Championing Filipino Identity and Inspiring the Young Professionals of Today: The Life and Legacy of José Petronio M. Katigbak (1879-1916)

No one who came to know Petronio ever forgot him. Not because of his good looks or of his personality, or of his charm. In fact, he was an extraordinarily plain person to look at. He was small, slight, and very dark, with an elongated face that seemed so thin and stretched. He had unusual teeth, too, the lower lip overlapping the upper, as in the Hapsburg lip. Nobody could forget him because he impressed people as a very upright and honest man. It was awesome to see so much moral courage in such a small frame.”

Maria Kalaw-Katigbak, “A few there were, like my Father”, 1974

Every single day, a breadth of new talent emerges among numerous groups of young Filipinos being educated at home and abroad. This has consistently disproven the myth of Filipino intellectual incapacity and material backwardness, which was propagated during the early years of the American occupation of the Philippines. José Petronio M. Katigbak was one of the most outstanding young Filipinos of his time, endowed with a powerful and highly developed intellect and well abreast in all matters that pertained to the general welfare of his country. Courageous and conscientious in working towards what he believed was right, he had the mind to conceive the greatest of plans and the ability to execute them. His work in Philippine nation-building impressed many but even more so, his sterling character. He lived an exemplary life worthy of emulation by young Filipinos today.

Harvard Class Album, 1904, pg. 133
Courtesy of the Harvard University Archives

José Petronio was born on October 4, 1879 to Don Mariano Katigbak y Solís and Doña Isabel Macarandang y Ramírez, in Lipa, Batangas.  The Katigbaks were members of the old gentry made rich by coffee cultivation, which had made Lipa the richest and most advanced town in Luzon during the late 19th century. His father Don Mariano was a trusted friend of Philippine national hero Dr. José Rizal and a staunch supporter of the Propaganda Movement. He served as Lipa’s Capitán Municipal (mayor) during the height of the Philippine Revolution in 1896. It was a critical period of administration in Lipa as it was then the general headquarters of the Spanish troops engaged in the campaign against the revolts in Cavite and Batangas. Don Mariano, demonstrating great tact and persuasion, managed to protect the Lipeños and their town from the outrages of the Spanish forces and the Filipino revolutionaries. Doña Ysabel, his mother, a La Concordia alumna, was known for her business acumen.  

Pepe, as he was fondly called by his family, was the eldest among the five children of Mariano and Ysabel. His siblings were Benigno (Lipa Chief of Police who died in the line of duty), Josefa (the pious wife of statesman and ex-journalist Fidel A. Reyes, author of the scathing editorial Aves de Rapiña (Birds of Prey)), Isabelo (Physician, one of the first graduates of the UP School of Medicine, 1909), and Felino (prominent farmer and businessman). From his father’s second marriage to Rosario Luz, Pepe had five younger half-sisters, namely, Natividad, Asunción, Pilar, and twins Soledad and Concepción (a Religious of the Virgin Mary Nun).

Katigbak Family Tree

Katigbak received his primary and basic education in Lipa and attended high school (segunda enseñanza) at the Ateneo Municipal in Intramuros, Manila, where he took a great interest in the arts, especially writing and painting. The years of studying at the Ateneo were one of the most brilliant periods of his life. He was an outstanding student, winning 30 medals as well as honorary diplomas. Among his awards was first prize for Analysis and Latin translation. His oil paintings became part of the Exposición Regional de Filipinas (Philippine Regional Exposition) held in Manila on June 23, 1895. The Universidad de Santo Tomás conferred on him his Bachiller en Artes (liberal arts degree) on March 16, 1897, with a mark of sobresaliente (excellent). He then enrolled in the same university to study Medicine, but this he did not pursue because of a different calling.

