Pedro Bukaneg is one of the colorful figures in the history of the Philippines, particularly in the annals of Samtoy (ancient name of Ilocos, or Ylukon to the neighboring regions). From meager written sources and abundant oral traditions, biographers are able to weave the elusive strands of his life and remarkable achievements. They rhapsodized him as the first Ilokano man-of-letters. They compare him to Moses because as a newly-born baby, he was found floating down the river by a woman; to Homer, for he was born blind and grew up to be a popular bard; and to Socrates, because he was not good-looking as a man but wise. As the first Ilokano poet, orator, musician, lexicographer, and linguist, to appear in the limelight of history, whose name and deeds enhance the glory of Ilokandia’s literary heritage, history has bequeathed upon him the title of “Father of Ilokano Literature.”
Many aspects of Bukaneg’s life are obscured by legendary mists, so that it is quite difficult to dissociate the historical Bukaneg from the legendary Bukaneg. It is speculated that Bukaneg might have been born early in 1592. It is said that one day in March, 1592, a laundry woman found a little baby crying inside a floating tampipi (big basket for keeping clothes) along the bank of a stream (now called Banaoang River), a tributary of the big Abra River, which flows between the town of Bantay and Vigan, Ilocos Sur. She took the baby and saw it was a boy, ugly and blind. This story parallels that of the Biblical Moses, who, was an infant found by an Egyptian princess (daughter of pharaoh) inside a basket floating down the Nile River. The only difference is that Moses was neither ugly nor blind. Evidently, Bukaneg was a victim of the brutal custom of destroying infants born with physical defects, practiced not only in Samtoy, but also in Sparta, Persia, and other nations of anquity.
After saving the poor infant from a watery grave, the kind-hearted woman brought him to the parish priest of Bantay, who baptized him as Pedro Bukaneg. The name Bukaneg is said to be a contraction of the Ilokano phrase “nabukaan nga itneg,” meaning “Christianized heaten.” History still has no information as to who were Pedro Bukaneg’s parents.
God had invariably given Bukaneg certain wondrous qualities to overcome the handicap of being blind, such as intellectual brilliance, retentive memory, sensitive musical sense, magnetic eloquence, and gift for learning languages. He was brought up and educated by the kind Augustinian priests in the convent of Bantay, a priory (motherhouse) for new missionaries assigned in Ilokandia.
As Bukaneg reached manhood, he proved to be a remarkable Ilokano who was well liked and appreciated by the Augustinian friars. A gifted linguist, he mastered Latin, Spanish, Ilokano and Itneg (Tinggian) languages. He possessed an extraordinary talent for assimilating all things pertaining to theology, the Bible, and Spanish literature which his Augustinian tutors taught him, and also the Ilokano folk songs and traditions he heard from the old barrio people. Being a romanticist, he composed poems and songs which were so tenderly sweet that he gained fame among the Ilokano masses as a gifted troubadour.
The authorship of Biag ni Lam-ang, the famous Ilokano epic, was attributed to him by some authors. This was, however, a disputed issue. For the epic poem, containing 294 stanzas, about 1,500 lines, and the syllables of each line range from six to 12, was chanted by the Ilokano folks since pre-Spanish times. It is possible that Bukaneg, being blind, might have dictated it from memory to an amanuensis; consequently, it was put into writing and was preserved for posterity. We owe it thus to Bukaneg that this priceless Ilokano popular epic was saved from oblivion.
Bukaneg was good not only in poetry but also in oratory. He preached the Christian religion in the streets of Vigan, Aringay, and other towns, and persuaded many of his people to discard their old beliefs. Large crowds of people always listened to him when not minding his ugly face and blindness. Because of this, he came to be called the “Apostle of the Ilokanos.”
The Augustinians friars recognized Bukaneg’s talent as a linguist. During the early days, Augustinian missionaries who arrived from Mexico and Spain studied the Ilokano language in the Augustinian convent of Bantay by way of preparing them for their apostolic labors in the mission fields of Ilokandia. Bukaneg was their teacher in the Ilokano language. Aside from his teaching, he wrote Christian sermons in Ilokano, translated the novenas and prayers from Latin and Spanish into Ilokano, and helped in the preparation of the first Ilokano catechism and grammar.
