WHEN I first arrived in the Philippines and became interested in Philippine literature in Spanish, people around me always said, “Oh! So you should meet Don Guillermo.” One day, at a cultural event at the Instituto Cervantes, during the questions section following a conference, a tall mestizo began talking in Filipino Spanish. He defended the necessity not only of teaching Spanish, but also of teaching Filipino Spanish. Then, he talked about the American efforts to eradicate Spanish and anything Hispanic in the archipelago.
“Who is that man?” I asked.
“Don Guillermo, of course,” I was told.
Don Guillermo Rivera has been the most prolific author of Philippine literature in Spanish during the last several decades. He is currently the director of the Academia Filipina de la Lengua Española, an institution that will turn 100 years old in 2024. Active in social media, Rivera has an incredible memory and a very sharp mind. And he has always defended his ideas publicly and bravely, despite their not being widely accepted.
I believe Rivera is one of the most interesting personalities in the archipelago, and he generously agreed to give me an interview.
How do you remember your childhood in Iloilo? What kind of neighborhood did you grow up in?
It was disciplined but a very happy one. My adopted mother, Rosa Jiménez Gayoso-de Rivera, was a flamenco dancer trained in Sevilla, Spain, even if born in Iloilo to a landed Spanish mestizo family. Her father Diego Frades, was the editor of the widely circulated Iloilo-Cebu newspaper El Porvenir de Visayas. She made me read, every morning before going to a public school, a paragraph of Don Quijote and do the zapateado (a flamenco dance with rhythmic stamping of the feet), the sevillanas (a type of folk music and dance) and the jota aragonesa (traditional courtship dance) everyday for about 30 minutes. She often cooked Spanish dishes for Spanish Visayan writers like Flavio Cano and Delfin Gumban and hold a weekly tertulia (a type of Spanish literary salon) to come and tutor me in Spanish and Hiligaynon poetry. Our neighborhood was an elegant one near the old Casa Gobierno and its adjoining park in the corner of Calles Bonifacio and Joveler. Next to our old houses was the Don Eusebio Villanueva mansion that still stands today.
What was the main impact you received in Manila? Could you describe how cultural life was?
More exposure to Spanish and Tagalog became the main impact. In the 1950s there were many Spanish-speaking families in Manila. I used to have frequent vacations in Manila with my biological mother, Lourdes Cello-Rivera. As a matter of fact, World War 2 caught me living in Manila and hiding from frequent air raids in the plains of San Mateo and the mountains of Montalban. I continued reading books and newspapers in Spanish in Manila: El Debate, Voz de Manila, La Opinión, Nueva Era, Ahora and the weekly Semana. I frequented Escolta de Binondo, Santa Cruz and Quiapo where I shopped for Spanish and Mexican wax and LP records aside from clothes, and I also frequented the movie theaters (to watch “Locura de amor” (Madness of Love) and “El derecho de nacer” (The right to be born), and the old Chinese panciterias (an inexpensive restaurant, typically serving noodle dishes) where the menu was in Spanish. Once in a while, I was taken out to eat by my mother and her friends at Casa Marcos, Alba’s Restaurant and El Bodegón in Ermita and Malate, where local trios sang Mexican songs. Manila, at that time, was a beautiful dream with the Silos sisters singing “El Tragón” over the radio.
Who were the main writers of Philippine literature in Spanish in the 1960s and the 1970s?
They were Emilio Yncióng, Benigno del Río, a son in law of Don Carlos Palanca; Dr. José Ma. Delgado, who later became the first Filipino ambassador to the Vatican; Antonio Molina of University of Santo Tomas; Antonio Cavana, Spanish language academician; movie producer Luis Lim, Don Emeterio Barcelón, Nilda Guerrero-Barranco and daughter Majela, Joaquin Jaramillo, Francisco Zaragoza, José Figueroa, Enrique Fernández Lumba, Francisco Palisoc, Miguel Roxas, Bienvenido de la Paz, Belen Sicioco Arguelles and so many others.
To which causes do you attribute the decline of Spanish language in the Philippines?
