Last week as Mother’s Day approached, I thought of writing about the mother of any one of our national heroes. I feel we tend to forget that many great women and men have even greater mothers behind them, and that the women were all too often relegated to obscurity.
Jose Rizal came to my mind, as well as his mother, Teodora Alonzo, but I think there’s enough written about her, although I’d also be curious to find out what Filipinos remember about her. Offhand, when I hear her name I think of the painting found in many ophthalmologists’ clinics, showing Rizal operating (unsuccessfully, it seems) on his mother’s cataract.
Then I thought of Andres Bonifacio. There’s practically nothing written about his mother apart from the fact that she, and Bonifacio’s father, were originally from Pampanga.
I thought of Tandang Sora (Melchora Aquino), whose bicentennial we celebrated in 2012, but her own life is not that well-documented. We do know that Valentina was the name of Tandang Sora’s mother, and that’s it.
This year, in July, we will mark the sesquicentennial birth anniversary of Isabelo de los Reyes, a folklorist, one of the founders of the Philippine Independent Church, and the father of the labor union movement in the Philippines. I like to describe Don Belong as a truly great Ilokano.
Don Belong’s mother, Leona Florentino, is somewhat better known but mainly in literary circles, and I sometimes wonder how many Filipino writers and teachers do know about her.
Florentino was born in 1849 in Vigan to a wealthy family. She could not go to university because of restrictions on women at that time, but she did get private tutoring, including from an Ilokano priest who taught her advanced Spanish.
She was married off at the age of 14 and had five children. Her biography on the Internet mentions that because her writings were feminist, she was shunned by her family, and she lived alone and died at the age of 35.
When I read that, I thought: There goes my Mother’s Day article. But then Florentino is described as the “mother of Philippine women’s literature,” and she is honored with a statue in Vigan, so there is good reason to do a Mother’s Day article about her, even if belatedly.
What could have been so controversial about Leona Florentino’s poems?
Twenty-two of her poems have been preserved, and were included in the 1889 French International Encyclopedia of Women’s Works. I asked Anril Tiatco of the University of the Philippines College of Arts and Letters to help me get more information about Florentino, including her poems. Anril sent me several short films from YouTube related to Florentino. There was historian Michael Charlston Chua speaking about this great poet on his TV program. There were two clips from Cagayan State University, involving a reading of her poetry. Apparently then, she remains well-known, and revered among Ilokanos.
Anril also sent me three of her poems in Ilokano, from the website of the University of Hawaii. All three are love poems, powerful love poems.
Bear with me as I alternate between the Ilokano texts and Filipino and English. I had asked for Ilokano originals because this is one of the most lyrical of languages in the Philippines. Even if you don’t speak it, you can “listen” with your heart: namnama, for example, to mean hope, such a lovely word it has sometimes been used as a name for a daughter.
The best known of Florentino’s poems is “Nalpay a Namnama,” translated as “Blasted Hope” (or, more loosely, curtailed hopes or desires). The poem was translated by M. Foronda Jr. It starts: “Amangan a ragsac ken talecda/dagiti adda caayanayatda/ta adda piman mangricna/cadagiti isuamin a asugda,” speaking of hopes and joys that come to a person who is loved, who has someone with whom to share all suffering and pain.
But that joy is followed by a description of suffering that seems to have come from those curtailed hopes. She speaks of her “tongue remaining powerless,” and is resigned that “to be spurned is my lot.” Despite all that, she ends: “Ngem umanayento a liolioac/Ti pannacaammon itoy a panagayat/ta icaric kenca ket isapatac/nga sica aoan sabali ti pacayatac (But would it be my greatest joy/to know that it is you I love/for to you do I vow and promise I make/It’s you alone for whom I would lay down my life).”
Another poem is “As-Asug ti Maysa a Napaay,” translated into Filipino by Josie Clausen as “Mga Hinanakit ng Isang Nabigo” (my English translation: The Lamentations of One Spurned). It’s almost melodramatic, this poem, speaking of pain and suffering. Two lines stand out: “Ta iti maysa nga agayat a dida pagayatan/nakasaksakit nakem a maimatangan“ (Because I love but am not loved/oh the pain that afflicts one who watches”).
The poem goes on to talk about trust betrayed, of hoping without hope, of one’s body rendered useless.
The third poem, also translated into Filipino by Josie Clausen, is “Panagpakada,” or saying goodbye. It is again a sad poem with a last stanza that intrigues as it refers to the loved one’s purity and honor, never tarnished (“ta tapno dayta sudim/taknengmo ti di marakrak”). There’s another lyrical Ilokano word for you: marakrak, which actually means “crushed,” but I thought I could take liberties and say “tarnished” instead.
I say that line is intriguing because Florentino speaks of loving someone, while referring to that person’s purity and honor, not something you associate with a man.
But whoever the object, or objects, of Florentino’s love, we see such great intensity, so intense it becomes problematic. We see why she was probably considered dangerous, even subversive, to dare to even speak of desire, even as she talks, too, about being so powerless, unable to speak out.
