A Survey of Philippine Literature


In general, the default condition for much of Philippine literature is obscurity.

To learn more about a country and people, a good place to start is their literature. The most loved books of a people are like a lens with which to understand them. With respect to the seven thousand islands, what books are these? Filipinos do not usually think of themselves as a particularly literary people. For those living abroad, literature is secondary to food, television, or music when it comes to reminding them of their homeland. In general, the default condition for much of Philippine literature is obscurity. At home or abroad, Filipinos are more likely to be interested in global pop culture, whether from the United States or more recently, South Korea.

This is unfortunate considering the range and depth of Philippine literature. The Philippines is unique for having important works in many languages. These might be grouped into four - Philippine literature in Spanish, Tagalog, English, and other Philippine languages. It might seem that these different bodies of work correspond only with a period of colonial domination, but this is misleading. Philippine authors made these languages their own, adding a distinct voice to them that was unique to our archipelago.

The most politically important body of Philippine literature is that which was written in Spanish. The Propaganda movement, which included Jose Rizal agitated for independence in the 1880’s and 1890’s, writing exclusively in Spanish. Rizal’s two most important novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Flibusterismo were written in Spanish as well. However, during the American colonial period, Spanish was gradually replaced over the next few decades by English. Even if Rizal was celebrated as a national hero, his writing was almost never read in the original Spanish. Noli and Fili have been taught to generations of schoolchildren, but always in translation. Rizal was not the only major writer in Spanish. Important contemporaries were Marcelo H. del Pilar and Graciano Lopez Jaena. A generation after Rizal came Claro M. Recto, a nationalist lawyer and author, who championed independence from the United States. Recto also wrote primarily in Spanish on a wide range of topics. While all of these figures are honored and celebrated in the Philippines, not much attention is paid to what they wrote, let alone what language they used. Sadly, the old quip about the classics is very applicable to Philippine writing in Spanish - praised by all, read by few.

Tagalog introduction to Florante at Laura

Tagalog is the oldest literary language of the archipelago and now, the most widespread. The earliest major work in Tagalog was Francisco Balagtas’ Florante at Laura, an epic poem published in 1838. Florante at Laura is still taught in schools across the country as the epitome of literary Tagalog. For purposes of comparison, Balagtas wrote at roughly the same time as Edgar Allen Poe and a few decades before Charles Dickens. While important, Florante at Laura can be difficult for modern Tagalog speakers to understand, let alone those learning the language. Thankfully, there have been many authors since Balagtas who have continued to write in Tagalog. Andres Bonifacio, founder of the Katipunan, also wrote in Tagalog, notably the poem Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa, roughly translated as Love for Native Land. Since then, Tagalog literature has continued to grow. Some modern authors include Ceres S.C. Alabado, writer of Kangkong 1896, a look at the Revolution from a young boy’s perspective, and Lualhati Bautista, author of Dekada Setenta and Bata, Bata… Pa'no Ka Ginawa?. Dekada follows a middle class family through the martial law years, and Bata is about the struggles of a single mother. Both were turned into full length films starring Vilma Santos. Today, the largest venue for Tagalog literature is the internet, with many aspiring writers publishing their work online. A few of these become successful enough to get film adaptations, among them being Diary ng Panget and She’s Dating the Gangster, films released in 2014 that began as online novels. While Tagalog may have changed considerably since the days of Balagtas, it is now a truly national language that has a large and thriving literature.

English remains the language of the Philippine elite. Though there was considerable resistance to English in the first part of the 20th century, Philippine writers mastered it quickly. Paz Marquez-Benitez wrote the first short story in English in 1925, entitled Dead Stars. However, it was not until after WW2 that English became language of choice for authors. The largest names in 20th century Philippine literature wrote in English, namely, Nick Joaquin, F. Sionil Jose, Jose Garcia Villa, and others. Perhaps the most important writer in English was Nick Joaquin, whose career spanned from the start of WW2 to the post-Marcos era. Nick Joaquin wrote dozens of short stories, two novels, hundreds of journalistic features, political commentary, historical analysis, biographies, plays, and much more, all in English. He was honored as a National Artist for Literature in 1976. Nick Joaquin attempted to create genuinely Philippine voice in English, going as far as trying to translate Tagalog expressions into English. Among his more notable works are the play A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino and the short story May Day Eve. In our new century, there have been many authors who have continued to write in English. An internationally awarded contemporary writer in English is Miguel Syjuco, author of the 2010 book Illustrado.

