Reading and Such

Interesting Philippine books on national heroes, history—and ‘queridas’

Why literature is my safe place

Literary portrayals of querida are never lacking in Filipino short stories, poetry, and drama.

Text and photos by Liana Garcellano

“Literature is where I go to explore the highest and lowest places in human society and in the human spirit, where I hope to find not absolute truth, but the truth of the tale, the imagination, and the heart.” – Salman Rushdie

Literature is my safe place when I need a break from the difficult world we live in, which glimmers faintly with hope when I return to it. That not many see the beauty of literature sits heavy on my soul, but I’m grateful that it’s been officially celebrated in the Philippines for the last eight years.

Philippine books on national heroes

Filipino authors may be able to give answers to questions on corruption, culture, gender, injustice, poverty and other issues.

April is National Literature Month (NLM) in the country, with the organizing body National Commission for Culture and the Arts fêting Filipino authors and scholars in Philippine literature. In my case, it’s been an ongoing affair since I read Carlos Bulosan’s novella, All the Conspirators, late last year. Up until then, I read Filipino authors only if I brought their works with me abroad.

While Batanes commemorates NLM 2023 with writing and singing in Laji, the traditional Ivatan literary art form, and Region 9 (the Zamboanga Peninsula) and the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao hold a two-day workshop and competition on Leleng, a traditional folk song, I’m quietly whittling down my tsundoku of Filipino fiction and nonfiction.

Bulosan fans might tag ‘All the Conspirators’ as a potboiler compared to his ‘America is in the Heart’

Bulosan fans might tag All the Conspirators as a potboiler compared to his America is in the Heart, which details the harsh lives of migrant Filipinos in the United States and his own struggles against racism in the 1940s, but the mystery-thriller on how a white traveler navigates post-war Manila merits reading. Bulosan writes of a desolate landscape, with squatters’ barong-barong replacing the houses on Taft and Pennsylvania Avenues. “Stumps of sunken ships stick out of (Manila Bay), tell-tale signs of a war that was desperately fought.” Escolta, Manila’s main shopping district, is a “rubble of devastation.”

Philippine books on national heroes

The manuscript of ‘All the Conspirators’ was at the University of Washington archives before its local publication in the late 1990s.

The American Gar Stanley knew the Philippines, having attended the American school Brent and lived in a “great white house…overlooking the pine-covered mountainside.” He knew “Igorots of the mountains well. (He) had many friends among them (and) had gone hunting and fishing and visiting in their villages.” His affinity with the natives is rekindled when he returns 14 years later to help a former girlfriend find her missing husband, Clem, his best friend. His search for Clem leads him back to the village where he drinks tapuey and smokes clay pipes with the chieftain and village elders, and learns the ugly truth about Clem’s disappearance.

F.H. Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles depicts a contemporary Philippines trapped in a permacrisis, the line separating fiction and reality barely distinguishable. The book is set in Payatas, the dumpsite, and the reader is vicariously hit by the pungent odor of the shifting layers of garbage and mud, and the ambiance of quiet desperation. It’s where a young boy’s “small, thin, pale hand [protruding] from beneath the garbage” is discovered, and where the motive for killing several light-footed child scavengers in the area is investigated by Jesuit priests, forensic anthropologist Fr. Gus Saenz and clinical psychologist Fr. Jerome Lucero. The police assist only in an auxiliary capacity because they don’t keep statistics on missing persons and pay no attention to profiling.

Philippine books on national heroes

Manila mired in poverty is the battleground for Jesuits fighting corruption and crime in ‘Smaller and Smaller Circles.’

The other characters give insights into the duality of segments of Philippine society in wielding and jostling for power. Saenz is locked in battle with a pedophile diocesan priest. Saenz, Lucero, and the director of the National Bureau of Investigation lock horns with a self-serving lawyer. Saenz is at daggers drawn with his patron, a high-society matron who favors the diocesan priest, jeopardizing his laboratory funding.

