Writing Athwart: Adelina Gurrea’s Life and Works
By Beatriz Alvarez Tardio
Ateneo de Manila University Press
If you take the LRT-1 and LRT-2 trains, you will see the walls abloom with images and words from Spanish poems with Filipino translations, a pet project of Instituto Cervantes. Taking off from Poetry in the Tube of the London trains, this project has proved so successful that our National Book Development Board has done Tulaan 1 and 2as well, focusing on Filipino poets this time.
But one poet on the wall can claim both distinctions -- Spanish and Filipino poet -- with aplomb. She is Adelina Gurrea, represented in the gallery of Spanish poetry with a short, lyrical poem. But who was she, and why is she not even a footnote in our literary history?
This gap in her life and writing is filled by Beatriz Alvarez Tardio, who has just published Writing Athwart: Adelina Gurrea’s Life and Works, with a companion volume in Spanish titled La Escritura Entrecruzada de Adelina Gurrea. Funding for research and publication came from the Spanish Program for Cultural Cooperation and the Ministry of Culture of the Spanish Government.
Like a detective looping together clues from many threads and gaps, Señorita Tardio has put together an important and charming account of the life and works of our forgotten writer. Maria Adelaida Gurrea Monasterio, better known as Adelina, was born on Sept. 27, 1896 in her family’s hacienda in La Carlota, Negros Occidental. Of Spanish and mestizo origins, she nevertheless retained a love for her land of birth, even when the family later returned to Spain in 1921 because her mother wanted to live in her own country. Then and now, the loyal daughter had to live with the mother, and so Adelina uprooted herself to be with her family.
She went to school at Santa Escolastica School in Manila, learnt English there, but continued to speak Spanish most of her life. With her playmates and her yaya she spoke Ilonggo. On the surface, the education is Western, but beneath that, she would later write vivid stories collected in Cuentos de Juana, memories of nights filled with magical stories from her yaya.
Thus, she was a Pinay even in Madrid. As Señorita Tardio puts it: "Adelina Guerra never ceased identifying herself as a Filipina, always longing for the land where she grew up and to which she dedicated most of her writings. The return to the Philippines, which she had left as a young girl, was postponed again and again. Through her prologues and poems, she expressed her desire to come back and be reintegrated in the place she called her native land. However, she could not leave Spain for many years. Hence, her nostalgia was so intense and her memories of her native land were so vivid."
Think of her as a woman of the last century who was of mixed race, a Creole, who wrote poems but had to use a male pseudonym "in order to avoid the prejudice against women," whose domains were then the kitchen and the sewing machine.
The early poems, of course, are redolent of traditional Spanish poetry, mawkish and sentimental. But in 1922 she began to write in a more vigorous tone, influenced by the rise of modernism in Europe and Anglo-American education in the Philippines. Her poem "The Impossible" reads like this: "I could, / Seeing myself in your eyes, / Make a song in poetry/ Or a photograph,/ A clear reality, / And it would be amiss. / But art is an obsessive dream;/ It seeks the intangible/ With desires of blue..."
And near the end of her life, she wrote a poem called "Twilight Path," which is included in her last collection called Mas senderos, She was about 70 years old when she wrote the poem, and you could almost hear the bells tolling in this brief but beautiful elegy.
"The pebble-less pathway/ Runs across the green country./ On this road my steps now stray;/ I am no longer on the true journey./ The brambles smothered/ The route of my white, winged horses;/ Hard flint gathered/ Beneath my weary courses./ Tomorrow: paths,/ Solitude in the streets,/ The end of the day,/ My wheels and the rocky ground,/ On which my feeble steps/ Dissipate into nothingness."
If the poems of Adelina Gurrea are such delicate constructions, her stories and essays are made of another stuff. The stories are sly and mischievous, the essays prescient.
The dedication in Juana’s Tales prove that she never forgot her native land. It goes this way: "To the memory of my father, who was a great lover of books as well as of his native land, I dedicate this book written with the scents of our country’s folklore."
The native land is Negros Occidental, with its stories of goblins and evil spirits, but used as mere props to convey insights into the country’s political, economic and especially social problems.
Obviously autobiographical, Juana is based on the woman who took care of the author and her brothers while they were growing up in La Carlota.
"Juana is an old woman, though not very old, of dark complexion, flat nose, small eyes and big mouth. The mere passage of time has blackened her teeth because of the betel chewing. As to her personality, Juana is daring and brave. Because of this as well as of her size, she has been given the nickname of Baltimore, after the huge battleship of the United States. She knows how to speak Spanish because she had serving the houses of the Spaniards for many years..."
Of such stuff are our childhood made, filled with stories that amused us, made us wonder and gape, and would never leave us, even if we have left behind La Carlota to go to our own Madrid, or London, or New York.
These are tales of marvelous beings culled from the popular culture and folklore of the country. This is the same source of delights for writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who was asked once about the origins of his amazing fiction. "My fiction? They came from the tales my grandmother told me when I was young. And the front pages of Colombian newspapers." Thus, magical realism, or la maravelloso real.
The marvelous real in Gurrea’s fiction include the tamao, the aswang, the kind but mischievous elf, the tic-tic, and the bagat, who can assume many different faces and forms, like some people running for public office in the forthcoming elections.
Gurrea is a shrewd observer of colonial politics, as shown in the way she describes Juana in the introduction: "Like any Filipino, she would listen to the commands and the detailed directions given to her with a gesture of complacency, as though she were to accomplish them meticulously, and later she would do whatever she felt like doing."
Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, the doyenne of Philippine history, has the same insight into our native leaders who served the Spanish officials. She said our grandfathers pretended to listen, smiled and nodded their heads as the Kastilas slashed the air with their sharp words. In the end, the Filipinos served -- but they did not follow.
And Señorita Tardio concurs with this observation. "This is another important aspect of Juana’s Tales. On a tranquil and even magical sea of events, lurks Adelina’s solid criticism of the colonial system. Her subtle criticism, like the Philippine silence, speaks of the sufferings by describing them as though in hushed tones. Such disposition formed her choice of the Malayan story and the times before the natives had to obey another man. In her introduction to Juana, Adelina says: ’In the moment for explanations, she would deliver her spiel in Visaya. Though sometimes, she was given a reply beyond pure words. Those were the things of colonization."
And in the story "Bad Luck," Jacinto is a native orphan who is a loyal and brave servant to the Guiztegui family, where he grows up. While serving as courier of the ransom money for the hostaged Guiztegui children, he fails to reach the place in time. The police attacks the hideout, and the bandits are forced to kill all the children.
Gurrea’s hand is firm in her introduction to this tale: "For the men to be productive, their discipline was tough, cruel, colonial, there. That is how the period and the customs were. The men were whipped, they were punished for the smallest reason. The natives endured such situation as something hopeless, though concealing inside a ferment that any morning would wake up the effervescence of rebelliousness."
And her essays? They were speeches delivered in Madrid and Manila, with the later ones marked by the scars of war and disappointment with American rule. She was unhappy with the state of the country when the Americans "gave" it independence while it was in ruins mostly caused by American bombs, without massive foreign assistance (like the Marshall Plan for Japan) and wracked by internal conflicts.
Her solutions: education starting with the very young, bilingual teaching (now being done), state support for education (still lacking), love of country (yet to happen). These solutions reverberate even now, 30 years after our Filipina-Española writer had left the shores of both the Philippines and Spain.