The Hiligaynon Bible.

 Literature in other Philippine languages may be the hardest genre to appreciate but is often the most sentimentally or personally important. For the roughly two thirds of Filipinos who do not speak Tagalog as their native language, not many books are written in their languages. The situation varies depending on the language, as some regional languages are larger and have more reach than others. Visayan languages with more speakers, like Cebuano and Hiligaynon, are large enough to have their own TV and radio stations. But in general, most Philippine languages are in the shadow of English and Tagalog. Still, there are some important works that can be found in these other languages. The Bible has been translated into every major Philippine language – whether Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano, Pangasinense, Kapampangan, Waray, Hiligaynon, Kinaray-a, and others. YouTube is also a goldmine for finding songs, comedy skits, amateur films, and all manner of material in these languages. The value of this material is more educational than literary. Most Filipinos born abroad have a difficult enough time learning Tagalog, let alone the regional language that their parents might speak. But these materials have the potential to teach them how.

 In summary, the Philippines has a very rich but fragmented literary tradition. Indeed, because of the number of languages in the islands, it has been difficult for a single book or novel to have an effect nationwide. Class also plays a role, as the educated elite and the masses rarely speak the same language. Regardless, over the past two centuries, our authors have created a literature distinctly our own. What remains for us to do today is to appreciate it and contribute to it. In the 21st century diaspora era, Filipinos have reached more parts of the globe than ever before.  Europe, North America, the Middle East, and the rest of Asia are familiar places in the mind of the OFW. With such global reach, the wealth of languages in our literary tradition should be strength, not a weakness. We have a rich literary tradition, one that should not be ignored, and one that we should contribute to.

About the author

10352321_10153026739129050_5599371636193964618_nCristobal Zarco was born in the Philippines and grew up in New York, specifically Long Island. He graduated with a degree in political science from Adelphi University. He enjoys tracking down books about Philippine history and exploring lesser known parts of New York City.

UniPro Expands: Promoting Unity, Collaboration, and Visibility in San Diego

New York City-Based UniPro Expands to the West Coast

Honorary Consul Audie de Castro : “This is the best time for UniPro to be created in San Diego.”

San Diego, CA – On Friday, February 6, the Pilipino American community of San Diego welcomed the arrival of the new San Diego chapter of the New York City-based Pilipino American Unity for Progress (UniPro). Over 50 attendees gathered at the United Domestic Workers of America (UDW) Community Hall for the chapter’s official launch and town hall meeting.

The event, co-sponsored by UDW, National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), and Silayan Filipina, opened with a keynote speech from the Philippine Honorary Consul for San Diego Audie de Castro. Echoing the goals of UniPro, he urged the audience to strive for unity and to promote the Pilipino American in San Diego. He stated, “In the past couple of years, our community has worked together better than ever.  A major reason is that I have seen many of you reach out to all generations and to others with different political views.  This is the best time for UniPro to be created in San Diego. I look forward to working with all of you.”

Hon. Consul Audie de Castro opens the UniPro San Diego launch.

The town hall dialogue followed the launch and consisted of small group discussions on the importance  of communities to individuals, and what UniPro can do to serve the San Diego area. Groups discussed the questions, “What does community mean to you? What were your expectations of the Pilipino American community when you first joined? How do you perceive the Pilipino American community and what are your expectations now? Identify any needs of the community and potential solutions for those needs. Identify existing community organizations and how those organizations can work together to fulfill those needs.”