Conferment of the A.B degree to José Petronio Catigbac in 1897 (Courtesy of the UST Archives)

During the Philippine revolution, Katigbak formed part of the patriotic organization called Club Demócratico Independista. This group of brilliant and spirited Lipeño professionals and students founded the newspaper Columnas Volantes de la Federación Malaya in 1899. In this newspaper, he showed his literary prowess in the Spanish language by writing poems and articles under the pen name “Hamlet”. His literary works were said to have an “ever-vibrant lyre, which was sometimes a melancholy song of a sad lover; other times a joyful echo brimming with hope, a sweet serenade pondering the virtues of the Lipeña woman, or an epic and warlike march encouraging the liberating Filipino army.” Among his poems that earned much praise and applause was entitled LA CRUZ ROJA (The Red Cross), a passionate expression of sentimentality in the style of Katigbak’s favorite poet, Christian Heine, dedicated to the beautiful Ladies of Charity of the Lipa Red Cross Women’s Society. An extremely inspired Katigbak recited it during a musical and literary evening organized by the ladies of the Red Cross for the benefit of injured Filipino soldiers.

One of his patriotic poems published in this weekly was LA LIBERTAD DE LIPA (The Freedom of Lipa) in commemoration of “el 18 de Junio 1898” (June 18, 1898), the historic date of the surrender of the Spanish troops in Lipa to the Filipino revolutionary force.

Clipping of LA LIBERTAD DE LIPA from the Columnas Volantes de la Federación Malaya, Suplementario Extraordinario para conmemorar el dieciocho de junio de 1898 (Día en que fue tomado Lipa por los libertadores revolucionarios) , domingo, 18 de junio 1899
With impressive verses, Katigbak composed these poems using the Spanish metrification called Silva, which consists seven-and eleven-syllable lines mixed irregularly and with some lines unrhymed.

Aside from writing, Katigbak also landed a teaching career. He taught Spanish Literature and Drawing at the Instituto Rizal, a school inaugurated on January 2, 1899, which was also under the auspices of the Club Demócratico Independista. The young Teodoro M. Kalaw came under Katigbak’s influence in this learning institution. Kalaw remembered him for “his strong character and his stern code of honor”. His students also admired him “for he lived as he taught and what he laid out he himself obeyed.” Kalaw also acknowledged Katigbak for honing his writing skill and style.“My father, without Petronio, would have gone on to Manila in a haze of illusion, dreaming like an idealist, writing like a lover. After Petronio, his writing had style and purpose”, wrote Maria Kalaw-Katigbak.

During the Spanish era and the beginning of the American regime, there were no native Filipino engineers then. The colonial government had to import engineers from Spain and abroad in order to carry out the engineering works as well as plan and manage the government’s enormous public construction projects. The lack of Filipino professionals in this field and Katigbak’s keen interest in the welfare and improvement of his own country compelled him to become an engineer. From being an ilustrado of the Spanish era, he transformed into a technocrat of the American period.

King’s College Admission Paper
(Courtesy of the King’s College Archives)

Katigbak’s departure for Europe in the midst of hostilities between Filipinos and Americans was forced by circumstances. He tried several times to run away from home to join the combatant Philippine Republican Army, and his father Don Mariano, to keep him away from the danger of being a soldier, sent him to London. Bidding goodbye to many loved ones in the most inconsolable bitterness, he left the Philippines in the middle of February 1900.

Despite coming from a wealthy family, Katigbak refused to waste his parents’ money and his time abroad, and sought to finish a positive career that could be beneficial for himself and the country. He learned English for six months and took the entrance examinations for King’s College in 1900.  He studied Engineering with diligence and great success. He received throughout this time twelve certificates of honor and earned, on more than one occasion, the admiration of his fellow students and his professors. In 1903, he obtained the Associateship, which was a distinctive qualification of King’s College and a special course offered in addition to the main academic subject area. While in Europe, Katigbak acquired fluency in numerous languages. During his first summer vacation, he went to Boulogne to learn French. Through this, he was able to read the novels of Balzac and poetry by François Coppée and Victor Hugo. In the school year of 1902, he spent his vacations in Berlin intensely learning German. Such was his determination to the point that he even stayed in the homes of French and German families on his return to London just to master the said languages.

