07 August 2016

Good and evil in Austregelina Espina-Moore's novelas cebuana

Ang Inahan ni Mila (Mila's Mother) [1969-1970] by Austregelina Espina-Moore, tr. Hope Sabanpan-Yu (National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2008)

Diin May Punoan sa Arbol (Where a Fire Tree Grows) [1960] by Austregelina Espina-Moore, tr. Hope Sabanpan-Yu (USC Press, 2010)

House of Cards [1973] by Austregelina Espina-Moore, tr. Hope Sabanpan-Yu (National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2013)


The three translations of Austregelina Espina-Moore to date, all undertaken by scholar and translator Hope Sabanpan-Yu, were but a small subset of her novels written in the Cebuano language. These so-called novelas cebuana were part of the Cebuano tradition of novel writing with distinct characteristics. Sabanpan-Yu described this genre as 'serialized fiction' in her preface to her translation of Where a Fire Tree Grows:

The novela cebuana, as the term indicates, is unique to Cebu. It is a novel published as a serial in local Cebuano magazines. Like the Western novel, the novela cebuana contains typical elements and the narrative usually progresses in a linear pattern. The novela cebuana does not deal with culturally dissident issues or with political matters. In the Cebuano context, the novela penetrates the traditional Cebuano cultural milieu by dealing with the universal themes of family, romantic love, life, morals, struggle, and the arts. Overall, it has the wide appeal of popular literature.

My decision to translate one of the [ten] novelas cebuana of the late author, Espina-Moore into English, is to counter the hegemonic dominance of American popular literature and build on existing Cebuano literature.

Sabanpan-Yu's effort in her three translations was indeed commendable for offering alternative reading materials to – let's face it, an unwinnable proposition – counter the American popular fiction hegemon. At the very least, her translations breathed life to this genre of Cebuano novel for the discovery of adventurous readers.

Based on the page count of the three texts, the novela cebuana was actually a novella, of only some fifty-odd pages in English translation. The three novels were presented in bilingual format, but not in facing pages: the whole novel in Cebuano appeared straight through first, followed by the English translation in the second half of the book. They were what the translator described them to be – fiction concerned with domestic family lives, relationships, and morality.

The exploration of morality was what probably makes the genre popular to the readership of Cebuano magazines (e.g., Saloma and Bisaya) during the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, serialization of novels in magazines (and comics, for the graphic novels format) was quite popular in the Philippines during the postwar period not only in Cebuano magazines but also in Tagalog weeklies and in other languages as well (e.g., the epic Hiligaynon novel Margosatubig also first appeared as a serial). Fiction writers were revered by the reading public in that golden age of novel reading when support for and readership of novels was so high. Given the popular following of novels by the masses during those times, it was such a huge step back to local popular literature (and to culture, in general) when readers in the vernacular languages now became so enamored with other forms of entertainment and reading material.

It was quite understandable why Sabanpan-Yu wanted to challenge the currently reigning mindless, Hollywood hegemon when the reading public then was more receptive of the effort of local novelists. The translator wanted to resurrect interest in the Cebuano literary production which had become marginalized and now consigned to library archives.

The reasons for the present state and (relatively poor) reception of Filipino literary culture by its own citizens were quite complex as they span the socioeconomic, political, and artistic domains. Investigation into this would require a dissertation about the martial law and the postcolonial conditions. But then perhaps Espina-Moore's novels already hinted at this rapid shift toward cultural backwardness with her intimations of the rise of materialism and capitalism in the Philippine economic structure.

In any case, Espina-Moore's brand of serial novellas had so much to offer the general reading public in terms of the family conflicts and marriage woes, domineering wives, spurned lovers, philandering husbands, spendthrift mothers, divorce, children caught between their separating parents, artistic sons and daughters, traditional and modern roles of women, class tension, moral degradation. Her careful delineation of the conflicts in short, snappy chapters – perhaps the natural division of the weekly installments of a serial – nurtured enough suspense to keep the interest of common readers. In these novellas, the cast of characters was enriched by a dominant 'villain' who served as counterpoint to the moral center or conscience of the story. In Mila's Mother, the titular Teresa was a fierce character shaped by unfortunate circumstances. Her daughter Mila – a modern woman with passive feminist ideals – provided a counterpoint to her mother.