US Wasp over-colonialism. Deliberate blackening of the old Spanish administration. Distortion of Philippine history. The then-diploma mill practice of overcrowding Spanish language classes with 40 up to 50 students in college instead of teaching Spanish in the primary grades; ugly misconceptions about our Hispanic heritage. The Abakada Tagalog Purista trend in the national language project, which either misspelled Spanish words like “Filipinas” to “Pilipinas” and “Filipino” to “Pilipino” on the invented ground Filipinos never learned to articulate the F aside from the practice to replace Spanish words with invented words such as balarila (grammar), sugnay (clause), parilala (phrase) and salungpuwit (chair), which, in the long run, led to the damage of current Tagalog itself and what Claro M. Recto lamented as “unreasonable Hispanophobia.”
Why did Filipino Spanish-speaking parents decide to stop talking in Spanish to their children?
Because of the pressure of work and the loose family ties. Even well-to-do parents do not have time to get most of their children to know some Spanish because a good number of these children also get involved in “many extracurricular activities,” and even vices like too much “barkada (squad) and even drugs” as pointed out by the media and many prominent members of our society.
I remember you told me Nick Joaquin recommended you switch to writing in English language. Why did you persevere with Spanish? Weren’t you afraid of becoming a writer without readers?
Yes. Nick Joaquin and my uncle Stevan Javellana, the first Filipino novelist in English whose novel Without Seeing the Dawn was the first Filipino literary piece to be published in the US, had been telling me to write more in English. But then, it is my environment here. I too was a poet in my native Hiligaynon or Ilongo for which, modesty aside, I was proclaimed in the 1970s as “the laureled Prince of Ilongo poetry.” It was just that both Nick and Tio Tebing Javellana wanted me to be also known as a Filipino writer in English and I have followed their suggestion very recently. I recently came out with a history book with the title The Filipino State and Other Essays, published in the US by CentiRamos Publishing (CRP) and accessible at Amazon with some copies also sold by Sionil José’s “La Solidaridad” at Padre Faura. But I also persevere in Spanish and I recently came out with Flor que del oro bárbaro deriva (Flower from barbarian gold originating) which was also published in the US by the same prestigious CRP, managed by former Filipino writer and newspaper editor of the Manila daily Newsday, Percival Centina.
Do you not believe it an irony now, with Spanish being a global language, you might find way more readers abroad than at home?
Yes. It is an irony and even a real tragedy most Filipinos, especially the intellectuals, have been deprived of some Spanish by a narrow educational policy criticized by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for its recently exposed illiteracy in English among our children and adolescents who, due to the present pandemic have had insufficient schooling for almost two years now. On my own, I persevere in Spanish because I have learned about its undeniable importance in the preservation and defense of our national culture and identity as Filipinos as a useful tool for our people’s scientific and economic development on the global stage. Those Filipino legislators like Pascual B. Azanza of Leyte, Vicente Sotto, Manuel Briones and Miguel Cuenco of Cebu, Enrique Magalona of Iloilo and Negros, aside from Claro M. Recto, Cipriano Primicias and Elpidio Quirino of, respectively, Manila, Batangas, Pangasinan and Ilocandia, who authored bills and laws for the teaching of Spanish in this country were men with nationalist and global foresight unmatched by many today. As usual the failure occurs in the teaching phase lorded over by most of our schools.
What are the main plans for Academia Filipina de la Lengua Española? I heard of some exciting news coming soon.
I have registered with the patent office the copyright of a Señorita Hispanidad Seminar cum Talent and Art Contest with pageant to be used as a vehicle to give its participants notions of the Spanish language, and Filipino literature and culture in Spanish. This activity can be carried out as a learning and development tool by groups of elementary pupils as well as high school students and even college students through the present internet facilities and innovations. This activity can supplement, if not actually function, in lieu of face-to-face classes for institutions willing to try it out and even perfect it in view of the prevailing difficulties now plaguing our entire school system. It will not only work for the recovery of Spanish, but even for supplementary English and Filipino.
Are you optimistic about the near future of the Philippines? What is the Philippines do you actually dream of?
As a Filipino I have to be optimistic about my country. As Mabini and Quezon said, “No hay mas patria que Filipinas. Es nuestra vida, nuestro porvenir…. Nos mejoramos al mejorarla.” (There is no more mother country than the Philippines. It is our life, our future. We improve ourselves while trying to improve her.)