The discussion groups then reconvened and presented their responses to the entire audience. Some of the recurring themes included the needs for improved communication, greater visibility in the political sphere, and professional and personal development. Some of the possible solutions presented were the creation of a Pilipino community center, a database of Pilipino American organizations in San Diego, recurring town hall meetings, and leadership and mentorship programs in the community.

Attendees participate in small group discussions at the UniPro San Diego launch.

Founded in 2009, UniPro’s San Diego chapter is the organization’s first venture outside of New York City. “UniPro has always been interested in expanding beyond the metro-NY area. How could we work towards our vision of a unified and engaged Pilipino America without a presence in other major Pilipino American communities?” asks UniPro NY President Iris Zalun. “The answer came when we became involved in the Empowering Pilipino Youth through Collaboration (EPYC) conference, held in San Diego last August. Through EPYC, we met a group of passionate leaders whose values of collaboration, advocacy, and education aligned with ours. That team then approached us, expressing a need for UniPro in the San Diego community. Thus, UniPro San Diego was born.”

San Diego has been identified to have the second largest Pilipino American population in the nation. UniPro San Diego aims to identify and resolve the needs of the community while providing support, resources, and networks to organizations and individuals, most especially the youth. UniPro San Diego President Romyn Sabatchi adds, “It was humbling to be able to listen to the experiences and expectations of the Pilipino American community of new and seasoned members. Together we will be able to fulfill our needs with positive and effective solutions."

UniPro San Diego will host a Town Hall and Community Dialogue Follow-Up on May 15, 2015. For more information, read the story in the Filipino Press and contact sandiego@unipronow.org.

UniPro eboard

From left to right: UniPro San Diego Vice President Alicia Ricafrente, President Romyn Sabatchi, and Director of Community Relations Anthony DeGuzman (Photo Credit: Ernie Sasis)


Pilipino American Unity for Progress (UniPro) is a New York City-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that envisions a unified and engaged Pilipino America. Founded in 2009, UniPro's mission is to engage Pilipino Americans through collaboration, advocacy and education. It seeks to transform Pilipino students & young professionals into community leaders through its various programs, which incorporate professional development, history, and policy through the lens of the Pilipino experience.The organization allows Pilipino Americans the opportunity to explore their place in the community in the hope of owning their niche. Ultimately, UniPro asks Pilipino Americans to critically answer, "How do you define Progress?"

Being Pilipino in Taiwan


A few months ago, as my family and I were planning my study abroad trip to Taiwan, my dad quietly asked me if I could go to another country, a “safer” country. The half-joking request boggled my mind at the time because I had never gotten the impression that Taiwan was a dangerous country. I kept his question in the back of my brain, and did not contemplate switching my study abroad destination. I’d always liked Taiwan and, besides, I was already too deep into the application process. After letting the question brew in my head for awhile, I realized that he wasn’t worried that I would be stabbed to death and left on the streets in a foreign country. He was more worried that I wouldn’t fit in. Sometimes I look very Pilipino. I know that not all Pilipinos look alike; but I have the stereotypical nose, the big eyes, and the tan skin. Sometimes, my stunningly good looks throw people off, as people guess that I'm anywhere from Chinese to Malaysian. My dad probably fretted over my Pilipino side coming out and assumed that I would stick out like a sore thumb. In fact, a few days ago, he sent me a text briefly warning me of potential racism:

“If ever, don’t let it affect you. Be careful.”

However, despite the advantages of my dual looks, I have had a bad experience with racism in the past, so my dad's concern was quite understandable.

Now that I’m settled in at my university in Taiwan, I can assure my dad that he need not worry. I don’t stick out as much as my two white friends who tower at least a good foot above everyone else. In fact, the only moments where it’s obvious that I’m a foreigner is when I am speaking, because my Chinese is laced with American tones. When I go to places with my friends, I’m lumped with my Taiwanese friends. The waiters and waitresses welcome us with “ni hao,” while my white friends are greeted with “hello.” The most I get to a strange look or reaction from the local population is when I’m standing on the bus and people get the chance to give me a good look-over. Or so I assume.

