First Poetess of the Philippines
She was to the Philippines as Sappho was to Greece, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz to Mexico, Elizabeth Barret Browning to England, and George Sand to France. Her exquisite poems in Spanish and in Iloko were exhibited in the Exposicion General de Filipinas in Madrid (1887) and in the International Exposicion in Paris (1889), where they attracted wide attention and won fame for her country and her self. In recognition of her literary ability, she was included in the Encyclopedia Internationale des Oeuvres des Femmes (International Encyclopedia of Women’s Works) which was edited by Madame Andzia Wolkska in 1889.
Leona Florentino was born in Vigan, Ilocos Sur, on April 19, 1849, of rich Ilocano family. Her father, Don Marcelino Florentino, was one of the richest men in Ilocos; her mother, Donya Isabel Florentino, was an educated and civic-minded lady. Since early childhood, Leona showed remarkable intelligence and imagination. She learned her first alphabet from her mother and rudiments of Spanish and religion from private tutors.
At the age of ten, Leona could write poetry in Iloko and speak in Spanish. She was brightest child in the family. She could not enter any university because the portals of higher education were closed to all women during the Spanish regime. During her time, it was the prevailing belief that a woman place was either the home or nunnery. Without benefit of the university education, Leona improved her mind by voracious reading of books. A learned Ilokano priest, Father Evaristo Abaya, curate of Vigan, taught her advanced Spanish and encouraged her to write poetry.
When Leona bloomed to womanhood, she married Elias de los Reyes, who at one time served as alcalde mayor of the province. Five children born to them, the eldest of whom was Isabelo de los Reyes, who later become distinguished man –of- letters, civic leaders, and senator. Evidently Don Belong, as senator Isabelo de los Reyes came to called, inherited his literary talent from his great mother.
Despite the heavy burden of her household work and the delicacy of her health, Donya Leona spent much time and energy in writing poems and dramas in both Spanish and Iloko languages. Among her known poems were Rucrunoy (Dedication), Naangaway a Cablaw (Good Greetings), Nalpay a Namnama (Vanishing Hope), Benigna, Para ken Carmen(For Carmen) Panagpacada (Farewell), Emilia, Leon XIII (dedicated to pope Leo XIII ), and castora, Unfortunately, many of her literary works had been lost. The few that have been preserved may still be found in the national libraries in Madrid, London, and Paris. Her poetical works were given international recognition at the expositions of Madrid (1887) and Paris (1889).
The poems of Leona were characterized by their originality of thought and elegance of expression. In limpid, lyrical verses, she sang the customs and tradition of their race, the thoughts and ideals of her people, the glory of Filipino womanhood, and the romanticism of her nation. Her mastery of Spanish and Iloko was unsurpassed by any other woman writer of her time. Because she was a devout catholic, there was in her poems a vibrant spiritual undertone which blended harmoniously with their melodious overtones. Her poetry proves that art and religion can mix well to express the glories of God, beauty and fatherland.
Leona’s melodious poems in the Iloko Language were widely quoted by the Filipinos of Ilokandia. In the words of one of her biographers: Passages from her works were quoted profusely in the theatres, in daily conversation and by suitors seeking the favors of their fair ladies.
Leona died in Vigan, on October 4, 1884, at the age of 35. Her dedicate health broke down because of strain of her household chores and literary labors. Though she died rather young, her fame as a poetess was already established in the Philippines and in Europe. She was really the first Filipino poetess to win international recognition. Her memory is now preserved by a monument and a street in Vigan, and immortalized by the pens of historians and biographers.