OF SUBSTANCE AND SPIRIT
(First of two parts)
My father is Serafin Cruz Guinigundo, Apin to his friends, whom everybody thought was a fool for reciting Filipino poetry for hours before an old family mirror one summer afternoon. He commandeered it and carried it down and placed it under a fruit tree. He was barely ten when my grandmother Juliana rushed to ask him what was wrong with his mind. Some of my father’s playmates apparently suspected he went nuts and told on him.
So many things my father taught me, and this was one of them. If I wanted to do good with my craft, I must practice to perfection.
My father loved interaction. He knew that when he wrote poetry or short story, his literature was for generations of readers. That actually reminds me of Umberto Eco’s existential question to himself: “Would I still write today if they told me that tomorrow a cosmic catastrophe would destroy the universe, so that no one could read tomorrow what I wrote today?” Probability encouraged Eco that “some star might survive, and in the future, someone might decipher my signs.”
In reciting his poetry, my father imagined a live audience who could affirm what he was doing, or cast him with deafening silence because his literature is inferior.Thus, the poor family mirror had to come down and cater to his youthful inclination.
Tatang, my father, walked this earth for only 57 years. He succumbed to diabetes this month of December, 50 years ago. But what a life he lived, straddling between literature and law, family and social activism.
His love for literature produced a collection of, among others, two novels Kariktang Walang Maliw and PKM (Pambansang Kaisahan ng mga Magbubukid), the latter mirroring his emerging socialist perspective. There were shorter novels serialized in the vernacular magazines Liwayway, Bulaklak, Kayumanggi and Mabuhay.
He also published poetry in the 1940s and 1950s. Of Tatang’s romance with poetry, the revered Teodoro Agoncillo wrote: “Ipinagmamalaki ni Epifanio G. Matute na siya ang nakatuklas kay Apin nang sabihin niya sa isang bilang ng pinamamatnugutan niyang magasing Sampagita na si Apin ay higit na mangunguwento kaysa makata, isang bagay na ayaw paniwalaan ni Apin narin at bilang pagpapabulaan ay lagging binibigkas ang kaniyang tulang “Bahay-Bahayan.”
Family legend had it that my father spent many nights loitering around one funeral wake to another in Bulacan, in search of other poets who could engage him in Balagtasan. My father invested heavily in books to stuff his mind in preparation for those poetic jousts. He was in his 20s and 30s at the time, and out of the ten siblings that we were, seven had been born. One perished in infancy. While producing literature and raising a family, he was a working student. He kept books in South Harbor through my mother Natividad’s maternal aunt Manang Luisa who was also related to the older Enrique Razon. He completed his accountancy and law, and became a member of the bar in 1949.
It was in writing short stories that my father found quick translation to print of his colorful experiences growing up in the rice fields and rivers of Bulacan and Pampanga. He went through hell evacuating the family from Manila to the province during World War II. He accumulated money from buying and selling Japanese tires and trucks in Dulong Bayan in the old Azcarraga and Bambang. He witnessed domestic violence around the neighborhood; he wrote about it.
My father created plots and put life into characters, producing three short stories that made it to the list of the best 25 short stories in 1943. During that year, the Japanese management of Liwayway created a committee to pick the best short stories of the year. This became the joint venture of the Manila Sinbun-sya and the Ministry of Education.
These three stories were “May Umaga Pang Daratal,” “Nagmamadali ang Maynila,” and “Si Ingkong Gaton at ang Kaniyang Kalakian,” all showing Tatang’s ease in capturing the dynamics of social and personal drama in the city and the countryside.
Two of my father’s friends, Macario Pineda and Brigido Batung bakal contributed two stories each to the list which included those of other noted writers namely Narciso Reyes, Luwalhati Arceo, NVM Gonzales, Teodoro Agoncillo, and Emilio Aguilar Cruz.
In their Philippine Literature Through the Years, Alicia H. Kahayon and Celia A. Zulueta described the authors of the 25 best short stories of 1943 as “young and hopeful but nevertheless imbued with the spirit of the times and profoundly involved… in society.”
The judges were impressed with the high quality of the stories, ranking with the best stories written in English by Filipinos. They observed the “tone of revolt against the old technique…there was a radical revolt against the weevil-infested tradition in Tagalog literature.”
My father revolted against the conservative literature of the times in terms of content and style. He also wrote against those forces breeding agrarian unrest. Reading and writing empowered his consciousness and imagination. His personal experiences buttressed his capacity for compassion.
That spirit could also be traced to the company he kept. Tatang was a classmate of Luis “Supremo” Taruc at the San Miguel Elementary School. I remember the few times my father received him in our Manila house after his release from prison in 1968. I couldn’t figure out even now what kept them talking for hours except the lemonade. There must be something that bound them during their formative years. My father lawyered for both peasants and labor unions after he became a lawyer in 1949. He had wealthy corporate clients, too, who paid him fabulous fees, but I don’t remember him receiving anything from the poor if chickens and vegetables didn’t count.
Two years after passing the bar, Tatang entered politics. After all, as Shelley in “Defense of Poetry” concluded, “Poets are the acknowledged legislators of the world.” And was it not Robert Kennedy who proposed that “if more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place to live on…”The trouble today is we have very few of both who do.
Literature and society are definitely intertwined. I recall my father always saying that while writers do preserve and create the people’s stories, public servants should make a difference between joy and sorrow in the narrative.
My father served as “Vocal” or Bulacan Provincial Board Member for two terms in 1951-59. It was quite easy for him to win those elections because of his literary exposure. Tagalog magazines were household reading stuff in the provinces. Because my father was not a man of means, campaigning was affordable because the people in the barrios actually organized those sorties.
“Hakot” was rather alien to the experience of voters in the 1950s. His political constituents were his readers. They sat out those political campaigns because Tatang enthralled them with his stories and poetry, not least of which was his “Bahay-Bahayan.” His campaign speeches appealed to mind and spirit — they were stories and poems, visions of a possible life of plenty and peace. He refused to promise. It was the poet and writer who won.
His long hours before that old family mirror absolutely paid off.