Ironically, when I was in the Philippines, there was no doubt about it that I was American. My demeanor made it obvious that I was a foreigner. I could do as the locals do, but the way I held myself made me stick out. Once, while I was in a market helping my cousin buy flip flops, a schoolgirl passed by and gave me a look that was dripping with disdain. I'm not quite sure of what she was thought, so one can only assume. To this day, I still can’t find the words to express the difference between me and the locals. While I thought I was blending in, I must’ve seemed like a piece of cauliflower in a field of broccoli.

There are many factors we need to take into account when comparing my experience in the Philippines to my experience in Taiwan. For example, the locations that I frequented in the Philippines and those that I explore here in Taiwan. But those factors aside, I felt more like a foreigner in the Philippines than I do in Taiwan. In Taiwan, there may be a little confusion as to my ethnicity when you first look at me, but for the most part I blend in.

Still, you never know. Perhaps it is obvious that I’m Pilipino, but my foreigner status protects me like a shield from any racism I might incur. Or maybe my dad, wracked with worry over his first-born traveling to a foreign country alone for five months, was just overly concerned. The constant repeats of failing to fit in possibly heightened my dad’s dread of my departure.

Being Pilipino in Taiwan isn’t a problem. I think the problem is the fact that we fear that there is one.

Credit: Pam Wang

Pilipino Figure Skater at Sochi: The Satisfaction of a Dream Realized


Pilipinos love winning - blame it on having always been stuck in the shadows of their big (pronounced "imperialistic") brothers. So when competitions like Miss Universe and American Idol are on, you can most certainly find Pilipinos tuned in, clapping at their TV screens and speed-texting their votes (although on any other day, most parents magically forget how to use a cellphone). They love rooting for who they perceive to be the “perpetual underdog,” because when the Pilipino underdog wins, all Pilipinos win too -- and it’s sure to be plastered all over Facebook and shared with coworkers at lunch the next day. Sure, it takes skill to compete. But in a world where some competitions can be based solely on audience support (even Miss Philippines advanced to the Top 16 via an online vote in last year’s Miss Universe), how could Pilipinos push a young Pilipino figure skater at the Winter Olympics to victory?

They couldn’t. Because this time, their underdog was alone, relying only on his sheer skill and talent in a sport that practically none of his countrymen dare to try.

Before even stepping onto the ice at Sochi, seventeen-year-old Michael Christian Martinez had already been considered a winner in his own right. He is the first figure skater ever from a Southeast Asian country to participate in the Winter Olympics and the lone athlete to represent the Philippines in only its fourth showing ever at the Games. Could this be the year that a Pilipino figure skater might finally earn a spot on the podium?


The answer is no. At the end of the Men's Short Program, Martinez’s score was enough to qualify him for a shot at a medal in the Men's Free Skating Program, but he finished 19th overall. There was no “losing” and certainly no “failing” here; he simply just didn’t get a medal. While a medal might have been what viewers equated to a victory, skating at the Olympics in itself was what Martinez considered the real prize, especially given his humble beginnings in a tropical country without snow.

By chasing his dream, he has opened doors for other Pilipino figure skaters and has reintroduced the Philippines to the rest of the world as resilient and mighty, especially in the wake of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), along with other storms.

In 2005, at the age of eight, Martinez laced up after being mesmerized by ice skaters at a shopping mall. Nearly ten years later, he would be setting foot on Olympic ice as the youngest skater in the program. Despite suffering from asthma, Martinez’s natural talent for figure skating became apparent and eventually he entered the circuit, winning medal after medal in competitions all over the world. Soon enough, he had his sights set on the Olympics. The passion and talent were there, but the funds unfortunately were not.