"What I want to say is that the natural predisposition of woman is marriage. After marriage, there's no more freedom. Husband, child, home – home, child, husband. The woman who strays will certainly get censured." The image of her mother, Teresa, arose in her mind; –. She could hear her say: "That's the Filipino way of thinking – the traditional Filipino."

"Continue. Is there any other?"

"Another way of thinking is this: There is no difference between woman and man when it comes to individual liberty or freedom. Real freedom arises from an act that won't hurt or be detrimental to oneself and others. Freedom that knows no bounds isn't freedom at all but abuse, and in English, it's what's called taking license."

"Is that from theory or experience?"

"Everything. Theory, experience, and common sense."

At the start of the novel, Milagros Garcia (Mila) was speaking to her compatriot Roberto Eleazar (Bobby) in New York. Mila was taking a vacation. They just met. Eventually the two fell in love and decided to marry. Teresa's palpable presence for her daughter was evident in the way she voiced out to Bobby what she suspected her mother would say about the Filipino perception of women ("She could hear [her mother] say").

When the two young lovers returned to the Philippines, it turned out that Bobby's father and Mila's mother were previously an "item" in their younger years. The two had a rather colorful history. Mila was then a poor young woman and it was impossible for her (given her unremarkable "ancestry") to marry Juan "Johnny" Eleazar, who was the scion of a very rich family. After all, in Johnny's own words (in speaking to his wife), Teresa was a bad match:

Teresa did many things then that showed how rotten her character was, her hunger and greed. I knew this not only from suggestions but from what I observed. She'd be jealous of the enjoyment and happiness of others. I noticed this. Teresa was like a lovely but poisonous flower when approached. The only good thing was that I wasn't blind or deaf. Maybe the psychiatrist would say Teresa's attitude originated from her situation because she grew up deprived – deprived not only of wealth but also of love. Just think of it. A pretty child growing up in poverty, watching other mestizas like her who wouldn't even glance at her. Just think of a child growing up, watching her classmates or playmates with toys, with the right clothes, the right car, but she had none of these things and could only have a taste of it all when given attention or given by friends. Just think of a growing child, suddenly slapped and reminded whenever she made a small mistake that she was a replica of her mother ["a dancer"]. I learned this from others and from Teresa herself. It's a pity. But what could I do? Could I be sure that when we married her nature would change? What's called nature is very difficult to change if ever it can be changed. Marriage isn't for a few days or months. Marriage is forever. So even if I really pitied her situation and knew the cause of her bad character, I also knew that I wasn't born to this world to become a martyr for a woman. A wife like Teresa? God forbid!"

At this point we hadn't yet met Teresa – described elsewhere by her American sister-in-law as "the very lovely woman whose industry and vigor's like a troop of Hitler's soldiers" – in person, and yet her infamy, at least in the eyes of her former boyfriend, already preceded her. It was already firmly established by those who knew her that she was a "bad" person. Espina-Moore already dispensed character nuance and complexity here. Mila's mother was no Mother Teresa. The novelist was playing to the popular notions of women and marriages and was making radical shifts in other directions. The novelist was constructing the play of plot and the subsequent comedy of manners, clash of traditions and customs (between the Filipino tradition of the old Cebuano family of the Eleazars and the American tradition of the Grahams), and catfights, when the two families, the Garcia Grahams and the Eleazars, met to plan a wedding.

Teresa Garcia rose from poverty by marrying Kenneth Graham, an enterprising American businessman. Their marriage was held together by the birth of Mila. Even Teresa herself acknowledged and embraced her shrewdness and wiles to "bag" Ken Graham as a husband and improve her financial status in life.

