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Philippine Literature: Written and Oral Expressions of Filipinos | History | Examples | Famous Books

Philippine Literature: Written and Oral Expressions of Filipinos | History |  Examples | Famous Books

Philippine literature comprises all the written and oral expressions of Filipinos conveying their individual or collective sentiments and experiences relating to life in the Philippines. It represents all culture groups and embraces the various contributions from all languages of the country. It draws on Philippine realities for its material and expresses the Filipino peoples’ vision, aspirations, and philosophy. It may be in indigenous or in hybrid forms resulting from a history of acculturation. As such, it is the Filipino authors’ aesthetic response to historical, social, political, and economic conditions and transformations occurring in their particular place and time.

Oral Traditions and Expressions

Historical and geographical circumstances have enabled certain communities in the Philippines to continue practicing their own customs and traditions thousands of years old, in defiance of the mainstream of Philippine civilization. In these regions, the people’s identity is intertwined with their ancestry through continuous occupation of the same soil or shore. It is the land or the sea, to which they are wedded, that hold their memories. Their oral traditions, consisting of poetry and prose forms, are the collective voice of the communities that create them as expressions of their history, codes of conduct, and way of life. These usually reflect their agricultural economy and cultural insulation. Local events can flower into legend and ballad and proverb, and village ways are derived from custom and tradition.

The poetic forms can range from (1) gnomic types, like proverbs (Tagalog sawikain, Kapampangan kasabian, Ilonggo hurubaton, Ilocano pagsasao, Tausug masaalla, Cebuano sanglitanan), riddles (Tagalog bugtong, Visayan paktakon or tugma, Ilocano burburti, Tausug tukudtukud), and short lyric poems (Tagalog tanaga, Mangyan ambahan, Visayan garay, Bikol sasabihon); to (2) medium-length lyric and narrative songs, like lullabies (uyayi, ili-ili) and ballads (traki); to (3) the extended narrative that is the epic (Manobo ulahingan, Panayanon hinilawod, Ifugao hudhud, Subanon guman, Maranao darangen, Mansaka diawot).

Group of Pinatubo Aeta exchanging riddles in their village, Iba, Zambales,
Group of Pinatubo Aeta exchanging riddles in their village, Iba, Zambales, 1989 (CCP Collection)

The proverb is described by folklorists as “the very bone and sinew” of the folklore tradition, because it is the poetic variant on the community’s code of honor and virtue. Community members resorting to the proverb to argue a point, confirm a judgment, point a moral, or impart advice are aware that they are being validated by the silent voices of generations of ancestors.

The literariness of the proverb comes from its metaphorical nature. Its imagery may reflect the people’s agricultural economy and peasant earthiness, but it may also be a metaphysical reflection on human nature or the human condition. For example, this Tagalog proverb’s description of a carabao may be a reminder of human fallibility:

Ang kalabaw na apat na paa

Nadudulas pa.

(Even a carabao with four legs

Will still slip.)

This Cebuano proverb warns against smugness resulting from shortsightedness (Alburo et al. 1988, 16):

Ayaw paghinalig, Baki, nang dakung linaw;

Muabot ang dakung hulaw, sa ugang liki ka mopauli.

(Do not exult, Frog, in that great pond;

In the great drought, you’re back in the dry crack.)

What reads like a pithy weather report may be an Ilocano expression of optimism:

No masapa ti cuyem-cuyem,

init nga agmalmalem.

(If it is cloudy early in the morning,

it will be sunny the whole day.)

The oral traditions, although often mislabeled as “precolonial,” are actually very much alive till now—that is, they are still being chanted or recited, hence constantly evolving to respond to the community’s everyday experiences. These traditional proverbs have evolved to make instant jabs at the egregiously anomalous state of contemporary political and cultural life. For example, this Tagalog traditional proverb—

Kapag nakabukas ang kaban

Natutukso kahit banal.

(When the treasure chest is open

Even the holy are tempted.)

—has its modern parallel (Gervacio 1999, 77):

Kapag nakabukas ang kaban

natutukso kahit kongresman.

(When the treasure chest is open

Even the congressman is tempted.)

Variations and transformations of Jose Rizal’s writings prove their relevance and timelessness. For instance, a popular quote attributed to Rizal that has entered the Philippine literary tradition as a folk proverb is:

Ang hindi magmahal sa sariling wika

Ay mas mabaho pa sa malansang isda.

(He who loves not his mother tongue

Is worse than a rotten fish.)

A contemporary version succinctly captures the complex and paradoxical nature of the Philippine language situation (Gervacio 1999, 77):

Ang hindi magmahal sa sariling wika


(He who loves not his mother tongue


Modern-day proverbs and aphorisms are those that one finds scribbled as graffiti on public walls, and circulating as e-mail or text messages on cell phones. “God knows Hudas not pay” is ubiquitously found on jeepney stickers. Waiting time in the Philippines, which can be excruciatingly long, can be filled in by a pundit or street philosopher by scribbling modern spin-offs on old proverbs to help pass the time away. Written on the wall of a waiting shed, for instance, is this verbal sigh of relief: “Kay haba-haba man ng pila, nakaupo din at nakalarga” (No matter how long the line, at last we got to our seat and left). That comes from an old Spanish-period proverb: “Pagkahaba-haba man ng prusisyon, sa simbahan pa rin ang tuloy” (No matter how long the procession, it will always end up in church).

In traditional societies, the game of riddling can occur spontaneously wherever people of the same community gather together, such as at sari-sari stores or in the shade of a tree in the fields. Riddles, even more than proverbs, require that the riddler and his or her audience share not only a common environment but also the same value system. The answer to the riddle must be an object commonly known to the audience; hence, plants, animals, household utensils, and occupational tools are common subjects of the riddle.

Some traditional riddles that have retained their enormous popularity and recited in various regions and languages of the country are the following:


Con adlaw cabagacyan,

gabi dagatan. (Banig)

(Bamboo tube by day,

Ocean by night. [Sleeping mat])


Sit ta bayawa,

Tambigang no daway malotbo. (Ke-gha-nop)

(A guava fruit

with seven holes. [Head])


Hende gente, hende animal

Bien mucho ojos

Pero hende ta puede mira. (Pinya)

(Not a person, not an animal

It has so many eyes,

but it cannot see. [Pineapple])

The primary riddling technique is for the first line to point out a similarity between the subject and human nature, and then, in a sudden twist, to describe their dissimilarity:

Cagayan Aeta:

Ajar tangapakking

Awayya ipagalluk. (Danum)

(When you cut it

It is mended without a scar. [Water])

Many riddles reflect the community’s value system. Hence, the riddler’s description of the subject is determined not only by its physical dimensions and characteristics but by the community’s perception and attitude toward it. The following expresses the great value of a maiden’s virtue:


Nagtanem ak na dalayap

Dia ed gilid na dayat

Dakel so manaanap

Saksakey so mapalar. (Marikit)

(I planted a lemon tree

In the middle of the ocean

So many went to find it

But only one succeeded. [Maiden])

A vegetable that might taste horrible to young or old alike is likened to the treasures of the earth:

Kulubot ang balat,

ang loob ay pilak,

siit namimilipit, ginto’t

pilak namumulaklak. (Ampalaya)

(The skin is wrinkled

Its flesh is silver,

A thorny twig that’s twisted,

Gold and silver a-bloom. [Bitter melon])

Riddles that are still being composed today derive their metaphors from contemporary culture, such as economic practices, modern appliances, cuisine, and icons:

Sinundot-sundot ko na ang mga mata

Binigyan pa ako ng limpak-limpak na pera. (ATM machine)

(Even though I pricked the eyes

It still gave me wads of money. [ATM machine])

Dala-dala kahit saan

Laging sinisigaw-sigawan. (Cell phone)

(You take it with you everywhere

Often shouting at it. [Cell phone])

Nang sumisid ay matanda

Nang lumutang batang-bata. (Pisbol)

(Old when it dived into the bottom

Very young when it surfaced. [Fishball])

Lyric poems express sentiment or emotion either directly, metaphorically, or through a narrative situation. In the Christianized plains, these indigenous forms gradually vanished with colonization, although samples were preserved by Spanish friars, who compiled these in their dictionaries. The Tagalog tanaga, for instance, still existed in 1754 when two Augustinian friars Juan de Noceda and Pedro de Sanlucar included samples in their dictionary, one of which was this (Lumbera 1986, 13):

Ang aba ko kapatid

nag-iisa ang sinulid

kung sa gayon napatid

sa papan malilibid.

(Alas for me, my friend,

Solitary is the piece of thread;

Once it snaps at the bobbin,

It ends up tangled in the heddle-rod.)

Although long obsolete, the tanaga started circulating again in 2003, through the cell phone Short Message Service, and hence was called the textanaga, such as this one:

Sa tapayang malalim

Tayo ay isda’t asin

Matagal buburuhin,

Patis ang kakatasin.

(In a deep earthen jar

We are fish and salt

There to ferment for a long while

Fish sauce is its essence.)

The Hanunuo Mangyan of Mindoro have kept their ambahan still very much alive till today, together with their syllabic writing system that they call surat-Mangyan. The ambahan is either chanted from memory or extemporaneously composed while the poet, using a small knife, inscribes the poem into a piece of bamboo while simultaneously chanting it. In the sample below, characterization begins simply enough and grows more elaborate with every line, mirroring the manner in which a person may gaze at a panoramic view before them (Nono 1998, 71):

Mangyan children learning traditional writing called ambahan
Mangyan children learning traditional writing called ambahan, 2014 (CCP Collection)

Tarura sa luknuhan

no taginduman diman

suput ng langgahayan

parasan ng guyabdan

supot nan langgaayan

walo kaliko kagna

walo takip buludan.

(He is like the rattan plant

when you think about it—

its tufts draped gently over other trees,

even the twined thorns

eight river-loops long

and eight mountains

flourishing with vines.)

The Cebuano short poem is called the garay (Alburo et al. 1988: 18-19):

Sacayan co si buan

Can mainday

Bugsay co si bitoon

Manumay quita dunday.

(I shall ride the moon

To my beloved,

With stars as my paddles

Let’s sway on in bliss!)

And the Ivatan have their laji (Hornedo 1979, 242-43):

Angu ichakayu mo a mayasipupungot aya

du huyudhud un tukum? Kayu aku a nunuk

a gayagayapunan un nayamud a vuyit

a di a vadavadait su pañid anu miluluvat.

(What kind of tree are you with leaves so lush

on top of a hill? I am a nunuk tree

on which perches the pigeon with well-oiled feathers,

whose wings cannot be ruffled by storm.)

Narrative poems may allude to a true, historical experience, such as the one below, chanted by the Aklanon Aeta, who were dispossessed of their land and driven into the mountains hundreds of years ago when the Malays first arrived in Panay (de la Cruz 1958, 20-21):

Buti-kuti sa Bhandi,

Bukon nyo baray ra,

Rugto ro inyo sa pang-pang;

Dingdingan sing pirak,

Atupan sang burawan.

Burawan, pinya-pinya,

Gamut sang sampaliya,

Sampaliya, marunggay,

Gamut sang gaway-gaway,

Gaway-gaway, marugtog,

Gamut sang niyog-niyog,

Busrugi ko’t sambirog,

Tuman kung ika busog.

(Stir the drums of Bhandi,

That is no longer your old home.

Over there is yours by the river,

With walls of shining silver

And roof of beaten gold.

The gold of ripe pineapple

Becomes the root of the bitter melon,

Bitter melon, marunggay

Becomes the trunk of the gaway-gaway

Gaway-gaway, marugtong

Is the root of the niyog-niyog:

Just drop down one young coconut for me

To slake my extreme thirst.)

New songs are still being composed on the spur of the moment, whenever the occasion arises. Because change is also at the very heart of oral, unrehearsed narration, performers through generations continually alter the saying, song, or tale that they have heard and learned, according to their community’s circumstances and the demands of their audience. Subanon singer and storyteller Rapinanding Promon sings this impromptu song expressing her bewilderment at the strange ways of a foreign family who have settled near the same river where the Subanon have always lived (Aleo et al. 2002, 11):

Kana gunay lupa ta

Ki tubig Amirika.

Kana gunay lupa ta,

Gunay lupa diwata.

Mitekaw na melamug

Dig benwa ta pikunay

Mituksu na mesinaklet

Di gungen ta pidunait

(Not adjacent to our soil

Is the river called America

It borders not on our land,

But on the soil of the gods.

Suddenly they reside among us

Inhabiting the same soil,

Already living together

As neighbors next door.)

Epics are versified narratives consisting of many episodes that recount the adventures of a hero generally possessing supernatural powers and the virtues most admired by the ethnic groups creating them. Although there are different terms for the epic among the many regional groups in the Philippines, it does have distinctive features as a genre. The length, style, and incidents recounted impart a certain grandeur; the heroes embody the people’s religious, cultural, and tribal ideals; and it is sung or chanted by especially gifted persons.

