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Leon Maria Guerrero: A nationalist by occupation |

Modern Living

Leon Maria Guerrero: A nationalist by occupation

ARTMAGEDDON - Igan D’Bayan -

He looks more like a Beat poet in a suit, with a cigarette in hand and slanting shadow, framed by a monochrome world, the republic in his head and heart.

This is Leon Ma. Guerrero (1915-1982) on the cover of LMG: The Leon Ma Guerrero Anthology, a compendium of the works by and about the lawyer, diplomat, journalist, the author of The First Filipino (the acclaimed Jose Rizal biography), a translator of Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo (with original book design by artist David Medalla), a recipient of the Mabini Award (the country’s highest honor for foreign service), among many other things. The book has been compiled by the ambassador’s only son, David Guerrero, and it features never-before-seen pictures culled from the family archives, as well as hundreds of articles, stories and speeches from the subject himself and his contemporaries.

“The cover image seems to sum up the era a bit sort of a diplomatic Mad Men,” says David with a laugh. Since the image of the man puffing on a cigarette would not sit too well with the conservatives, David made sure donations would be made to the Philippine Cancer Society, because the man died of lung cancer (June 24, 1982), and they didn’t want to glorify his image as a cigarette-smoker.

In his father’s era there was very strong thinking and good writing, says David.

How did David manage to have everything compiled in a 450-plus-page book with photos, illustrations, newspaper and magazine clippings (by the likes of Nick Joaquin, Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, Teodor Locsin, et al) and assorted etceteras a yeoman’s job most definitely. 

“My dad was very meticulous about keeping records; he had scrapbooks for the photos, and we compiled the articles from available files. We had a simple strategy. We presented the published pieces about him in chronological order. Once we did that, which took about a year, we started matching the available pictures and got more pictures from other collections. We did some research at the National Library.”

The next job, adds David, is coming up with the book design. The initial design was more visually-driven, beautifully laid-out, but a bit harder to read. “So, we scrapped the original design and redid the whole thing to make sure the articles are easy to read.” So, from a large coffee-table, picture book, it shifted into a book to take with you anywhere like a William Faulkner Reader, or something from the Modern Viking library to relish the fine writing.

What a writer that man was. One could just imagine him with a pack of Merricks, typing away the afternoon with his trusty portable Royal typewriter. Leon considered it his “lucky” typewriter; at the beginning of World War II, recalls Margaret Guerrero in Flip Magazine, “he had buried it in the garden of his house, and it was still there, unscathed, when he dug it up after the war. (The typewriter is still in working order, lovingly maintained by our son, David.)”

“The anthology format was actually inspired by The Beatles Anthology,” David reveals. He says the task was to present pictures, as well as the dramatis personae in their own words, with minimal editorial intervention; and to not turn the book into a family memoir, but more of a document about a man and his era: the life and times of a 20th century Filipino diplomat.

The man’s saga is a journey of epiphanies and dénouement. The book takes readers on an amazing journey: from being a campus figure in pre-war Ateneo during the roaring Twenties (Leon was one-third of the cheerleading squad called the Jumping Jacks); to becoming the wonder boy at the Philippine Free Press (“Leoni did not stop renovating the fiction scene at the Free Press,” wrote E. Aguilar Cruz in the Times Journal. “He changed the whole magazine from top to bottom, forward and backwards and all around. Before he was through, the old Free Press was completely gone except for its logo…”); to becoming a lawyer and then afterwards chief prosecutor in the case where the then future president of the republic (Ferdinand Marcos) was indicted for the murder of his father’s political opponent; to a becoming combatant in the tunnels of Corregidor.

LMG with the King of Sweden, whom Guerrero presented with books on Philippine archeology in 1995

In “Corregidor Revisited,” Guerrero wrote: “That night a Japanese soldier sat beside a steaming barrel of white rice, and as we filed past, tossed each of us a ball of rice shaped in his grimy fingers. It was a game he enjoyed hugely, especially when one of us missed the catch. To those whose face he liked, he tossed a small onion too. It was a memorable introduction to what was to be a life-long study of international relations.”

In time, Leon Maria Guerrero would become the country’s first envoy to the UK (at a very young age of 39), making an unprecedented impact on London society and putting the Philippines in the mindscapes of the British by having the country featured on British TV, introducing the famed ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn to a performance by the Bayanihan Dancers, and installing a historic Blue Plaque on the London residence 37 Chalcot Crescent of Jose Rizal, among other things. The man even sent Winston Churchill Manila cigars. In his stint at merry old England, Guerrero was eloquent throughout.

“The traveler must always have a point of ultimate destination, and I am happy that mine is here,” he wrote in “Seven Years in London.” “The expatriate must have a vision of his native country to sustain him and give him purpose, and I am doubly happy to find it here, in this great university dedicated to the free and inquiring mind, in this university which fits the definition of Disraeli as ‘a place of light, of liberty and of learning,’ because there can be no learning without light, and no light without liberty, in this youth who will make a nation nearer to the traveler’s urge to greener pastures, and to the expatriate’s vision of a homeland for the free.”

And there was “The Story.”

The Daily Mirror reports in its May 24, 1957:

Adman and LMG: The Leon Maria Guerrero Anthology editor David Guerrero says, “My dad, Leon Ma. Guerrero, was a man who devoted his life representing the country.”

The Philippine Ambassador in London, Mr. Leon Ma. Guerrero, last night told a story which caused a lot of laughter at the annual dinner of the Philippine Society of London. He was talking of the friendship between Britain and the Philippines. The ambassador told of a six-year-old English girl who once lived in the Philippines and made friends with a little Filipino boy her own age.

“At first the English girl’s mother did not like this very much and often reminded her daughter that English and Filipinos were different,” the ambassador went on... One afternoon they were caught in a sudden shower and were soaked to the skin.

“The English girl’s mother promptly stripped them and put them in a hot tub in case they caught cold. Some time afterwards the little English girl said thoughtfully to her mother: “You know, Mommy, at last I understand the difference between the English and the Filipinos.’”

The book details also Guerrero’s postings in the Federal Republic of Germany, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, his ambassadorship to Spain, India, Mexico (concurrently with 10 Latin American countries) and his final post as ambassador to then Yugoslavia, seeing the historic transition that took place after the death of President Josip Broz Tito. 

A lot of the work entails talking to people who had no idea where (or what) the Philippines is. “My dad was a man who devoted his life representing the country.”

Guerrero famously said, “I am (a) Philippine Ambassador. Wherever I go I carry the Philippines with me and my Embassy is Philippine territory.”

The man was a staunch nationalist. His philosophy of “The Philippines for Filipinos” grated the ears of policy-makers in America. Remember that during that time McCarthyism held sway in America, with hearings, blacklisting and finger-pointing as its reaction to the perceived Red scare. Guerrero did not falter. He served the country abroad when his controversial Asia for Asians policy caused an uproar.

 “I guess the world is more complex now,” states David. “But most of the issues are still there as to who owns the business in this country, how do the Filipinos benefit from what’s happening, and how much foreign influence and control are still present. We don’t think of the world that way anymore, but those issues still exist.”

LMG gives a pretty good glimpse into Leon Ma Guerrero as a diplomat, but what about as a father?

“None of us would think of our dads as cool not even if your dad was Mick Jagger (laughs). But my father was pretty cool. He made us laugh with his jokes. He was quite relaxed about various things. He rescued me when I crashed the car at the age of 13 (laughs). Other dads would’ve taken it a lot harder than he did.”

* * *

LMG: The Leon Maria Guerrero Anthology is available at Powerbooks. For details, visit

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