Poverty is a crime. No one respects you; no one looks at you; no one falls in love with you when you're poor. They say that I cheat, I take advantage, I'm cunning, grab what isn't mine, I'm envious. But if not for jealousy, there'd be no ambition. If there was no ambition where would I be now? I'd still be a salesgirl in Cebu, married to a scumbag, give birth to scum who'd marry scum. Now everything's possible because of my ambition – of my efforts. My own efforts. Even this husband beside me now [in church during Mila's wedding] who's a successful businessman. He's mine because of my efforts. I didn't wait for him to fall to others. When I saw him, I said, this one's mine. And now he's mine. Our situation is like this because aside from my efforts, I also pushed my husband to strive. I drove away friends who wouldn't be any good. What's the use of friends who can't add to wealth? Isn't there truth to the saying that friends are treasures as well? For me, a friend's a treasure if he brings wealth. So now, with Mila's marriage to Johnny's son, it evens out everything. The community's sin against me is paid up. But only on that score.

After Mila's marriage to Bobby, Kenneth pondered the idea of separating from Teresa since he was no longer bound to protect his daughter Mila from her mother as she already had a husband to mind and a new family to build.

Mila's negative definition of freedom ("Real freedom arises from an act that won't hurt or be detrimental to oneself and others") became the anchor of the narrative as the satirical novel took a turn for tragicomedy once Kenneth made up his mind on whether or not to divorce Teresa.


In addition to the depiction of a dominant 'villainous' character, what is unique about Espina-Moore's novelas was the presence of a moral center, a sort of counterbalance to the figure of the evil. It must be said that while the concepts of good and evil are not often enclosed in quotes, neither of them was strictly relativistic in Espina-Moore's fictional universe. Good is good; evil is evil. And yet the sympathetic consideration of what made the evil personas come to be was explored and weighed. Again, in the tradition of popular Philippine novels, the didactic tradition of having a "moral" in the story – contrary to the usual modernist, Western novels where good and evil are confused in an ethical conundrum – were closely adhered to, even actively pursued, in these three novellas.

Mila was the moral center in the novel centering on her mother's flawed character. In Where a Fire Tree Grows it was Jaime Gonzales Jr (Jun), the intelligent son who observed at a distance the rediscovered love affair (let us say: adultery) between his favorite teacher Ms Estrella Arcilla and his father. The idealist Jun romanticized about liberal arts (sometimes waxing about poetry) and its role in society.

"Isn't the aim of Liberal Arts that of making the 'humanities' comprehensible or the various studies refer to the society that revolve around people? Because we mentioned Fr. Roger, I tell you that I am in agreement with the Jesuit thought that if the Humanities is learnt and understood, what will follow is the search for the right profession or means of livelihood. It doesn't matter if one is a doctor, carpenter, engineer, street cleaner, lawyer, a businessman, gardener, or cook – whatever – most of all, one should be a good person, a whole creature whose heart is in the right place and whose thoughts follow a good direction."

In one of the poetry readings he frequently attend, Jun invited his father Jaime Sr and there Jaime met Estrella once again after many years of their separation. Their previous affair ended on a somewhat bitter note. In Estrella's house a fire tree stood, symbolizing the fires and passion of a lost love reignited. The poetry of the telling was notably cheesy and self-conscious. Oh, yes, the poetry in the background was defeaning.

Estrella left the kitchen first, went through the living room towards the door. But the living room was dark and the night was quiet. Their steps echoed together with the cries of their hearts. Their steps stopped. A few fireflies floated from the flowers of the fire tree with the breeze carrying the low cries: "Estrella, Estrella ... Jaime, oh my love, my love Jaime ..."

Jaime's wife, Emmy, was physically invalid due to an accident. Lately, Emmy was noticing Jaime's unusual behavior of coming in very late from work in the office. Her reading material was not so subtle, too, and so was her mounting anxiety and disorientation.

Luz [Emmy's home nurse] gently laid a hand on her patient's shoulder and said, "Ma'am, weigh your thoughts. Sadness and worrying too much isn't good for you. Finish your orange juice and we'll go to the roof garden. I'll read you a few pages from Anna Karenina. On our last reading, Anna had asked her husband for a divorce. What do you think is next?"

Emmy closed her eyes tightly, leaned against her chair, and continued, "Tolstoy's novel – Anna Karenina – is about a beautiful woman whose experiences were hair-raising. Whatever entertains, [also] provides a lesson ... and other books, all books, amusement, gardening, roof gardens, television, radio, a good nurse who's always there, a good and intelligent son, a beautiful house, all the food that you want, all sorts of clothes you can think of. It's true, there's so much convenience and not a care. Oh, Luz!"