Myths are built into epics as part of descriptive or narrative detail but also explain natural phenomena or the origin of cultural and religious beliefs. In the Panay Hinilawod, the rainbow is formed from the blood that gushes in abundant amounts when Labaw Donggon, the hero, and Saragnayan, the god of the sun, engage in a grand battle lasting several years. When Saragnayan dies, his body falls to the ground, causing tremors felt around the world, “for when the earth shudders, that is the quavering of Saragnayan’s body.” In the Manobo Ulahingan, the whispering bamboo trees were once persons who presumably gossiped, “we must not mind them, for we will turn into bamboos if we talk about them.” It may have been an actual eclipse when Agyu’s legendary fortress, Nalandangan, and all his people in it were swallowed by a giant python. In a more philosophical vein, the human being’s essence is defined when Labaw Donggon’s youngest brother Dumalapdap is created, and the following elements are bestowed on him: ginhawa (breath), uriman (reason), limug (voice), kalag (soul), and kabubut-on (consciousness).

Hiyas Kayumanggi’s Hinilawod, a stage adaptation of the Panay epic of the same title, Cebu,

Hiyas Kayumanggi’s Hinilawod, a stage adaptation of the Panay epic of the same title, Cebu, 2013 (Hiyas Kayumanggi)

Epics are the people’s source of knowledge on everything, ranging from facts about the natural world to cultural values. The epic convention of the catalog of names is an enumeration of many kinds of things: the flora and fauna of the region whence the epic originated; the pieces of the hero’s costume as he dons each in preparation for courtship or battle; or the genealogy of the hero. In the Manobo Ulahingan, a listing of trees is merged with a list of Manobo musical instruments, so that the forest of Nalandangan is identical to a Manobo string-and-wind orchestra (Castro et al. 1985, 208-9):

Tag kutiapi sa lulang

Pa agundlung sa lumbayaw

Panakumbu sa buntung

Pamulala sa lakap

Panang-yawan sa banga

Dayun-dayun sa gatung

Banayaw sa yakungan

Panagliga sa bagtuk

Pangawit sa bulakaw.

(The trees sing like the kutyapi

The lumbayaw trees are the two-string guitar

The giant bamboos are bamboo guitars

The lakap are the flute

The banga leaves rustle

The betel palm leaves whisper

The rocks whistle

The bamboo stems chant

And the bulakaw sing.)

The sense of grandeur in the epic may come from the actions and appearance of the divinities. The Labin Aeta of Cagayan have an epic, Taguwasi and Innawagan (Constantino 2001), in which gods and human beings interact as suitors and enemies. Kalimangalnuk ya Langit, god of the fifth layer of the sky, abducts Innawagan. When her three brothers fly in pursuit of her, they light up the sky. They get to the fifth layer of the sky, but they are blocked by a door made of gold and a fierce gatekeeper, Pane Nagdombilan, whose eyes are made of earth. Sinag, who resides where the sun rises and whose skirt “illuminates the sky,” rescues Innawagan and her brothers.

Hyperbole also accounts for much of the epic’s grandeur. It describes the hero’s magnificent fortress, dramatizes action in battle, depicts the lightning speed with which heroes move or travel, or emphasizes the length of time when something does or does not happen. We infer, for instance, that Agyu in the Ulahingan has rested well because a betel nut palm planted when he went to sleep grew from a sapling into a tree that shed its leaves nine times before he woke. The size of his home is measured by the “booming of the gong that cannot be heard at the other end of the building.” We are impressed at the prowess of the guman hero Sandayo, especially because he is but an infant, “the sword at his waist scraping the floor, for he is as small as a bud unopened.”

Magic, also often used for hyperbolic effect, is casually depicted as a natural part of the epic world. Rings, spears, and birds talk like humans; thousands of betel nut chews are transformed into sparrows and fly toward corpses to revive them; mermaids’ hair is used for roofing; heroes fly great distances on their monsala (scarfs); they change into crocodiles or pythons; they die and are revived by their sisters’ or wives’ healing powers, or by their magic pet animals.

Much of the magic is caused by the shamanic powers of heroes, male and female. In the Darangen (McKaughan 1995, 23-28), a duel of magic powers between Madali and Princess Pirimbangan involves magic amulets, boulder prisons, rocks and stones of various sizes raining down on the battling characters, walls of flame, balete and orange trees sprouting with super speed, mountain-sized crocodiles, shape shifting, and a peaceful resolution through the chanting of the tarsila—that is, the genealogy of the people of Bembaran.

Many of these epic elements have found their way into our modern tales of fantasy and fabulation, ranging from films like the Panday series, 1980-84, starring Fernando Poe Jr, to the fantaseryes or telefantasyas like Encantadia, to postmodernist spoofs like Mes de Guzman’s short story “DaULTRaINTErMEGALAKTIkPinOyHerO,” 2003.

Encantadia, 2005, an example of telefantasya or TV series with epic elements
Encantadia, 2005, an example of telefantasya or TV series with epic elements (Photo courtesy of GMA Network)

Prose forms are the medium-length narratives like myths, legends, and tales (Tagalog alamat, Bikol osipon, Ilocano sarita, Visayan gintunan or sugilanon, Ivatan kabbata, Tausug kissa).

Myths all over the world recount the creation of the universe and explain natural phenomena, such as animal characteristics and geographical formations. They are considered by the communities that authored them to be truthful.

Ramon Obusan Folkloric Group’s Noon Po sa Amin, with a segment titled “Malakas at Maganda,” based on the popular creation myth
Ramon Obusan Folkloric Group’s Noon Po sa Amin, with a segment titled “Malakas at Maganda,” based on the popular creation myth of the same title, CCP, Manila, 2005 (CCP Collection)

Philippine myths are narratives about supernatural beings inhabiting mainly three layers of the universe—the sky, the earth, and the underworld—which are further divided into numerous sublayers. In the beginning was Dagau, who set the world atop five iron pillars, one of them at the center. The sky was round and was bounded by the sea. Near the sea’s edge was its navel, a gigantic hole through which the waters rose and fell, causing high and low tides. The world was shaped like a mushroom, underneath which lived Dagau with her pet giant python. This Agusan Manobo creation myth emphasizes Dagau’s abhorrence of human blood spilled in warfare, for when the blood seeps through the earth onto her face, she commands her python to wrap itself around the center pillar and give the world a good shake (Garvan 1929, 224).

Many of our creation myths begin with the sea already existing. And then little by little the rest of the world as we know it now would be created, starting with a speck of land in the middle of this vast ocean. Or there may be, inexplicably, a mountain to begin with, from which a bird, called Manaul, might gather rocks and soil to throw down at the warring gods of the sea and land, Kaptan and Maguayan, to make them stop fighting. This would explain the archipelagic nature of our world.

Legends, like myths, are believed to be true accounts. Unlike ancient myths, however, legends are set in a historical, hence more recent, past and may have human characters like us. Factual histories may be recounted in legendary style and form. For instance, historians identify a Sharif Muhammad Kabungsuan as having brought Islam to Mindanao in the late 14th or early 15th century (Majul 1999, 23). But legend has it that the Sharif rode on the crest of a gigantic wave (apparently a tsunami), which deposited him on the shores of Mindanao.

Some ancient myths were corrupted into colonial legends, our gods demoted into erring human beings or weak fairies. In ancient times, according to a Bagobo myth, the sun was so low it scorched the earth, and the first race of beings called Mona, although they were immortal, suffered. They had to crouch down low when they pounded their rice to make space for their arm. Finally, to escape the unbearable heat, they abandoned their work and searched for nooks and crannies in the earth where it was cooler. Then, a poor woman called Tuglibong asked the sky to rise higher because she could not pound the rice well. When she asked again after the sky had gone five fathoms up, the sun got angry with her and went up very high (Gloria 1967, 21).

This myth was transformed into a legend about a silly woman who put on her jewelry before going out of the house to pound rice and then, just before starting the chore, had to hang her necklace, earrings, and bracelet on the clouds that were within her reach at the time. As she lifted her pestle several times, the cloud rose higher and higher. The stars and the moon that now hang in the sky are that woman’s jewelry.

In the original myth, however, Tuglibong is also the creator goddess because, after she had caused the earth’s climate to become bearable, the human race as it is now sprung from her. Her daughter, Mebuyan, is the goddess of fertility and death. After a quarrel with her brother Lumabat, she sat on a mortar that started revolving as she dropped handfuls of pounded rice on the ground. The mortar kept revolving with Mebuyan sitting on it until it reached that part of the underworld now called the Land of Mebuyan. Mebuyan, whose body is covered with nipples, feeds all dead babies until they are old enough to join their dead relatives in the land called Gimokudan. In Mebuyan’s land also stands a dayap (lime) tree, every fruit of which represents a life on earth. For every fruit that falls from Mebuyan’s dayap tree, a life on earth perishes (Gloria 1967, 22).

With the coming of the Spaniards in the 16th century, our culture underwent the cross-fertilization of two heritages—the uprooted European and the indigenous—blended in a colonized land. Spanish new folk fancies were grafted within native forms. Our diwata, spirit-guardians of all aspects of life and nature, were replaced by Spanish supernatural creatures like the cafre/kapre, muerto/multo, duende/duwende (Aguilar 1998, 33). Our visual image of the diwata, which originally could be any gender or even ungendered, became identical with that of the European fairy, with gossamer wings, light brown hair, and mestiza features.

The Spanish colonial imagination transformed the diwata of mountain forests into symbols of feminine chastity by appending the Blessed Virgin Mary’s name to them. And so they became known as Mariang Makiling, Maria Cacao, Maria Bacocong, Mariang Sinucuan, and so on. But Jose Rizal turned the tables on the Spanish colonizers by using Mariang Makiling as a symbol of native rebellion. The native peasant with whom she is in love decides to marry a barrio lass to evade conscription into the Spanish army. On the eve of his wedding, Mariang Makiling appears before him and rebukes him for not trusting in the shelter and protection that her mountain offers. This is clearly Rizal’s call to his fellow Filipinos to flee to the mountains rather than to submit themselves to the oppression and exploitation of Spanish rule. The legend also notes that there is general speculation that Mariang Makiling vanished because of the Dominican friars’ acquisition of “half of her mountain,” which is in the province of Laguna: “they say that Mariang Makiling was offended because the Dominican friars desired to strip her of her domains, appropriating half of the mountain” (Rizal [1890] 1961).

Folktales, unlike myths, are told for entertainment and not for ritual purposes. They are meant to elicit laughter and exclamations of wonder and surprise from their audience. But, like any other form of oral literature, folktales also serve to reinforce the community’s value system, affirming virtuousness and deploring shortcomings. Hence, animal tales, or fables, hold up human flaws and foibles for criticism, just as trickster tales, numskull tales, or märchen (tales of magic) may criticize a person’s propensity to lie, to be lazy, or to be cruel to the hapless.

Straddling the categories of legend and folktale is one of the most widespread tales in the world, that of the star maiden who comes down to earth to bathe in a lake and is forced to marry a hunter when she cannot find her wings (Wrigglesworth 1991). A raconteur’s audience may also marvel at the cleverness of the trickster, whose power derives from his inventive ability to bend logic and language to his advantage. He is known in many Philippine regions as Pusung, although in the southern Philippines he is also known as Pilandok. In one tale, he entices the sultan’s wife to run away with him by pretending to be a bird on the mango tree and singing to her. In another tale, Pilandok saves the world from a devouring giant by tricking it into being tied securely to a molave tree (Wrigglesworth and Ampalid 2004, 14-107). During the Spanish colonial period, the trickster evolved to become a subversive antihero, obeying the gobernadorcillo’s (mayor) instructions verbatim to ridiculous extremes. In Aklan, the trickster who outwits the gobernadorcillo is named Bonifacio Bautista, nicknamed Payo (de la Cruz 1958, 40).

The pusong (trickster) tradition has been carried over to contemporary literature and popular culture. During the early American colonial period, when the writers were just beginning to produce realistic novels and stage plays, the pusong spirit showed up in secondary characters who commented on the flaws and foibles of conventional society, which was represented by the main characters. Zoilo Galang, who wrote the first Philippine novel in English titled A Child of Sorrow, 1921, also wrote novels in Kapampangan. In his novel Ing Capalaran—Ing Galal ning Bie (Fate—Life’s Reward), 1923, a character named Alfonso Maniagas, nicknamed Posung, has a wry remark, or aphorism, for practically every twist and turn of the novel’s plot (Galang [1923] 1991): “The first to crow is the one who farted” (9); “Handsome men marry ugly women, and ugly women marry handsome men” (25); “It is better to die than be put to shame” (31); “A person who has no wound does not know pain” (47).

Literature of the Spanish Period and the Hispanic Tradition

In 17th-century Hispanic Philippines, there were three kinds of poets: the Spanish missionary poets, who wrote in the native languages; the ladino, or bilingual native poets; and the native poets, who wrote in their own language. All three kinds are represented in a book of prayers by the Spanish Dominican friar, Francisco de San Jose, Memorial de la Vida Christiana en Lengua Tagala (Guidelines for the Christian Life in the Tagalog Language), 1605.

The poem at the book’s end, “May Bagyo Ma’t May Rilim” (Though It Is Stormy and Dark) by “una persona tagala” (a Tagalog person), is the first known published literary piece written by a native. It is an allegory of life as Everyman’s journey, beset with tests and temptations, but leading toward God if one takes the straight and narrow path. Below are the first and last stanzas (quoted in Lumbera 1986, 150-51):

May bagyo ma’t may rilim

ang ola’y titiguisin,

aco’y magpipilit din:

aquing paglalacbayin

toloyin cong hanapin

Dios na ama namin.

Cun lompo ma’t cun pilay

anong di icahacbang

narito ang aacay

magtuturo nang daan:

toncod ay inilaan

sucat pagkatibayan.

