The Villa mis-centennial
PENMAN - Butch Dalisay () - December 26, 2011 - 12:00am

I’d been meaning to write about this for a few weeks now, but I keep forgetting, so here it is before the New Year comes. It’s a relatively trivial matter that will mean little or nothing to most Filipinos, but since it involves a literary figure I feel obliged to take it up, and I’m not even sure if other columnists are aware of it.

I’m referring to a copy of Presidential Proclamation No. 285, Series of 2011, which I received during a meeting of our committee at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts last month. It was a routine, FYI item on the agenda, but the full title of the proclamation caught my eye: “Signed on November 8, 2011: Declaring the period from 05 August 2012 to 04 August 2013 as the Centennial Year of National Artist for Literature, Jose Garcia Villa.” The text of the proclamation went on to extol Villa’s literary pre-eminence and genius, which put the Philippines on the map of literary modernism in the 1940s.

Ordinarily, that should have given me and other writers reason to rejoice, because here, for once, was proof, however incipient, of the Noynoy Aquino administration’s awareness of literature and culture as something of value, something at least worth making a proclamation for. Those of us working on the cultural front have often remarked how ironic it’s been that the last Filipino administration to emphasize culture (albeit for its own mythmaking) was a dictatorship, and how our political leaders have routinely treated culture as an intermission number between weightier items on the national program such as the economy and security instead of the infrastructure that defines our attitudes and responses toward these concerns.

So here, at least, was President Aquino singing the praises of Villa, whose work likely the eccentric comma poems  he may even have encountered briefly between his courses in marketing and political science in college.

The only problem with the proclamation declaring 2012 as Villa’s centenary year is that, well, it isn’t. Villa wasn’t born in 1912, but 1908  coincidentally, the same year his school (the same school that would suspend him in 1929 for writing an “obscene” poem comparing a woman’s breasts to coconuts) the University of the Philippines was opened.

I knew this because I remembered the late Professor Nieves B. Epistola, who was as careful a scholar as they came, telling me back in the 1980s about having to establish Villa’s birthdate, and digging into the University Registrar’s records to fish out this factoid, which was August 5, 1908. “He’s as old as UP!” Prof. Epistola declared, beaming, and so the equation was imprinted in my memory.

I also surmised that Villa couldn’t have been born in 1912, simply because the UP Writers Club, of which he was one of the founders, was set up in 1927  and even someone as precocious as Villa couldn’t likely have been only 15 when that happened.

But just to be sure, I texted and emailed two of our pre-eminent Villa and poetry scholars, Dr. Gemino Abad of UP, who had actually studied with Villa, and Prof. Jonathan Chua of Ateneo, who has written about Villa extensively and who assisted us at the Institute of Creative Writing in setting up a photo exhibit on Villa last year. Both scholars replied quickly and unequivocally: Villa was born in 1908, not 1912. (Even the spotty Wikipedia has Villa’s birthdate right.)

I’m not sure what the procedures are to correct mistakes in Presidential Proclamations; again, I didn’t mean to make a big fuss about this or to embarrass some well-intentioned literateur in the Office of the President. But a correction should be in order, if only to reaffirm, however superficially, the value that the Palace does or should accord to matters of culture.

So where did the 1912 date come from? Possibly, if strangely, from Villa himself. The clue comes from something else Nieves Epistola told us that day: “Villa wanted to make himself appear younger.” Whether that was an assumption or conclusion on her part, I don’t know, but it makes a kind of Doveglionesque (to use Villa’s pseudonym) sense, a bold and brash mutability, a refusal to be held down by calendar time. (To be fair, various Internet sources list his birth year down as 1904, 1907, and 1914, among others.)

Of the date of his death, there seems to be unanimity in marking it as February 7, 1997. Of course, Jose Garcia Villa had pronounced himself deathless in so many words, the mortal creature standing up to his Creator.

I never had the chance to meet him, but from what I’d heard about him, I figure he would have been thrilled by the idea of an official centennial year in his name, never mind that not one in a hundred Filipinos would even know nor care who he is, proclamation or no proclamation. We’re told that true poets and artists disdain (or should disdain) such worldly honors, but not Villa.

I seem to recallsomebody correct me here if I’m wrong that when he was named National Artist shortly after the proclamation of martial law, he made several demands to accompany his acceptance of the award (and here you’d have to remember that he was living in relative penury as a longtime exile in New York): four barong tagalog outfits, a suite at the Manila Hotel, and a chauffeur-driven car. Some Filipinos were appalled by Villa’s nerve  who did he think he was?  but indeed, that was Villa’s point, and rightly so: surely a regime that could afford to fly in and to fete second-rate Hollywood movie stars could afford to treat a “National Artist” with the proper grandeur?

Speaking of literary centennials, those of the Grand Old Men of Philippine literature in English are or will soon be upon us: Bienvenido Santos, 1911; NVM Gonzalez, 1915; Francisco Arcellana, 1916; Nick Joaquin, 1917. Whoever is crafting these Presidential Proclamations, kindly take note. (And while you’re at it, decree as well, perhaps, that a poem or a story by these good gentlemen be published and read throughout the archipelago on their natal day, to lend some substance to the form?)

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