He left London in 1903 and traveled to the United States to continue his engineering studies. He enrolled at Harvard University’s Lawrence Scientific School. Already holding the Associateship and a Certificate of Distinction from King’s College, and after successful long interviews with the school professors, he was admitted right away to the fourth year. He then obtained his Bachelor’s degree in Civil and Topographical Engineering on June 29, 1904. He was the first Filipino student of that esteemed American university. After his graduation, he took a special course on Plane, Railroad, and Geodetic Surveying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and later he was employed as a Draftsman, Surveyor, and Designer at S.D. Warren and Company in Westbrook. 

Harvard University Application
(Courtesy of Harvard University Archives)

José Petronio was not just a student abroad but also embodied a true patriot who defended the Filipino identity against the erroneous ideas of the Americans. In a Boston newspaper article entitled “A Filipino Student Replied” published in February 1904, it said that he attended Fred W. Atkinson’s discourse on Philippine education at Harvard and when the floor was opened for questions, he fearlessly “stood up and talked for half an hour to correct the inaccuracies in Mr. Atkinson’s paper”. Katigbak was among those who elevated Filipino dignity to the world, debunking the misconceptions about the Filipinos that they were savages and illiterate. “He objected specifically to applying the terms “tribes” to the Filipinos and insisted on their essential nationality. Mr. Katigbak graduated from a Philippine college, and for the past three years has studied engineering at the University of London. He has spent some time on the continent and speaks several languages besides his native Spanish and Tagalog. He is an earnest believer in his countrymen and eager to correct what he considers are prevailing incorrect ideas about them.”  Katigbak also proclaimed his nationalistic sentiments in a speech on the influence of the Russo-Japanese War on the Philippines, which he delivered before the members of the Boston Twentieth Century Club in April 1904.  In this speech, he courageously denounced the American occupation of the Philippines when he stated, “there is no independence in the Philippines; on the contrary, there is a reign of terror, and I must express my opinion when I say that liberty does not always follow your flag”.

Katigbak also encouraged the Filipino youth, in the name of independence, to pursue the engineering career in order to take charge of development projects in the homeland through his article entitled “Filipino Youth and the Engineering Profession”, published in the Filipino Students’ Magazine (printed in Berkeley, California) in 1905. “Somebody, however, may remark that all these works could be carried out exclusively by American engineers of whom there is an abundant supply. I hope this remark will not come from a Filipino. The moment we play in our country the role of an inert body and have imbued in our midst the idea that everything should be run exclusively by the Americans, that moment we had best abandon all our hope for future independence.”  Through the same article, he also advocated the Filipinos’ autonomy in terms of improving not only the political but also the material conditions of the country.  “Nations like individuals do not show their manliness unless they show self-reliance and resourcefulness; hence, if we Filipinos ever wish to build a strong country we have to work and show that our country can rely upon us.”

Katigbak’s article published in the Filipino Students’ Magazine in 1905
(UC Berkeley Bancroft Library)

When José Petronio returned to the Philippines in 1905, he entered the government service with the Bureau of Public Works as a transitman.  While working under this government agency, he spent some time in the Mountain province laying out and executing the renowned American Architect Daniel Burnham’s plan for Baguio. On February 5, 1906, Katigbak was transferred to the Department of Engineering and Public Works of the City of Manila, and here he distinguished himself as an engineer, “entrusted by the authorities with the most important projects on street and bridge work and the improvement of an extensive area of lowlands in the congested Tondo district ”. The best official positions in the Philippines were monopolized by Americans then. It is true that José Petronio could live without being employed since he was a member of a wealthy family; but he submitted to the challenges of the socio-political environment at that time, perhaps to demonstrate the Filipinos’ ability. And he succeeded, having somewhat cleared the prejudices and made the government posts available to the Filipinos. Because of his merits, he rose to the ranks as can be seen in this service record: February 5, 1906, Surveyor (temporary); July 1, 1906, Transitman (probationary); April 1, 1907, Assistant City Engineer; May 1, 1908, Chief Surveyor; June 1, 1910, Second Assistant City Engineer; October 1, 1911, Superintendent of Streets and Bridges; and on March 4, 1914, First Assistant City Engineer. On many occasions, during the absence of the City Engineer William Robinson, Katigbak was Acting City Engineer, and, as such, Acting Member of the Municipal Board.

