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VIII. Tulisanes: San Mateo and Banditry

[This is part of a collection of posts serializing the second chapter of Pasyon, Awit, Legend.]

Colonial authorities labeled the long-standing tradition of resistance at San Mateo banditry, and the inhabitants of the region, tulisanes. Telesforo Canseco, the overseer of the Dominican hacienda in Naic, Cavite, wrote of

the bandits (tulisanes) of San Mateo with long beards whom we have called tulisan pulpul, are men who are dedicated to robbing and committing crimes and have taken to the mountains (remontarse) and have lived for many years in the mountains of San Mateo, where even the Spanish have not been able to reach them.1

Noceda y Sanlucar

Noceda y Sanlucar, Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala, 1754 edition

Noceda and Sanlucar in the 1860 edition of Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala defined tulisan as “malhechor, salteador; de tulis, agudo” [evil-doer, highwayman; from tulis, sharp.]2 The etymon of tulisan is tulis, to sharpen. Tulis is an Austronesian root which developed into the Malay tulisan, writing,3 a significance related to the sharpened implement which was used for scratching letters into the leaves of the lontar palm.4 Tulis thus had pluripotent significance, waiting to be sharpened into one or the other of at least two possible meanings. As the Spaniards supplanted and destroyed Philippine writing systems, the highly literate native populations were driven to orality; tulis came to mean banditry.

The word tulisan, as banditry, was appropriated by the Spanish. Felix Ramos y Duarte in his 1898 Diccionario de mejicanismos defines tulis as “ladron, ratero” (bandit, pickpocket).5 Tulis, rather than tulisan, had entered Mexican Spanish by the late nineteenth century as a word meaning bandit. The Diccionario Porrua attributes the origin of the word ‘tulises’ to a ‘grupo de bandoleros del Edo. De Durango’ who escaped from the jail of the town of San Andres de Teúl, in approximately 1859. Most notable among them was the famous bandolero, El Cucaracho.6 From Teúl the dictionary derives the word tulis as bandit. Gironiere, among others, was already using ‘tulisan’ as a Tagalog word for bandit long before these events in Teúl, thus ruling out this etymological reconstruction.

An alternative etymology has been proposed by Paloma Albalá Hernández in her Americanismos en las Indias del Poniente. She suggests a Náhuatl origin for the word, deriving tulisán from “tule, planta de la que se hace el petate, que etimológicamente procede de la voz náhuatl tullín o tolin, según Molina (1571) ‘juncia o espadaña’ y según Siméon (1885) tollin o tullin ‘junco, juncia, carrizo’.” [“tule, plant used in making bedrolls, proceeding etymologically from the náhuatl tullin or tolin, according to Molina (1571), sedge or bulrush, and according to Siméon (1885) tollin or tullin, rush, sedge, reed-grass.”]7 No further explanation is given for this proposed etymology, but it would seem that petate, bedrolls, were considered a standard item of the bandolero, and since these bedrolls were made from tule, the bandoleros became known as tulis. Teresita A. Alcantara follows the same path for the entrance of tulis into Tagalog.8 This etymology seems far-fetched.

It would seem likely that the word tulisan traveled from Manila to Acapulco in the final years of the galleon trade. Teul, in the Estado de Durango, was on the west coast of the Mexican isthmus, north of Acapulco. En route, the word also entered Chamorro, as tulisan rather than tulis. Chamorro is an Austronesian language and Chamorro speakers would have found the desinence -an familiar.

Regardless of the path taken by the word ‘tulisan’ in its transpacific peregrination, what is important is that there was a specific historical phenomenon in the nineteenth century in both Mexico and the Philippines with which the word was associated: social banditry.

Eric Hobsbawm, in his work Bandits, writes that social bandits, “are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported.”9 This description aptly matches the phenomenon of tulisanes in the Philippines.

On the subject of tulisanes, Henry Ellis wrote,

Brigandage still exists in Luzon to a considerable extent, armed bands of Tulisanies [sic] (hill robbers) patrolling the country levying contributions and plundering with seldom much effectual molestation from the authorities, carrying their depredation in quite an organized form into the suburbs of Manila itself …

A party of soldiers, under the command of Lieutenant Enciso, in the gray of the morning of the 25th July, managed to surprise a famous brigand leader of the name of Jiminez, who with a part of his band was caught napping in a house in the neighborhood of the cave of San Mateo

The chief (Jiminez), although in figure an exceedingly slight, small man, had through the daring and determination of his character long held a most perfect sway and control not only over his own particular band but more or less over all the “gentlemen of the craft” in that part of the country, and, it was said, had frequently used his restraining power for good, punishing severely among his followers acts of wanton outrage and restraining them from unnecessary violence and bloodshed. He carried on a black-mail system, levying contributions principally on the rich, and was not only respected but rather a favourite among the poorer villagers, going amongst them in perfect immunity.10

San Mateo, and Mount Pamitinan in particular, the closest intrusion of the Sierra Madre massif into the Spanish Manila, was the epicenter of tulisan activity in popular consciousness.