Querida: An Anthology “delves into the thorny querida system in the Philippines, where the list of Filipino synonyms for the Spanish definition ofbeloved”—i.e., kabit, kulasisi—are pejoratives.

Literary queridas traverse this collection of short stories, poems, and plays exploring the stuff that local TV shows and films are made of—a querida’s experiences. Marivi Soliven Blanco writes of Socorro serving her revenge cold to the young querida with a “special” priapic dish in her story Talunang Manok.

In Apartment II, excerpted from Lina Espina-Moore’s novel A Lion in the House, Diana Corey denies she’s a querida, and fumes when her friend calls her the vulgar kulasisi. Her lover can only “let her cry and talk (and) pour her out a glass of sherry” when she complains to him.

Doña Consolacion, from Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, isn’t a querida but is treated as one by her husband, the alferez, beating and insulting her. A querida is secondary to the wife and “may be considered and (italics mine) treated as a partner, a playmate, or a prostitute,” said Carolina S. Hau, one of the anthology editors, in the introduction.

Edel Garcellano’s poem Querida presents queridas with varying attitudes. A wife has an affair when her husband is imprisoned, but reconciles with him after his release. A querida proclaims ownership of her lover, much to his consternation. A wife uses the law versus a querida‘s assertions of “invested intimacy and all that mawkish crap” in staking their claims over his “repatriated body.” Giving readers pause is a querida happy to be one: “(It’s) a blessing, never a curse, ‘To hell with those who made her an outcast.'”

The impetus for me to read Agoncillo’s The Revolt of the Masses was a video clip of Filipino students ignorant of Gomburza

The impetus for me to read Teodoro Agoncillo’s The Revolt of the Masses was a video clip of Filipino students ignorant of Gomburza. How can they be so clueless of their colonial past? I thought. It authoritatively discusses the zeitgeist of the times and Andres Bonifacio, the proletarian founder of the Katipunan who was betrayed by the people he was fighting for.

Tagged by Agoncillo as the first truly Filipino democrat, Bonifacio saw the need for action against the effeteness of the middle class and its futile reform campaign. Armed with his innate intelligence and experiences of “constantly fighting to live,” he gathered the raging masses into a formidable force championing the cause of economic and political democracy, unmanning the Spanish colonizers.

Bonifacio stopped schooling at the primary level to support his five siblings after their parents died. In between working odd jobs, he persevered to teach himself Spanish and read voraciously. Comparatively, he didn’t have Jose Rizal’s “culture and depth” or Marcelo H. del Pilar’s “gift of healthy satire and barbed wit,” Agoncillo said. But he “was astute and intelligent and spoke Tagalog fluently…Those who didn’t know him wouldn’t think that he was a bodeguero (warehouse keeper),” said Dr. Pio Valenzuela, Bonifacio’s ilustrado friend and compadre, per Agoncillo’s interview with the doctor in 1947.

The Katipunan founder exuded composure and tolerance. In the chaos surrounding his arrest by Col. Agapito Bonzon upon Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo’s order, he advised his men to be calm, reminding them that the soldiers were also their brothers. He didn’t retaliate even when one of his men was shot and “writhing in pain and dying.” Instead, he appealed to the arresting soldiers’ compassion by pointing out that they were both Tagalog.

But Bonifacio was surrounded by cowards. He was already weakened by a gunshot wound in his arm from an exchange of fire between his men and Bonzon’s when Bonzon stabbed him in the larynx with a dagger. To humiliate him further, Bonzon repeatedly tried to rape his wife, Gregoria de Jesus. The lies of Pedro Giron, one of Bonifacio’s own men, led to Bonifacio and his brother Procopio’s execution—truly a tragedy for the nation.

The Revolt of the Masses underscores two things. First, Philippine history is a narrative of the fight for independence in which Bonifacio and Rizal figured prominently. Their lives were intertwined: Bonifacio read Rizal’s works, and Rizal’s name became a password of the Katipunan’s third-grade members and its rallying cry.

