Bien Lumbera: The National Artist as the Bayan Artist


Photos courtesy of Silay Lumbera

He chose a path and he took it, and from the moment he made that decision, he never wavered and his art and politics have always reflected his humanity.

National artist for literature Bienvenido Lumbera passed away on September 25, 2021, and it is a great loss for all Filipinos. During his lifetime, Sir Bien was a renowned writer, poet, playwright and literary critic. Beyond that, he was a teacher, former political prisoner and activist who dedicated 60 years of his life to the service of his Muse – the struggle of the Filipino people for national liberation and true democracy.

Despite his studies abroad, Bienvenido chose to write in Filipino, the national language. In his youth, Bienvenido strove to make his work relevant and meaningful to national issues.

Happy are those who have been able to meet and / or learn from Sir Although whether as a student enrolled in his courses, as a critical reader, or as a kapwa aktibista (militant companion). Through his poetry and his critiques, his critiques and his essays, he has given shape and texture to the duty of artists and all Filipinos to believe in the dream of freedom for the poor and to strive for the realization of this dream.

Throughout his life he visited picket lines of workers demanding their labor rights and attended rallies alongside farmers calling for genuine land reform. He has spoken at writers’ workshops and mentored young writers. He has been a petitioner in Supreme Court cases against government corruption, charter change, attacks on national heritage and sovereignty.

He was among the main signatories calling for the removal of criminal presidents and other misguided public officials. He inspired teachers in their unions and associations to demand academic freedom, security of tenure, basic services. Sir Bien was an artist and an academic, but he believed he had a duty to fulfill. The artist’s life for him was not devoted to creation, it was a life devoted to the service of the Filipino people and the causes which he considered to be greater than his own life.

As a teacher, Bienvenido challenges his students to discover their identity in relation to the past and present of the country. Bienvenido was not only active in academia, but also on the political front.

A role model for Filipino youth

Young Filipinos would do well to know who Sir Bien is and what he represents in life and in art.

During his years as a student at the University of Santo Tomas and after obtaining his Masters and Doctorate. in comparative literature from Indiana University in the United States, English was the language of his learning. On his return to the Philippines, however, he returned to a country ripe for revolution. As he told his friends and colleagues, he wanted his work to be relevant and meaningful. For this he had to write in Filipino.

Sir Bien wanted us to love our language and be proud of our history. If there had been Facebook and Twitter back then, he would have posted about it endlessly. In fact, in 2014 he tried to do Facebook and Twitter, both out of curiosity and to find out what the younger generations were doing and thinking.

National music artist Ryan Cayabyab (second from left) spends time with Sir Bien and his friends. Bienvenido Lumbera is a national artist and Artista ng Bayan.

An extraordinary professor and historian

Alumni say every class Sir Bien taught was revealing because his classes always had philosophical and political overtones. In his Filipino Studies class, for example, he explained to his students that removing identity from consciousness was one of the most subtle but still vicious means our colonizers employed to conquer and enslave the country. Forcing us to learn and love the language of the colonizers at the expense of our own had the devastating impact of dividing Filipinos, separating those who had the means and the opportunity to learn from those who did not and did not. could not.

Exploring this argument will inevitably lead to discussions about patriotism, the state of the nation, and what future can expect from a country so divided because of the way its people see, think and feel; and how they analyze events and developments in society.

And yes, how Filipinos value the past and its lessons.

Through his own research and efforts, Sir Bien has also focused on highlighting the cultural achievements that we have achieved throughout our still short history as a nation. In his poetry and plays he reminded readers, urged us to delve deep into our past so that we can better understand our present and right so much wrong.

Young Filipinos who believe in making a difference would do well to read Sir Bien.

On the role of artists and creators

Do Tik-Tok? Trying to be an influencer? Want to become an internet superstar with viral videos? What if we used our creations not only to entertain, but also to inform, teach, empower? Sir Bien said that whether you write, sing, paint or dance, your most meaningful work will reflect who you are and what you stand for.

