Journalist and nationalist, Fidel Alejandro Reyes y Malabanan was born on May 3, 1878 in Lipa, Batangas. His parents Don Felipe Reyes and Doña Josefa Malabanan were middle-class landowners and farmers in Lipa, well-educated and fluent in Spanish. His father was the town’s gobernadorcillo in 1885 and 1886. Fidel was the sixth of 11 children – 6 boys and 5 girls. He grew up in a home that greatly valued education. His older brother Vicente Reyes was a lawyer, a graduate of the Universidad de Barcelona, whose career was snapped short due to his untimely death at the age of 24. While his younger brother, Carmelo, was also an outstanding student who later became a pioneer Filipino head-and-neck surgeon and long-time Chief of Clinics of the Philippine General Hospital.
Fidel’s early schooling began in Lipa, most likely at the Escuela de Latinidad of Maestro Sebastián Virrey or that of Luis Greñas. He pursued his secondary education in Manila at the Colegio de San Juán de Letrán where he obtained his bachillerato with a mark of sobresaliente in 1895. He began studies in Pharmacy at the Universidad de Santo Tomás, which was interrupted by the Philippine Revolution.
Carmelo Reyes, in the biographical sketch entitled Kuya Fidel, recounts the beginning of his brother’s nationalist awakening during the revolution:
“Sometime in 1897, before actual skirmishes began in the Lipa area, he must have felt a wanderlust or some real patriotic urge and disappeared from home, either to observe or actually join revolutionaries in Laguna and Rizal, probably Sta. Cruz, Pagsanjan, or San Mateo, from which he returned 2 or 3 weeks after with 4 or 5 young fellow companions who stayed at our home, must to the embarrassment of poor Mother who had very little help and the wherewithal at the time. He brought with him, either as a souvenir or a trophy, a fine-silver plated sundang (native sword) which he privately displayed with gusto.”
When the Spaniards peacefully surrendered Lipa to the Filipino Revolutionary Force on June 18, 1898, Fidel was appointed Delegado de Policia under the revolutionary government. At this time, a group of young intellectuals and patriotic Lipeños formed the Club Democrático Independista and published the weekly newspaper Columnas Volantes de la Federación Malaya. In this newspaper, Reyes began his journalistic career. Under the pen names Negro (Black) and Fin de Siecle (End of the Century), Fidel wrote critical commentaries on the regular section entitled “Actualidades” (Current Events). He also became a professor of World History in Lipa’s newly founded school Instituto Rizal.
With the installation of civil government under the Americans, Fidel returned to Manila to continue his studies in Pharmacy. When he passed the Board in 1902, he went back to Lipa and together with fellow pharmacists Rufino Marave and Francisco Bautista formed the pharmaceutical store named Botica y Perfumería – Sociedad Anónima o en Comandita on the ground floor of his family home. Soon, he acquired a pharmacy on Calle Real, considered to be the best pharmacy in Lipa at that time.
However, he returned to the life of a crusading journalist and resumed his nationalist endeavors in Manila. Even while he was still studying Pharmacy, he continued his true passion and worked as a staff member of Rafael Palma in the newspaper El Nacionalismo and under Alberto Barreto and Macario Adriatico, in La Independencia. Upon his return, he was appointed City Editor of the newspaper El Renacimiento, under Teodoro M. Kalaw. The paper was well-known for its nationalist campaign, publishing strongly worded editorials against corrupt and abusive public officials, as well as powerful businessmen and caciques.
Fidel was responsible for writing the scathing editorial, “Aves de Rapiña” (Birds of Prey), which was published on October 30, 1908. This marked the culmination of the paper’s ethical crusade and brought about one of the most famous libel cases in Philippine journalistic annals. The editorial alluded to Secretary of the Interior Dean Worcester, who then sued Fidel, his Editor-in-chief Teodoro Kalaw as well as Martin Ocampo, the paper’s publisher, of libel. In addition to the criminal aspect of the libel case, Worcester filed a civil suit against Kalaw and Ocampo, demanding compensation for moral damages. The process was long and sensational and ended with the accused being found guilty of libel, and with the confiscation of El Renacimiento. The case was elevated to the U.S. Supreme court and affirmed in 1914. The penalty of imprisonment was at least avoided when a pro-Filipino Governor General Francis Harrison granted them a pardon. The trials were lost but the nationalists did, however, win the support of the public and were elected into public office.
