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Leona Florentino: Mother of Filipina poetry

Leona Florentino had a very brief life.  She just lived for 35 years, and had written only a handful of poems.  However, during her lifetime (1849-1884), writings by a woman were never heard of. 

Born to a family of prominence and wealth in Vigan City, Ilocos Sur on the 19th of April in 1849, Florentino was the first Filipina who wrote poetry in the Philippines, composing her first poem at age 10. 

She did not receive any college education because the women were prohibited to study during her time.  Her mother, Isabel Florentina, tutored her when she was just a child and a priest—Rev. Evaristo Abaya, curate priest of Vigan—later taught her to speak and write in Spanish.

Marriage came early to Florentino at the instigation of her father Marcelino Pichay Florentino, then the wealthiest man in Vigan (known as Ciudad Fernandina before). At the age of 14, she was wed to politician Elias Llanes de los Reyes, who was the alcalde mayor of Vigan at that time.

INTERNATIONAL RECOGNITION

Florentino wrote bilingually in Spanish and Ilocano and was the first Filipina to publish her work in Europe and the United States.

As mentioned in the book, “A Brief History of Iloko Literature” by Leopoldo A. Yabes, her poetry can be found in the public libraries of Paris, London, Madrid, and in our own National Library.

National Library (Photo by Bernard Testa)

Her 22 poems were presented posthumously at the Exposicion General de Filipinas in Madrid in 1887, some three years after her death. It was presented again at the International Exposicion in Paris in 1889 and at the St. Louis International Exposition in Missouri in 1904.

Florentino is recognized as the “Mother of Feminist Literature” in the Philippines. Because of her skillful way of delivering her verses, she was considered the “bridge” from oral tradition to written poetry. Her works were excellently lyrical and she recited them in occasions like birthday celebrations, anniversary and other events. 

She would promise to write a poem to her friends or relatives and everyone would await the moment when she would express her verses publicly or secretly.

LYRICAL POEMS

Leona grew up to be adept in horseback riding and smoking cigars.  Her ways were not acceptable even for her father. 

She had five children, and the most notable was Isabelo de los Reyes.  Beloy (son’s nickname) became a well-known labor leader and public servant.  It was this son who introduced her poetry to the world.

One of her most famous poems is Nalpay A Namnama (“Blasted Hope”):

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.

Leona died at the age of 35 after she contracted tuberculosis.  This was the reason cited by her husband Elias for prohibiting her from seeing her children. 

Cultural Center of the Philippines

In this monologue, Leona’s life story is revealed.  It included some of her lyrical works as translated from Ilocano or Spanish.  It was performed at the Cultural Center of the Philippines during the decade of the 90s produced by the Women’s Desk headed then by Fe Buenaventura Mangahas.  The late Adul de Leon performed as Leona during the first production, followed by Connie Chua.

Presently, Leona Florentino has a sculpture at the Plaza fronting the house where she lived in Vigan, Ilocos Sur.

The house of Leona Florentino in Vigan, Ilocos Sur (Illustration by Ed Davad)

Her huge, spacious, former home in Vigan has been converted into the offices of the Provincial Tourism Center, the Vigan Heritage Commission, and the site of Casa Leona, a restaurant named in Leona Florentino’s honor. —Ruth Elynia Mabanglo

Ruth Elynia Mabanglo
Ruth Elynia Mabanglo is a poet and playwright in Filipino. She is a retired Professor Emeritus of University of Hawaii which she served for 27 years. She was coordinator of the UH Filipino and Philippine Literature Program from 2011 until her retirement in 2016. Ruth designed the curriculum of the only BA degree in Filipino and Philippine Literature outside of the Philippines. During her stint at the University of Hawaii, she became president of the Hawaii Association of Language Teachers (HALT) and the Council of Teachers of Southeast Asian Language (COTSEAL). She authored six books on poetry and two anthologies of her plays. She received numerous awards in poetry and plays from various institutions like the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, Talaang Ginto of the Komisyon sa Wikang Pambansa, and Samahang Balagtas. She was awarded Poet of the Year (Makata ng Taon) in 1992 and the Dangal ni Balagtas in 2017.

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