(Though it is stormy and dark,

I’ll strain my tearful plaints

And struggle on—

I’ll set out on a voyage

And persist in my search

For God our Father.

Though disabled and limping,

Nothing can hold back my steps,

For this [book] will take me by the hand

And show me the way—

The staff was prepared

To give me strength.)

This Christian allegory of life’s journey toward God is to become a favorite motif that will recur again and again in the Philippine literary tradition. Gone is the theme of the journey as a series of adventures and challenges to prove one’s prowess and daring, as undertaken by epic heroes who are also shamans and tribal chiefs, such as Agyu of the Manobo, and Ulahingan or Labaw Donggon of the Panayanon Hinilawod.

The preface to the same book where “May Bagyo Ma’t May Rilim” appears is the ladino poem “Salamat Nang Ualang Hangga” (Undying Gratitude) by Fernando Bagongbanta, himself bearing a ladino name. In this poem we glean the beginnings of what one might call the Spanish colonial mentality, as it reflects the native’s self-perception as being naturally lazy, if he was unlearned, and expresses his desire to be equal to the Spaniard through learning (quoted in Lumbera 1986, 242-43):

Ay capuoa co Tagalog

la gente de mi tierra,

payiin ang catamaran

vaya fuera la pereza:

lalaqui man at babai

los varones, y las hembras

at ang manga batang munti

y los niños edad tierna:

mag si pag-aral din nito

aprended aquesta letra

totoong di ualang liuag

muy poco trabajo cuesta:

bago,y, ang daming paquinabang

mucho es lo que se interesa

dudunong na di sapala

seremos hombres de ciencia

at maguiguing banal din

y de ajustada conciencia

na ualang pagcacaibhan

que no haya ya diferencia

nang Castila,t nang tagalog

del de España al de esta tierra.

(O my fellow natives,

Away with laziness,

Whether you be men or women,

Or children of tender age:

Study this book

For it costs so little effort

And brings so much profit

And we will become people of learning

While we become sanctified

And there will be no more difference

Between the Spaniard and the Tagalog.)

According to San Agustin’s Compendio de la Lengua Tagala (Summary of the Tagalog Language), 1703, Fray San Jose’s own attempts to write Tagalog poetry drew this polite comment from the natives to whom he showed his poem: “Magaling datapoua hindi tola” (It’s good but it’s not poetry; quoted in Lumbera 1986, 28). This was probably because Fray San Jose’s poems did not possess the “enigmatic” quality of the native metaphor, called, in Tagalog, talinghaga, described in the Tagalog-Spanish dictionary Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala (Vocabulary of the Tagalog Language), 1754, as having the quality of “mystery and obscurity” (Lumbera 1986, 12).

Title page of Father Gaspar de San Agustin’s Compendio del Arte de la Lengua Tagala
Title page of Father Gaspar de San Agustin’s Compendio del Arte de la Lengua Tagala, 1870 (University of Michigan)

Religious poetry was very explicit, its primary purpose being to provide moral guidance to the people. Besides, the Church required an imprimatur for every book published, so that there could be no room for creative, original, or ambiguous writing. Such a requirement, however, did have its advantages, because some of these religious tracts gave glimpses of the natives’ quality of life, based on concrete historical events.

Ilocano poet Pablo Inis (1661-98), in the poem “Pagdaydayaw ken Apo de la Rosa Katalek ti Sinait” (In Honor of Our Lady of the Rose), alludes to a pestilence that swept the land and reveals the beginnings of a consciousness of the oneness of the colonized people (Foronda 1976, 26-27):

Dagiti dudon, lukton ken igges man

a sibat mulmulami a mangan

agpukawda a maminpinsan

no tulongmot pagtaklinan

no awaganmi a pagkararagan

ta dakkel a panangigagam.

Ket agpaisu mamatikam,

iti tulongmot Pangasinan;

inwarnakmot Kapangpangan

Samtoy ken Katagalogan.

(The grasshoppers, locusts, and worms

Which came to destroy our crops

All disappear at once

If we lay our hopes in you

If we humbly pray and beseech you

And your deep and loving care.

And truly we believe,

In your help to Pangasinan;

Which also you granted to Kapangpangan

And in Samtoy and in the Tagalog region.)

In some poems, the fusion of Spanish and indigenous elements is quite evident. In one Hiligaynon poem, Bathala is believed to reside at Mount Kanlaon and is identified with the “ibon-ibon Adarna” (Adarna bird), which is associated with the dove that represents the Holy Spirit (Mentrida 1628, quoted in Hosillos 1984, 42-44):

Bathala ka, ibon-ibon Adarna

nga adto digot sa mga antas

nga poyoanan sang banog,

maba dinhi, maba isisip

nga mga kambang-kambang

nga ka ibon-ibon

umana at bunga sang langit

handa sa kalibutan

ina nga agalon naton


(You are Bathala, the Adarna bird

Who is there in the distant

Dwelling place of beings,

Came down,

Came to mind spotted


Believed to be fruit of heaven

Ready on earth

That lord of ours is


But because these poets were products of monastic schooling, their worldview was one with that of Church and State. The Ilocano hero Diego Silang, who staged a revolt in 1762 (Corpuz 1989, 336-52), was assassinated by Spanish mestizo Miguel Vicos, who then became an object of praise in a novena prayer (Foronda 1976, 6):

Iti dongngom a aoan ti pada

ni Vicos pinasicapna

a innangalis idi biagna

di alado nga aoan namnam

quet dagiti itneg nagsanodda,

iti babalesmot nagamacda.

(Because of your mercy beyond compare

Vico craftily was able

To put an end to the life

Of the hopeless rebel

And the Itnegs retreated,

Because they feared your revenge.)

The conventions of religious poetry also began to be used for more secular expression. The loa, which was a eulogy to God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, or a patron saint, began to be used to praise an honored guest or someone’s object of affection. The secularization of the loa eventually led to the love poem, such as this excerpt by the 19th-century Ilocano poet Leona Florentino (Foronda 1976, 34):

A female loante declaiming a loa or poem of praise to the image of San Martin de Tours in Taal, Batangas
A female loante declaiming a loa or poem of praise to the image of San Martin de Tours in Taal, Batangas, 1990 (CCP Collection)

Ni gasatco a nababa

aoanen ngatat capadana,

ta cunac diac agduadua

ta agdama ngarud nga innac agsagaba.

ta nupay no agayatac

iti maysa a imnas

aoan lat pangripripiripac

nga adda pacaibatugac.

(My fate is dim, my stars so low

Perhaps nothing to it can compare,

For truly I do not doubt

That presently I suffer so.

For even if I did love

The beauty whom I desired

Never do I fully realize

That I am worthy of her.)

On the other hand, the Hiligaynon lo-a, which is recited during the pasiyam or nine-day wake before a funeral seems a direct descendant of the indigenous short poem (garay, tanaga, or ambahan) in its spirit and sensibility (Rabuco 2003, 50):

Waay angay kasadya

Sang buyo kag sang bunga

Pitik-pitikan kang apog

Gugma nagadurumog.

(Comparable to none, the enjoyment

Between the betel nut and buyo leaf

Sprinkle it with lime

Thus is love wrestling, entwined.)

It is also in the more irreverent oral literature that one catches a glimpse of the natives thumbing their noses at the colonialist worldview. Here, a folk song satirizes the colonial reverence for the fair maiden (de la Cruz 1958, 22):

Si Inday mapuea-puea

Angay sa baeay nga tabla,

Tumindog, humiya hiya,

Mat bueak it katueanga.

Si Inday maputi puti

Angay sa baeay nga tapi,

Tumindog, kumiri kiri

Mat bueak it kamantigi.

Si Inday mai-itum itum,

Angay sa baeay nga butong,

Tumindog, humiyom hiyom,

Mat bueak it katsubong.

(Inday who is rosy cheeked,

Is suited for a marble house.

When she stands and smiles,

She is like the hibiscus flower.

Inday who is fair skinned,

Is suited for a wooden house.

When she stands and sways,

She is like the touch-me-not.

Inday who is dark-skinned,

Is suited for the palm house,

When she stands and smiles coyly,

She is like the katsubong blossom

[a poisonous plant]).

The rural communities, because they were not within strict Spanish surveillance as the pueblos were, could be bolder in their poetic compositions. In the town of Sampaloc, Quezon Province, short bawdy lyrics, also called loa, are still being extemporaneously composed and sang during lambanog-drinking sessions. One might infer from their anticlerical nature and explicit sexuality that these loa originally satirized the flaws and foibles of both Spanish secular and religious authorities. Thus, the native population who did not live “within hearing of the church bells” appropriated the loa form as an expression of native resistance, using the indigenous poem’s ambiguity and indirectness of language in the service of mischief (Valbuena, n.d., 8):

Doon po sa amin

Bayan ng Sampaloc

May tumubong damo,

Maitim pa sa kugon

Sa tigkabilang pampang,

Sa gitna’y may balon

May naligong pari,

Patay nang umahon.

(There where I come from

The town of Sampaloc

There grew grass

Darker than cogon

On the riverbanks;

At the center was a well

Where the priest took a dip

And was dead when he surfaced.)

Among his contemporaries, Jose de la Cruz (1746-1829) was considered the best writer of love poems for their polish, refinement, and wit. It is said that he wrote love poems for a fee of one chick each, hence his nickname “Huseng Sisiw.” Unlike the melancholy quality of most love poems of that period, de la Cruz’s poems demonstrate the merging of indigenous wit and urbane irony, as illustrated in the following (quoted in Lumbera 1986, 79):

Ay …! Sayang na sayang, sayang na pagibig

Sayang na singsing kong nahulog sa tubig

Kung ikaw din lamang makasasagip …

Mahanga’y hintin kong kumati ang tubig!

(Too bad, too bad for my love, ah me!

Too bad my ring fell into the sea.

If no one but you could get it for me,

I’d rather wait till the sea ebbs away.)

Narrative Prose and Poetry

Forerunners of the Philippine short story are the exemplum or pananglet (also known by the Spanish term exempla), which were anecdotes meant to illustrate points being made in sermons; vida, stories about saints’ lives; and other religious texts, such as novenas, prayer books, conduct books, and meditation books. Many of these short narratives were translations of Spanish works.

One pananglet included in a novena for the souls in purgatory tells of the soul of a painter who appears before a nun and tells her about how he underwent his judgment day. Those who had been sent to purgatory and hell accused him of having once done an indecent painting. However, the saints whose likenesses he had painted came to his defense, claiming that he had succumbed to this weakness in his youth but had spent most of his adult life painting religious subjects (Villareal 1994, 18).

Two long narrative forms that have shaped the fictional tradition in the Philippines are the pasyon, or the story of the passion and death of Jesus Christ, and the korido, or metrical romance. The pasyon reinforced the religious tendency of the literature of the period, the second provided expression for the secular imagination. To be sure, there were no clear lines between the tendencies, religious and secular, just as there were none between the mutual acculturation process of native and Spanish elements. Bernardo Carpio, hero of a European metrical romance, is transmuted by the Filipino imagination into a freedom fighter astride a carabao, not a horse; and he even now waits in the maw of a mountain in San Mateo, Rizal, for the country to be free again.

Cofradia members chanting the pasyon in a pabasa before the image of Nuestra Señora de la Soledad de Porta Vaga, patroness of Cavite
Cofradia members chanting the pasyon in a pabasa before the image of Nuestra Señora de la Soledad de Porta Vaga, patroness of Cavite, 2009 (Marc Dalma)

By the 18th century, the process of colonization had ended, with pueblo and provincial administration in place, the Spaniards confidently expanding their regime and creating more and more settlements called reducciones. The people had lost their epic heroes, whose shamanic powers and brashness had upheld their people’s pride and dignity. Now these were replaced by a hero utterly different in mien and character—the meek and humble Christ, whose story, as recounted in the pasyon, became the most popular in the archipelago. Another reason for its popularity was probably the versatility of the pasyon as a literary form, for it could serve as reading material but was more popular as a story that was chanted aloud or dramatized on stage as the sinakulo, with the whole community as audience.

In 1704, Gaspar Aquino de Belen published Mahal na Passion ni Jesu Christong Panginoon Natin na Tola (Holy Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Verse), which, in 22 episodes, recounts the betrayal, crucifixion, and death of Christ. It is more popularly called Pasyong Mahal. Although the story is adapted from the Spanish vidas and epic versions of Christ’s Passion, de Belen draws from native custom and the daily paraphernalia of native life to make the scenes more affecting. In the episode recounting Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, the narrator gently rebukes Judas for his treachery, by reminding him of Mary’s motherly treatment of him and the practice of hospitality peculiar to the Filipino (quoted in Lumbera 1986, 63):

Di cayoy nagsasangbahay,

iysa ang inyong dulang?

cun icao ay longmiligao,

may laan sa iyong bahao,

canin at anoanoman.

(Didn’t the three of you

Share the same board?

While you were out, roaming around,

Didn’t she set aside some food for you,

Rice, and whatever else there was to eat?)

In another episode, Christ’s feet being nailed on the cross are contrasted with the restless feet of the wanderer. Such an image calls to mind that of the tulisanes, rebels who refused to heed the colonial policy of settling debajo de las campanas (under the church bells). Their “restless feet” took them to the hinterlands, outside the boundaries of the pueblo, and thus they earned the derogatory label of brutos salvages, or savage brutes (quoted in Javellana 1990, 156):

Ang paang di alisaga

nang Panginoong Maygaua,

ipinaco rin capoua

ay paang laya, at gala

ito’y titingnan mo naua …

(Feet of the Lord Creator

Though not restless

They nailed nevertheless.

