MANY Filipinos know Spanish poetry only through the immortal poems of Thomasian and National Hero Jose Rizal, especially Mi Ultimo Adios. Unknown to many are the Spanish poems of other equally great nationalists who were masters of the colonizer’s language.
The 19th century saw the golden age of Philippine literature in Spanish, many of them written by Thomasians. These writers inspired the revolutionary march to freedom. Their works now bear testament to the nation’s Hispanic roots and UST’s spirit of humanism.
Poet of the revolution: Fernando Ma. Guerrero (1873-1929)
Although a graduate of law at UST, Fernando Ma. Guerrero pursued a career in journalism. Guerrero served as editor of La Independencia and El Renacimiento and founded the popular dailies La Vanguardia and La Opinion. After being elected Manila representative in the 1907 Congress, Guerrero became secretary of both the Senate and the Philippine Independence Commission.
Guerrero was raised in a Spanish-speaking family. In 1914, he published his first poetry compilation, Crisalidas. His second poetry compilation, Aves y Flores (Birds and Flowers), was published posthumously in 1970. As was popular those days, Guerrero used pseudonyms in his writings like “Belisario Roses.” But most of his works remained unpublished, for lack of “patience nor solicitude to compile them,” as he stated in his autobiography.
Guerrero’s poems dealt mostly with patriotism. This is evident in Mi Patria (My Fatherland) from Crisalidas, considered his most famous poem expressing his devotion to the country: “Oh tierra de mis amores/ santa madre de mi vida/ que ventiste en mi alma herida/ el aroma de tus flores! Llora, si tiened dolores/ si sueñas ser grande, espera/ pero te juro que fuera/ para mi suerte afrentosa/ ver nacida en mi fosa/ hierbas de savia extranjera.” (“Oh land of my loves/ holy mother of my life/ that poured into my wounded soul/ the a roma of your flowers! Cry, if sorrows you have/ wait if you dream to be great/ an ignominious fate it would be/ to see on my grave born/ the herbs of foreign sap.”)
As fate would have it, Guerrero died on June 12, 1929, the Philippine Independence day.
Epic poet in Spanish: Cecilio Apostol (1877-1938)
In 1895, Cecilio Apostol’s poem El Terror de Los Mares Indicos (The Terror of the Indian Seas), published in the newspaper El Comercio, introduced then 17-year-old Apostol to the world of Spanish letters. Little did he know that his reading would start his road to literary greatness. He himself would be known as an epic poet in the Hispanic world.
Apostol obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in Ateneo de Manila and Bachelor of Law in UST. In 1896, he joined the Philippine revolution, interrupting his studies. After the war, he finished law and was appointed assistant fiscal of Manila.
Like Guerrero, Apostol served as editor of La Independencia, a newspaper founded by Antonio Luna, and a writer for newspapers La Fraternidad, La Democracia, La Patria, and El Renacimiento. He used either “Catulo” or “Isagani” as pen names.
Among Apostol’s best poems were Mi Raza (My Race), which won first prize in the national literary contest sponsored by Club International in 1902, and Al Heroe Nacional (To the National Hero), his poetical masterpiece. The latter, dedicated to Rizal, included these powerful lines: “Que si una bala destrozo tu craneo/ tu idea, en cambio, destrozo un imperio!” (“Though a bullet destroyed your skull/ your idea, in turn, destroyed an empire!”)
Apostol did not compile his poems for publication. Instead, Don Jaime C. de Veyra, a writer and politician during the Commonwealth period, published Apostol’s only poetry collection, Pentelicas. His other poems appeared in World Anthology of Spanish Poetry and Enciplopedia España, among others.
Cerebral hemorrhage claimed the life of this great poet on Sept. 17, 1938.
Balagtasan great: Jesus Balmori (1887-1948)
Even in his teens, Jesus Balmori was already aware of his literary gift, joining and winning in different literary contests. At 17, he published his first poetry book, Rimas Malayas (Malayan Rhymes).
Taking Philosophy at UST, Balmori excelled in literature. He often engaged in friendly poetical jousts known as “balagtasan,” with fellow poet Manuel Bernabe.
Balmori had his journalistic stint at the La Vanguardia newspaper, where he wrote a daily column of satirical verses titled “Vida Manileñas” under the penname “Batikuling.” He compiled his columns later in the book El Libro de Mis Vidas Manileñas (The Book of the Lives of Manileñas).
Poetry was not the only genre for this creative writer. Balmori ventured into novel writing through his works Bancarrota de Almas (Bankruptcy of Souls), Se Deshojo la Flor (I Tear the Pages Out of the Flower), and Fajaros de Fuego (Birds of Fire). He also wrote three-act dramas, all of which were staged at the defunct Manila Grand Opera House.
Balmori’s poetry won in different national literary awards, but his greatest poems are in the collection Mi Casa de Nipa (My House of Nipa), which won the grand prize for poetry in the 1940 national literary contest sponsored by the Commonwealth government.
One of his better known poems, Celos (Jealousy), talks about an ear of wheat bragging about its supremacy to a flower. In the end, the flower replies: “Se diga lo que se diga/ Palabras que al viento van/ Porque el hombre, santa espiga/ no solo vive de pan!” (“Whatever is said matters not/ They are words that go with the wind/ Because man, saintly ear/ Lives not only of bread!”)
Balmori died on May 23, 1948, shortly after writing his parting poem, A Cristo (To Christ).
Poet, politician, patriot: Claro M. Recto (1890-1960)
Best known as one of the authors of the 1935 Philippine Constitution, statesman Claro M. Recto first became a poet before entering politics.
Recto obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree from Ateneo de Manila and finished law in UST as class valedictorian. As a student, Recto won literary awards and wrote for a small publication called El Ideal. Later, he wrote a daily column for La Vanguardia, titled “Primares Cuartillas” (First Sheets), under the pseudonym “Aristeo Hilario.”
At 21, Recto published a compilation of his poetical writings in Bajo los Cocoteros (Under the Coconut Trees). He also wrote two plays: the Solo Entre las Sombras (Alone Among the Shadows) in 1917 and La Ruta de Damasco (The Damascus Route) in 1918. Both portrayed the social problems of the country during his time and received praises from both the Spanish and Filipino literati.
Revolucion (Revolution) is one of Recto’s patriotic poems. It ended with the lines, “Revolucion es reto de imprecacion y Guerra/ la voz que Bonifacio lanzo en Balintawak/ que derribo los templos de los becerros de oro/ e hizo trizas y polvo un trono secular.” (“Revolution is a challenge of curse and war/ the voice that at Balintawak, Bonifacio cast/ that the temples of the calves of gold demolished/ and reduced a secular throne to strips and dust.”)
Recto became a distinguished politician and headed the Constitutional Convention that drafted the 1935 Philippine Constitution. He served as senator for three terms, in 1941, 1949, and 1955. He was also the Commissioner of Education, Health and Public Welfare in 1942, and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in 1943. Recto ran for presidency in 1957 but lost to Carlos P. Garcia.
On October 2, 1960, Recto suffered a fatal heart attack in Rome. “How sad it is to die away from one’s own country!” were Recto’s last words.
The lives and works of these Filipino poets prove that a Hispanic tongue, a Thomasian mind, and a heart burning for one’s country can always rhyme.