Photo of José Petronio Katigbak inspecting the ruins of the buildings,  caused by the fire in Rosario, Manila (from the Renacimiento Filipino,  November 24, 1911)

Maria Kalaw-Katigbak highlights, through the memoirs of her father Teodoro Kalaw, José Petronio’s extraordinary morality and dedication to his profession. “As a city official, he was known to have gone back to his office in the middle of the night to return a towel he had brought home by mistake. He warned his office staff that he considered every pencil, every scratch pad, and every typewriter ribbon in the City Hall as government property and that to take home any property was theft. His position as City Engineer could have enabled him to make money for himself, or for his family, or his friends. The city was then laying out streets, building markets, and constructing schools. He knew where all these would go up, where land could be bought cheap to be later sold dear. But he only did not care to take advantage of this information but he also made a stand against anyone else who tried to do so. Once, he had an unpleasant incident with Isabelo de los Reyes, whom he discovered snooping around in his office for certain City construction blueprints. He ordered Isabelo, already a dignified official, out of the room, telling him it should be the City Engineer to whom questions were to be addressed, and not his office clerks, who had no right to give out office information of any sort whatsoever. De los Reyes later attacked him in the newspapers for his high-handedness, but this did not deter Petronio any. Petronio knew his duty and was prepared to carry it out at any cost.”

Amidst a busy career, Engineer Katigbak devoted part of his time to the academe. In fact, his influence and efforts led to the establishment in 1908 of Liceo de Manila’s Escuela de Ingeniería y Arquitectura, the first school of engineering in the Philippines, where he served as the Director and professor at the same time. It was a big help for those Filipino students who were very eager to study engineering but were unable to do so because of the lack of resources to defray the cost of studying it abroad. In 1910, he was appointed as the first instructor of the University of the Philippines’ newly opened College of Engineering, as an instructor in graphics (drawing).

Liceo de Manila’s School of Engineering and Architecture
Plantilla of Officers and Professors

He was also active in the socio-civic work of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) Chapter in Manila and as a leader, Katigbak was the first President of the Institute of Engineers and Architects of the Philippines. He was also a member and one of the founders of the Philippine Columbian Association, a society comprised of Filipinos who received college degrees in the United States.

On February 16, 1910, at the San Juan Bautista Church in Quiapo, Manila, Katigbak tied the knot with Trinidad “Trining” Buenaventura y Ocampo, daughter of the prominent merchant Don Mariano Buenaventura, a relative and partner of Don Telesforo Chuidian in the formidable business Buenaventura, Chuidian y Compañía.  Pepe and Trining were very fond of children and their greatest regret was not having one.

Portrait of José Petronio Katigbak
with his wife Trinidad Buenaventura y Ocampo (1889-1918)
Renz Katigbak Collection

It was during Katigbak’s stint as acting city engineer that he economically and efficiently planned and constructed the temporary truss bridge over the remaining spans of the 1914 flood-damaged Puente de España (Bridge of Spain). For this, he received public recognition from the pro-Filipino American Governor-General Francis Burton Harrison. Katigbak carried out many of the most important city projects, especially in the way of streets. One of his last important projects was the scheme to improve an extensive area of low-lands in Tondo by controlling esteros and filling in. He was remembered for his retiring nature and modest about his attainments, and accustomed to requesting the newspapermen of those days who called on him for information concerning projects he was interested in, to state that the work was accomplished by his office of which he was but an official.

The Manila Municipal Board during the visit of Spanish poet Salvador Rueda in 1915. As the acting City Engineer, José Petronio Katigbak was part of the Municipal Board of Manila.