The first Ilokano catechism was the Ilokano translation of a book containing Christian doctrines by a certain Cardinal Bellarmine, which was printed in the Augustinian Convent of Manila in 1621 by Antonio Damba and Miguel Seixo. Bukaneg was a great help to Fray Francisco Lopez, an Augustinian missionary- linguist, in the preparation of the book titled Libro a naisurat amin ti batas ti Doctrina Cristiana nga naisurat iti libro ti Cardenal a angnagan Belarmino (Book Containing the Laws of the Christian Doctrine written by Cardinal Bellarmine).
The first Ilokano grammar, also authored by Fray Lopez, titled Arte de la Lengua Iloca (The Art of Ilocano Language), and printed at the University of Santo by Tomas Pinpin (c. 1580-c.1650) and Tomas de Aquino in 1927. In the prologue of the book, Fray Lopez admitted the considerable assistance given by Bukaneg. The book is now considered extremely very rare. One copy of it is preserved in the British Museum in London. Later editions of this valuable book were printed, with certain revisions, such as those made by Fr. Fernando Rey (1792), Fr. Andres Carro (1793), and by Fr. Cipriano Marcilla (1895).
Unfortunately, many of the poems, sermon prayers, and other works written by Bukaneg have all been lost. It is believed that a large number of linguistic works, poems, novenas, and prayers which were attributed to the Spanish friars were really composed by Bukaneg.
The Ilokanos also recognized Bukaneg as seer. They came to consult him whenever they were in trouble for they had implicit faith in his wisdom. Even the Spaniards look for him for the guidance in their hour of need. An anecdote was told that one day the Servant Don Nicolas de Figueroa, Spanish encomendero of Narvacan and Bantay, was shot to death by arrows and the arquebus which he was carrying was stolen. Shortly afterwards, a band of Itnegs (Tinggians) were captured near the scene of the crime and were taken to Bantay. One of these Itnegs was believed to be the murderer, but the authorities could not determine the guilty party in as much as all of the accused refused to talk.
In the midst of their judicial perplexities, the Spanish authorities called Bukaneg to help them in the trial. When Bukaneg arrived at the scene, he asked that all the Itnegs be freed from their bonds, explaining that “it was not right that all should suffer from the deed of the guilty man.” He walked around the circle of Itnegs who stood silently, betraying no emotions on their stolid faces. He placed his right hand over the breast of each one, feeling their hearts throb. After this strange ritual, he pointed one Itneg, declaring him the guilty murderer. Taken aghast by Bukaneg’s clever deduction, the Itneg broke down and confessed. He was accordingly punished. His companions, who were set free, returned to their village in the hills and related the tale of Bukaneg’s strange power of second sight.
Beloved by his people, Bukaneg died about 1630. His death was mourned by his people who had come to revere him as a man of remarkable talents. To his enduring fame, the Ilokanos, in recognition of his literary legacy, named the traditional Ilocano literary joust as Bukanegan, after his name, just as the Tagalogs name their literary joust Balagtasan, in honor of Francisco “Balagtas” Baltazar (1788-1862), the laureated “Prince of Tagalog Poets.”
Whether legendary or historical, Pedro Bukaneg’s greatest heritage is evident in the fact that compare to regional literature that developed consistently from the Spanish Period, Ilokano literature progressed at a pace as fast as that of the Tagalogs. In poetry, for example, from the time of Pedro Bukaneg, we have seen the likes of Leona Florentino, Isabelo de los Reyes, Mena Crisologo, Leon C. Pichay, Godofredo Reyes, Jeremias Calixto, Juan S. P. Hidalgo Jr, Jose Bragado, Reynaldo Duque, and many more. Aside from poems, stories and novels published in the magazine Bannawag, numerous books being published in Ilokano are clear indications of the wealth, as well as health, of writing in the Ilokano language.
Almario, Virgilio S., “Writer’s Circle and How They Moved Philippine Literature Ahead,” Filway’s Philippine Almanac, Quezon City, 1991. ISBN 971-121-156-4
"Pedro Bukaneg: Father of the Iloko Literature." http://www.santa.gov.ph/ilocossur/heropedro.html. Retrieved: 2011-02-18
Ribo, Lourdes M., Reyes, Linda M., Language and Literature, Philippine Setting, Manila, 1998. ISBN 971-071-309-4