Bikol is the language of almost 5 million people in the provinces of Albay, Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Catanduanes, Masbate and Sorsogon that constitute the Bikol Region.  The Bikol people have a writing tradition with roots in its ancient folkways.  Still extant are charm verses exploiting the possibilities of words in folk poems and narratives with mythical content, and bound with early historical fragments which form part of the people’s lives.

Colonization stifled native writing, however.  Only after about two centuries later did the people begin to write poems and plays adapted from Biblical stories – this time in the Spanish writing system. These dramatic tropes were street presentations during May festivals, Christmas, Easter and Lent.  In 1890, the first Bikol newspaper An Parabareta (the Newsman) was published by Mariano Perfecto, who also established the first printing press.  Imprenta de Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia. In the midst of numerous devotionals and religious poems, there appeared two protest plays – “An Pagguiao kan mga pastores can pagcamondag ni Jesus duman sa portal sa belen” (The awakening of the shepherds of Jesus birth) by Mariano Perfecto and “Comedia na dapit sa Dios o magna cahayagan can pagcamondag ni Jesus” (A play about God or matters concerning the birth of Jesus). The first play says that the people accepted the faith but not the Spaniards; the second tries to localize the character Mary, humanize Herodes and make the coronation of Mary an occasion of revelry through two comic characters.

Corridos or metrical romances became the main reading fare for many years.  Translation from Spanish to Bikol were eagerly awaited that writers switched to translating for the money it brought them.  In time, Bikolcorridos were written.  The most popular was Magamang Pobre (The Poor Father and Son).

The comedia or moro-moro stayed for a long time.  Almost every town boasted of a comedia writer and a theater group. The lavish and pompus comedia that Juan Alvarez Guerra saw in the 1880s in Albay has been so well described.  Count on the Bikol to write protest comedias – Comedia ni Hadeng Grimaldo sa Reinong Irlandaby Sabas Armenta and Drama en Comedia de la Vida Conde Urbano by Juan Miraflor.  The first is a deviation from the Moro as villain theme;  the second advocated democracy and favors electing town leaders.

The  Commonwealth Period were years of poetic and dramatic productivity.  The zarzuela did not escape the Bikol’s questioning bent.  Asisclo Jimenez’s Pagkamoot sa Banuang Tinoboan (Love for the Native Land) demonstrated that national change can be affected through armed revolt.  Jimenez wrote 25 other zarzuelas in varying themes, mostly social criticism.  Crowds would attend the presentations.

By the mid-thirties, shorter plays became the fashion. The new themes were poor vs. rich, laziness vs. hard work and Rizal and nationalism.  Outstanding was Anti Cristo by Justino Nuyda who wrote of the inevitable conflict between individual morality and material comfort. This play is still presented today in schools in the region.

The rawitdawit or narrative poem was a vehicle of social and political criticism.  Personal poems were most plentiful.  The period also produced about twenty translations of Jose Rizal’s Mi Ultimo Adios to Bikol.  Four poets and their works stand out: Manuel Fuentebella’s An Pana (The Arrow), Clemente Alejandria’s Pagaroanggoyong(Perseverance), Eustaquio Dino’s Balosbalos Sana (Retribution) and Mariano Goyena’s Hare…Dali (No…Don’t).  Great sensitivity and exquisite images are marks of these poems, reaching up to lyricism.

The Post-War Period was unproductive.  It was the Cathedral Players of the Ateneo de Naga that sparked the cultural scene.  The students led by Rev. James Reuter, S.J. translated english plays into Bikol and delighted the Naga folks with Sunday presentations at the plaza kiosk.   In the rural towns they played in church patios and plazas.  If post-war writing was not as significant, the Bikol milieu was not encouraging either.   The stories and novels written in the fifties were insipid and mere narrations; the novels fantastic and improbable.  Writing in the Rainbow journal were largely cerebral and critical of politics, church and society.  It was the people’s interest in the folk story, Ibalon, that inspired two musicals the Handyong written and presented by Orfelina Tuy and Fe Ico, and Ibalon Opereta written by Jose Calleja Reyes.

Contemporary writing has just began to burst with creative energy.  The writers now possess the courage to deal with big themes.  It began with Francisco Penones, Jr. who sounded a clarion call in his poem An Opon sa Ibalon: Kan mahale an Maskara (The Board in Ibalon When Unmasked).  Society, he declared, is the boar that brought hunger and poverty to the land.  For this poem, Penones received a CCP award.  Merlinda C. Bobis in a masterly poetic drama titled Daragang Magayon (Beautiful Maiden) overturns the passive maiden in the legend and makes her decisive to do her part in changing society.  In her poems, Bobis subtly presents an idealism associated with remembering one’s childhood, each of them a strong and evocative protrait only thoughtful, sensitive poet can create.  For this, she merited a Palanca award.  Carlos O. Aureus weaves together theology and philosophy to present Bikol values and a panorama of Bikol scenes. In ten well-written stories, a novel and a play, he wins the coveted Palanca, CCP, Free Press and Graphic literary awards.  The young literary fictionists, Marco Lopez, Alvin Yaban, Ulysses P. Aureus and Lorenzo D. Paran III are searches for self, identity and nation.

The seasoned writers include Luis Cabalquinto, Gode Calleja and Ruby Alano.  The young writers are Home Life magazine winners Angelica Gonzales, Honesto Pesimo, Jazmin Llana, Victor Velasco, Nino Manaog, Xavier Olin and Cynthia Buiza.  Emelina G. Regis has a Palanca Award for her environmental play Dalawang Mukha ng Kagubatan (Two Faces of the Forest).  Barbara Barquez Ricafrente writes poems and paints with rage.  She is the first novel awardee of the U.P. Creative Writing Center.

The Bikolano can write memorable and significant pieces.  The native literary tradition has been resurrected and kept.   How to make the people aware and how to make them read as well and how to multiply these writings so they can be disseminated have to be resolved. 

About the Author:
Maria Lilia F. Realubit is the recipient of the national award “Alagad ni Balagtas” by the Unyon ng Mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas and is a National Book Awardee (1987) for her book “Philippine Drama: Twelve Plays in Six Regional Languages”. She wrote the first book on Bikol history and literature: “Bikols of the Philippines”. She teaches English and Comparative Literature at the University of the Philippines.