Sir Bien believed that our awareness of who we are – the history of the Philippines and the Filipino struggle against colonialism and all its brutalities – is both a burden and a gift that Filipino artists should recognize and carry. Our sense of who we are as Filipinos, he insisted, is what can guide each of us to assert our own individual rights and collective dignity against anything that threatens or diminishes them.

Young Filipinos, he said, should not waste time discovering themselves in the context of the country’s past and present. What we do with knowledge is up to us: we choose what we believe in, the values ​​we absorb, and we make life decisions that reflect those values ​​and beliefs. We can learn a lot from history and our own literary traditions, he insisted. And that is why he was passionate in his mission as both historian and critic to teach students and all those who listened to and read the works of Francisco Balagtas, José Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Aurelio Tolentino, Amado V Hernandez.

As he was quoted saying, “Language is very important when we want to reach as many people as possible with our messages of outrage, of dissent against social evils. We must promote the Filipino language as a vehicle for identity patriotism and a means of disseminating ideas that will encourage social change. “

Kung Pilipino ka and magaling kang mag-Ingles, sana mahusay ka ding mag-Filipino.

(If you are Filipino and know English well, I hope you are also good at Filipino.)

And every writer and poet who needed an audience with him – for inspiration, for advice, even for a simple selfie – had his ear and his help. He was that kind of person.

An artist for others

It is said that young people today are looking for role models. We got one from Sir Bien. Mai talento, mai prinsipyo, mai tapang! (He has talent, principle and courage.)

Sir Bien was a gentle man in his words and demeanor, but his principles and practice still burned fiercely. In the 1960s, he helped form the militant organization of writers, the Panulat para sa Kaunlaran ng Sambayanan (PAKSA) in 1971. He was also an advisor to the group of progressive poets Galian sa Arte in Tula during its creation in 1973.

A teacher at Ateneo, he supported the First Quarter Storm against dictator Marcos. Due to his political beliefs and his commitment to them, he was not allowed to continue teaching there. Meanwhile, his involvement in activism led to his arrest and incarceration in 1974.

Detention only made Sir Bien cling even more to his politics, and this and art that supported him in prison. When he was released he picked up where he left off and created more poetry, wrote more essays, produced plays, all of which spoke about the Filipino condition and the greatness that we can. reach if we only wanted awake. Sir Bien wrote booklets for musical theater such as the Nasa Puso ang Amerika based on that of Carlos Bulosan America is in the heart, Tales of Manuvu, Rama: Hari, Noli me Tangere: The musical, and Hibik to Himagsik nina Viktoria Laktaw (the latter is her own tribute to the Filipino women who joined the Revolution of 1896).

As for the literary prizes and citations, he won them. In a tribute article, the official website of the University of the Philippines named some of them: the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the Pambansang Gawad Pambansang Alagad ni Balagtas de Unyon ng mga Manunulat ng Pilipinas (UMPIL), the National Book Awards for Literary History / Literary Criticism of the Manila Critics’ Circle, the Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature, the Philippine Centennial Literary Prize for Drama, and the Cultural Center of the Philippines Centennial Honors for the Arts.

We could also fill a shelf with the books he wrote on literary criticism, among them Pedagogy; Filipino literature: a history and an anthology; Rediscovery: Essays on Philippine Life and Culture; Filipino writing: Filipino literature from the regions; and Paano Magbasa ng Panitikang Filipino: Mga Babasahing Pangkolehiyo.

Finally, Sir Bien was a defender of civil and human rights. He was also a founding member of Concerned Artists of the Philippines along with other greats like Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal and Ben Cervantes. He denounced censorship and defended freedom of the press, freedom of speech and other civil rights. Name a just cause, Sir Bien was part of the fight to win it. In truth, for decades every grassroots organization and artist group with a pro-poor and individual orientation had Sir Bien on its list of allies and supporters.

Sir Bien gave it his all on the very last day of his life, and he wasn’t just a national artist, he was a Artista ng Bayan (the people’s artist).


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