Martinez is a modern-day Cinderella man. His family struggled to support his training. His skates weren’t always made of the best quality. His Olympic coaches based in the United States cost a fortune. He wasn’t able to put in the ideal number of hours it took to properly train, because without a dedicated rink in the Philippines, he often had to share space with the public. There was no financial aid available to him from the government. Yet through it all, Martinez persevered and would often turn to prayer, even imploring his Facebook fans to pray for him just hours before his turn in Sochi.

This young boy may not have a medal to show for his efforts, but instead he has the satisfaction of a dream realized to elevate him higher than any podium ever could. By chasing his dream, he has opened doors for other Pilipino figure skaters and has reintroduced the Philippines to the rest of the world as resilient and mighty, especially in the wake of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), along with other storms.

Martinez is slated to compete again in the 2018 Winter Olympics. By then, he will be more mature, more experienced, more confident... and maybe even flanked by a lot more fellow athletes from the Philippines. Perhaps he’ll even win a medal, and viewers will witness a victory based on precision, not popularity. A victory that is his, and not theirs.

Photo credit: EPA

Passing on the M.E.A.L. Plan

It is a running joke in my family that my siblings and I did not take up the "M.E.A.L." career plan championed by every parent. M.E.A.L.–that is, Medicine, Engineering, Accounting, and Law professions–is the golden standard, the life paths parents cross their fingers for as soon as their toddlers start school. M.E.A.L. jobs are hard-earned titles, widely respected, financially stable, and of no interest to my siblings and I. Trust me, I often wish I grew up with dreams to be a doctor like so many of my admirable friends, but my restless mind led me to a different calling–a calling that too often generates furrowed-brow-wrinkled nose-reactions at Pilipino family parties.

"A writer? But, why? Are you sure you don't want to take up nursing?"

Cue: sigh.

From left to right: my two older brothers, me and my younger sister.

I have three siblings. My oldest brother studied linguistics, traveled around the world teaching English for several years, then returned to be a high school Mandarin and French teacher. My other older brother studied Film and Television, had a run as an NBC Page, and now works in production at Discovery Communications. I'm studying journalism–a career my heart was set on since I was 14. My 15-year-old sister doesn't know what she wants to be yet, but the M.E.A.L. plan isn't on her radar either.

Our parents never imposed any M.E.A.L. dreams on us. They let us discover our true passions, only bolstered by being raised in a city where opportunity sits at your fingertips. I was only 12 when my mom gave me a door sign that read "Future Award-Winning Author at Work."

My mom encouraged creative pursuits with gifts like this sign.

Why did we not pursue more traditional careers? Why did we choose the risk of uncertain paths with no set plan or mode of study? Despite my parents' undying encouragement and gung-ho dive into uncertainty alongside their kids, I still have felt guilt. Sometimes, I've wished they could boast about their daughter-the-doctora. I have felt the succeed-or-else urgency unique to second generation kids, and have been reminded of the struggles often associated with parents who leaving the Philippines in order to provide for their families.

I recently read an article in The Atlantic titled "All Immigrants Are Artists," profiling one of my favorite writers, Edwidge Danticat. It put into perspective the creative pursuits of my siblings and I perfectly.

"First-generation immigrants often model artistic behavior for their children... I realize now I saw artistic qualities in my parents’ choices—in their creativity, their steadfastness, the very fact that we were in this country from another place. They’re like the artist mentors people have in any discipline—by studying, by observing, by reading, you’ve had this model in the form of someone’s life. My mother could not have found time for creative pursuits with four children and a factory job. But she modeled the discipline and resourcefulness and self-sacrifice that are constant inspirations in my own life’s work. The things she did, the choices she made, made the artist’s life possible for me. I didn’t know it, but she taught me that being an artist makes sense."

If stringing words together, painting meaning from language, and capturing life's moments with pen and paper fulfill me both personally and professionally–I do not need to apologize. The M.E.A.L. plan wasn't for me, and it doesn't have to apply to others who have felt guilt as like I did. Besides, there are young Pilipino girls and boys with creative dreams like mine, and they need a role model to look to. Why not me?