You who roam and wander about

Bear witness to this …)

The people are urged to follow Christ’s example of infinite patience and forgiveness, qualities that would have ensured no danger to the Church and State (quoted in Javellana 1990, 161):

Cun icao ay momorahin

magtiis ca,t, iyong bathin,

houag mo yaong sagotin

bagos mo ngang ibiguin

sa Diyos ipinalangin.

(If invectives are hurled at you,

Suffer and endure,

Do not answer back;

Instead love them

And offer it up to God.)

The “profane,” or secular, equivalent of the pasyon was the korido, which is a long narrative poem about the adventures and exploits of a person. Like the pasyon, it could either be sung or read from printed pamphlets. The stories, probably brought to the Philippines by Spanish and Mexican soldiers and sailors, derived from the Spanish medieval ballads of knights, kings, and princes, and their lady love.

The korido followed a set of conventions: a convoluted plot that unfolded in strict chronological order, speeches full of extravagant flourishes and marked by high-flown language, stock characters that clearly represented good and evil, a love story beset by obstacles, and a moral overtone that ensured that good would triumph over evil.

European and local elements meshed in many koridos, such as Mariang Alimango, Don Juan Tiñoso, and, probably the most popular korido, Ibong Adarna. Maria’s tasks include pounding rice and fetching water from the well. In Palmarin, a character with superhuman strength Carguin Cargon lifts a mountain from Candaba to Arayat (Eugenio 1987, xxxvi).

Ballet adaptation of the awit, Ibong Adarna
Ballet adaptation of the awit, Ibong Adarna, choreographed by Gerardo Francisco, and performed by Ballet Manila, 2017 (Ballet Manila)

The story of the Ilocano hero Lam-ang is an example of such acculturation. The story of Lam-ang, as it has come down to us, is cast in the form of a metrical romance, including its title: Historia ti Pacasaritaan ti Panagbiag ni Lam-ang iti Ili ti Nalbuan nga Asawa ni Doña Ines Cannoyan iti Ili a Calanotian (Life Story of Lam-ang of the Town of Nalbuan, Husband of Doña Ines Cannoyan of the Town of Calanotian). Lam-ang’s journey from his mountain home to the colonized—therefore baptized—coastal pueblo so as to win the hand of his lady love, Ines Cannoyan, leans more toward the kind of journey undertaken by the Christian Everyman, rather than that by Philippine epic heroes Agyu and Labaw Donggon. Like the ladino poets warning against occasions of sin, his mother warns him of impending dangers and temptations along the way. Sure enough, in the course of his journey, Lam-ang meets, first, Sumarang, who challenges him to a duel, and then the temptress Saridandan. The banter that occurs between Lam-ang and Ines, which is an exact replica of the Ilocano folk form dallot, “an improvised and versified exchange of wit between a man and a woman” (Foronda 1976, 3), is an indigenous element, but this is overshadowed by such biblical motifs as Lam-ang being swallowed by a giant fish and then being spat out.

The striving for urbanity was expressed in a literary genre that specialized in the instruction of proper behavior and good conduct. The manual de urbanidad, or book of conduct, was written expressly to instruct the native in every manner of dress, behavior, and thought, and in every conceivable occasion. The Tagalog Pag Susulatan nang Dalauang Binibini na si Urbana at ni Feliza, na Nagtuturo nang Mabuting Kaugalian (Letters between Two Maidens Urbana and Feliza, Which Teach Good Conduct), 1864, by Father Modesto de Castro, is the first extended prose work written by a Filipino and using a Filipino setting. It is meant to be a conduct book, although it is in epistolary form—that is, it is an exchange of letters among the characters. There is enough of a story line, however, to provide motivation for the writing of the letters. Hence, it is considered the prototype of the Filipino novel. Urbana, the main character, is in Manila to study. Her family, consisting of her parents, her sister Feliza, and her brother Honesto, live in Paombong, Bulacan. In most of her letters, Urbana relays to Feliza the lessons that she learns in Manila on rules of proper behavior for various occasions and situations. At a party, for instance, Urbana advises (de Castro [1864] 1996, 61):

Modesto de Castro’s Pagsusulatan nang Dalauang Binibini na si Urbana at ni Feliza, originally published in 1864, and reprinted in 2005
Modesto de Castro’s Pagsusulatan nang Dalauang Binibini na si Urbana at ni Feliza, originally published in 1864, and reprinted in 2005 (UP Sentro ng Wikang Filipino)

Huwag makikiluklok sa matatanda kung di pag-utusan at pilit-pilitin. Sa pagkain ay iilagan ang pag-uubo at kung hindi mangyari ay tumindig. Gayon din naman ang paglura, pagdahak, pagsinga, ang pagbahin, at kung di mailagan at kung minsan ay mabiglaanan, lumingon sa kabila, takpan ang bibig ng panyo at nang huwag mahalatang lubha. Ilagan ng bata ang pagkamot at iba pang gawang kahangalan sa pagkain. Huwag magpauna sa matatanda sa pagsubo; huwag magsasalita kung di tinatanong, at kung matanong naman ay sumagot nang maikli at banayad; ngunit lilinisin muna ang bibig ng serbilyeta kung mayroon, at kung wala ay panyo at huwag sasagot nang lumilinab ang bibig at namumuwalan.

(Don’t sit with the elders unless they repeatedly order you to. At the table, do not cough, and if you can’t stop yourself, stand up. Don’t spit, snort, blow your nose, sneeze; and if you are suddenly seized with the urge so that you can’t control yourself, look away, cover your mouth with a handkerchief so as not to be too obvious. Children, avoid scratching yourselves and other such bad manners. Do not eat before the elders; don’t speak unless asked; and if asked, answer briefly and courteously, but wipe your mouth with a napkin first if there is one handy, and if not, use a handkerchief, and do not answer while your mouth is full so as to avoid choking on your food.)

On the subject of promenading, Urbana remarks (79):

Sa isang dalaga ay di nababagay ang paglakad na pinag-aaralan, ang magpakendengkendeng at tumingin nang pasulyap sa nakikitang binata sapagkat ikapupula sa kanyang asal. Kung ang isang dalaga ay magpakita sa lakad, sa kilos, at pagtingin ng laban sa kabaitan, ay parang nag-aanyaya sa lalaki, na siya’y aglahiin nang masama.

(It is not good to see a lady walking in a deliberately studied manner, swaying her hips and stealing glances at a young man, because she will be criticized for her actions. If a lady shows by her walk, by her actions, and by her look something that is contrary to what is good, as if she were inviting a man, people will think she is bad.)

The Urbana at Feliza tradition lives on in the 21st century in numerous variations of it. Road signs put up by the Metro Manila Development Authority remind the people that urbanidad is synonymous with being “Metro Guwapo,” which is a play on the newly coined English word metrosexual. Such signs may be as big as billboards standing on traffic islands, or smaller ones nailed on trees with reminders like “Magbihis nang angkop upang igalang ka ng iyong kapwa” (Dress properly to win other people’s respect).

A short story spoof, titled “Urbana at Felisa 2000,” by Jose Javier Reyes (2002, 5-7), shows how modernization and electronic technology transform a virtuous country maiden in Manila to a decadent sophisticate. Her letters, written during her stay in Manila as a student, show this transformation unfolding within a span of six months (June to December). The excerpts below are taken from three of four letters making up the story:

Tama ka, Ate Fely. Iba ang mga babaeng namantsahan ng kabalahuraan ng lungsod. Wala silang pakundangan sa kanilang pananalita. Kung magbihis sila ay hantad ang mga dibdib at ipinaparada ang mga nakaluwang pusod para tuksuhin ang mga kalalakihan. Ako ang napapahiya para sa kanila, nguni’t nagsasawalang-kibo na lamang.

(You are right, Ate Fely. Ladies who have been stained by the filth of the city are different. They are not careful with their words. They dress with their chest exposed and parade their bare midriff so as to tempt the men. I am embarrassed for them, although I keep my silence.)

Parang it’s ok na rin here. Wow, pa ingles-ingles na ako, ha? Kasi sabi ng friend kong si Betsy, it’s not cool daw if I talk in heavy Tagalog not unless I am an activist or a Communist. At naku, alam mo namang takot tayo sa mga Komunista even if they say that they are really maka-masa, di ba? At saka ever since sumali si Kuya Junjun sa NPA, di ba sabi nila na hindi na rin siya believe kay God. Whatever!

(It seems ok here already. Wow, I’m speaking in English already, ha? Because my friend Betsy said it’s not cool if I talk in heavy Tagalog not unless I am an activist or a Communist. And oh, you know how afraid we are of Communists even if they say that they are really pro-masses, isn’t it? And ever since Kuya Junjun joined the NPA, didn’t they say that he doesn’t believe in God. Whatever!)

geswat? Jst got a nu celfon & lyk my frnds I rilzd I cnt liv wdout txtng. Ds s d way we tok hir. Its cald hi tek pro u wl nt undrstnd dat til u get hir t mla. Jst brok up wd my bf sam. Pero k lng kc b4 we split on n kmi ni luigiboy. Medyo badtrip c tony dhil nbust ang gago kya buti n lng break ko n cya evn f h promisd 2 kil ol my relatvs pag iwan ko hm.

The korido evolved from narratives of fantasy and magic to allegories of political oppression and abuse suffered by the Filipino people. In Florante at Laura (Florante and Laura), circa 1838-61, an awit by poet and dramatist Francisco Baltazar, also known as Balagtas, reversed the Moor-versus-Christian theme so that the Christian Florante and Moor Aladin became fast friends. The forest setting, unlike the hinterlands that the Tagalog cosmopolite so disdained as the place of the brutos salvages, was where wisdom and courage were attained by the hero Florante. In his masterpiece, Balagtas merged the turbulent material of his personal life and the political life of the country, and these conditions permeated his material. Hence, Florante at Laura may be read as an allegory of the colonial conditions, personified by the suffering characters of his corrido.

Gantimpala Theater Foundation’s  2011 stage adaptation of Francisco Baltazar’s metrical romance, Florante at Laura
Gantimpala Theater Foundation’s  2011 stage adaptation of Francisco Baltazar’s metrical romance, Florante at Laura (Gantimpala Theater Foundation)

Sa Dakong Silangan: Buhay na Pinagdaanan ni Haring Pilipo at Reyna Malaya sa Maalamat na Pulong Ginto (In the East: The Life Experienced by King Pilipo and Queen Malaya in the Legendary Golden Island) by Jose Corazon de Jesus, also known as Huseng Batute, is a political korido written in 1928. Through characters allegorically named Haring Pilipo, Haring Samuel, Reyna Malaya, Prinsipe Dolar, Duke Demokratiko; the princesses Luningning, Bituin, Mandiwang; and the princes Bayani, Dakila, and Magiting, it exposes the two instruments of American colonial rule—namely, repression and capital.

The 19th-century empirical spirit and emerging national consciousness created an interest in local ethnography. The Ilocano Isabelo de los Reyes, the son of 19th-century poet Leona Florentino and founder of the anti-Catholic labor movement Philippine Independent Church (also known as Aglipayan), produced treatises, almanacs, poems, and narratives on the local life of the period. Pedro Paterno wrote Ninay: Costumbres Filipinas (Ninay: Philippine Customs), 1885, which is in Spanish but considered to be the first Filipino novel, because it deliberately attempts to define Filipino culture and identity (Mojares 1983, 128). It was written in the manner of the novela de costumbre, or novel of customs and manners, depicting the details of the everyday life of his era, a technique called costumbrismo. The novel opens with Ninay’s funeral. Therefore, the pasiyam—or nine nights of novena prayers for the eternal repose of the departed—gives the narrator the motivation to relate a chapter of Ninay’s story on each night, replete with details of Filipino types, places, and customs.

Reform and Propaganda

The seeds of the propaganda movement were sown by the newspaper edited by Marcelo H. del Pilar, Diariong Tagalog, during its five-month life. Del Pilar was an effective propagandist, launching satirical attacks on the abuse of authority of the friars. He used popular and folk forms and the Tagalog language to create parodies of religious forms. Dasalan at Tocsohan (Prayers and Temptations/Jokes), 1888, consists of parodies of the Sign of the Cross, the Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, the Act of Contrition, the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the Catechism, and other such religious forms, pithily depicting the corruption and hypocrisy of the friars, whose abusive reign he called the “frailocracia.” Here, for example, is del Pilar’s rewording of the “Sign of the Cross”:

Ang tanda nang cara-i-cruz ang ipangadiya mo sa amin panginoon naming Fraile sa manga bangkay namin sa ngalan nang Salapi at nang Maputing Binte, at nang Espiritung Bugaw. Niya naua.

(The sign of the heads-or-tails is what you will pray, Our Lord Friar, over our corpses, in the name of Money and the White Knee and the Pimp’s Spirit. Amen.)

