By Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
Saturday, April 11th, 2015
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Even before the onset of April, panitikan was already in the air, announcing the very first month dedicated to it—Buwan ng Panitikang Filipino, or National Literature Month—as mandated by Proclamation No. 968. The proclamation was a dream come true for the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino headed by National Artist Virgilio S. Almario, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts chaired by Felipe M. de Leon Jr., and the National Book Development Board (NBDB).

It was a pleasant task drawing up a calendar of events for the month and involving the many parties similarly smitten with literature and the word, oral and printed, and eager to pass on this passion and the discovery of Philippine literature to the uninitiated.

The end of March saw a special ceremony honoring Filipino poet Francisco Balagtas in Orion, Bataan, where his sculpture by Julie Lluch was unveiled. Michael “Xiao” Chua, history professor of De La Salle University, spoke about Balagtas’ role in history. Sen. Bam Aquino, Bataan officials led by Gov. Albert S. Garcia and Mayor Antonio Raymundo Jr. were the expected guests.

We know that Balagtas was born in Bigaa, Bulacan. He moved to Pandacan in Manila, where he met Maria Asuncion Rivera, or “MAR,” alluded to in his work “Florante at Laura” as Selya. He wrote it in detention, after an influential suitor who won his MAR had him imprisoned.

When he was released, Balagtas moved to Balanga in Bataan, where he met and married Juana Tiambeng with whom he had 11 children. He is said to have adopted the surname Baltazar in compliance with the 1849 decree that every Filipino must adopt a Spanish surname. (It does not seem politically correct to mention this during a month sparked off in his honor, and I hope historical records can dismiss it as mere lore.)

It is said that on his deathbed, Balagtas, who is so revered for his contribution to Philippine literature that the Filipino extemporaneous poetry joust—balagtasan—was named after him, warned that none of his children should become poets as it is a burden and it would be “better to cut their hands off than let them be writers.” Quite fortunately, Filipino poets continue to endure, even relish the “burden” he lamented.

Pandacan being the place of Balagtas’ youth, it did not matter that his birth date, April 2, fell on Maundy Thursday. Balagtas faithful led by Almario and De Leon could not let the day pass unnoticed. They visited Pandacan for a floral offering and a program in Balagtas’ memory.

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A major undertaking on April 19-21 is the first-ever participation of the Philippines in the 6th Kuala Lumpur Trade and Copyright Conference (KLTCC). In the NBDB’s efforts to support the book publishing industry in international trade and promotions events, it is heading a delegation to expose Philippine publications, publishing services, and the Filipino creative pool, all still largely undiscovered in the region. The initial participation through the NBDB’s efforts was at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2014 and the Globalocal conference in India and the New Delhi World Book Fair, both at the start of 2015.

In February, Hasri Hasan of Kota Buku or Book City, a government corporation that organizes the KLTCC, visited Manila to invite Philippine publishers, authors and other content creators to participate in the rights exchange and copyright trading with publishing players in the region and the rest of the world, a distinct feature that the event offers.

The KLTCC coincides with the 2015 Kuala Lumpur International Book Fair. In the dialogue with publishers, Hasan was candidly asked what a Philippine publisher could expect to gain from such an exposure. To put it bluntly, would the expense be worthwhile? Part of his justification for our presence was to show the quality of content of our trade books and the exemplary art of our children’s books. Because the Malaysian government shows unstinting support for the book industry, the generous incentives—ranging from free round-trip airfare and hotel accommodations to reasonably priced exhibit booths—are making it possible for the Philippines to send a large delegation. The expected participants are Ang Ilustrador ng Kabataan (Ang I.N.K.), Abiva, Anvil Publishing, Adarna House, Central Books, Flipside, Meganon Comics and Visprint. The NBDB will be represented by governing board member Ruel S. de Vera and executive director Graciela M. Cayton, who has been invited as a speaker.

Ang I.N.K., the organization of illustrators for children established in 1991, will be represented by Rommel Joson, whose most recent work is in the celebrated “Isang Harding Papel” written by Augie Rivera. It is promising that KL has expressed the need for the expertise of illustrators from the Philippines.

Having witnessed the beginnings of Ang I.N.K. during my years of association with the Philippine Board on Books for Young People, it was with “motherly” pride that I patiently queued for my turn to talk to the sought-after Jomike Tejido at their crowded booth at Art in the Park, a yearly event at the Velasquez Park in Salcedo Village, Makati. Jonathan Rañola said they had to exhibit in other booths as the Ang I.N.K. booth was too crowded. May they get the same attention in KL—and the world next!

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ( is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.