IN A NATION simmering with apathy and disunity, one writer has tempered his craft into a harmonious marriage between personal expression and a drive toward national solidarity.

This year’s Parangal Hagbong recipient, Cirilo F. Bautista, reminds today’s writers of the Philippines’ need for an “evolving consciousness.” The Parangal Hagbong, which started in 1997, is the Varsitarian’s way of recognizing Thomasian paragons in Philippine literature. The word hagbong, which in the province of Quezon means an old headdress representative of one’s social status, pertains to a laurel wreath or an adornment of woven leaves that is placed on the head of one who has attained or shown prowess in the arts and letters.

For Bautista, his motherland is a consciousness that ought to evolve if it wants progress. “We do not have progress because our nation lacks evolution,” he told the Varsitarian.

For example, when Bautista topped his epic work The Trilogy of Saint Lazarus with Sunlight On Broken Stones, he made a clarion call to the Filipino psyche on the importance of imbibing the lessons from even the most painful of communal experiences. And in the case of the epic, Filipinos are depicted as having evolved and grown from the pains of bitter and unfair conflict.

But how did the writer himself come to be?

Manila as nebula

Born on July 9, 1941, Bautista grew and gained inspiration for his first works in the backwaters of Balik-Balik in Sampaloc, Manila. According to him, “Though I did not intend to grow up there, the place inexorably became material for my writing.”

The writer recalled an adolescence in the frequent company of books, magazines, poems, and anything else that would submit itself to his reading appetite.

“As far as I can remember, I really liked reading because we did not have television back then, so all we had was print media,” Bautista said.

Reading, for the loner in Bautista, became a little school for literature.

“It was during high school that I was able to develop my skills, mainly because there were more activities that required serious writing,” he said.

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Apparently, writing was not very prevalent in Bautista’s family, so all that the young Bautista went by was voracity for the written word.

“It was only in college that I knew about an uncle of mine, Aniseto Silvestre, who wrote poems and had already gotten published,” said Bautista.

And what else did Bautista meet in high school if not the works of Filipino greats Jose Rizal and Francisco Balagtas?

“I had met works like the Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo by Rizal; while my textbooks, like Diwang Ginto and Diwang Kayumanggi, taught me well about grammar and language,” he said.

Emerging titan

Bautista discovered his gift for the written word during his high school days. “I never really thought about it. It was just that writing was one of those activities in school. And in high school we already had a brush with journalism,” he said.

But Bautista’s first steps on paper were not entirely work-related.

“Of course there were those that I called ‘juvenile verses.’ And in a way they affected me because I also wrote about love and awakening, that sort of stuff,” he said.

Soon enough, Bautista was able to spend his junior and senior years writing for the Victorino Mapa High School campus paper, the Mapazette.

“I was the literary editor of our paper, so I was really able to train myself,” he said.

As with any great endeavor, there also happened to be bumps along Bautista’s road to success.

“You do not really have enemies in writing save for yourself,” he said. “But back then, I think the only impediment was time, because you had to juggle writing and your studies. So when I was at home, cleaning or carrying water, I was also hard at work finding the time for writing,” Bautista added.

Aside from graduating from high school as valedictorian, Bautista also won his first writing contest. According to him, “There weren’t many literary contests in high school, but in my fourth year I was made to join an essay writing contest sponsored by the Philippine Animal Welfare Society, where I won the grand prize. I was so elated because the prize was a book by an American writer titled American Boats. The book was about war and it had a dedication from the author. Until now I still have that book.”

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On higher ground

When college came, Bautista came to the University of Santo Tomas’ College of Liberal Arts (now the Faculty of Arts and Letters) in 1957 where he took up a Bachelor’s Degree in Arts. And it was in 1959 when he joined the Varsitarian’s News section. Coming from the ranks, Bautista also got to taste being news editor, literary editor, and proofreader during his stint with the campus paper.

Asked what important lesson the Varsitarian imbued him with, Bautista had this to say: “I learned to change how I look at things, because in the paper, your audience is not just yourself but everyone inside and outside UST. I learned to look with a wider perspective or what you call ‘getting out of the box,’ because in the Varsitarian, you need to be able to think independently. Not everything can be spoon-fed, and so you have to trust your own writing abilities.”

Besides his first published poem in the Varsitarian titled, “Ballad of Bleeding Hearts,” Bautista also recalled the collegiate literary awards he received from UST.

“I won the first prize in the Rector’s Literary Contest, because there was still no USTetika back then. I also won for an essay in the same contest, this time in the Tagalog category. And then there was this contest sponsored by the College of Medicine in honor of the UST Hospital. It was a poetry contest, and there was only one winner. It was my poem “Wan Voices in Ward Seven.”

Moving forward

After college, Bautista got to teach Sociology and English at the St. Louis University in Baguio from 1963 to 1968, all thanks to his college friend, Manuel Ortiz, who also happened to be a professor at St. Louis. But Baguio also brought to Bautista a wife in the person of fellow Thomasian Rose Marie Jimenez, an Architecture graduate from the College of Architecture and Fine Arts.

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But in 1968, former Varsitarian editor-in-chief Jose Flores, Jr. recommended him to a workshop in Iowa, in the United States. The International Writers’ Workshop was to be held for nine months, and so Bautista had to leave his family behind. According to Bautista, he found the experience enlightening because of the various nationalities gathered there.

“We fellows were just told to write anything and enjoy ourselves, so it was there that I finished my book The Archipelago,” Bautista said.

In his more mature years, Bautista said that his most memorable award is his first Palanca Award in 1968 that he won via a collection of poems.

“I finished that one in Baguio, and it won. It was my first book, and I titled it The Cave and Other Poems (published in 1968),” he said.

Bautista is now retired from teaching at De La Salle University. He is now finishing the second novel in his latest trilogy, the first part of which is Galaw ng Asoge, which has already seen print from the UST Publishing House in 2004. The second part, Dugo sa Gunita, is nearing completion. Bautista also has a column in the Philippine Panorama and the occasional lecture for writing activities, and now he says, “I can really focus on my writing.”

But after many more victories, Bautista’s perspective about awards has since changed.

According to him, “I used to frame the awards that I got, and now there are so many of them. But in the long run they are not that significant anymore, in fact I already have a space in my bathroom just for them. Awards are not important, what is important is that you keep on writing.” Kristine Joy L. Dabbay and Roman Carlo R. Loveria


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