Like del Pilar, Andres Bonifacio used popular forms and the Tagalog language to fire up the people’s revolutionary spirit. His short essay “Ang Dapat Mabatid ng mga Tagalog” (What the Tagalog Should Know) alludes to the episodes and lessons in the pasyon to argue that God, who is on the side of right (“makatuwiran”), would be on the side of the revolution. The most moving and eloquent declaration of Bonifacio’s patriotism is the poem in 28 four-line stanzas, “Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa” (Love for the Native Land), 1896, written in the style of the kundiman, or native love song. No love, he declares, can surpass the love for one’s native land; thus, again Bonifacio contradicts all religious injunctions to love no one above church or God. One stanza consisting of rhetorical questions challenges his countrymen to give their life’s blood for the sake of freedom from suffering and abuse (in Almario 1993, 143):

Nasaan ang dangal ng mga tagalog

nasaan ang dugong dapat na ibuhos?

baya’y inaapi bakit di kumilos?

at natitilihang ito’y mapanood.

(Where is the honor of the Tagalog

Where is the blood that they should sacrifice?

The country is oppressed, why don’t you act?

Can you bear to just witness it, dazed and unmoving?)

KKK flag Filipino Philippine revolution
Philippine Ballet Theatre’s Andres KKK, CCP, Manila, 2008 (Joel Garcia)

For Andres Bonifacio’s wife Gregoria de Jesus, love for husband is inextricable from love for country. “Tula ni Oriang,” (Oriang’s Poem), 1897, begins with familiar images of the wife waiting anxiously for her husband to come home and ends with her walking out of the house to join the revolution even as she gives up hope that her husband will return (in Quindoza-Santiago 1997, 201-3; trans. Agoncillo 1964, 177-81):

Mukha’y itutungo, luha’y papatak

Katawan pipihit, lakad ay banayad

Pagpasok ng silid, marahang igagayak

Damit na gagamitin sa aking paglakad.…

Ako’y lalakad, usok ang katulad

Pagtaas ng puti, agiw ang katulad

Ang bilin ko lamang, tandaan mo, liag

Kalihiman natin huwag ipahahayag.

Paalam sa iyo, masarap magmahal

Mayayaring puso ko’t kabiyak na katawan

Paalam na nga, yaring pinalalayaw

Paalam giliw ko, sa iyo’y paalam.

Masayang sa iyo’y aking isasangla

Ang sulam pamahid sa mata ng luha

Kung kapusin ng palad, buhay mawala

Bangkay man ako, haharap sa iyong kusa.

(My head I would bow, my tears would fall

I become uneasy, my walk slow

I enter the small room, carefully I prepare

The clothes I would wear when I leave….

I’m leaving like the smoke

When the white goes up, I’m like a cobweb

My only advice, remember, my love,

Do not tear our secret open

Farewell to you who love so well

Master of my heart and half of my body.

Farewell now this one you treated so kindly

Farewell, loved one, to you farewell

With happiness to you I bestow

The handkerchief that wipes away tears

If perchance I meet with misfortune, my life ends

Dead though I may be yet will I meet with you)

It is in the literary corpus of Jose Rizal, like that of Balagtas two generations before him, that all the literary traditions that had developed before him converge. Rizal was the Filipino that the friars for three centuries before him had contemptuously denied was possible: a genius in both the sciences and the arts, a writer proficient in their own language, and—that most dangerous Filipino of all—a man who loved his country uncompromisingly. His poetry, begun since childhood and written in various countries as he traveled the world, consistently expressed his patriotism, such as that expressed by an exile’s longing for home in “A las Flores de Heidelberg” (To the Flowers of Heidelberg), 1886:

Id a mi patria, id, extranjeras flores,

sembradas del viajero en el camino,

y bajo su azul cielo,

que guarda mis amores,

contad del peregrino

la fe que alienta por su patrio suelo!

id y decid … decid que cuando el alba

vuestro caliz abrio por vez primera

cabe el Neckar helado,

le visteis silencioso a vuestro lado

pensando en su constante primavera.

(Go to my country, go, O foreign flowers,

sown by the traveler along the road,

and under that blue heaven

that watches over my loved ones,

recount the devotion

the pilgrim nurses for his native sod!

Go and say … say that when dawn

Opened your chalices for the first time

Beside the icy Neckar,

You saw him silent beside you,

Thinking of her constant vernal clime.)

Rizal’s last literary piece before his execution in 1896 was “Mi Ultimo Adios” (My Last Farewell), which unrepentantly addresses itself to “mi patria adorada” (my adored country). The most popular of all Philippine poems, it has been translated into all the major Philippine languages—such as Cebuano, Kapampangan, Ilonggo, Ilocano, including one in Tagalog by Andres Bonifacio—and into several foreign languages. The poem expresses in moving and vivid imagery Rizal’s love of country, inseparable from love of family, who are “fragments of my soul”; of “friends of childhood in the home we have lost”; and of that “sweet stranger, my companion, my happiness,” who is presumably Josephine Bracken. Although using the plaintive style of the medieval love poem, Rizal’s persona is one of indomitable will, who joyfully suggests that his blood will embellish his country’s dawn with a deeper hue: “At that perfect moment let it flow, / and be enhanced in the reflection of your dawning light.” Nature images that were traditionally used by medieval minstrels for their love songs are here used by Rizal to express a very modern view of death (quoted in Coates 1968, 322-23):

Let the moon shine on me its soft and tranquil light;

Let dawn send me its fast-fleeing splendor;

Let the wind groan deep and murmuring about me;

And if a bird descending should alight on my cross,

Let the song the bird sings be a canticle of peace….

… And when my tomb, by everyone forgotten,

Has neither cross nor stone to mark its place,

Let it be ploughed over by man, and by his spade

Let my ashes, before passing into nothingness,

Be dispersed in nourishment of the crop that is to come.

Title page of the 1899 edition of Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere
Title page of the 1899 edition of Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (

In the history of Philippine literature, Rizal’s two novels, Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), 1887, and El Filibusterismo (Subversion), 1891, are unsurpassed in their artistry and their astuteness in the portrayal and analysis of the social and political conditions of his time. In these novels, his gift for satire is manifested in his caricatures of the fawning colonial, the hypocritical friar, the arrogant Spanish official, and other such members of Philippine colonial society. His tragic vision created the heroes that have become recurring motifs in our literary tradition: the idealistic Ibarra, the bitter and cynical Simon, the insane mother Sisa, the beloved Maria Clara, the hapless Huli, and the oppressed Tandang Selo.

Title page of the 1899 edition of Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo
Title page of the 1899 edition of Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo (Photo courtesy of Leon Gallery Fine Arts and Antiques)

Juan C. Laya’s novel His Native Soil, 1940, uses the basic plot of the return of the hero after a long absence. Here, Laya’s hero arrives from America with plans to set up a capitalist enterprise and to run it with managerial efficiency. His entanglements with various leaders of the community finally prod him to leave town and start anew with his bride Soledad, who represents traditional communal values. In Amado V. Hernandez’s novel Mga Ibong Mandaragit (Birds of Prey), 1959, the returning hero Mando Plaridel recovers the treasure chest that was owned by Simoun in El Filibusterismo and thrown into the sea by Father Florentino after Simoun’s death. Mando uses this wealth to fulfill the same ideals and aspirations that Simoun and Ibarra in Noli had for their country. The personal and political complications created for him by his reformist projects are Hernandez’s argument for the inevitability of armed revolution.

Rogelio Sikat also known as Rogelio Sicat’s “Tata Selo” (Old Man Selo), 1963, which is a short story that portrays the archetypal oppressed peasant, continues to be a subject of various critical approaches, ranging from the formalistic to the postcolonial. Lilia Quindoza-Santiago’s short story “Ang Pinakahuling Kuwento ni Huli” (The Final Story of Huli), 1989, is a collage of archetypal women in Philippine literary history, with Huli as the central character who kills in defense against abuse.

By his pen, Rizal achieved what seemed like an impossible feat: No other literary artist can boast of having forged into one nation so many peoples speaking different languages scattered throughout an archipelago.

The American Colonial Tradition

After its defeat in the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded the Philippines to America for 20 million US dollars in Dec 1898. However, the Philippines had already won its revolution and had declared its independence from Spain six months before, on 12 June 1898. Hence, when the Americans invaded Philippine territory starting in August 1898, the Filipinos waged a resistance war against them.

The brutality inflicted by American soldiers on the women, who are always the real victims of war, is vividly dramatized in the poem “Hibik Namin” (Our Lament), which was published in the newspaper Heraldo Filipino, on 17 February 1899, and with nine bylines signifying their unconquerable spirit, such as “Felipa Kapuloan, Victoria Mausig, Patricia Himagsik, and Salvadora Dimagiba” (quoted in Quindoza-Santiago 1997, 208-10):

… Wariin nga ninyo kababayang lahat

kung may loob kayong hindi mag-aalab,

na balang babayeng magipit ay sukat

ang lapastangnin ang puring iningat

Di pa sukat yaong madlang kahayupan

ginagawa nila sa pakikilaban,

ano’t ang babaeng abutan sa bahay

na mapasok nila’y linalapastangan?

Kung minsa’y asawang anghel sa pag-ibig

o dalaga kayang uliran nang linis,

kapag inabuta’t kanilang nagipit,

ang puri’y siya nang mulang pagkalait.

Dito magsitangis ang nangapahamak

niyaong pagkahulog sa kamay ng sukab

kalangita’y kahit di mo ibulalas

sa lupa ang bangis ng justiciang tapat!…

(Imagine, dear compatriots,

if outraged you wouldn’t be

that our fair women’s dignity

and precious honor are defiled

Is the beastly carnage not enough

in the far-off battlefields

so they should disgrace women

they find in every house they raid?

Be they wives beatific in love,

or maidens ideal and chaste,

once they are trapped, held captive,

their honor is turned to shame.

Here the wronged ones wail

their fall into the enemy’s hand

but if to the heavens we cannot cry

the earth shall rumble with fair justice!)

The American colonial government used the public school system and its political institutions (including the insidiously one-sided provisions of the Tydings-McDuffie Act) as potent instruments—pervasive and persuasive—for the Americanization of the Filipino people. During the first two decades of the century, journalists and writers resisted this erosion on the Filipino psyche. They wrote satires that were explicit warnings against the contagion of “social diseases” brought in by Americanization. Dramatic and literary themes editorialized against the white-collar mentality, the overemphasis on formal education, class exploitation, social and moral corruption, government bureaucracy, and—spreading at an alarmingly rapid scale—colonial mentality, of which the English language was most symptomatic.

Rizal and other heroes of the revolution against Spain inspired patriotic poems, which were published in newspapers in various languages all over the country. Anti-American sentiment aroused a sense of nostalgia, including a love for things Hispanic, and hence sustained Filipino writing in Spanish. Poets of the 19th century, Fernando Ma. Guerrero and Cecilio Apostol were looked up to as the masters by younger-generation poets like Jesus Balmori, Manuel Bernabe, Claro M. Recto, Teodoro M. Kalaw, Macario Adriatico, Manuel Ravago, Tirso Irureta Goyena, and Enrique Fernandez Lumba. Flavio Zaragoza Cano wrote his patriotic poems in both Hiligaynon and Spanish.

Tagalog novels written in the first decade of this period are searing indictments of American imperialism and capitalism. Lope K. Santos’s novel Banaag at Sikat (Glimmer and Light), 1906, extends the realist tradition begun by Rizal with a socialist perspective on these issues. In this novel, the familiar story of forbidden love between the rich and poor is told against a backdrop of trade unionism, class struggle, and a growing sense of nationhood. In Faustino Aguilar’s Pinaglahuan (Eclipsed), 1907, America is embodied in the factory owner Mister Kilsberg, but Spanish power lingers on in the person of the mestizo Rojalde. The struggle of the Filipino people is depicted through the idealistic Luis Gatbuhay.

Banaag at Sikat
Banaag at Sikat: Isang Rock Musical, 2010, staged by Tanghalang Pilipino, based on Lope K. Santos’s novel (Franco Laurel)

The novel in Spanish, exemplified by Jesus Balmori’s Bancarrota de Almas (Bankruptcy of Souls), 1910, and Se Deshojo la Flor (The Flower Was Stripped of Its Petals), 1915, hewed to the romanticism of old. Narrative elements in Bancarrota include a love triangle, a duel between lovers, the rivalry between Epicureanism versus convention, a marriage of convenience, and death by consumption. Balmori’s second novel employs the costumbrismo technique, following in the tradition of Paterno’s Ninay. In Se Deshojo, the womanizing lead character leaves a trail of anguished women, starting with his wife whose death by consumption is hastened by depression, and ending with the farm girl who grieves over his corpse after he has killed himself.

Novel in Spanish during the American period by Jesus Balmori
Novel in Spanish during the American period by Jesus Balmori, 1915 (Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Benavides)

Antonio M. Abad’s novels in Spanish were consistent prizewinners. He earned the Premio Zobel twice, first for El Ultimo Romantico (The Last Romantic), 1927, and then for La Oveja de Nathan (Nathan’s Sheep), 1929; and the major prize in the 1940 Commonwealth Literary Contests for El Campeon (The Champion). Other novelists in Spanish were Rafael Ripoll, Enrique Centenera, Benigno del Rio, and Estanislao Alinea.

Novel in Spanish during the American period by Antonio M. Abad
Novel in Spanish during the American period by Antonio M. Abad, 1929, published in English translation in the year 2013 (Ayala Foundation, Inc)

The novel in English was not to appear until 1921, with the publication of Zoilo Galang’s A Child of Sorrow, which is a love story replete with the requisite obstacles conventionally expected of a romance novel, although the obstacles do derive from the realities of Philippine life of that period.