If Florentino is to be given more recognition, we need to have her poems better appreciated, in Ilokano or in translations, English or Filipino. Her poems could bring life into literature classes, again in English or Filipino or Ilokano. Discuss them together with our kundiman and more modern love songs, and probe into why we are so drawn to themes of unrequited love.
Note how our kundiman are composed by men, and yet have the men begging the woman: Look at me, open your window, as one kundiman goes. In the 19th century, Florentino could not even ask for that. It is love she keeps to herself, perhaps suffering so much that she has to write about all those emotions.
Then reflect, too, on the mother-son relationship she had with Isabelo de los Reyes. Remember, Florentino was born in 1849, and married off at 14. Isabelo de los Reyes was born in 1864, when she was only 15.
Such were the realities of the 19th century—harsh on women, harsh on mothers. Could the biographies of Leona Florentino be too hasty to conclude that she had been sent off to live in exile, away from her family? Was it possible she chose to live apart from her loved ones?
These are questions that resonate into the 21st century for so many of our women, and their husbands and sons.
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TAGS: andres bonifacio, Isabelo delos Reyes, Jose Rizal, Leona Florentino, Melchora Aquino, Mother’s Day, Philippine history, Tandang Sora, Teodora Alonzo, Vigan
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Leona Florentino was a Pilipina poet who wrote both in Spanish and Ilokano. She is known as the “mother of Philippine women’s literature” and the “bridge from oral to literary tradition”.
She was born on April 19, 1849 to a wealthy and prominent family in Vigan, Ilocos Sur. She already showed great potential and skill at a young age when she first began to write her own poems in her native Ilokano tongue. However because she was a young woman she couldn’t receive a university education for laws at the time. She was then taught by her mother and private teachers, one was an Ilokano priest who was educated in Spanish, at the time a language only the elite and those who could afford higher education could learn. He taught the young Leona the language and encouraged her to pursue her love in poetry and let her voice be heard through written words. By the time she was 10 years old she could fluently speak and write in both languages and used them in her poetry.
Her poems were dedicated to her fellow Ilokanos and they were exhibited in the Exposicion General de Filipinas in Madrid in 1887 and in the International Exposicion in Paris in 1889. They earned fame and her works were included in the Encyclopedia Internationale des Oeuvres des Femmes (International Encyclopedia of Women’s Works) in 1889.
Unfortunately Leona died at a very young age at 35 years on October 4, 1884. Her legacy, though not known by most in today’s showbiz worthy society, is one that has helped form the wealth of what is Philippine literature. Some of her works include “Rucrunoy” (Dedication), “Naangaw a Cablaw” (Good Greetings), and “Leon XIII” which was dedicated to Pope Leo XIII.
Though most of her brilliant work has been lost over time since her death, some of the original manuscripts have been preserved and kept in Madrid, London, and Paris. Today her former home has been transformed into the Provincial Tourism Center (Vigan Heritage Commission) where a statue of her in her honor and dedication sits watching over those who come to Vigan. The restaurant there is also named after her, Café Leona, which was named by a scholar of her work who studied who studied Leona’s work. He wrote that she was “a pillar of feminism in the country.”
She married a politician named Elias de los Reyes at the age of 14 and had 5 children. One of those children would later be the well known Labor Leader, Isabelo de los Reyes, a Pilipin@ writer, activist, and senator who inherited his mothers passion for literature.
Here is one of her literary works that have survived today.
BLASTED HOPES (ca. 1880)
by Leona Florentino
translated by M. Foronda, Jr.
What gladness and what joy
are endowed to one who is loved
for truly there is one to share
all his sufferings and his pain
My fate is dim, my stars so low
perhaps nothing to it can compare,
for truly I do not doubt
for presently I suffer so.
For even I did love
the beauty whom I desired
never do I fully realize
that I am worthy of her.
Shall I curse the hour
when first I saw the light of day
would it not have been better a thousand times
I had died when I was born.
Would I want to explain
but my tongue remains powerless
for now do I clearly see
to be spurned is my lot.
But would it be my greatest joy
to know that it is you I love,
for to you do I vow and a promise I make
it’s you alone for whom I would lay my life.
NALPAY A NAMNAMA
Amangan a ragsac ken talecda
dagiti adda caayanayatda
ta adda piman mangricna
cadagiti isuamin a asugda.
Ni Gasatco a nababa
aoanen ngatat capadana,
ta cunac diac agduadua
ta agdama ngarud gna innac agsagaba.
Ta nupay no agayatac
iti maysa a imnas
aoan lat pangripripiripac
nga adda pacaibatugac.
Ilunodconto ti horas
nga innac pannacayanacta
mamenribo coma naseseat
no natayac idin ta nayanacac.
Gayagayec coma a ipalaoag
ngem bumdeng met toy dilac,
a ta maquitac met a sibabatad
nga ni paay ti calac-amac.
Ngem umanayento a liolioac
ti pannacaammon itoy a panagayat,
ta icaric kenca ket isapatac
nga sica aoan sabli ti pacatayac.
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