Jun's mother was losing her grip on the world, now that her suspicion of Jaime's infidelity grew every day. Her critical opinion of Tolstoy's novel might as well be the guiding framework of the novelist's popular fare. Whatever entertains also provides a lesson.

Elsewhere, Mikhail Lermontov's lines were recited and discussed at length. There's a Russian strain of emotions flowing in this novel. In a climactic confrontation between Jaime and Estrella, poetry was once more sign checked. "For her [Estrella], the most painful thing was that she gave someone else pain. If she were a poet, this would be the most beautiful poem of her life."

She don't say. And by the end, the novela closed with Lermontov's lines about feeling and passion.


In House of Cards, we have as 'conscience' of the novel, Honorio de la Paz (Nor) and Marifel Baraza. Nor was a student tenant in a dormitory ran by Nang Cristy, while Marifel Baraza was the young daughter of a rich business-owning family. Nor listened to the story told by Nang Cristy about her work as housekeeper in the mansion of the largely decadent Baraza family. Like the image of a fire tree in the yard, the 'house of cards' was a transparent symbol of the irreversible, domino effect of the Baraza family's moral disintegration.

There was Don Cesar Baraza and his wife Doña Mercedes throwing away money as if there's no tomorrow. They changed housemaids constantly as not one (save for Nang Cristy who had the sense and stamina to survive working for the notorious husband and wife and their cruel children, excepting the gentle and kind Marifel) could tolerate and adjust to the masters' unorthodox attitudes. The way Doña Mercedes spent the family fortune shopping in Europe on Christmas, preferring to be away on a holiday with a "new company" – an intimate, or an illicit lover, it was implied – than to spend her time with the family. Don Cesar, for his part, was keeping a mistress for years.

When the Baraza business became practically bankrupt overnight due to the poor decisions made by Don Cesar, the house of cards started to fall apart. Nang Cristy, who survived the hellish Baraza household as a temporary relief when the previous head of housekeeping resigned at short notice, had her own dose of lesson to impart to the reader.

It is said that life is happier if we do what we're capable of, if our intentions are good, and if we exercise with industry our talents and skills that God has blessed us with. So I drew on my femininity here in my employer's [Baraza's] home. I was not only glad they were pleased with my work but I was also happy that when they needed me, I was there. It is also to my credit that they wanted me to stay permanently in their home but I liked my old job better. So I told Mrs. Baraza I was returning to the factory and I, myself, would look for a housekeeper [to replace her] for them.

Nang Cristy shared her colorful story in the house of the rich to Nor, and our student dormer had acquired practical knowledge about the life. The housekeeper might be lowly in her station in life, but her "love and desire to understand one's fellow human beings" allowed her to get an insight into effectively dealing with difficult rich people who were blind drunk with wealth and power.


Readers are indebted to Sabanpan-Yu's informed translation of Espina-Moore's fictional works. The translator is also author of a book-length study on the writer entitled Women's Common Destiny: Maternal Representations in the Serialized Cebuano Fiction of Hilda Montaire and Austregelina Espina-Moore.

I cannot evaluate the faithfulness of the English translations to the Cebuano language. I can only assume that like the evolution of the Tagalog language, the quality and register of Espina-Moore's Cebuano in the 1960s and 70s must be quite different to the usage of the language today. I had to wonder why the translator would render a Cebuano sentence Husto na ang parte ko sa pagka polis as "My role of policing was palling." I was not sure if it is the alliteration or word play or simply the dated Cebuano of the 70s.

I plan to read the three other novels of the Cebuano novelist originally published in English, written a decade apart from each other between 1970 and 1992. Her three English novels and two short story collections (Cuentos and Choice) are signed under the diminutive version of her first name. From Austregelina to Lina Espina-Moore, the writer opted to produce her English novels and stories with longer page counts and in alliterative titles. I'm intrigued to see how her English novels continue or diverge from these thematically and technically unified samples of her novelas cebuana.

The three translated titles of Espina-Moore are included in the reading list of Filipino women novelists in translation. They are available from the Cebuano Studies Center.


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