Already at the height of his career filled with worthy achievements accomplished in the finest spirit, the strenuous load of work and activities undermined José Petronio’s health. He went home to Lipa to recuperate, but he contracted typhoid fever there. He sought the best medical help in Manila however his strength had sorely deteriorated. He succumbed to his illness and died on May 16, 1916, at the very young age of 36. His sudden death, deeply deplored by many, caused the Philippines the loss of a useful son, whom great hopes were entertained.  “Slight of stature, tireless, and optimistic in spirit, he was an invaluable citizen and a fine Christian character. In him, the Filipino people lost their ablest engineer, certainly one of the best examples of aspiring Filipino young manhood”, wrote JM Groves of the Young Men’s Christian Association. José Abad Santos, a friend of Katigbak and his colleague in public service, also lamented in a eulogy such a significant loss, “For his was a life of hope and of promise, of inspiration and of service.  In this critical period of our national life, when the country’s supreme needs call for the services of her loyal sons, the death of José Petronio Katigbak is all the more keenly felt. For he was a faithful and efficient public servant. His was a patriotic and noble heart. His public career furnishes a shining illustration of the truth that the path of duty is also the path of honor.”

Clipping from the Memoirs of José Petronio Katigbak in the Transaction of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Such was the admiration with which Katigbak was held that at the time of his death and during his wake the city hall and all public buildings in Manila put all their flags at half-mast and an estimated 20,000 people attended his funeral procession. Among the honorary pallbearers were the city mayor, members of the municipal board, heads of city offices, justices of the Supreme Court, and other prominent Filipinos.

With solemn and simple rites, Katigbak’s remains were interred at a plot in the Manila North Cemetery set aside for the burial of illustrious and heroic dead. A monument was erected over the grave at the request of his widowed wife Trinidad Buenaventura.

In recognition of José Petronio Katigbak’s manifold labors performed by him as a city official and to perpetuate his legacy, the Manila Municipal Board resolved on August 28, 1916, that the road in front of Manila Hotel extending from Calle A. Bonifacio to the new Luneta, constructed under his direction, be officially designated as “Katigbak Drive”.

José Petronio Katigbak was a truly influential figure of his time. He devoted his life entirely to work in service to his country, a service based on outstanding academic achievements both in the Philippines and abroad, a service that was consistent throughout his career. José Petronio was and is truly deserving of the recognition of our nation, as an example to follow for the Filipino youth and the professionals and public servants who serve the country today. His extraordinary talents, zeal, selflessness, patriotism, civic virtues, and unwavering loyalty to duty must be rescued from oblivion as a source of inspiration for the present, just as he was for his time.


Abad-Santos, José. “JOSÉ PETRONIO KATIGBAK”, Philippine Review, May 20, 1916.

A Filipino Student Replied“, Cortland Evening Standard, February 12, 1904.

 “Alegación presentada al Hon. Gobernador General y al Hon. Speaker de la Asamblea Filipina por la Academia de Ingenieria, Arquitectura y agrimensura de Filipinas: el 18 de agosto de 1908” in Manual de instrucciones para agrimensores particulares redactado por la Oficina de Terrenos Públicos (Manila: n.p.,1908).

“EL PROYECTO DEL INGENIERO KATIGBAK: Escuela de Ingeniería en Filipinas”, El renacimiento, January 8, 1906.

Gideon, A. “Memoir of José Petronio Katigbak” in Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers. New York: American Society of Civil Engineers, 1917.

Groves, James. “He Hustled the East“, Association Men, August 1916.

Kalaw-Katigbak, Maria.  Few There Were (like My Father). Manila: Teodoro M. Kalaw Society, 1974.

Katigbak, José Petronio. “Filipino Youth and the Engineering Profession.” Filipino Student’s Magazine, no1. (April 1905): 10.

“Manchuria and the Philippines: Bitter Analogy drawn by Mr. Katigbak”, Boston Sunday Post, April 10, 1904.

Solís, Max Bernard, “Hamlet” in Columnas Volantes de la Federación Malaya: Contribución a la historia del Periodismo Filipino, n.p., 1928, 46-63.

“Una Gloria Filipina: El Joven Katigbak.” El renacimiento, August 26, 1903.