It was 1984 in Manila and Rio’s book on Corazon de Jesus’ poetry had just been published. There was chaos in the streets and rage in everyone’s hearts as the Aquino assassination a few months earlier signaled the countdown for the ultimate demise of the Marcos dictatorship. As thousands protested, Corazon de Jesus’ immortal “Bayan Ko” was resurrected and eventually became the national anthem of the anti-Marcos movement.
Over beer one night, Rio Alma talked about the famous Filipino poet. It was not just idle conversation between two weary souls; Rio was convincing me to write an article about Corazon de Jesus from the memories of his wife, Asuncion Lacdan, who was then still alive. When I got hooked on the story, I spent one afternoon with the genial widow amidst her memorabilia of the man whom, fifty years after his death, she talked about as if he was still around.
Aling Sion had many stories. Her husband’s grand betrayal of her, when he ran off to Hongkong with a woman he called “Bituin,” she left for last. It had been almost six decades since it happened, yet Aling Sion narrated the details with so much passion, I could actually feel her pain. Finally, when she was done and exhausted, and I was struggling with my tears, she very gently asked, “I was told that you are related to Bituin. How has she been?”
Rio, who has as much flair for drama as he has with poetry, had purposely not told me the identity of Corazon de Jesus’ lover. Just as he expected, I was shocked and excited. “Bituin” was a woman I knew for a great part of my life, somebody I was obliquely related to by affinity. She was a super-energetic educator who ran a preschool, taught at a university, led civic organizations, spoke Spanish like a native and drove her car like a drag racer. That she was able, in her youth, to turn her back on a society she seemed so comfortable in, was fascinating. The story was no longer a period piece for me, it had become personal.
Yet, I was never able to write the article. The turbulence in the country got too involving, and the turmoil in my own life decimated my penchant for romance. Too, “Bituin,” whose side of the story was just as compelling, asked me not to write it yet since she did not want to embarrass her husband who was then still alive.
Why am I writing this now? Some details have escaped me. Both Aling Sion and “Bituin” have passed away. However, I could not let go of the story, perhaps because, the betrayals I have lived through notwithstanding, the life of Jose Corazon de Jesus still makes me celebrate romance.
Manila in the 1920s was a gentle, genteel society that was struggling to free itself from the stranglehold of Spanish conservatism yet was still hesitant to embrace the permissiveness of its American colonizers. The tranvia (streetcar) and the kalesa (horse-drawn carriage) were sharing the streets with the automobile; the popular zarzuela (stage show/opera) shared the limelight with bod-a-bil (vaudeville).
It was in this milieu that the balagtasan, an extemporaneous oral debate in verse, took root. The poets of the period–Jose Corazon de Jesus, Florentino Collantes, Pedro Gatmaitan, among others–were all mambabalagtas (balagtasan performers), but it was Corazon de Jesus who was crowned King of Balagtasan, when he beat Collantes in a colorful poetic debate on the virtues of the Filipino woman.
Huseng Batute was undoubtedly the superstar of his era. His performances, not only in the balagtasan but also in fiestas and other celebrations where he recited his powerful poems, drew crowds that were never equaled by any of his peers. In his championship debate with Collantes in fact, people from all strata of society went to the Olympic Stadium in the heart of Manila to witness the event. The newspapers reported that the crowd was so thick, not even a pin could drop.
Corazon de Jesus was not just a balagtasan star. He was a lawyer by profession, but was so drawn to poetry that he eventually left the legal profession altogether. He became a daily columnist for Taliba (a Tagalog newspaper), writing powerful political commentaries in poetry that were very strongly nationalist. He was also a painter, a composer and a singer, at times even performing in nightclubs.
When Filipinos started making movies in the mid-1920s, Huseng Batute wrote a screenplay and starred in the movie itself, opposite Atang de la Rama, who was then considered the Queen of Kundiman. At one point, he even ran for mayor of Sta. Maria, Bulacan, his hometown.
But it is for his love poems and his command of the Tagalog language that Corazon de Jesus is remembered best. “The heart of Corazon’s poetry is love,” Rio Alma writes in his book. More than that, Corazon de Jesus lived his life as he wrote his poems – a great romantic who celebrated love’s passion as much as love’s pain. And because he was talented, handsome and famous, many women fell in love with Corazon de Jesus.
