The existing literature of the Philippine ethnic groups at the time of conquest and conversion into Christianity was mainly oral, consisting of epics, legends, songs, riddles, and proverbs. The conquistador, especially its ecclesiastical arm, destroyed whatever written literature he could find, and hence rendered the system of writing (e.g., the Tagalog syllabary) inoperable. Among the only native systems of writing that have survived are the syllabaries of the Mindoro Mangyans and the Tagbanua of Palawan.
The Spanish colonial strategy was to undermine the native oral tradition by substituting for it the story of the Passion of Christ (Lumbera, p. 14). Although Christ was by no means war-like or sexually attractive as many of the heroes of the oral epic tradition, the appeal of the Jesus myth inhered in the protagonist’s superior magic: by promising eternal life for everyone, he democratized the power to rise above death. It is to be emphasized, however, that the native tradition survived and even flourished in areas inaccessible to the colonial power. Moreover, the tardiness and the lack of assiduity of the colonial administration in making a public educational system work meant the survival of oral tradition, or what was left of it, among the conquered tribes.
The church authorities adopted a policy of spreading the Church doctrines by communicating to the native (pejoratively called Indio) in his own language. Doctrina Christiana (1593), the first book to be printed in the Philippines, was a prayerbook written in Spanish with an accompanying Tagalog translation. It was, however, for the exclusive use of the missionaries who invariably read them aloud to the unlettered Indio catechumens (Medina), who were to rely mainly on their memory. But the task of translating religious instructional materials obliged the Spanish missionaries to take a most practical step, that of employing native speakers as translators. Eventually, the native translator learned to read and write both in Spanish and his native language.
This development marked the beginning of Indio literacy and thus spurred the creation of the first written literary native text by the native. These writers, called ladinos because of their fluency in both Spanish and Tagalog (Medina, pp. 55-56), published their work, mainly devotional poetry, in the first decade of the 17th century. Among the earliest writers of note were Francisco de San Jose and Francisco Bagongbata (Medina). But by far the most gifted of these native poet-translators was Gaspar Aquino de Belen (Lumbera, p.14). Mahal Na Pasion ni Jesu Christo, a Tagalog poem based on Christ’s passion, was published in 1704. This long poem, original and folksy in its rendition of a humanized, indeed, a nativized Jesus, is a milestone in the history of Philippine letters. Ironically — and perhaps just because of its profound influence on the popular imagination — as artifact it marks the beginning of the end of the old mythological culture and a conversion to the new paradigm introduced by the colonial power.
Until the 19th century, the printing presses were owned and managed by the religious orders (Lumbera, p.13). Thus, religious themes dominated the culture of the Christianized majority. But the native oral literature, whether secular or mythico-religious continued. Even among the Christianized ethnic groups, the oral tradition persisted in such forms as legends, sayings, wedding songs such as the balayan and parlor theater such as the duplo (Medina, p. 32).
In the 18th century, secular literature from Spain in the form of medieval ballads inspired the native poetic-drama form called the komedya, later to be called moro-moro because these often dealt with the theme of Christians triumphing over Moslems (Lumbera, p. 15).
Jose de la Cruz (1746 – 1829) was the foremost exponent of the komedya during his time. A poet of prodigious output and urbane style, de la Cruz marks a turning point in that his elevated diction distinguishes his work from folk idiom (as for instance, that of Gaspar Aquino de Belen). Yet his appeal to the non-literate was universal. The popularity of the dramatic form, of which he was a master, was due to it being experienced as performance both by the lettered minority and the illiterate but genuinely appreciative majority.