The modern short story tradition began with the narrative editorial, which read like a political or social parable. The first Cebuano story of this kind was “Higugma sa Yutang Natawhan” (Love for the Native Land), written by Cebuano fictionist, playwright, and statesman Vicente Sotto in 1900 and published in his newspaper Ang Suga in 1902. Sotto called this short story form binirisbis ug dinalidali. In this binirisbis, Aurora rejects her fiancé when she reads in the newspapers that he has accepted the Americans’ offer of a position as a justice of the peace. The story ends with her ex-fiancé being abducted by resistance guerrillas fighting against the Americans. This story caused Sotto to be charged with sedition because it was interpreted by the American colonial government as an encouragement to the Filipino people to abduct and assassinate pro-American collaborators.

The Tagalog equivalent of the binirisbis was the dagli, which could be either a youth’s sentimental expression of love or a satirical illustration of the Filipino’s absorption of American culture. It began to appear in 1902, when the Spanish-language newspaper El Renacimiento began a literary supplement in Tagalog, Muling Pagsilang. Writers of the dagli, which were used as fillers in Muling Pagsilang, were Lope K. Santos, Iñigo Ed. Regalado, Faustino Aguilar, Godofredo B. Herrera, Francisco Laksamana, and Antonio Paguia (Tiongson 1974, 27).

Two similar forms in the Spanish language were the instantanea or rafaga, which was an anecdote, and the prosa romantica, or romantic prose full of rhetorical flourishes. Jesus Balmori was outstanding in these forms. Other leading fictionists in Spanish of this period were Enrique Laygo, Buenaventura Rodriguez, Manuel S. Guerrero, Antonio M. Abad, Francisco Rodriguez, Vicente del Rosario, Carlos Ledesma, Alejo Valdez Pica, Evangelina Guerrero-Zacarias, Jose Mariño, Angel Guerra, and Pascual Poblete.

A comic illustration of the confusion wrought in the Filipino psyche by the mix of local, Spanish, and American cultures is the Kapampangan story “Y’ Miss Phathupats” (Miss Phathupats), by Juan Crisostomo Soto. It begins: “Miss Yeyeng was a young woman who painted a heavy coat of rouge on her face.” On her head she carries a basket of local food—guinatan and bichu-bichu—which she peddles around gambling places. She learns the English language from an American soldier, who is her regular customer, and soon she becomes an English teacher herself. She begins to put on airs, scorning the Kapampangan language, and wearing a tight corset that makes her look like a patupat or suman (rice cake wrapped in a strip of palm or banana leaf). One day, coming upon a group of people huddled around the Kapampangan newspaper Ing Emangabiran, she again speaks disdainfully of the language, thus provoking the following dialogue (quoted in Manlapaz 1981, 228-30):

“Mi no entiende Kapampangan,” she said, shaking her head in obvious disapproval.

“Mi no entiende ese Castellano, Miss,” answered a fellow, mimicking her tone.

“Frankly, I find much difficulty speaking in Pampangan, and even more so in reading it.” She sounded like a fish vendor’s wife, speaking a smattering of English, Spanish and Tagalog. The listeners burst out laughing.

“Porque reir?” she asked angrily.

“Por el champurao, Miss.”

Another added, “Do not wonder that the Miss does not know Kapampangan: first, because she has long associated with the American soldiers, and secondly, she is no longer Kapampangan. The proof of this is that her name is Miss Phathupats.”

Miss Phathupats’ cauldron burst and from her mouth overflowed the fiery lava of Vesuvius, a torrent of all the dirty words in Kapampangan that came rushing out of her fuming mouth.

“Alang marine! Mapanaco! Manlalasun! Anac …!” she said.

“Aha! So she is a Kapampangan, after all,” said those who heard her.

“Yes, didn’t you know?” replied someone who knew her family. “She is the daughter of old Gading the Braggart from my barrio.”

Miss Phathupats broke into tears and as she wiped them away from her face, she also removed the thick coat of makeup on it. Her face then showed its true color, darker than the duhat fruit. The people laughed, clapped their hands, and shouted:

“Aha! So she is dark-skinned after all!”

“Yes, she is an American Negro!”

Miss Phathupats could not take any more, so she stumbled out, mumbling: “Mi no vuelve en este casa.”

“Adios, Miss who doesn’t know Kapampangan.”

“Adios, Miss Alice Roosevelt!”

“Adios, Miss Phathupats!”

The Filipino short story as a modern genre was a hybrid form deriving from the native tradition of the folktale and ballad, the Spanish colonial tradition of didactic literature, the 20th-century journalistic form of the narrative editorial, and the Western realistic short story. The clearest example of this is the short story “Si Montor,” circa 1920s, by Angel Magahum, who was also the author of the first Hiligaynon novel, Benjamin, 1907. One might say that “Si Montor” represents the “missing link” between the native, the Spanish colonial, and the American colonial literary traditions.

Montor is the subject of Ilonggo folk history and a folk ballad called the composo, which during the 19th century was the medium by which news was announced and spread by the manugcomposo, or singing minstrel. Magahum’s story of Montor takes on the structure of a frame story, or a story-within-a-story, in which a first-person narrator swears that the story he is about to say is true. Therefore, in this story, verisimilitude, which is an essential element in the modern realist story, is established threefold: its historical material, the credibility of the composo, and realistic techniques used by the author.

By the third decade of American colonialism, sentiment in literature was being reined in by the American spirit of empiricism, skepticism, and scientific objectivity. Paz Marquez-Benitez’s short story, “Dead Stars,” 1925, is that period’s masterpiece in the short story genre. Fulfilling the standards of the well-made realistic story, it seamlessly weaves together the cultural conflicts in the Filipino psyche, brought about by the country’s transition from the Spanish to American colonial rule. Marquez-Benitez uses “dead stars” as a symbol of the residual pain and longing that lingers on long after a romantic episode has ended. Thus, the story’s excellence also derives from the author’s ability to put to good literary use the science education that she acquired under the American public school system.

Compilation of works of Paz Marquez-Benitez
Compilation of works of Paz Marquez-Benitez, 1995 (Ateneo de Manila University Press)

Like Paz Marquez-Benitez, poet Angela Manalang Gloria kept her feet planted firmly on the ground, in obedience to the laws of physics and biology, even as she wrote of the consuming nature of love in “To the Man I Married,” 1936 (quoted in Abad and Manlapaz 1989, 65):

You are my earth and all that earth implies:

The gravity that ballasts me in space,

The air I breathe, the land that stills my cries

For food and shelter against devouring days,

You are the earth whose orbit marks my way

And sets my north and south, my east and west,

You are the final, elemental clay

The driven heart must turn to for its rest.

If in your arms that hold me now so near

I lift my keening thoughts to Helicon

As trees long rooted to the earth uprear

Their quickening leaves and flowers to the sun

You who are earth, O never doubt that I

Need you no less because I need the sky!

Other early poets writing in English were Aurelio S. Alvero, A. E. Litiatco, Fernando Maramag, Natividad Marquez, Trinidad Tarrosa-Subido, Vidal S. Tan, Guillermo Castillo, Cornelio F. Faigao, Procopio Solidum, Fernando Ma. Guerrero, Virgilio Floresca, and Gerson M. Mallillin.

Compilation of works of Cornelio Faigao
Compilation of works of Cornelio Faigao, 2010 (University of San Carlos Press)

Deogracias Rosario wrote what is known to be the first Tagalog short story, “Kung Magmahal ang Makata” (When a Poet Loves), 1914, as defined by the conventions of the genre. It is the classic short story “Aloha” that shows Rosario achieving the peak of this form. It is a tightly structured story, despite its numerous narrative strands, the characters representing the different ways and degrees in which America discriminates against its colonials, which were Hawaiians and Filipinos at this time; and the ways by which colonials, represented by the Filipino first-person narrator and the Hawaiian character Noemi, hold their own against American superciliousness. It was named the Golden Story of 1932 and earned for the author a gold medal and the title “King of Storytellers” for that year.

The Commonwealth period, established in 1935, marked the shift from US colonialism—with its clearly drawn lines of Filipino-American hostilities—to “benevolent assimilation,” a euphemism for an intricate and widespread reform system designed to tame if not eradicate the Filipino spirit. In fiction, patriotic fervor and social consciousness were combined with the mode of psychological realism and a restrained style. Thus did Marcel M. Navarra depict the social and economic turbulence of the period in his Cebuano stories, which dramatized the impoverished lives of fisherfolk, farmers, plantation workers, and city migrants. So did Manuel E. Arguilla, using the peasant revolts and urban workers’ strikes of the 1930s as the source of his stories in English.

The winning works in the Commonwealth Literary Contests of 1940 reflected these same social concerns. Taking their cue from Salvador P. Lopez’s literary precept of social relevance, the board of judges declared that a writer was worthy of recognition only if their work used as reference “the social matrix in which our humanity exists.” The winners were Rafael Zulueta da Costa’s poetry collection, Like the Molave; Arguilla’s short story collection, How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife, 1940; Flavio Zaragoza Cano’s poetry in Spanish, “De Mactan a Tirad” (From Mactan to Tirad); and Antonio M. Abad’s novel in Spanish, El Campeon. In the essay category, the winner was, naturally, Salvador P. Lopez’s Literature and Society, 1940, which explicated the function of literature as one being in the service of social justice. This was a counterpoint to Villa’s “art for art’s sake” poetics, which valued form over substance. Both theories have since become dominant schools of thought in Philippine letters.

The American spirit of individualism found expression not only in Jose Garcia Villa’s poetry in English but also in Alejandro G. Abadilla’s Tagalog poetry. His poem in free verse, “Ako ang Daigdig” (I Am the World), 1940, is his manifesto of the poet’s right to self-determination in the creation of his art:


ang daigdig


ang tula


ang daigdig

ang tula


ang daigdig

ng tula

ang tula

ng daigdig


ang walang maliw na ako

ang walang kamatayang ako

ang tula ng dagidig


am the world


am the poem


am the world

the poem


am the world

of the poem

the poem

of the world


am the eternal i

the i without end

the poem of the world.)

However, the Tagalog poets of this period still hewed to poetry characterized by sentimentality and the traditional rhyme-and-meter scheme. This type of poetry would later be labeled by poet and critic Virgilio S. Almario as balagtasismo, which was exemplified by Julian Cruz Balmaseda, Florentino Collantes, Pedro M. Gatmaitan, Jose Corazon de Jesus, Cirio H. Panganiban, Benigno Ramos, Iñigo Ed. Regalado, Carlos Ronquillo, Ildefonso Santos, Lope K. Santos, and Aniceto F. Silvestre. It was not till the 1960s that Alejandro G. Abadilla’s modernist experimentation would begin to have a following. Hence, a dichotomy in the Tagalog poetic tradition was that between balagtasismo and modernismo.

For Jose Garcia Villa, craft preceded meaning. One read poetry, he said, for the beauty of language, art being an end in itself. “Art assumes the stature of art,” he stated, “not because of what it says, but because of its form” (quoted in Chua 2002, 4). Here, in his poem about the beautiful, noble, and antique ant, one may glean Villa’s definition of beauty (quoted in Abad and Manlapaz 1989, 158):

Be beautiful, noble, like the antique ant,

Who bore the storms as he bore the sun,

Wearing neither gown nor helmet,

Though he was archbishop and soldier:

Wore only his own flesh.

Salute characters with gracious dignity:

Though what these are is left to

Your own terms. Exact: the universe is

Not so small but these will be found

Somewhere. Exact: they will be found.

Speak with great moderation: but think

With great fierceness, burning passion:

Though what the ant thought

No annals reveal, nor his descendants

Break the seal.

Trace the tracelessness of the ant,

Every ant has reached this perfection,

As he comes, so he goes,

Flowing as water flows,

Essential but secret like a rose.

Contemporary Period

Independence, though muddled with questions about real sovereignty and Filipino identity, was granted to the Philippines in 1946, when the Japanese occupation of the Philippines ended. In the same year, Ramon Muzones’s Hiligaynon novel Margosatubig was serialized in the magazine Yuhum. Considered by his peers and readers then and academic critics now as an extraordinary tour de force, the novel can be read as an allegory of the political and historical trauma that the country was still recovering from, told in an action-packed story that is a synthesis of indigenous forms like the proverb and the epic; traditional Hispanic genres like the korido; and American fiction and popular culture like film.

Social realist novel by Ramon L. Muzones, 1946
Social realist novel by Ramon L. Muzones, 1946 (Ateneo de Manila University Press)

In Tagalog fiction, Macario Pineda reworks the legend of Mariang Makiling in his novel Ang Ginto sa Makiling (The Gold in Makiling), 1947, to create a Utopian town, which is inhabited by Filipino national heroes, ranging from Datu Lakandula to Rizal and Bonifacio. But it is Sanang, who lives to serve others, who is the novel’s female hero; and it is implied that it is people like her who will raise the nation from the ruins.

