It was a quiet passing of a man who was considered a literary treasure and who had contributed much to Philippine literature as author, playwright, publisher, and teacher.
Alberto S. Florentino (Bert) was born in Nueva Ecija, Philippines on July 28, 1931, the second of seven children of Alberto San Buenaventura Florentino and Maria Rivera Sanqueza. His father was a teacher who always organized drama and choral groups. The young Bert used to type multiple copies of his father’s plays, an activity that helped usher Bert into playwriting. Later, as a 23-year-old accounting student at the University of the East, Bert wrote the one-act play, The World Is an Apple, which won the Carlos Palanca Award. He dropped out of accounting and went on to write plays, four more of which won Palanca Awards: The Cadaver; The Dancers; Cavort with Angels; and Oli Impan.
Continuing his exploration of the struggles of Filipino urban poor, Bert wrote 100 plays for TV and cinema. He was the main scriptwriter of the award-winning TV drama series “Balintataw” in the early ‘70s, which boasted original scripts, thus inspiring the emergence of a crop of playwrights and scriptwriters. He also wrote nine other drama anthologies. His movie scriptwriting credits include: Maskikip, Masaki, Mahapdi; Bulaklakan Man Ay Lupa Rin; Babae: Ngayon at Kaimlanman; and Ang Daigig ay Isang Patak na Luha.
In addition, he wrote poems, short stories, and newspaper articles and he taught at the University of the Philippines. But perhaps one of his most significant work was book publishing. In 1959, with donated money of 400 Philippine pesos, he went into book publishing, turning out 75 titles by 100 Filipino prewar and postwar writers. His publishing series included Bestof2Worlds, Storymasters, Makata, Batikang Kuwentista, and the Peso Books.
The Peso Books made an impact. Costing thirty centavos to make, each Peso Book was sold at a peso each to make literature accessible and affordable. His first Peso book was Poems 55 a collection by his friend Jose Garcia Villa, already a well-known poet at the time. More Peso Books were published, including first-books by Linda Ty-Casper, Paz Marquez Benitez, Carlos Angeles, and other authors who went on to make important literary contributions. Bert liked to note that, “At the turn of the century, the Peso Book Series had twenty-one titles by six Philippine National Artists for Literature: Jose Garcia Villa, Nick Joaquin, Francisco Arcellana, N.V.M. Gonzalez, Edith Tiempo, and Napoleon Abueva.”
The repercussions of the Peso Books reverberate to this day; inspired by Bert’s Peso Books and dedicating the work to him, the Ateneo University Press will publish "Ateneo Little Bluebooks" to make available a compact library of Filipino Literature.
Bert’s awards are numerous. He became a TOYM (Ten Outstanding Young Men) awardee for literature in 1960, an honor he shared with then Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. (for public service). Aside from being a five-time Palanca awardee, he was a two-time Arena Theater winner. He was awarded a Patnubay ng Kalinganan Award from the City of Manila and a Presidential Medal of Merit (in 2008). He traveled six times from the Philippines to the US on travel and study grants. He was the Philippine representative to the 1966 PEN Congress in New York. He attended writing conferences in Denver and Aspen in Colorado and Vermont (Breadloaf), and he was regional editor for Short Story International (New York).
In 1983, soon after Ninoy Aquino was assassinated, he and his family moved to New York where he continued his work and where his daughters pursued their careers and established families. As a transplant in New York, Bert, proudly said he took his role seriously “as literary agent and guardian of the writing prowess of his two granddaughters.”
In 2012, he was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s, after which he and Eva relocated to Portland, Oregon to be close to their daughter Lisa.
Bert passed away on Saturday morning, September 22, 2018.
His wife Eva, who wants Bert Florentino to be remembered as a gentle, kind, and honest person, says she may be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Following are some comments by Filipino and Filipino American literary personalities who knew Alberto S. Florentino:
Linda Ty-Casper (writer): “Bert used to come to the house in the UP Diliman, Area 17 and he and Len (Leonard Casper) attended literary activities then. One of those times, he found out I had written some short stories and he offered to publish it as part of his Peso Book Series. That's my first book, The Transparent Sun and Other Stories. Later, he published my second collection of short stories, The Secret Runner and Other Stories.
“I didn't consider myself a serious writer, but Bert did apparently. And his confidence helped me start writing longer works. From time to time, when we visited home, we would run into Bert and renew our friendship.
“Len and he also corresponded. Bert sent news, parts of his work in progress so that there would be copies should he lose his originals. We had them in the old square diskettes. In addition, he also sent pictures of his granddaughters, stories about them. He was a proud grandfather.
“Bert also gave us tickets to performances at Intramuros, including Nick Joaquin's plays. He was very generous in his friendship. We owe him happy memories of home.”
Linda Nietes Little (bookseller): “When Martial Law was declared in 1972, I decided to resign from my job as Operations Manager of Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith, Inc. in Manila which was also our Regional Office in Asia. Friends thought that I was crazy to resign from such a great job. The question that kept coming back to me was, “What do you do when your country is in crisis?” My sense of nationalism won and I chose to open a Filipiniana bookshop at a time when martial law had imposed strict restrictions on press censorship. Another wrong move, according to friends. But I went ahead with my plans, to provide a home for books of friends who were brave enough to write during the time.
Bert Florentino, who was a celebrated author and playwright, became a mentor, together with the late Mars Sanchez, owner of MCS Enterprises, who was the doyen of Filipiniana book lovers at that time! … Thank you, Bert for helping me follow a literary path. Enjoy the Peace that only our Lord can give!”
Luis Francia (writer): “When Bert and Eva were living in New York, they were very much a part of the Fil-Am literary scene. We once had a writers' organization called Filipino-American Writers of North America (FAWNA), I think it was in the early 1980s. Among its members were Bert, myself, Ninotchka Rosca, Linda Faigao-Hall, Angel Grey Domingo (+), Ramon Hodel (+), and I am sure there were a few others whose names escape me now.
“It was short-lived. Organizing writers is like herding cats. But we did a few readings, the biggest one was at the St. Marks Poetry Project, held at the well-known St Marks Church in the East Village.
“His daughter Leila then was an aspiring singer and actress, and eventually landed the lead role on ‘Miss Saigon,’ on Broadway. I used her in a short film I made, Flip's Adventures in Wonderland.
“I knew of Bert, from the Peso Books. I remember him in person as always in good humor and bubbling with literary projects. We had some fun times together back then.
“Adios, Kasamang Bert!”
Cecilia Manguerra Brainard is the author of three novels, including The Newspaper Widow, which was a finalist in the Best Novel in English for 2017 category in the 37th National Book Awards. Cecilia was first in touch with Bert Florentino in 1991 when she was editing the anthology Fiction by Filipinos in America, which includes Bert’s play, “Sabrina.” She subsequently met Bert and Eva when they visited Los Angeles, California. She remembers Bert Florentino as an upbeat and generous person, one who was passionate about Philippine literature.
She thanks the family of Bert Florentino for information and pictures for this article.
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