By Anna Valmero
VIGAN CITY, ILOCOS SUR – Likened to Elizabeth Barret Browning of England, Leona Florentino was the country’s first Filipina poet at a time when women were regarded as subordinate to men and were made to do household chores instead of getting an education.
Florentino was born in Vigan on April 19, 1849. Coming from a rich Ilocano family – her father Don Marcelino, was one of the richest men in Ilocos and her mother, Doña Isabel Florentino is a civil-minded lady – Florentino learned Spanish and religion from private tutors. Her mother taught her the alphabet.
At the age of 10 Florentino could write poetry in Ilocano and speak in Spanish. Although she could not enroll in universities, which were closed to all women during the Spanish era, she earned a lot by reading books.
Impressed by her intelligence and writing prowess, Father Evaristo Abaya of Vigan taught her advanced Spanish and encouraged her to write poetry. This made her a master of both Ilocano and Spanish, a feat unsurpassed by no one during her time.
Her poems, which are widely quoted, were characterized by their originality of thought and elegance of expression on topics such as the glory of Filipino womanhood, and the romanticism of her nation.
According to her biography: “Passages from her works were quoted profusely in the theaters, in daily conversation and by suitors seeking the favors of their fair ladies.”
It was the same poems she dedicated to her fellow Ilocanos that were exhibited in the Exposicion General de Filipinas in Madrid in 1887 and in the International Exposicion in Paris in 1889. It won fame for the Philippines and her works were included in the Encyclopedia Internationale des Oeuvres des Femmes (International Encyclopedia of Women’s Works) in 1889.
She married Elias de los Reyes, who served as alcalde mayor. Of their five children, the eldest was Isabelo de los Reyes, who became a senator and founder of the Aglipayan Church and a forerunner of Filipino Socialism.
Although she died at a young age of 35, Florentino left a wealth of literature such as “Rucrunoy” (Dedication), “Naangaway a Cablaw” (Good Greetings), and “Leon XIII” (dedicated to Pope Leo XIII). While most of her works were lost, some are preserved in Madrid, London, and Paris.
Today, natives of Ilocandia regard Florentino’s literary prowess by converting her former home at the capitol into the Provincial Tourism Center, Vigan Heritage Commission and a restaurant named Café Leona, in memory of her. Visitors could easily spot the restaurant, in front of which is Florentino’s statue.
According to a Vigan tourism page, Florentino’s lineage is of Christianized Chinese because those with surnames starting with F, as pointed out in the Libro de Bautismo, have Chinese blood.
It is said that Florentino’s ancestor was as a wealthy Christianized Chinese from Laguna who was later appointed as Ilocos’ provincial treasurer and happens to be the ancestor of Philippine national hero Jose Rizal.
Blogger Genarorgojocruz, who studied Florentino’s poem in his literature class, said the Ilocana was “a pillar of feminism in the country.” He hoped to help translate some of her Ilocano poems to be read in Filipino by high school and college students.
“Higit at dapat muna nilang pag-aaralan ang mga tula ni Leona Florentino bago ang mga banyagang makatang babae. Napakahalaga ng ginampanan ni Leona Florentino bilang makata at babae sa panahong nasasakal ang kalayaan ng mga Pilipino sa pamamahayag (We should study the poems of Leona Florentino before foreign poets. She played an important role as a poet and Filipina at a time when freedom of expression was curtailed),” the blogger said.
“Alam kong susi ito upang tayong mga Pilipino muna ang magkaintindihan sa isa’t isa (I know this is the key so that we Filipinos could first and foremost understand each other).”
How to get to Vigan:
Buses from Manila travel daily to Ilocos, passing by Vigan. From the Vigan Cathedral, walk towards the back towards Calle Crisologo to find Cafe Leona, beside the city tourism office.
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