Rereading ‘Florante at Laura’ | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Rereading ‘Florante at Laura’

Many students who have endured “Florante at Laura” in literature class remember it with horror because they read the text not to enjoy or appreciate it but to pass a test. I don’t remember much of Balagtas from school and only gave it a second look when the late Teodoro Agoncillo told me to read it and gave me a pop quiz when we met on obscure words and hidden meanings in that florid verse.

In 1988, the bicentennial of Francisco Baltazar Balagtas’ birth, I visited Pandacan in search of the Ilog Beata that turned out to be a stinking, polluted, estero unlike that described in “Florante at Laura.” I had not been to Pandacan since and only passed by last Sunday because the Uber driver followed a route dictated by Waze that said it was the fastest way from Nagtahan Bridge to Makati.

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Driving through Pandacan I learned that Fr. Jacinto Zamora, one of the three martyred priests in 1872 and the “Za” in Gomburza, was from Pandacan; then while passing a fountain in the middle of the plaza, I remembered the name “Celia” from the handwritten version of “Florante” that Apolinario Mabini wrote from memory when he was in exile in Guam as prisoner of the Americans.

I remember from high school literature class that Celia was mentioned in the dedication of “Florante” but nobody seems to know who she is or if she is a real person at all. Balagtas left a mere hint on her identity with the initials “M.A.R.” at the end of the text. My teacher told me that these initials referred to a certain Maria Asuncion Rivera, resident of Pandacan, who was courted by Balagtas. Teodoro Agoncillo introduced me to Herminigildo Cruz’s monograph, “Kung Sino Ang Kumatha Ng Florante” (1906), that contains a lot of obscure information like the names of other women in Balagtas’ life painstakingly researched from the memories of his relatives. While Maria Asuncion Rivera is widely accepted to be the woman behind the initials M.A.R., it seems there is a certain Magdalena Ana Ramos who is often forgotten but surfaces to complicate literary history every now and then. So who should it be: Ramos or Rivera?

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Then the bigger puzzle happens to be the name “Celia” that—depending on which printed version of “Florante” you have before you—can also be spelled “Selya.” It’s a bit of a stretch to think that Maria Asuncion was nicknamed “Celia.” So the more complicated story is that M.A.R, whoever she is, was a talented musician who got her nickname from Cecilia, the Catholic saint who is the patroness of music. The late E. Aguilar Cruz, then editor of the premartial law Daily Mirror said that he had interviewed an octogenarian from Pandacan who claimed her grandmother, a certain Celia Castañeda, was the real muse of Balagtas. All these stories are irrelevant now but if the puzzle can get young people to give “Florante” a second look, better still a second reading after high school, then we may learn to appreciate Balagtas beyond the short texts still quoted today to justify the discipline of unruly children or citizens.

This August, being “Buwan ng Wika,” schoolchildren will again hear the most quoted line from Rizal that isn’t by Rizal at all: “Ang hindi magmahal sa sariling wika/ masahol pa sa hayop at malansang isda.”

The poem, “Sa Aking Mga Kabata,” attributed to the national hero and said to have been composed at age eight is definitely not by the young Rizal, but it still makes the rounds this month together with these lines from Balagtas that make for an unhappy childhood: “Ang laki sa layaw karaniwa’y hubad/ sa bait at muni’t sa hatol ay salat/ masaklap na bunga ng maling paglingap/ habag ng magulang sa irog na anak.”

Another line suggests that parents keep their children from too much happiness: “Pag-ibig anaki’y aking nakilala/ di dapat palakihin ang bata sa saya/ at sa katuwaa’y kapag namihasa/ kung lumaki’y walang hihinting ginhawa.”

Finally, the most depressing line quite current in our times: “Sapagkat ang mundo’y bayan ng hinagpis/ mamamaya’y sukat tibayan ang dibdib/ lumaki sa tuwa’y walang pagtitiis/ ano’ng ilalaban sa dahas ng sakit!”

Buwan ng Wika often comes and goes unnoticed but passing by Pandacan reminded me of Balagtas and his epic works that I have to reread one day.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Balagtas, Beata, Buwan ng Wika, Florante at Laura, Looking Back, Magdalena Ana Ramos, Maria Asuncion Rivera, Pandacan, Teodoro
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