The 1950s witnessed a literary boom, with the postwar rehabilitation process well on its way and the writers self-assured in the language and form of their choice. Ilocano fictionist Constante C. Casabar depicted common Iloco concerns, such as the industrialization of the weaving industry, indentured labor in a factory, dispossession, and outmigration as a solution to political corruption and violence. Pangasinan fictionist Maria P. Magsano populated her fictive world with professional men and women in her exploration of domestic and marital problems. Writing in English, N. V. M. Gonzalez recreated peasant life in his island of Mindoro with a power that came from the suggestiveness created by his terse, laconic style. In her Tagalog stories and novels about men and women’s passions and aspirations, Liwayway A. Arceo demonstrated an astute understanding of the way in which social conditions formed the human psyche. Genoveva Edroza-Matute was a master of the classical realist story, with her adept use of dramatic irony, suspense, dialogue, and foreshadowing, to create a tight structure in her portrayal of the oppression of the Filipino working class. That Estrella D. Alfon was much ahead of her time is shown in the metafictional “A Fairy Tale for the City,” 1955, which explored the complexities of the sexual psyche and challenged Catholic blind faith. It was for this reason that the Catholic Women’s League brought charges against her and the editor of the magazine in court and won.

Poetry collection by Amado V. Hernandez
Poetry collection by Amado V. Hernandez, 1969 (Ateneo de Manila University Press)

Yet another dark side of this decade was the wave of arrests and imprisonment of labor activists who were accused of subversion and membership in the Communist Party of the Philippines, which had an illegal status. Amado V. Hernandez was the president of the Congress of Labor Organizations, which was the umbrella federation of the country’s most militant organizations when he was jailed in 1951. While in prison he wrote poetry, later collected in the book Isang Dipang Langit (A Stretch of Sky), 1961, and Bayang Malaya (A Nation Free), 1969. An excerpt subtitled “Liwanag,” from the poem “Bartolina” (Solitary Confinement), demonstrates Hernandez’s use of elements of the traditional lyric poem to express his political aspirations (quoted in Torres-Yu 1986, 421-22; trans. in San Juan 1974, 61):

Namalas ko ang ibon sa aking pagkapiit,

umaawit sa duklay ng isang punongkahoy;

siya’y lubhang malaya, ang laya ko’y inalis,

tuwit, tuwit, ang uyam sa aking pagkakulong.

Kumakatok ang hangin sa pinid na dungawan

ng aking bartolina, at ako’y kinukutya,

dala niya ang sumbat ng palalong lipunan

na isang sawi akong di na muling lalaya.

Sa malayo’y natanaw ang ulila kong liyag,

hapis na kumakaway nguni’t di makalapit;

sa labis na pighati ay piping umiiyak,

at hatid ng himutok ang may luha kong halik.

Ibo’t hanging malaya, irog kong nagdurusa,

ang laya ng diwa ko’t puso’y di mapipigil,

katulad ng liwanag ng masayang umaga,

at gaya rin ng sigaw ng bayang naniningil.

(In my captivity I witnessed a bird

singing on the twig of a tree;

completely free, while my freedom is denied—

twit, twit, mocking my imprisonment.

The wind knocks on the barred windows

of my cell and despises me;

it brings the scorn of arrogant society

for me a victim who’ll never be free

From afar I saw my bereaved love

waving disconsolate, unable to come near;

dumbly crying from extreme sorrow,

my tearful kiss conveyed by somber groans.

Bird and wind liberated, my suffering beloved;

the mind’s freedom, the heart’s, cannot be bound

like the light of exultant dawn

and the clamor of the people avenging.)

The poets in English explored themes ranging from Philippine reality to psychological inscapes to the existentialist concern with “the human condition.” Carlos A. Angeles, in his collection A Stun of Jewels, 1963, created startling imagery with improbable word juxtapositions in order to draw philosophical and emotional significance from landscapes and seascapes. Emmanuel Torres moved from a preoccupation with the anguish and loneliness of the individual soul in Angels and Fugitives, 1966, to a concern with social reality in Shapes of Silence, 1972, and The Smile on Smokey Mountain, 1990. Other equally able poets were Dominador Ilio, Ricaredo D. Demetillo, Virginia R. Moreno, Alejandrino G. Hufana, David Medalla, Edith L. Tiempo, Bienvenido N. Santos, Tita Lacambra-Ayala, Ophelia Alcantara-Dimalanta, Hilario S. Francia, Jose Ma. Lansang Jr, Epifanio San Juan Jr, Artemio Tadena, Emmanuel Torres, and Manuel A. Viray.

The writers of the short stories in English fulfilled to a high degree the demands of the genre, particularly subtlety and emotional restraint, organic unity, and an ironic sensibility. Aida Rivera-Ford’s Now and at the Hour and Other Stories, 1957, keeps sentimentality in check with touches of satiric humor as she depicts characters caught in the tensions of war, of marital and extramarital relationships, or of class and cultural differences. The four award-winning stories in Francisco Arcellana’s Selected Stories, 1962, exemplify the “underwritten story,” whose emotive power derives from imagery, symbol, and repetition. Gregorio Brillantes’s The Distance to Andromeda and Other Stories, 1960, presents the inner lives of people as they react to ordinary events with their personal impressions, feelings, and thoughts. Psychological time shapes the structure of the stories, and the Joycean epiphany, instead of the conventional resolution, serves to end the stories. In the next decades, Brillantes wrote stories in different modes, such as science fiction and magic realism. Gilda Cordero-Fernando’s "The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker", 1962, demonstrates her remarkable versatility in the variety of her fictional modes, such as the modern fable to lay bare the female psyche, social realism for a scathing depiction of bureaucratic abuse, and the rite-of-passage motif to depict the personal tragedies of war.

Equally accomplished in the genre were Rony V. Diaz, D. Paulo Dizon, Erwin E. Castillo, Juan C. Tuvera, Resil B. Mojares, Ninotchka Rosca, Jaime An Lim, Renato E. Madrid, and Luis V. Teodoro. Those who wrote about the Muslims and the Manobo of Mindanao were Ibrahim Jubaira, Morli Dharam, Emigdio A. Enriquez, Antonio Reyes Enriquez, and A. S. Gabila.

A showcase of the various modes and styles of the Hiligaynon short story from 1960 to 1970 is the anthology Bahandi-I (Gems I), 1970, which contains stories ranging from the O. Henry mode to social realism. Leading fictionists included in this anthology are Juan Marcella, Isabelo Sobrevega, Ernesto F. Javellana, Ismaelita Floro Luza, Ariston Em. Echevarria, Ray Gra Gesulgon, Nerio E. Jedeliz Jr, Antonio H. Joquiño, Lino Moles, Lilia S. Balisnomo, and Jose E. Yap.

Similarly, the Ilocano short story anthology Dagiti Kapintasan a Sarita iti Iluko (The Best Ilocano Short Stories), 1969, shows a maturity of craft and outlook in many of the writers, although it also contains stories still highly influenced by European metrical romances and romantic novels. The writers in this anthology are A. Sanchez Encarnacion, Pelagio A. Alcantara, Fredelito L. Lazo, John Nolar, Manuel S. Diaz, Benjamin F. Aurelio, Jose A. Bragado, Abraham Pasion, Gregorio G. Bermudez, Jose S. Singson, Meliton G. Brillantes, Crispina Balderas-Bragado, Prescillano Bermudez, Samuel F. Corpuz, Mauro F. Guico, and Bienvenido C. Cabras. Of this generation of Ilocano writers, Juan S. P. Hidalgo Jr. and Reynaldo A. Duque may be counted among the most accomplished and versatile.

Mga Agos sa Disyerto (Streams in the Desert), 1962, is an anthology of Tagalog stories by Efren R. Abueg, Eduardo Bautista Reyes, Rogelio L. Ordoñez, Edgardo M. Reyes, Rogelio Sikat, and in the 1974 edition, Dominador B. Mirasol. This book is a literary landmark because of the fusion of naturalism and social realism, use of experimental styles and techniques, and psychological depth in the stories. All these elements and techniques were in opposition to the conventions of the kind of fiction that dominated at the time.

These authors have also written novels that are major works in Philippine literature, some of which are Efren Abueg’s Dilim sa Umaga (Darkness in the Morning), 1967; Edgardo M. Reyes’s Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (In the Claws of Neon Lights), 1968; Rogelio Ordoñez and Dominador Mirasol’s Apoy sa Madaling-Araw (Fire at Daybreak), 1964; and Rogelio Sikat’s Dugo sa Bukang-Liwayway (Blood at Daybreak,) 1965.

The poetic parallel to this development in the short story tradition was the bagay movement, led by Bienvenido Lumbera, Jose F. Lacaba, and Rolando S. Tinio. The word bagay, with its twin meanings of “thing” and “appropriate,” refers to imagery and objective correlative, which the movement believed to be the essential elements of poetry. Still writing their poems well into the 21st century, survivors of this movement, like Lacaba and Lumbera, choose topics derived from ordinary, day-to-day experience and maintain a conversational tone, which are the characteristics of the bagay poem. Lacaba’s villanelle “Nakatingin sa Bituin” (Gazing at the Stars) aptly represents the poetics of the bagay ([1979] 1996, 33; trans. Lacaba 1996, 122):

Di naman panay dilim

ang gabing walang buwan

pagkat maraming bituin

akong nakita noon,

paglakad sa lansangan,

nakatingin sa bituin.

Mga hiyas sa langit

(’ka nga), nagkikislapan,

wala ni isang pangit,

wala akong makita

paglakad sa lansangan,

nakatingin sa bituin.

Di ko tuloy napansin

ang dinadaanan,

kalsadang walang ningning,

pagkat talagang abala

paglakad sa lansangan,

nakatingin sa bituin.

Nasalpok ko tuloy,

nasalpok ng isang paa,

ang isang tambak ng

taeng-kalabaw sa daan;

paglakad sa lansangan,

nakatingin sa bituin.

Santambak na kumalat

sa kalsada’t paa ko,

paalala ng lupa

na paa’y nakatapak

paglakad sa lansangan

nakatingin sa bituin.

(The moonless night

was not all dark

because a lot of stars

shone in sight

as I walked down the street,

gazing at the stars.

Heavenly jewels

(to coin a phrase),

not a single ugly one

did I see in the sky

as I walked down the street,

gazing at the stars.

So I didn’t notice

what I was walking on,

a road without luster,

for I was much engrossed

as I walked down the street,

gazing at the stars.

So accidentally I hit,

with one foot I hit,

right there on the road,

a cake of carabao shit:

as I walked down the street,

gazing at the stars.

A cake that scattered

on the road and at my feet,

earth’s reminder

that feet step on earth

as I walk down the street,

gazing at the stars.)

Work by Bienvenido N. Santos, 1956
Work by Bienvenido N. Santos, 1956 (Capitol Publishing House)

Work by Gilda Cordero-Fernando, 1962 (Bookmark, Inc)
Work by Gilda Cordero-Fernando, 1962 (Bookmark, Inc)

Work by Linda Ty-Casper, 1964 (Bookmark, Inc)
Work by Linda Ty-Casper, 1964 (Bookmark, Inc)

The novelists in English were preoccupied with questions of national identity, which they sought to explore in historical novels, such as Linda Ty-Casper’s The Peninsulars, 1964, and Wilfrido D. Nolledo’s But for the Lovers, 1970; war novels about the Japanese occupation, such as Stevan Javellana’s Without Seeing the Dawn, 1947, and Edilberto K. Tiempo’s Watch in the Night, 1953; or social novels with historical allusions, such as Kerima Polotan’s The Hand of the Enemy, 1962, Edith L. Tiempo’s His Native Coast, 1979, Lina Espina-Moore’s Heart of the Lotus, 1970, and Nick Joaquin’s Cave and Shadows, 1983. Some novels focused on the Filipino’s sense of alienation, such as N. V. M. Gonzalez’s The Bamboo Dancers, 1959; Bienvenido N. Santos’s Villa Magdalena, 1965; and Nick Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels, 1961. History and literature; illusion and reality; high and pop culture; Hispanic, American, and Filipino sensibilities intermingle in the prose and poetry of Nick Joaquin, whose style had a lush, dreamlike quality.

Lino Brocka’s Santiago, 1970, a film adaptation of Stevan Javellana’s Without Seeing  the Dawn, starring, from left, Boots Anson-Roa, Jay Ilagan, Fernando Poe Jr, and Hilda Koronel
Lino Brocka’s Santiago, 1970, a film adaptation of Stevan Javellana’s Without Seeing  the Dawn, starring, from left, Boots Anson-Roa, Jay Ilagan, Fernando Poe Jr, and Hilda Koronel (Photo courtesy of Simon Santos/Video 48)

Besides other books of fiction, F. Sionil Jose wrote five novels that span a period covering the Spanish colonial period to the martial-law era. These are The Pretenders, My Brother, My Executioner, Tree, Mass, and Poon, published between 1962 and 1985.

Magdalena Jalandoni’s historical novel in Hiligaynon, Juanita Cruz, 1968, is a throwback to the 19th-century Victorian novel, the characters shedding copious tears and the sentences abounding in rhetorical flourishes. But this style is quite congruous with the period in which the story is set, which is the revolution against Spain. What does make it a progressive novel, however, is the portrayal of her hero, the eponymous Juanita Cruz, who actively participates in the revolution by nursing the wounded while her husband fights and then dies in battle. Juanita Cruz lives on till old age, well into the mid-20th century, in the company of her adopted children.

One of the last Filipino novels in Spanish known, Antonio M. Abad’s La Vida Secreta de Daniel Espeña (The Secret Life of Daniel Espeña), 1960, is set in the Visayas spanning three generations from the late Spanish to the early American periods. Unlike his previous novels, which dramatize social and political ills, Abad’s last novel raises metaphysical questions about sin and salvation, penance and restitution, as it follows the lives of three generations of the Espeña family.

