The Writ of the Ilonggo People

By: Jester Paul R. Bacabac


MANY OFTEN MISTAKEN Ilonggo as the Austronesian language spoken by people living in Western Visayas, politically labeled Region 6 composed of the provinces of Iloilo, Capiz, Antique and Aklan on the island of Panay; Negros Occidental, the western half of the island of Negros; and the new island-province of Guimaras which used to be a sub-province of Iloilo. The truth is, they are referring to Hiligaynon as the lingua franca of the aforementioned region located at the heart of the Philippines.

Hiligaynon is spoken in Iloilo City in all the coastal towns north of Iloilo City, in all of Guimaras, in most of Roxas City in Capiz, and in Bacolod City and most of the towns of Negros Occidental. The language is also spoken in South Cotabato, in Mindanao, where many West Visayans have migrated. The province of Aklan speaks Aklanon (pronounced as akyanon) which, like Hiligaynon, developed from Kinaray-a. Kinaray-a or Hiraya, the mother language of Western Visayas, is now spoken by the central and southern towns of Iloilo, all of the province of Antique and most of Capiz.

Although distinctly different from Hiligaynon, Kinaray-a and Aklanon are carefully weighed by several linguists and literary scholars as colligated in the lingua franca. However, current writers in Kinaray-a and Aklanon have shown that it is not so.

Purely spoken, Western Visayan literature prior to the advent of the Spanish occupation was in Kinaray-a which must have been the tongue in folk literature of the ten Bornean datus who, in accordance with the folk account of the Maragtas, got the island of Panay from the aboriginal Ati in replacement for a headgear of gold and a necklace that touched the ground.

Folk literature ranges from concise and succinct riddles, ditties, proverbs, ritual chants to luxuriant love songs, tales and panoptic epics. A poem is called binalaybay and the tale is the asoy or the sugilanon.

The paktakon is a riddle while the hurubaton is a proverb. Both are usually in two lines and rhymed.

Folksongs may be as elementary as the ili-ili or lullaby or as elaborate as the ambahanon, a long song alternately sung by a soloist and a chorus; the siday which can be a long poetic joust between two paid poets respectively representing the two families in a marriage suit (siday sa pamalaye); or a balitaw, a jocose love song crooned in a debating manner by a man and a woman.

The asoy may be a legend or a tale about a folk hero or a local happening. Foremost among the Panay epics are the Labaw Donggon and the Hinilawod.

Ritual chants are delivered by the babaylan or healer to appease the diwata or supernatural beings or spirits in exchange for good health and abundant harvest.

The arrival of the Spaniards and the conversion of the people to Christianity produced new varieties of folk literature. It also marked the commencement of written literature which started with translations of Spanish texts of prayers and lives of the saints.

Tracing their origins to the Spanish times are the luwa, the witty quatrain recited by the loser of the bordon, the most popular game during the belasyon or vigil for the dead; and the composo, the ballad that sings the life of a folk hero or a significant incident in the community.

Religious literature flourished during the Spanish times. The Flores de Mayo is a devotional song-prayer held throughout the month of May characterized by singing hymns to the Virgin Mary and offering flowers.

The Pasyon, which recounts the suffering of Christ, is chanted during the Holy Week.

The gozos of the novena, the nine-day devotional prayer to a saint, stresses Christian virtue or rhapsodizes incidents in the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary.

Always part of the feast in honor of the patron saint is the coronation of the fiesta queen. The local poet then delivers the pagdayaw, a comprehensive ode praising the queen’s beauty and virtue.

Purely secular is the corrido, actually a medieval romance brought by the Spaniards. Most popular corrido in Western Visayas is written by Rodrigo de Villas.

The establishment of Imprenta La Panayana in Iloilo City late in the nineteenth century by a Bicolano, Mariano Perfecto, engineered written Hiligaynon literature. With his Pasyon, novenas and corridos, Perfecto published Almanake Panayanhon (Panayan Almanac), the all-time Hiligaynon best-seller. Almanake, which published literary works by most of the early Hiligaynon writers, is still being published today by the Perfecto heirs.

