Most Filipinos can at least acknowledge the influence of UP as a producer of trailblazers. The University’s own institutional history has given us cursory knowledge of the great personages who were some of the “firsts”, “fathers”, or “mothers” of their colleges, areas of study, or other organizations of national importance.
For the most part, these trailblazing figures ring a bell. Many graduates, for example, recognize the American pastor Murray Bartlett to be the first President of UP, while his successor Ignacio Villamor was the first Filipino to hold the position. Similarly, Guillermo Tolentino is known as the sculptor of UP’s most iconic symbol, The Oblation (which was not, for the record, modeled on Fernando Poe, Sr.’s physique).
These and other figures are recognized for their pivotal role in UP’s history. None of them, however, is considered the “Father of UP.” The fact that the term is so rarely, if ever, used can lead one to the impression that UP is indeed a “parent-less” institution—sprouting like Athena from the nation’s cranium to guide a people beginning to find their legs.
Philippine Studies scholar and Pangasinan expert, Dr. Maria Crisanta Nelmida-Flores, however, disagrees. Her studies into the history of the nation and her home province have led her to a figure that she says might be considered worthy of the title. His name is Juan Alvear.
Who exactly was Juan Alvear? Very few people, even in UP, really know. Flores herself, who happens to be a kababayan of Alvear from Pangasinan, first got wind of his connection with UP when asked in a graduate class by UP Diliman Chancellor Michael Tan the question: who really was the “Father of UP”?
Some of Tan’s clues were that he was a famous espiritista and a former Pangasinan congressman. Bells began ringing in her head, and Flores’s answer not only gained her Tan’s attention, but also sparked a growing interest in a historical figure who seems to defy easy classification.
“Based on my research, which was almost a decade ago, he was from San Fabian, Pangasinan,” Flores says of Alvear. “He has a statue there. As what? Well, for one he was a member of the Malolos Congress. He was also the founder of the School of Arts and Trades in Lingayen. There were a lot of schools that were founded by him.”
Traces of Juan Alvear as a member of the provincial elite can be found in selected histories of the province. The book Pangasinan, 1901-1986: A Political, Socioeconomic and Cultural History by Rosario M. Cortes, for instance, mentions Alvear’s rise to prominence. Once a Philippine revolutionary, Alvear became a member of the Partido Nacionalista together with the first Filipino governor of Pangasinan, Perfecto Sison, and other provincial elites.
Sison had been appointed governor in 1901 in the Dagupan Assembly by William Howard Taft and his peers as part of the Taft Commission’s effort to organize provincial governments under the sovereignty of the United States. Sison, however, was considered too nationalistic by American policymakers, and was defeated in subsequent elections by non-resident members under the Federal Party banner. The latter, Cortes says, was a party organized to advocate the annexation of the Philippines as an official state of the United States and was a dominant entity during the early period of American colonization.
The newly-formed Partido Nacional, on the other hand, advocated absolute independence. It was with this party that Juan Alvear, together with all of his fellow candidates from Pangasinan, won a seat as a delegate in the First Philippine Assembly in 1907 as representative of Pangasinan’s third district. As a member of the Lower House, Alvear would make higher education history.
“In fact,” Flores says, “many people do not know that Juan Alvear—because the Philippine Assembly was in 1907 and UP came into being in 1908—that he was the first one to propose that there should be a ‘national university.’ And my memory is a bit hazy, but the first (idea) before that was the need for a Philippine General Hospital. So the idea for both a national university and a national hospital came from Juan Alvear.”
The result of these proposals would eventually become Act No. 1688, passed in 1907, and Act No. 1870, passed a year after. These acts would respectively appropriate the sum of P780,000 for the construction of the PGH and establish the University of the Philippines—an institution to provide “advanced instruction in literature, philosophy, the sciences and arts, and to give professional and technical training.” The seeds of what we now know as the University of the Philippines System had been planted.
After his tenure in the House, Juan Alvear ran for the post of provincial governor and won in 1909. Details of his life after the governorship are sparse, and sources indicate he passed away in 1918. Today, he is remembered (if at all) as a major figure in Philippine Spiritism for having founded the first Spiritist Center in 1901 in San Fabian, and becoming a pivotal player in uniting spiritists nationwide through the Union Espiritista Cristiana de Filipinas, Inc. in 1909. His role as a patriot and an advocate of higher education, however, has been, for the most part, forgotten.
“(Chancellor Tan) actually said that he has a bust in UP Manila that is now beside the brooms and mops,” Flores says. Ironically, in spite of his role, Alvear is now a forgotten man. Resources about his life are sparse, and many of Flores’ own resources were lost during the Faculty Center of 2016. As to why his memory has faded so dramatically, she has the following opinion:
“I think it’s because we mostly operate on written history, and focus on the institution once it is already existing. Let’s say, UP had already been established, so who was the first head? And so on. But what happened pre-establishment, we haven’t gone much into that.”
Only more research might solve this most seminal of UP mysteries.
Flores herself said that she once attempted to dig deeper into his life before UP’s Centennial in 2008, but had limited success. “I had mentioned previously in our meetings that maybe it’s time someone looked into Juan Alvear as the Father of UP. I hope we can now.”
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