This tradition of resistance was precisely what the Carpio legend invoked. For Ileto to state that the masses live in “a society where King Bernardo Carpio was no less real than the Spanish governor-general” is to fail completely to understand the function of legend. The geographical specificity of the legend, the insistence upon San Mateo as the location of Bernardo Carpio, served as a metonym for social banditry and resistance to the ruling class.


  1. “los tulisanes de San Mateo con barbas largas a quien nosotros llamábamos Tulisan pulpul o sea hombres que dedicados al robo y a cometer crímenes se han visto precisados a remontarse y vivir muchos anos [sic] en los montes de San Mateo, a donde no han podido llegar todavía los españoles … ” (Telesforo Canseco, Kasaysayan ng Paghihimagsik ng Mga Pilipino sa Cavite, trans. Jose Rhommel B. Hernandez [Quezon City: Philippine Dominican Center of Institutional Studies, 1999], 64).
    Canseco’s account was written in 1897 as “Historia de la insurrección filipina en Cavite,” and was housed in the Archivo de la Provincia del Santísimo Rosario de Filipinas, University of Santo Tomas, Manila. The published version is a Spanish-Tagalog diglot. Hernandez notes “May dalawang uri ng tulisan. Ang una ay tinatawag na ‘Dugong Aso,’ nagnanakaw at pumapatay. Ang ikalawa naman ay ang ‘Tulisang Pulpul,’ nagnanakaw subalit tumatakbo at pumapatay lamang o lumalaban kung kailangan.” ibid., 69, fn. 7 “There are two classes of tulisan. The first is called ‘Dog’s Blood,’ they rob and kill. The second is the ‘Blunt Tulisan,’ they rob but run and kill or fight only if it is necessary.”
  2. Juan De Noceda and Pedro De Sanlucar, Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala (Manila: Imprenta de Ramirez y Giraudier, 1860), 416, sv. Tulisan.
  3. Isagani Medina, Cavite Before the Revolution, 1571-1896 (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2002), 62, 224 fn. 8; Soledad Masangkay Borromeo, “El Cadiz Filipino: Colonial Cavite, 1571-1896” (PhD diss., UC Berkeley, 1973), 197, fn. 14; George Quinn, The Learner’s Dictionary of Today’s Indonesian (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2001), 1139 sv. tulis. The Proto-Austronesian (PAN) root for sharp is *Cazém, which reflects to the Tagalog talim as well as tulis, and to the Malay tajam. Talim is sharp-edged, while tulis is sharp-pointed. This is a much more plausible reconstruction than Laurent Sagart’s proposed Proto-Sino-Austronesian (PSAN) root, from which Old Chinese (OC) supposedly derived *ləih, “to pencil the eyebrows.” Malcolm Ross, “Some Current Issues in Austronesian Linguistics,” in Comparative Austronesian Dictionary: An Introduction to Austronesian Studies, Part 1: Fascicle 1, Trends in Linguistics: Documentation 10, ed. Darrel T. Tyron (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1995), 96-98.
  4. This was not an unusual origin for the word for writing. Both the Latin scribo and the Greek grapho had an etymological significance of to incise with a sharp point, while the Sanskrit likh, literally meant to scratch.
  5. Felix Ramos y Duarte, Diccionario de mejicanismos (Mejico, 1898), sv. tulis.
  6. Diccionario Porrúa de Historia, Biografía y Geografía de México quinta edición (México, D.F.: Editorial Porrúa), 3013, sv tulises
  7. Paloma Albalá Hernández, Americanismos en las Indias del Poniente: Voces de origen indígena americano en las lenguas del Pacífico (Vervuert: Iberoamericana, 2000), 106, 173.)
  8. Teresita A. Alcantara, The Spanish American Lexicons in Filipino, paper presented at Philippine Latin American Studies Conference, Pamantasan Lungsod ng Maynila, December 15-17, 2008, 6.
  9. Hobsbawm, Bandits, 20.
  10. Ellis, Hong Kong to Manilla [sic] and the Lakes of Luzon, in the Philippine Isles, in the Year 1856, 170-3, emphasis added.
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