Photos courtesy of Silay Lumbera
He chose a path and he took it, and from the very moment he made that decision he never wavered and his art and politics reflected his humanity always.
National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera died on September 25, 2021, and this is a great loss for all Filipinos. When still alive, Sir Bien was a writer, a poet, a dramatist, and a literary critic of renown. Beyond this, he was a teacher, a former political prisoner, and an activist who gave 60 years of his life serving his Muse—the Filipino people’s struggle for national liberation and genuine democracy.
Fortunate are those who were able to meet and/or learn from Sir Bien whether as a student enrolled in his classes, as a critical reader, or as a kapwa aktibista (fellow activist). Through his poetry and critiques, reviews and essays, he gave shape and texture to the duty of artists and all Filipinos to believe in the dream of freedom for the poor and to fight for the realization of that dream.
Throughout his life, he visited picket lines of workers asserting their labor rights, and attended rallies alongside farmers calling for genuine agrarian reform. He spoke at writers’ workshops and mentored young writers. He was a petitioner in cases lodged in the Supreme Court against government corruption, Charter Change, attacks against national patrimony and sovereignty.
He was among the lead signatories calling for the impeachment of criminal presidents and other erring public officials. He inspired teachers in their unions and associations so they will assert academic freedom, security of tenure, basic benefits. Sir Bien was an artist and an academic, but he was one who believed had a duty to fulfill. The artist’s life for him was not one spent creating, it was a life devoted to serving the Filipino people and causes he saw to be larger than his own life.
A Role Model for the Filipino Youth
Young Filipinos would do well to know who Sir Bien is and what he stood for in life and in art.
In his years as a student at the University of Santo Tomas and after getting his M.A. and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Indiana University in the US, English was the language of his learning. When he returned to the Philippines, however, he came home to a country that was ripe for revolution. As he told friends and colleagues, he wanted his work to be relevant and to have meaning. For this to happen, he had to write in Filipino.
Sir Bien wanted us to love our language and to take pride in our history. If there had been Facebook and Twitter back then, he would have posted about this endlessly. In fact, back in 2014, he did try to do Facebook and Twitter, both out of curiosity and to find out what the younger generations were doing and thinking about.
An amazing teacher and historian
Former students say that every class taught by Sir Bien was eye-opening because his lessons always had philosophical apart from political undertones. In his Philippine Studies class, for instance, he explained to his students that the stripping identity from consciousness was one of the more subtle but still vicious ways our colonizers employed to conquer and enslave the country. Forcing us to learn and love the colonizers’ language at the expense of our own had the devastating impact of dividing Filipinos, separating those who had the means and at the opportunity to learn from those who did not and could not.
Exploring this argument will inevitably lead to discussions of patriotism, the state of the nation, and what future can await a country so divided because of how its people see, think, and feel; and how they analyze the events and developments in society.
And yes, how Filipinos assess the past and its lessons.
Through his own research and efforts, Sir Bien also focused on highlighting the cultural achievements we have made throughout our as-yet short history as a nation. In his poetry and plays, he reminded readers, exhorted us to delve deep into our past so we can understand our present better and set right so many wrongs.
Young Filipinos who believe in making a difference would do well to read Sir Bien.
On the role of Artists and Creators
Doing Tik-Tok? Trying to be an influencer? Wanting to be an internet superstar with videos that go viral? What if we use our creations not only to entertain but to inform, to teach, to empower? Sir Bien said that whether you write, sing, paint, or dance, your most meaningful work will reflect your identity and what you stand for.
Sir Bien believed that our consciousness of own our identity—the history of the Philippines and the struggle of Filipinos against colonialism and all its brutalities—is both a burden and gift that Filipino artists should recognize and bear. Our sense of our identity as Filipinos, he insisted, is what can guide each of us to assert our own individual rights and our collective dignity against all that stands to undermine or diminish them.
Young Filipinos, he said, should waste no time in discovering themselves within the context of the country’s past and present. What we do with the knowledge is up to us: we choose what we believe in, the values we absorb, and we make life decisions that reflect those values and beliefs. We can learn much from history and our own literary traditions, he insisted. And this is why he was passionate in his mission both as a historian and as a critic to teach students and everyone who would listen and read the works of Francisco Balagtas, Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Aurelio Tolentino, Amado V. Hernandez.
As he was quoted saying “Language is very important when we want to reach the greatest number of people with our messages of outrage, dissent against social ills. We must promote the Filipino language as a medium of identity patriotism, and a means to disseminate ideas that will encourage social change.”
Kung Pilipino ka at magaling kang mag-Ingles, sana mahusay ka ding mag-Filipino.
(If you’re a Filipino and know good English, I’m hoping you’re good in Filipino, too.)
And every writer and poet who needed an audience with him—for inspiration, for tips, even for just a selfie—had his ear and his help. He was that kind of a person.
An Artist for Others
It’s been said that the youth of today are looking for role models. We had one in Sir Bien. May talento, may prinsipyo, at may tapang! (He has talent, principles, and bravery.)
Sir Bien was a gentle man in his words and bearing, but his principles and his practice of them always fiercely burned. In the 1960s, he was instrumental in the formation of the militant organization of writers, the Panulat para sa Kaunlaran ng Sambayanan (PAKSA) in 1971. He was also the adviser of the progressive poet’s group Galian sa Arte at Tula when it was established in 1973.
A teacher at the Ateneo, he supported the First Quarter Storm against the dictator Marcos. Because of his political beliefs and commitment to them, he was not allowed to continue teaching there. In the meantime, his involvement in activism led to his arrest and incarceration in 1974.
Detention only made Sir Bien cling even more tightly to his politics, and this and art that sustained him in prison. When he was released, he picked up where he left off and created more poetry, wrote more essays, produced plays—all of which spoke of the Filipino condition and what greatness we can achieve if we would only awaken. Sir Bien wrote librettos for musical theater such as the Nasa Puso ang Amerika based on Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart, Tales of the Manuvu, Rama: Hari, Noli me Tangere: The Musical, and Hibik at Himagsik nina Viktoria Laktaw (the last is his own tribute to the Filipino women who joined the Revolution of 1896).
As for literary awards and citations, he won them. In a tribute piece, the University of the Philippines official website named some of them: the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the Pambansang Gawad Pambansang Alagad ni Balagtas from Unyon ng mga Manunulat ng Pilipinas (UMPIL), the National Book Awards for Literary History/Literary Criticism from the Manila Critics’ Circle, the Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature, the Philippine Centennial Literary Prize for Drama, and the Cultural Center of the Philippines Centennial Honors for the Arts.
One could also fill a bookshelf with the books he authored on literary criticism, among them Pedagogy; Philippine Literature: A History and Anthology; Rediscovery: Essays in Philippine Life and Culture; Filipinos Writing: Philippine Literature from the Regions; and Paano Magbasa ng Panitikang Filipino: Mga Babasahing Pangkolehiyo.
Finally, Sir Bien was a civil and human rights defender. He was also a founding member of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines with other greats like Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, and Ben Cervantes. He denounced censorship and championed freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and other civil rights. Name a righteous cause, Sir Bien was a part of the struggle to win it. In truth, for decades every grassroots organization and artist group with a pro-poor and people orientation had Sir Bien on its roster of allies and supporters.
Sir Bien gave his all the very last day of his life, and he was not only a National Artist, he was an Artista ng Bayan (the People’s Artist).