Reyes continued on with his writing career even after his editorial, Aves de Rapiña, brought an end to El Renacimiento. He became the director, after Fernando Ma. Guerrero, of La Vanguardia, the daily that rose from the ashes of his previous paper and maintained the independent and nationalist editorial line. It became one of the leading Spanish publications in the country until the beginning of World War II.
Called to public service, Fidel became a member of the Third Philippine Legislature, representing the Third District of Batangas in 1912. Among his legislative contributions was a bill that eventually became Act 2479, which established the Sugar Centrals. He was a member of the Committee on Banks and Corporations, which recommended the establishment of the Philippine National Bank in 1916. As the Chairman of the Committee on Commerce and Industry, he sponsored Act 2598 which established the Coconut Production Board. He continued his journalistic work, this time furthering the cause of independence through economic development. Along with F. Theodore Rogers, he founded and edited the Revista Economica, a mouthpiece of the Asociación Economica de Filipinas, the pioneer Filipino business organization under the American Regime. It was published continuously for eleven years and earned much praise for its initiative in economic affairs.
Fidel Reyes gained the privilege of becoming the first Filipino Director of the Bureau of Commerce and Industry in 1924, succeeding James J. Rafferty. Fidel was first appointed Assistant Director when the Bureau was established in 1918. He was commissioned to go on an official mission to the United States and Europe in 1920-1921 to undertake studies and report on commercial and industrial conditions in these places, during which he represented the Philippine Government in the Exposition of Tropical Products in London. A very active man, he had done much to implement the main purpose of the Bureau, that is, the promotion of the country’s domestic and foreign trade to meet the challenge for Philippine independence under the Jones Law.
He served as Director from 1924 to 1929, during which he also became Managing Editor of its organ, the Commerce and Industry Journal. His last journalistic venture was in 1929 as Editor of the La Opinion y El Comercio, controlled by Ramon Fernandez. Unfortunately, his term as Director ended with a controversial case involving Engineer Island, an important dependency of the Bureau, which resulted in dismissals and suspensions of many of its officials. There was no involvement on the part of Director Reyes, but on account of the doctrine of command responsibility, he voluntarily resigned from his position. He maintained the respect of his peers and continued to be a loyal member of the Nacionalista Party. In the post-war period, he served as City Assessor of Manila, to which President Osmeña had appointed him.
To his family, he was a man of sterling character, upright, hardworking, and responsible. He believed in generosity, as well as moderation in all things. Even as a young man, he had a clear vision of how he wanted to live his life. He married his childhood sweetheart whom he courted for years, Josefa Macarandang Katigbak. She was the younger sister of his good friend José Petronio Katigbak. Fidel and Josefa were married on November 23, 1911 and had four children: Isabel (married to Alfredo Luz Katigbak), Philipp who died at the age of 3, Alicia (married to Alfredo Luz Bautista), and Josefa (married to Pio Katigbak Luz).
He devoted his later years to farming and philanthropy. In honor of his wife, he donated a two and half-hectare site in Banay-Banay Lipa for the first SOS Children’s Village in the Philippines, done through the work of his daughter Josefa. Fidel and his wife were well known for helping people in dignified ways. For several years their home in Agno Street, Manila was open to people from all walks of life. As a tribute to him, the city of Manila renamed Agno Street into Fidel A. Reyes Street. The National Historical Institute and the City government of Lipa also honored the hero with a sculptured bronze bust, done by National Artist Abdulmari Imao, and a historical marker that stands in front of Fidel’s family residence at the corner of P. Torres and Gregorio Aguilera-Solis Streets in Lipa, Batangas.
Considering Fidel Reyes’ contribution to the history of Philippine journalism, it is worth noting that his birth anniversary, May 3, falls on the same day that we celebrate World Press Freedom Day.