Back to Article List

ERLINDA KINTANAR-ALBURO

        Cebuano literature refers to the body of oral and written literature of speakers of Cebuano, the mother tongue of a quarter of the country’s population who live in Cebu, Bohol, Siquijor, Negros Oriental, and parts of Leyte and Mindanao. As such, it is an important part of Philippine literature.

        Cebuanos have a rich oral tradition, including legends associated with specific locales, like the Maria Cacao legends of southern Cebu and those of Lapulapu and his father Datu Manggal of Mactan; and folktales like the fable Haring Gangis ug Haring Leon, which warn of abusive behavior by the dominant group. Many of the tales carry lessons, but just as many suggest the value of humor, keeping of one’s wit and resourcefulness, as in the Juan Pusong trickster tales.

        Among the early poetic forms are garay (verses), harito (shaman’s prayers), tigmo (riddles) andpanultihon (proverbs), as described by the Jesuit Francisco Alzina (1668). The generic form for poetry is balak, characterized by the presence of enigma or metaphor called balaybay or sambingay. Most of the poems are sung, like the occupational songs and lullabies. The balitaw is an extemporaneous poetic debate between man and woman that is sung and danced simultaneously. Spontaneous versifying is highly valued, also illustrated in a dramatic form called kulilising hari, a variant of the Tagalog duplo, that is usually performed at funeral wakes.

        The written literature became significant only in the late 19th century. Tomas de San Geronimo’s Soneto sa Pagdayeg can Santa Maria Gihapon Virgen (1751) is the first of many piety-laden compositions that show a loss of the enigmatic symbol and metaphor of pre-colonial verse. The longest poetic form is the pasyon, a verse rendering of the life and suffering of Jesus Christ that is read during Lent. Secular narratives or corridos were composed in Cebuano, but only the prose versions survive, like Doce Pares sa Pransiya and Sa Pagmando ni Hari Arturo.” Another important influence of the Spanish period is found in the plays called linambay (known also as moromoro because of its anti-Muslim theme), a regular fare at town fiestas that involved parti- cipation of the whole rural community and attracted audiences from the neighboring towns.

        The prose narratives developed into the sugilanon or short story, the first example of which is “Maming”(1901) by Vicente Sotto, the “father of Cebuano letters”; and later into the sugilambong or novel. The press contributed much to the development of literature by regularly publishing works of local writers, especially in the three decades before World War II. The Cebuano writer’s craft was honed in early translations of European fiction and imitations of American models, as shown in the works of Juan Villagonzalo, Uldarico Alviola, Angel Enemecio, Flaviano Boquecosa, Sulpicio Osorio, Nicolas Rafols and others. Pre-Commonwealth fiction was mostly nationalistic and didactic in spirit, to be replaced later by more escapist fare like stories of love, detection and adventure. A similar shift was seen in drama, but the more popular plays were a combination of social criticism and entertainment, as in the works of Buenaventura Rodriguez, Piux Kabahar and Florentino Borromeo.

        With the proliferation of publications, e.g., Bag-ong Kusog, Nasud, and Babaye, more and more poets emerged, producing around 13,000 poems before the war. Vicente Ranudo’s Hikalimtan?” (1906) and Pag-usara (1922) became models of metrical precision and balanced structure as found in traditional Cebuano poetry. Its discourse of courtly love and its elevated tone would be replicated in the poems of Amando Osorio, Escolastic Morre, Tomas Bagyo, Pantaleon Kardenas, Vicente Padriga and others.

        Popular were light folksy pieces of political satires like Andres Bello’s fable Piniliay sa mga Isda (1916) and of social criticism like Piux Kabahar’s Kinabuhing Sugboanon (1929). Of another type are the mostly occasional and non-sentimental works of poets Emiliano Batiancila, Canuto Lim, Felipe de Leon, Vicente Kyamko, Marciano Camacho, Saturnino Abecia, Marciano Peñaranda; and Gardeopatra Quijano, a CCP Gawad recipient for Regional Literature (1993). At the center of this group was the prolific Aglipayan bishop Fernando Buyser, who invented the sonnet form called sonanoy. Another invention was the siniloy of Diosdado Alesna, which is made up of one or two amphibrach lines.

        Of the many publications before the war, only Bisaya has survived as literary outlet of Cebuano. Because of the rise in prestige of English and later Tagalog, postwar Cebuano literature was relegated to third class although Cebuano was still the language of home and street. A new vigor in poetry was contributed by bilingual writers Leonardo Dioko, Junne Cañizares, Ric Patalinjug and others, whose exposure to Western modes and styles helped strengthen the poetic utterance with irregular rhythms, precise and concrete diction and practical attitudes.

        It is in drama that Cebuano literature is probably weakest, although a few writers like Claude Al Evangelio and Allan Jayme Rabaya have sustained their writing. Beset by considerations peculiar to writing for theater, like rarity in publication and answering to the demands of the stage, Cebuano playwrights have slowly turned to radio- and TV-scriptwriting. Most of the plays are written and produced on campus, for a limited audience. There is a renewed interest in the play, however, with the support of the Arts Council of Cebu, that has launched a program to encourage Cebuano playwrights with a contest and the production of the prize-winners.

        Writers’ groups certainly contributed to literary growth, notably the Lubas sa Dagang Bisaya (LUDABI) andBathalan-ong Halad sa Dagang (BATHALAD), which have chapters in Mindanao. The latter is an offshoot of the former, which was at one time headed by Marcel Navarra, the “father of the modern short story in Cebuano.” By sponsoring regular workshops and contests and publishing their outputs and entries, these groups have encouraged younger writers to start writing, and older writers to shift in style and attitude. Some of the most-anthologized members of BATHALAD are Gremer Chan Reyes, Ernesto Lariosa, Temistokles Adlawan, Pantaleon Auman and Rene Amper. Amper, who used to write in English, is joined by Simeon Dumdum Jr., Vicente Bandillo, Melito Baclay, Ester Tapia and others who now write also in Cebuano. Like this second set of bilingual writers, many other Cebuanos started out in the campus papers, like the poets Robert Pableo Lim, Don Pagusara, Leo Bob Flores and Rex Fernandez in the 70s and 80s; as well as the recent crop consisting of Mike Obenieta, Adonis Durado and Januar Yap who are members of the Tarantula group. A noteworthy addition is the Women in Literary Arts (WILA), founded in 1991 by seven women writers. Perhaps the only organized women writers’ group in the Philippines today, WILA has twenty-five writers, half of whom write mainly in Cebuano, like Ester Tapia, Ruby Enario, Leticia Suarez, Linda Alburo, Jocelyn Pinzon, Cora Almerino, Delora Sales and Marvi Gil.

        Most if not all of these writers have attended the annual Cornelio Faigao Memorial Writers Workshop conducted since 1984 by the Cebuano Studies Center of the University of San Carlos. These workshops, which the Cebuano writers may attend as fellows a few times and as observers any number of times, provide a venue for the old and young, male and female to share works and discuss problems. For lack of regular outlet, they hold formal and informal poetry readings with varied audiences. BATHALAD, WILA and Tarantula conduct workshops both for their own members and for much younger writers in high schools and colleges.

About the Author:
Erlinda Kintanar-Alburo is the director of the Cebuano Studies Center of the University of San Carlos, where she also teaches language and literature courses. She chairs the Literature Section, Humanities Division, of the National Research Council of the Philippines, and is regional coordinator for Central Visayas of the Literary Arts Committee, NCCA. A poet and fiction writer in Cebuano, she is immediate past president of the Women in Literary Arts.