to Tio Naning’s chapter, I was surprised to get details proving the miscarried of justice which the family,especially Lola Concha’s clan have gone thru.

    Let me,therefore, belatedly congratulate you,Angie, sincelely for coming out with Lola Conch memoirs even more historically valid with great research and documentation. In Arabic, i say one thousand times “Mabrouk!.

    To my mind, this book will really help illucidate why the wheels of justice in our country will never reflect the truly democratic idealism of our Constitution because of some historical events (such such “friar-tocracy, globalism,American neo-imperialism) which will have a bearing and politically influenced the holders of power in our govt. hence transparency and good governance will always be in jeopardy especially to the marginal and under privilege sector of our society who have no means or the least resources to seek moral justice. Indeed, just look now the present system of issuing TRO by corrupt judges and the flip=flopping of so many “landmark” decisions by the highest Magistrate of the Land, confusing and misleading the public as to the correct vision which we must hope for lifting us from clutches of foreign domination even in the sphere of our economic well-being.