By Tito Genova Valiente
THERE was a note on a stationery with pale flowers.. Please drop by. This is urgent. The terse message came from Dr. Ma. Lilia F. Reaubit, retired University of the Philippines professor and scholar of Bikol studies. The note was for Kristian Sendon Cordero, poet, translator and filmmaker, but it might as well have been for all those who write in the Bikol languages and of Bikol histories and cultures.
We have not seen Tia Lil, as we fondly called her, for quite awhile. In the rare times that she made appearances during book launches and forums, she looked more fragile than weak. It was time to visit her. Kristian who was on his way to Manila to fly to the US for a residency in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, felt the urgency of her request. We also felt giddy at the thought that Tia Lil might turn over to us old manuscripts and documents.
At six in the evening, Kristian was at the porch of the Realubit home. A few seconds after that he was running back to where I was to tell me “She is dead.”
Dr. Realubit was the last of her generation of Bikolistas - scholars and intellectuals who devoted their time and discipline to the study of Bikol region.
Was it in 1989 when we recognized this group of scholars? I am not even sure of the date. What I remember though now was that night when we institutionalized the name “Bikolista” to honor this brave and intrepid group of people who love everything about this region.
The Bikolistas were a disparate group. Mel Regis was the Dean then of the Ateneo de Naga College (it was not a university yet). There was no Institute of Bikol History and Culture There were the three of us – Jess Volante, the sociologist and veteran of fieldworks,’; Danny Gerona, the celebrated historian; and this writer, an anthropologist. We offered to the College a week and we called it “The Bikol Culture Week.” Simple and not theoretically sound perhaps but it was our way of celebrating the region.
We had Pantomina Contest. There was also an exhibit on the second floor of the Administration Building of Ateneo de Naga. What began as a small display became a museum, with rare coins by a Sorsogon-based priest and a baul, later identified as belonging to the Galleon Trade by DrSerafinQuiazon of the National Historical Institute.
The collection became so expensive that Dean Regis had to employ security services to guard the place.
In another room, an exhibit of Crosses and Christs was curated by this writer and arranged by HonestoBermudo, now Principal of the Ateneo Grade School.
A night was devoted to honor some individuals who focused on the study of Bikol, the land and its legend, its politics and perspectives. On that night, we gathered them: Fr. James O’Brien, SJ, Luis General, Leonor Dy-Liacco, MeritoEspinas, RufoTuy, Socorro Federis-Tate, Cecilio Press, and Lilia Realubit. The rest were posthumous awardees: Fr. Frank Lynch, SJ, Potenciano Gregorio, the composer of “SarungBanggi,” represented by heirs, and Luis Dato, with Choleng Hidalgo delivering the acceptance speech for the poet and raconteur
There was a long brownout before the event began. A pair of Paratigsik whose appearance was coordinated by Jess Volante, would not want an abbreviated presentation. The joust threatened to last through the night. All the awardees were given the instruction to limit their speeches to twenty minutes. All the awardees did not heed the request and proceeded to deliver speeches lasting more than tbirty minutes each. For the record MeritoEspinas spoke the longest, followed by the fictionist Socorro Federis-Tate. May NoningDy-Liacco in black terno spoke in her delicate Bikol. Fr. O’Brien sang a Bikol folk song which he also sang in the plane on his way to Naga.
All of them are gone now. The last to go is Ma. Lilia F. Realubit.
No document exist to vouch for that magical night when all these names that students of culture can find only in footnotes and bibliographies were elevated to some kind of historical immortality.. There is a Betamax ruined forever, and tucked in assbox somewhere in my home. There is a the remembrance by those who love this land. There is also the note from Tia Lil, looking for us, searching for those who might still love this land.
That night, we found out the note was written three weeks ago. Tia Lil, always beating the deadline and reminding writers and scholars of deadlines, had reached her grand deadline.
Her sister, Dr. Myrna Alanis a retired official of the Department of Education, confided to us, how, in Tia Lil’s last days, she asked where the writers are. DrRealubit, in her long career in the academe, was known for searching the field for and re-discovering Bikol writers (this columnist included).
On Sunday, the 20th of August, Frank Peṅones, a notable Bikolano poet. Dr. Paz Verdades M. Santos, a leading literary scholar and activist, and I hastily gathered writers for a simple tribute to Tia Lil. The three of us felt it was our duty as scholars and writer belonging to another generation to pay homage to this pioneering academic.
The private and charming joke about the passing of the torch or the manto. the cape of power, was coming true. As Tia Lil’s sister, Myrna, quietly responded to our fond remembrance, we looked around the circle of writers, all young, and some not having had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Realubit. But we know we need not worry. Myrna, her dear sister, need not worry about the loneliness of her sister. As Jayson (Dr. Jacobo of Ateneo de Manila and himself a scholar of Bikol literature and a film critic) put it as we step out of the home of Tia Lil, “thinking is a solitary act.” Thinkers “can be with others yet remain alone.”
Up to the last days and hours, Dr.Realubit was thinking and working on manuscripts alone, as writers and scholars should. She, according to her sister, had placed documents in various areas in the house, with the firm instruction that no one should touch and rearrange them. The materials were all ordered in her mind.
That night, with the whitest of flowers and with writers surrounding her, the consolation could only come from the poem sent in by Marne Kilates, a Bikol writer of national renown. The poem, “Conversation”opens with the stanza: We go places but we never leave./Who minds our journeys?/Who remembers we ever left?/In our absence are places ever less?/ What do our words mean/When everything has been said?
Ending his “Conversation,” Kilates repeats the questions:So what do our words mean?/Who understands the rustling/Of the leaves? What was it you said?/We go places but we never leave.
So, Dr. Realubit, with your writings and persistence about the myths and epics of the land, you really never have us left.
A great bulk of this essay was published under the author’s name in his column, Annotations (Business Mirror, Aug. 15, 2017). The portion in italics is Special to Bicol Mail. The writer is the Director of the Institute of Bikol History and Culture in Ateneo de Naga. Valiente is a published film, media and art critic.