The coming of the Americans saw the so-called Golden Age of Hiligaynon literature even if the orientation was still heavily Spanish– didactic and Roman Catholic though strongly nationalistic.

The relatively short period from the 1920’s to the coming of the Japanese is considered the Golden Age. This produced Angel Magahum (first novelist for Benjamin), poet Delfin Gumban, poet Serapion Torre, poet-translator (from Spanish) Flavio Zaragoza Cano, essayist-journalist Rosendo Mejica, zarzuela masters Jose Ma. Ingalla and Jose Ma. Nava, playwright Miguela Montelibano, novelist-poet Magdalena Jalandoni, essayist Augurio Abeto and Abe Gonzales, and the young novelist Ramon L. Musones and poet Santiago Alv. Mulato. The triumvirate of Gumban, Torre and Zaragoza Cano ruled it out for years in poetry, their rivalry magnified by the public balagtasan or poetic joust. The establishment of Hiligaynon magazine by Liwayway Publications in Manila and of the Makinaugalingon Press by Rosendo Mejica in Iloilo City further strengthened Hiligaynon literature.

Jalandoni, Muzones, Gonzales and Mulato wrote their way through the Japanese Occupation and on to the fifties and the sixties which saw two new novelists, Jose E. Yap and Conrado Norada. The establishment of Yuhum magazine in Iloilo City by La Defensa Press and of the short-lived Kasanag by Diolosa Publications, kept literature not only alive but strong. Big names were Ramon L. Muzones, Santiago Alv. Mulato, Conrado Norada, Abe Gonzales and the forever versatile Magdalena Jalandoni. Jose E. Yap had started his series of science-fiction novels. New names came like Hernando Siscar, Antonio Joquiño and Isabelo Sobrevega.

The influence of English literature, especially in the short story, became pronounced in the 1960’s when Hiligaynon writers became more knowledgeable of formalist guidelines like characterization, local color and irony. The short story became popular while the novel with Muzones, Yap and Norada at the helm kept its position. Emerging from the sixties are important names of the present: Nilo P. Pamonag, Lucila V. Hosillos, Mario L. Villaret, Romeo Garganera, Ner E. Jedeliz, Jr., Quin Baterna and Jose Ali Bedaño who wrote under the name of Julius Flores. Two prominent women novelists are Ismaelita Floro-Luza of Roxas City and Ma. Luisa Defante-Gibraltar of Bacolod. All these writers are either bilingual or multilingual. It should also be understood that Western Visayas has produced a big number of writers in English and a few very good writers in Spanish.

       Yuhum stopped publication in the sixties and resumed during Martial law. Hiligaynon closed during Martial law and resurrected in 1989.

The EDSA Revolution of 1986 was an integral milestone in the history of Hiligaynon literature. Because of the new management of the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the creation of the Presidential Commission for Culture and the Arts which later became the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, new writing and new writers have been born. The CCP and the NCCA have become truly the people’s patrons of the arts by paving the way for the creation of regional and local art councils, providing writing grants to writers of marginalized languages, supporting workshops and publications and conferring awards. Competitions likewise have had their share in the ferment of new writing. Most significant is the inclusion of the Hiligaynon short story, alongside that of Cebuano and Iluko, in the Palanca Awards since 1997.

Just like any other language, Hiligaynon has gone a long way before it became worthy of national recognition, development and utilization. In fact, many Hiligaynon words have been included during the setting up of the national language, Filipino, because it is undeniably one of the most extensive (in terms of usage and literature) pioneer indigenous tongues in the archipelago.



Encyclopedia of Philippine Art, Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1994

Hosillos, Lucila V. Hiligaynon Literature: Texts and Contexts, The Ilonggo Language and Literature Foundation, Inc., Iloilo City, 1992

Mulato, Santiago Alv. Ilonggo Men of Letter, Iloilo City (unpublished)

Deriada, L.P. Hiligaynon Literature, National Commission for Culture and the Arts, On-line Edition


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