Aling Sion, a Spanish mestiza who was herself a striking beauty in her youth, remembered quite vividly the many rumors that linked her celebrity husband to various women. At first she, whose life revolved around their three children, would take it hard and confront him. As is typical of Filipino males, Corazon de Jesus would deny the rumors and would woo her trust back. Eventually, she learned not to listen to the scuttlebutt, choosing instead to trust her husband completely.
Until that one day in March 1926 when she was awakened by a telephone call from her husband’s colleague in Taliba, asking if she knew about Corazon de Jesus’ leaving for Hongkong that morning. No, she said, but she rushed to the pier just the same, only to see the boat he was supposed to have boarded sail away.
Demanding to see the manifest to assure herself that it was a lie, the young wife was instead confronted by the truth: a Mr. and Mrs. Jose Corazon de Jesus was listed.
The story was front-page stuff for weeks. Corazon de Jesus, a married man and father of three, had run off to Hongkong with a schoolteacher who belonged to a prominent family in Santa Ana. The scandal jolted Manila society, not just because he was a celebrity but also because the woman’s social prominence made the story juicier.
Aling Sion remembered those three months that her husband was gone as the most painful she had ever endured. She got a lot of support and sympathy, which comforted her. But she also never lost faith in her belief that her husband would return.
For it was true, Corazon de Jesus, despite his great love for the woman he was with, was so tortured with guilt that one week after he left, he started writing his wife asking for forgiveness.
Jose Corazon de Jesus and his “Bituin” spent three difficult months in Hongkong. “We did not know anybody,” she recalled. “We did not have much money so Pepito had to sing at a nightclub.” She knew how much he missed his family and how she was practically disowned by hers. She also had a miscarriage, which added to their problems.
They decided to return separately, a week apart. Huseng Batute immortalized their parting in his poem; “Aloha Oe” where he spoke of the pain of separating that was almost like death. “When we said goodbye, we knew we were never going to see each other again,” Bituin remembered.
But Corazon de Jesus was not easily daunted. Even as he went back to his family and his life as a columnist and poet/performer, he was always looking for ways to see “Bituin,” even just to catch a glimpse of her. Still reeling from the scandal, her family made her live in a convent–the Colegio La Consolacion–under the strict supervision of the nuns. There, as some stories would have it, Corazon de Jesus would disguise himself as a gardener in the hope that he would see her. At other times, he would reportedly ride a banca and sail by the convent walls in the Pasig River singing a harana (serenade) and wishing that she would look out the window. “Bituin” could not confirm these stories; her only link to Huseng Batute was when he would dedicate a poem for her on her birthday each year in his Taliba column.
A few years after their escapade, “Bituin” was sent to the United States for graduate studies where she would eventually marry a distinguished Filipino before returning to the country and becoming a known educator and civic leader.
Corazon de Jesus continued to be revered until his death in 1932. He was 38. At his wake, his family placed on his coffin a bunch of flowers sent in absentia by “Bituin,” with her name spelled backwards. His funeral, according to Rio Alma’s research, drew a crowd so huge it could have been surpassed only by the throngs that paid tribute to Ramon Magsaysay and Ninoy Aquino.
Aling Sion was 81 years old when I talked to her. She was living in a modest house in Quezon City with her two sisters, the only family left since her three children had all died. The interview was exhausting, as much for me as it was for her, since so much of her memories had to be articulated. As I stood up to go, she took my hand and said, “Pepito brought me so much heartache, but if he could only come back to life, he can go with as many women as he wants, I will not mind. Every day I pray that he would be alive again.” Then she added, “Tell (Bituin) that I have forgiven her.”
When I left the country in 1988, the woman who was “Bituin” was already bedridden. She no longer recognized me; in fact, she often did not recognize her own daughter in whose house she was staying. Despite the loss of most of her memory, however, she could recite every word of the poems Huseng Batute wrote for her. And when one mentions his name, her eyes would light up and she would be a young woman again, one who spurned the conventions of her time and who recklessly gave her heart to Jose Corazon de Jesus.
Would that we could love as much.
First published in Filipinas Magazine, February 1993