Bienvenido Lumbera was many great things – critic, writer, poet, activist, National Artist. But he was also a generous mentor, a ‘Noranian’, a dessert aficionado and an occasional KPOP fan.
Behind Lumbera’s genius was a man who lived with humility and grace – whose life married a narrative of courage and kindness. To colleagues and students, ‘Sir Bien’ was both a stern professor and a thoughtful friend, a fearless writer and a dedicated advocate.
Lumbera died on the morning of Sept. 28 due to complications of a stroke, and on the same night family and friends gathered to celebrate his illustrious life.
Lumbera’s youngest daughter Silay recalled how her parents would get into tiny arguments because her father always tried to accommodate people inviting him to events, even if they took place far from their Quezon City home.
“Napakagiliw niya talaga sa lahat ng tao kahit sino ka pa man – kahit na estudyande ka, kapwa guro, o nagsisimula pa lang na manunulat. Napaka bukas niya sa lahat ng mga lumalapit sa kanya para sa kanyang tulong,” she said.
Rose Yu, one of Lumbera’s oldest friends, was witness to the artist’s dedication to his friends and their craft. She recalled how Lumbera, despite his age, climbed up the fourth floor of Palma Hall in UP Diliman for the launch of her book. Meanwhile, Glecy Atienza, one of Lumbera’s former students, also remembered how the poet was present in momentous events in her life.
She said that Lumbera always found time to attend events that were important to his friends, “Kahit na nakatungkod, kahit hindi na halos makalakad.”
Similarly, UP Departamento ng Filipino at Panitikan ng Pilipinas (DFPP) chair Vladimeir Gonzales looked back on Lumbera’s joyous nature.
“Kita sa kanyang mga mata at mga istorya kung paano siya pinasasaya at binibigyan ng lakas ng mga gawaing may kaugnayan sa pagtuturo at pagsusulat,” he added.
Often, these moments of bliss meant Lumbera eating merienda at the Faculty Center, passing down sweets from his colleagues to his students, or checking up on his students at the DFPP. Silay shared that missing all these when the pandemic struck weighed heavily on her father.
Lumbera always had great faith in his friends and colleagues. He always encouraged them to not only pursue their careers but to also try to achieve things greater than they thought possible for themselves.
“Si sir Bien yung isa sa malaking dahilan kung bakit nagtuturo pa rin ako,” said Alwin Aguirre, Lumbera’s former student and a faculty member at the UP College of Mass Communication.
Likewise, Yu remembers how Lumbera had opened many doors for his colleagues, “Kinikilala talaga [niya] ang kakayanan [namin]”
Eulalio Guieb, one of Lumbera’s graduate students, also recalled words left to him by the writer, “Magsulat ka, wag kang bumitaw sa pagsusulat, ipagpatuloy mo ang pananaliksik.”
“Pambansang artista ng sambayanan”
Lumbera was no stranger to awards and accolades. In 1975, Lumbera was awarded the Carlos Palanca Memorial Award. He also received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communications in 1993 and in 2006, he was proclaimed National Artist for Literature.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and he also won several more literary awards from the National Book Awards and various recognition from other progressive organizations like the Marcelo H. Del Pilar Award from the College Editors Guild of the Philippines.
Despite having countless awards under his belt, Lumbera remained grounded and faithful to his purpose – to serve the nation.
“Basta kinailangan siya ng bayan, ng mga tinig mula sa ibaba, ay lagi siyang nandoon. Kapwa mga manggagawa, magsasaka, mga kapwa guro, ramdam na ramdam natin ang kanyang pagiging public intellectual o organic scholar,” said David Michael San Juan of Tanggol Wika
Many remember Lumbera for his “consistent” stance in literary works.
“Lagi niyang paalala ang magsilbi, magnilay, maglingkod at mag-ugnay na ang sining na hindi iniaalay sa bayan ay pagsasayang ng talino at lakas sa mga destinasyong walang patutunguhan,” Gonzales said.
Lumbera’s fearless artistry was something he had passed down to his students, many of whom aspire to do the same for their own students.
“Tinuruan [niya] kami kung paano tumingin sa lipunan, kumilos ng makatao, makabayan, makatarungan.” Guieb added.
In 1974, Lumbera was imprisoned for nearly a year under Ferdinand Marcos’ Martial Law.
“May saya ako sa pagkakakulong. I was with people of the same mind,” he said in a 2015 interview.
Gonzales remembers Lumbera in the same way, ”Lagi siyang may masasabi kapag naanyayahan siyang magpahayag tungkol sa malikhaing pagsulat, wikang filipino, panitikan ng Pilipinas at pagpuna sa mga tiwaling patakaran at pamumuno.”
Even in his later years, Lumbera remained active in defending Philippine literature. He fought against the anti-Filipino CHED memorandum order No. 20 in 2015.
In August 2020, Lumbera led a reading of Amado V. Hernandez’s “Panata sa Kalayaan” in support of a petition to junk the widely-contested Anti-Terror Law.
UP College of Arts and Letters dean Jim Naval noted how Lumbera’s death coincided with late-dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ death anniversary. In a poem, he points out that even in death, Lumbera was overthrowing a dictator.
Never a snob
As decorated as Lumbera was, his daughter Silay shared that her father was never a snob. She said that he enjoyed the contemporary music of Gloc-9, Ben&Ben, even that of Korean boy band BTS.
Silay shares, “‘Ang husay-husay nila,’ he used to say.”
This was not far from the ‘Sir Bien’ his friends and students knew. Many remember him most for his humility and good nature.
Aguirre said that his admiration for Lumbera translated well from the text he used to read to the person he came to know.
“Pasasalamat sa mga alaala kung saan ang isang taong marami nang napagtagumpayan ay kumakausap at umuugnay sa amin na para bang lahat tayo ay pantay pantay, na lahat tayo ay mga taong kayang makagawa ng mga pambihirang bagay,” Gonzales said in his eulogy for the National Artist.
From the stories shared by the people who knew him, it is clear that Lumbera’s greatest gift was a life lived in sincere kindness. DZUP