On Rizal’s part, he agreed in principle with the Katipunan’s six resolutions in breaking free from Spain by force, which Valenzuela presented to him in Dapitan for approval. Later, being told that the fight might proceed even without arms, he told Valenzuela that “…a revolution without arms should never be started against an armed nation. Its consequences will be fatal and disastrous to the country.”

Agoncillo writes that President Ramon Magsaysay stopped its publication after a sectarian leader told him that it was anti-Catholic

Second, the history of The Revolt of the Masses emphasizes the dictum “eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” The book was published in 1956, eight years after winning a government-sponsored contest on Bonifacio’s life and times in 1948. In the preface of its second edition, Agoncillo writes that President Ramon Magsaysay stopped its publication after a sectarian leader told him that it was anti-Catholic. He adds that its eventual publication was during a period of obscurantism, and when Philippine history was taught based on friar sovereignty.

A three-man committee was formed to study the matter when he hinted at suing those blocking the book for suppressing freedom of speech. In 1956, the committee recommended that publication be allowed. The complainants still protested, urging him to modify, if not change, his statement about the Spanish friars. But Agoncillo stood his ground.

If there’s scant information on Bonifacio’s early life­—nobody imagined he’d go beyond being a bodeguero—it’s the opposite with Rizal, who was revered, if not suspected, of being “a German spy and miracle worker,” Adolf Hitler’s father, or Jack the Ripper. The historian Ambeth Ocampo removes the hero from the pedestal in Rizal without an Overcoat, revealing a normal man.

Rizal was stingy. He was said to have passed his hat around one time to collect everyone’s share for the champagne he’d brought to a potluck party.  He was a teetotaler and wasn’t a picky eater, according to Asing, a cook in his employ during his exile in Hong Kong, writes Ocampo, quoting journalist-politician Vicente Sotto’s 1913 interview with the Chinese cook.

Rizal’s love of books was so great that in money-tight times, he’d pawn everything except his books

He was a bookworm because he was exposed to books and reading at an early age. His home had a large library—a rarity in 19th-century Philippines. His love of books was so great that in money-tight times, he’d pawn everything except his books.

He was no Lothario because he cherished women. They were his beloved, or querida, as they say in Spanish, writes Ocampo in Queridas de Rizal. He was serious about relationships. At 19, he was already engaged to 15-year-old Leonor Rivera, whom he met when she was 13. If he were as impoverished as Bonifacio, he would have rendered service to her family “like chopping firewood or carrying water from a well to her house,” points out Ocampo, citing the courting rituals in the 1880s. But upper-class families did not do manual labor then. Instead, couples endured “long delays in engagement and an equally excruciating wait for the parents’ consent to the marriage.”

Later in his life, Rizal was committed to Josephine Bracken, whom his family disliked because her entourage to Dapitan included a mistress of a suspected Church spy. Rizal pleaded with his mother in a letter to treat Josephine as a daughter because she was the one he intended to marry. He was just waiting for her decision.

What a wealth of knowledge, we can learn from reading. It’s a shame that in this country, literature and reading are not given the importance they deserve when they offer pathways to learning about the past for a better tomorrow, new knowledge, and self-growth. Literature exposes readers to new perspectives and varying realities from which they can make comparisons and contrasts, and draw conclusions. Literature encourages an exchange of ideas; it’s an avenue for people of diverse backgrounds to come to an empathetic understanding of themselves, others, and the global society.

Equally pitiful is the suggestion of literature as negligible, hence the concessional annual event. Linked to reading and learning, literature is part of the unbreakable trifecta of educational tools in developing critical thinking in young students, which is much needed these days. One dares to hope that last April’s “official” activity of National Literature Month becomes an everyday, if not a lifetime, routine.

About author


She has clocked years of overseas work and living. On the second year of the pandemic she returned and settled back in the Philippines after 20 years.

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