Remembering Lazaro Francisco
Yesterday, on his 121st birth anniversary, National Artist for Literature Lazaro Francisco was honored in his hometown with an early morning floral offering by the members of Cabanatuan Lodge No. 53, the Freemason group he joined in the 1930s.
Who is Lazaro Francisco? It is lamentable how little we know about the Filipinos who have contributed significantly to our national life, those lives worth remembering and drawing inspiration from. How unfortunate that we are more familiar with the loves and lives of foreign heroes, but, admittedly, largely because they have been written about over and over again.
Known as Ka Saro, Francisco is recognized for his masterful use of Tagalog and his choice of subject matter and storylines which largely focused on the lives of farmers and the challenges they faced in a landlord-tenant relationship—long before agrarian reform was acknowledged as a necessary measure. He also wrote on imperialism, communism, the judicial system, the survival of democracy, even the maltreatment of children. But he also wrote popular love stories that were serialized in Liwayway Magazine and that were faithfully followed by readers. He was the highest paid Liwayway writer, earning P8 per page, while the rest were given P4 per page. He was dreaded by the typesetters; an impeccable typist, he would not countenance any change, much less any error, on his printed text.
As an admired master of the Tagalog novel who has significantly contributed to our literary tradition, Francisco awaits our discovery and appreciation. Fortunately, some of his novels are still available today, having enjoyed reprints by three university presses: Ateneo, UST and UP. These novels are: “Binhi at Bunga” (1925), “Cesar” (1926), “Ama” (1929), “Bayang Nagpatiwakal” (1931), “Sa Paanan ng Krus” (1934), “Ang Pamana ng Pulubi” (1935), “Bago Lumubog ang Araw” (1936), “Singsing na Pangkasal” (1939), “Ilaw sa Hilaga” (1947), “Sugat ng Alaala” (1951), “Maganda pa ang Daigdig” (1956), “Daluyong” (1961).
I myself have discovered Francisco only belatedly, after the posthumous conferment of his National Artist Award for Literature in 2009. I was even more embarrassed after discovering that he is not only from my parents’ hometown of Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija, but lived on the same street where my paternal grandparents also lived. With this fairly recent introduction to him, my curiosity continues to grow, fueled by thoughts of walking on the same ground a writer of his stature did.
Especially appreciated are the efforts of family and scholars to keep his memory alive. His simple and unpretentious family residence on Rizal Street in Barangay Bonifacio (yes, two heroes in one breath), a structure he himself designed, is maintained by his children as a writer’s museum to honor their father. At the back of the house is a special shrine where his remains are. The large public school in the neighborhood around the corner bears his name.
Scholar and professor Mona P. Highley wrote a literary biography and an English translation of “Maganda pa ang Daigdig.” His daughter Lucila Francisco Aleja devoted her MA thesis, “The Man and the Novelist,” on her father. Professor Dr. Jean-Paul Potet translated “Ama” into French. Journalist Amadis Ma. Guerrero has written an extensive study of the man and the writer titled “National Artist Lazaro Francisco: The Novelist as Crusader.” Poet Marne Kilates is completing the English translation of “Ilaw sa Hilaga” for the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino. And just last year, his doctor son, Dr. Floriño A. Francisco, spearheaded in behalf of the family the publication of “Pamana,” a coffee-table book on Lazaro Francisco.
Dr. Floriño Francisco, the eighth of Ka Saro’s 10 children, is a familiar byline, as he contributes regularly to this paper. He relates how he wanted to be a writer but his father strongly discouraged him, saying he would not be able to live on his writing. So Dr. Francisco went to Harvard for his postdoctoral fellowship and had a successful pediatric practice. But, over the years, he had always wanted to ask his father, how come you yourself became a writer?
Ka Saro’s difficult journey from government service to a writing life is one that deserves retelling and remembering.
Neni Sta. Romana Cruz (nenisrcruz@ gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.
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