LMG @ 100
Leon Ma. Guerrero is a name I recall from college. He is not to be confused with his grandfather with the same name who was the first licensed Filipino pharmacist. Leon Ma. Guerrero III wrote a biography of Rizal, “The First Filipino,” that was required reading in the Rizal course. I read it from cover to cover because we were supposed to memorize all the details in it—like the name of Rizal’s pet dog—to pass the final exam. One question from that exam was: “What was it that Rizal didn’t like about the women of Dapitan?” Answer: “They did not wear stockings.”
Guerrero made full use of the primary sources for “The First Filipino,” and liberally threw in passages from Rizal’s correspondence all over the book in the original Spanish! It helped that I come from that lost generation that still had to hurdle 12 units of Spanish in college, so I survived. Many of my generation remember a typographical error in one of Guerrero’s books that referred to a deck as “the dick of the ship.” His byline came up twice more in that Rizal course because he had published what still remains the most contemporary—some would say most English—translation of “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo.”
The books of Guerrero led me to give Rizal a second look because other textbooks made him out as a hero fossilized in bronze and marble, a figure who could only be seen in black and white. Guerrero took the heart of stone from Rizal, exchanged it with a beating heart of flesh, and gave color to a life story that has since become my area of expertise. While many of my classmates cursed him for writing such a thick book, I thanked him for showing me how to be a readable historian.
To mark the centennial of Guerrero’s birth, the Ayala Museum and the Filipinas Heritage Library (both in the same building) have opened an interactive exhibit on his life and times that will hopefully link this dead man from the past with the living youth of today. There are 100 white boxes on a table, very much like an art installation by Chinese dissident An Wei Wei. Each contains a short quotation, not more than 140 characters, from the historian’s writings, to give the modern reader “Guerrero in 100 Tweets.” In case someone complains that this mode of display trivializes Guerrero or takes his words out of context, there is a QR code on each box that will lead the interested person to the full text. The tweets also appear on screen as they would look being typed on a manual typewriter, like the one Guerrero hid in the ground during the Japanese occupation. To a generation that writes on smartphones, a manual typewriter may seem as old as the dinosaurs, but then what about writing in longhand? Guerrero often surrendered his pen when entering government buildings and aircraft because, he claimed, it was his weapon of choice.
For those averse to texts on a page or screen, there are audio versions of the Guerrero translations of the “Noli” and “Fili” that can be heard through earphones in the gallery. These are quite a novelty because you will hear Rizal’s novels read with an English accent. I am told it takes 36 hours to listen to a reading of the entire “Noli,” the equivalent of a round-trip flight from Manila to Madrid via Bangkok.
A visit to this exhibition will debunk one urban legend. The story is that in his last days, Guerrero, then a retired diplomat who had served as the Philippines’ ambassador to India, Spain, Mexico and the United Kingdom, was confined at the Lung Center and then President Ferdinand Marcos sent an emissary to inquire about his health and offer monetary help. Guerrero requested that he be conferred the Order of Mabini, the highest decoration awarded to Filipino diplomats that was named in honor of Apolinario Mabini, the first foreign minister of the Philippines. The request was approved but the sash and breast star were in a vault in the Department of Foreign Affairs that could not be opened because the then secretary was abroad on mission. Not wishing to lose any time, then first lady Imelda Marcos, the first recipient of the Order of Mabini, offered hers so the award could be conferred soonest. So President and Mrs. Marcos rushed to Guerrero’s bedside, placed the sash over his frail body, and attached the breast star to his hospital gown. It was, according to Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil, one of her brother’s happiest moments.
The supposed twist in the story is that Mrs. Marcos found her enamel medallion too plain and had the insignia ornamented with jewels. Well, the sash and breast star of the Order of Mabini conferred on Guerrero lie in a display case. The medallion has no diamonds, rubies, or emeralds as rumored. The sash is but a piece of ribbon and the slightly tarnished enamel medallion is precious to no one else but its recipient.
I looked at these relics of a fruitful life and realized that one cannot take fame and fortune to the grave, and that a life can only live on in the memory of others. In Guerrero’s case his life lives on in the thoughts he set to paper in a prose so elegant and beautiful that it had no equal except from the pen of the Jesuit Fr. Horacio de la Costa, his classmate at Ateneo.
De la Costa inscribed a copy of “Jesuits in the Philippines” in 1962 with these words: “For Leonie, who will be kind to this Book, because of the golden hours we spent, a long time ago, planning all the books we would write.”
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