Guerrero Who?

Remembering the familiar and unfamiliar Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero and its meaning

“Guerrero” – something about the name constantly brings about that feeling of quaint familiarity mixed with something that is not wholly known. A more comparable context of that very sensation would be that frustrating attempt to recall and elicit (from the tip of your tongue) that specific word that you know you know and yet for some cryptic reason, your efforts are reduced to nothing but failures. Perhaps, within the framework of the Philippine academe, the arts and social sciences must have had at least come across his name once or even, on more than a number of occasions during literary discussions and critique, in reading materials or even possibly, in casual conversations (because, why not?) Then again, who would not?

Who is Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero and why is his name so ubiquitous?

The man behind the pen

Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero is widely recognized in the field of theater and literature. As a playwright having written over 40 plays in his lifetime including Wanted: A Chaperon, The Forsaken House, Three Rats, Half an Hour in a Convent and more, it is not a surprise that educational institutions would integrate his works in learning structures and generate discourses regarding the themes present in his works and their socio-political significance. His works often portray subject matters well-known and well-received by Filipinos; reinstating social conditions, realities and disparities of his contemporary whilst utilizing humor and wit in his dialogues. From being able to write a full-length play at the age of 14 to working as a scriptwriter for Filipino films, a proofreader and drama critic for news publications (La Vanguardia and Manila Tribune, respectively), Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero’s undoubted skill had lead him to render his talent in teaching and devoting 35 years of his life as a theater practitioner—ultimately playing an integral part of the revolution in Philippine drama and theater in the 1940s and beyond.

‘Freddie’ beyond Structural Emblems

Iskos, Iskas and theatre-goers would most likely associate Guerrero’s name having sight of the theater space at the second floor of the Arts and Sciences (AS) Building (also known as the Palma Hall) in the University of the Philippines Diliman. The 300-seater mini theater was named after him, after all, making him the very first Filipino to have a theater named in his honor.

Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero or ‘Freddie’ is beyond the structural emblem that resides in UP Diliman. His legacy extends far beyond classroom discussions of his works and theatrical stagings. As a concrete substantiation of his excellence, he was distinguished as a National Artist for Theatre in 1997. Freddie’s name perpetually resonates in the Philippine Theatre scene even before the Philippine government’s official recognition.

In 1947, Bienvenido Gonzales, the President of the University of the Philippines then, had personally appointed Freddie as an Assistant Professor for drama in the College of Arts and Sciences and he eventually became the director of the UP Dramatic Club. Having mentored Philippine theater’s brilliant treasures such as Behn Cervantes, Celia Diaz-Laurel, Joy Virata and Joonie Gamboa, among others. Freddie had a knack for further expounding theater education and appreciation beyond the constraints of four-corner rooms and stationary theatrical stages. With the goal of educating the masses and the less privileged through theatrical performances and its physical transportation to various areas in the Philippine region, both provinces and cities, the UP Mobile Theater was conceived. Freddie pioneered the concept of this theater “campus tour”. The indubitable success and effect of the UP Mobile Theater is manifested over its 2,500 performances across the region for 19 years.

A pillar of tradition

Guerrero’s extensive repertoire may have been the very reason why his name is seemingly found everywhere—because he was, literally, everywhere back in his time. Guerrero wrote about his contemporary; clashing social classes, moral and religious conflicts, conservative love affairs and betrayals bounded an aptitude for creative humor and yet, 22 years after his passing, his works are still relevant as ever and are continuously being staged, read and discussed as if his plays would continuously enter themselves into a time warp.

“As one of the most outstanding Filipino playwrights in English, Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero is one of the pillars of Philippine drama and theater,” as Antonio Mabesa, Dulaang UP’s founding director, had aptly put.

And indeed, he is right. Guerrero’s efforts and undying commitment to utilizing theater as an avenue for education by the very presentation of social norms, stereotypes and realities. Spectators’ recognition of these displays instigate discourses and raise awareness amongst their subjective environment and in turn, would perhaps ignite the threshold for societal change from small to a larger scale.

Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero is a pillar in the Philippine Theater. He had paved the way and supported the edifices for the local theater’s present state to be recognized as a powerful agent beyond mere and entertainment.

And yet, despite his ubiquity, Guerrero remains unfamiliar to many, at times. Is it because of this country’s lack of support for the arts? Is it (still) because of our educational system’s poor handling? Is it because of the Philippines’ general perception of the arts as just a “hobby” and can go no further than that? Perhaps.

But one thing is for certain, whatever Freddie, his theater groups and his successors, were aiming for decades ago, we still have to aim for it, now, more than ever.

Perhaps the familiar chime of his name would be indicative of a ceaseless resonance that there is a “Guerrero” in all of us—that we can all be part of the essential revolution for spreading social awareness and fighting for better education, whatever decade we may be in.

Guerrero is not just a name. Guerreros are fighters. Guerrero can be all of us.

Words by Jean Edfhel C. Pascual