The repressive martial law period, declared in 1972 and officially lifted in 1981 but actually continuing on till 1986, forced Philippine literature to go underground, especially since many of the writers themselves did join the underground movement. Emmanuel Lacaba’s poem “Kung Ako’y Mamatay” (If I Die) was written in 1975, when he was a member of the New People’s Army (NPA), but it was not published until 1985, in the anti-Marcos paper Malaya. In 1986, it was included in his poetry collection, Salvaged Poems (1986, 213; trans. in Mainstream 1989):

Kung ako’y mamatay, oo, marami nga

Ang mag-iiyakan: di lang kamag-anak

Kundi kaibigan sa iniwang lunsod—

Dating kaeskwela, kasama sa trabaho,

At intelektwal na mahilig sa tula.

At lalong lalo na ang mga magsasaka

At manggagawang sa aki’y nagbuhos

Ng kasaysayan ng pait ilang buhay.

Oo, matutuwa ako kung magpunta

Silang lahat sa aking luksa at libing,

Kung punuin nila ang buong lansangan

Sa huling martsa ng aking kabaong

Na nababalot ng banderang pula

Na may maso’t karet o tatlong bituin.

Higit na kung sila’y magsimulang magtanong:

“Para kanino, bakit siya namatay?”

Subalit pareho lang sa akin kung

Sa kasukalan lang ako malugmok

Upang ibaon ng uod at damo

Nang walang alaala, walang pangalan.

Sapat na kung masang minahan ang magbangon:

Magwasak sa ating piitang bulok!

Lumikha ng lipunan ng liwanag, oo!

Liwanag na sa loob kung ako’y mamatay.

(If I die, yes, many

Would weep: not just kin

But friends from the city long left—

Schoolmates, officemates,

Intellectuals fond of poems.

But most of all, the farmers

And workers who confided in me

The bitter history of their lives.

Yes, I would be glad if they come

To my burial and mourning,

If they fill the streets

At the final march, where my casket

Would be wrapped in the red banner

With the sickle and hammer or three stars.

Greater would be my joy if they start to ask:

“For whom, why did he give his life?”

Still it would not make much difference

If I fall and succumb among rubbish,

To be interred by worm and weed

Without trace, without name.

It is enough that the beloved masses awake:

Break from this rotting prison!

Build a nation of light, yes!

Light from within, if I die.)

A year after he wrote this poem, Lacaba was killed in a barrio in Davao del Norte, Mindanao, along with other NPA rebels. He was 27.

Despite the threat of political detention, the poets continued to expose and criticize political ills through the seamless melding of craft and content. Some of these were Reuel Molina Aguila, Tomas F. Agulto, Lamberto E. Antonio, Bienvenido Lumbera, Mike L. Bigornia, Kris Montañez, Bienvenido A. Ramos, Fidel D. Rillo, and Romulo Sandoval. Prison poetry was written in their own respective languages by Mila Aguilar, Karl Gaspar, Alan Jazmines, Rogelio G. Mangahas, Edgardo B. Maranan, Don Pagusara, and Jose Ma. Sison. Jesus Manuel Santiago expressed his generation’s poetics of social commitment in the poem “Kung ang Tula Ay Isa Lamang” (If the Poem Were a Mere):

Kung ang tula ay isa lamang

pumpon ng mga salita,

nanaisin ko pang ako’y bigyan

ng isang taling kangkong

dili kaya’y isang bugkos

ng mga talbos ng kamote

na pinupol sa kung aling pusalian

o inumit sa bilao

ng kung sinong maggugulay,

pagkat ako’y nagugutom

at ang bituka’y walang ilong,

walang mata….

(If a poem were a mere

Bouquet of words

I’d rather I were given

A sheaf of swamp cabbage

Or a gathering

Of sweet potato leaves

Pulled out of a swamp

Or stolen from a basket

Of some vegetable vendor

Because I’m hungry

And the intestine is without a nose,

And without eyes….)

The poem “Prometheus Unbound” by Jose F. Lacaba, written under the pseudonym Ruben Cuevas, created a ripple of gleeful triumph among anti-martial law readers when it slipped past the censors and found publication in the government-sponsored magazine Focus. It was an acrostic poem, the first letter of each line reading “Marcos Hitler Diktador Tuta” (Marcos, Hitler, Dictator, Lapdog). These four words had been a favorite in activists’ rallies before martial law silenced them.

Considered the representative voice of the First Quarter Storm generation is Sigwa (Storm), 1972, an anthology of Tagalog short stories written between 1966 and 1972. These continue where the Agos sa Disyerto left off by shifting emphasis from the depiction of the Filipino individual as victim of the oppressive power structure to that of the collective Filipino who will change the system through participation in a political movement. The writers in this anthology are E. San Juan Jr, Domingo G. Landicho, Jose Rey Munsayac, Wilfredo P. Virtusio, Edgardo B. Maranan, Fanny A. Garcia, Efren R. Abueg, Ricardo Lee, and Norma A. Miraflor.

Fictionists of the later generation continue the tradition of radicalism or at least social and political protest, using a greater variety of modes and techniques: postmodernism, magic realism, fabulation, and futuristic fiction. Some of these writers are Luna Sicat-Cleto, Carmelo D. Nadera Jr, Alwin C. Aguirre, Elmer Antonio DM. Ursolino, Allan C. Popa, Mes de Guzman, Frank Cimatu, Rommel Rodriguez, and Rolando B. Tolentino. Their short stories have been anthologized in Kuwentong Siyudad (City Stories), 2002.

The 1980s produced narratives about martial law, the most engaging being Lualhati Bautista’s Tagalog novel Dekada ’70 (The 1970s), 1983. Its snappy dialogue, fast-paced action, feminist reflections, and the characters’ individual responses to specific features of martial law make this novel go beyond the merely topical, and is an exciting page-turner in any era. Jun Cruz Reyes’s Tutubi, Tutubi, ’Wag Kang Magpahuli sa Mamang Salbahe (Dragonfly, Dragonfly, Don’t Let the Bad Man Catch You), 1987, is told as a high school student’s monologue, and as such is satirical in tone and style as it recounts his thoughts, activities, and experiences over a few days, and ending with his decision to join the underground movement.

The foremost representative of Chinese-Philippine literature is Charlson Ong who invariably raises questions of ethnicity and identity in his stories. Both his novels An Embarrassment of Riches, 1998, and Banyaga: A Song of War (Alien: A Song of War), 2006, construct Philippine history from the Chinese-Philippine viewpoint.

Poetry in English was dominated by the group called Philippine Literary Arts Council, whose founding members were Gemino H. Abad, Cirilo F. Bautista, Felix P. Fojas, Marne L. Kilates, Alfrredo Navarro Salanga, Ricardo M. de Ungria, and Alfred Yuson. They published several issues of Caracoa. However, underground poetry continued to be written, sometimes even published, such as Jason Montana’s Clearing: Poems of People’s Struggles in Northern Luzon, 1987.

A representative voice for gay literature is poet and critic J. Neil C. Garcia, who has published poetry collections and books on gay theory. Together with Danton Remoto, he edited Ladlad (Coming Out), 1994, the first Philippine anthology of gay writing. Defying the demonization and silencing of homosexuality, the authors in this anthology are Jimmy I. Alcantara, Edzel Cardil, Miguel Castro, Rands Catalan, Honorio Bartolome de Dios, Vicente G. Groyon, Jaime An Lim, Alfredo I. Moran, Earl Navarro, Murphy Red, R. Fulleros Santos, Jerry Torres, Ronald Baytan, Manny Espinola, Ralph Semino Galan, V. E. Carmelo D. Nadera Jr, Nicolas Pichay, Raul Regalado, Glenn Joseph Toscano, Juan Rufino G. Vigilar, Eduardo R. Nierras, Michael L. Tan, Rodolfo Lana Jr, Chris Martinez, and Auraeus Solito.

Ladlad, 1994, an anthology of gay literature edited by J. Neil C. Garcia and Danton Remoto (Anvil Publishing, Inc)
Ladlad, 1994, an anthology of gay literature edited by J. Neil C. Garcia and Danton Remoto (Anvil Publishing, Inc)

The female poets, writing in the language of their respective regions, deliberately depict experiences specific to women. Some of these are Lilia Quindoza-Santiago, Benilda S. Santos, Joi Barrios, Marra PL. Lanot, Aida F. Santos, Marjorie Evasco, Alicia Tan-Gonzales, and Merlie M. Alunan. Ruth Elynia Mabanglo forged a path for Tagalog female poets with her lyric poems, like “Kung Ibig Mo Akong Makilala” (If You Wish to Know Me), 1988:

… Kung ibig mo akong kilalanin,

Sisirin mo ako hanggang buto,

Liparin mo ako hanggang utak,

Umilanglang ka hanggang kaluluwa—

Hubad ako roon mula ulo hanggang paa.

(… If you wish to know me

Dive deep into my bone

Fly up to my brain

Soar till you get to my soul

There I am naked from head to sole.)

Yet the Cebuano poet Gardeopatra Quijano preceded such declarations of female selfhood by half a century, stressing the healing and shape-shifting, hence shamanic, power of the creative imagination in poetry that avoided clichéd expressions, used images shorn of sentimentality and embellishment, and strove for concentration in language rather than elaboration, such as one finds in “Kon” (If), originally published in Bag-ong Kusog in 1936 and here translated by Sugbo (Alburo et al. 1988):

Kon duna pa akoy mga pako,

Molupad ako sa kahanginan,

Nanawon ko ang nanagbakho,

Akong lipayon, akong awitan;

Pangitaon ko kinsay nagsubo,

Iuli kanila ang naingnan.

Sama pa unta ako sa isda,

Salumon ko ang dagat maitum,

Pangitaon ko ang mga mutya,

Kuhaon ko ang tanang matahum

Dad-on ko sila dinhi sa yuta

Aron ang tanan magapahiyum.

Ug kon ako mao pa ang hangin,

O hadlaon ko ang mga bulak,

Isabulak ko sa tanang daplin

Ang mga gihay nga mangapulak,

Basin ang kahumot magpabilin,

Sundon ang bahi sa magbabalak.

(If I had wings,

I’d dart into the air,

And look for those in sorrow,

To amuse them, I’d sing;

I’d seek out those in grief,

Restore to them what’s lost.

I should have been like the fish,

I could plunge into the deep dark sea,

I’d look for pearls,

And pick up all that’s beautiful,

I’d carry them upwards,

And make everyone smile.

And if I were just the wind,

Oh, I’d shake all the blossoms,

And scatter them

Twig and bud,

So their perfume would linger

And mark the poet’s tracks.)

Filipino writers and their works are becoming more familiar to the world beyond Philippine shores because of their increasing exposure to international writing and reading communities, through such venues as writers’ residencies and festivals. Palanca awardee Joel Toledo placed second at an international literary competition, the Bridport Prize 2006, for his poem “The Same Old Figurative.” In style and sensibility, Toledo continues the poetic tradition begun by Jose Garcia Villa, who had once declared: “Good literature must appeal to all people—not to Filipinos alone. A national literature is valid only insofar as it is world literature” (quoted in Chua 2002, 12). Toledo’s poem exemplifies this creed (Bridport Prize 2006, 75), as shown in this excerpt:

Yes, the world is strange, riddled with difficult sciences

and random magic. But there are compensations, things we do

perceive: the high cries and erratic spirals of sparrows,

the sky gray and now giving in to the regular rain.

Still we insist on meaning, that common consolation

that, now and then, makes for beauty. Or disaster.…

A counterpoint to Villa’s principle of literary internationalism is Jose Y. Dalisay Jr.’s second novel, Soledad’s Sister, 2008, which was shortlisted in the first Man Booker Asia Literary Prize in 2008. Running through it is a dogged vein of sociopolitical realism, with its precise and verifiable knowledge of sundry things both Philippine and global, ranging from the parochial eccentricities of a country village to the socio-geographical layout of Jeddah; from the seedy life of a karaoke club singer, to the dreary life of a domestic helper in Hong Kong.

The stories of the critically acclaimed fictionist and screenwriter Ricardo Lee, from the 1960s down to the 1990s, were pioneering landmarks in experimentation framed in a historical and political consciousness. His novel Para kay B, 2008, is an open-form novel, consisting of five love stories loosely linked from one to the next, and finally bound together, in the last chapter, by a metafictional technique. The corpus of Lee may be said to represent the achievements of Philippine literature at the highest level: classical realism, socialist realism, stream of consciousness, fabulation, pop culture, a politically committed postmodernism, magic realism, historical empiricism, postcolonialism—all these done with a deep compassion for humanity and a warm and gentle humor.

Para kay B, 2008, Ricky Lee’s open-form novel
Para kay B, 2008, Ricky Lee’s open-form novel (The Writers Studio)

Philippine literature today may be seen as the combined effort of all Filipino authors whose works contribute to the shaping of a national identity for their readers. It is the matrix in which the whole history of Philippine culture is deeply inscribed and thus represents a network of values and sentiments situated in the traditions of its Filipino audience. While the synthesis of all the nation’s voices—dominant and peripheral, acquiescent and oppositional, modern and traditional—may be a Utopian ideal, Philippine literature is the expression of the striving toward this ideal.



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