BOOK REVIEW: Cecile Guidote Alvarez: The Philippines Is a Stage

by Rose Cruz Churma

On the opening page, Cecille Guidote Alvarez was quoted:

“Theater is a memory bank of our history, so our nation does not suffuse from amnesia; an armor against social ills; an anchor to appreciate our habitat, wealth of indigenous heritage, mother tongue, and traditions.”

This publication is a bilingual children’s book in English and Tagalog. Using different fonts (the Tagalog version is under the English version but in italics), the book becomes accessible to both English and Tagalog speakers or those in the Filipino Diaspora who are attempting to learn Tagalog.

Typically, authors use “Filipino” to designate the national language of the Philippines which is based on the Tagalog language. But in this book “Tagalog” is used—it may not be politically correct but truthful.

The Tagalog translation reminds me of my school days when we were taught balarila and panitikan: very deep Tagalog, no hint of Taglish or any form of bastardization of language: the effect is beautiful, almost poetic in its cadence.

This is the type of book I would recommend to those learning to read Tagalog. This is not the way Filipinos speak—where English and Tagalog words are intermingled, and English words are transformed into Tagalog (i.e. mag-paplant ka na ba?) But this was how a generation of Filipinos was taught to read their language—and very appropriate for this book.

The subject is the icon of Philippine theater—Cecile Guidote Alvarez. She is credited with establishing the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA), a pioneering theater group that honed creative artists and audiences through children’s, college, and community theaters. PETA depicted social issues through original Filipino plays, using the language of the masses and alternative theater spaces. 

When she was 16, she was tapped to join the Ateneo Summer Graduate School Theater, where she did a theater workshop with disabled children. Cecile discovered the power of the arts to transform marginalized youth into creative individuals when she saw the children emerge from hopelessness to confidence.

At 18, she directed a television series that tackled the problems of the youth. This early exposure convinced Cecile that theater is not just for entertainment, but also as a significant social venue.

After pursuing studies in the US, she returned to the Philippines in 1967 with her graduate thesis that envisioned a Philippine national theater movement. This became the basis for the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA). PETA has inspired creatives who made successful careers in the theater and movie industry. This theater movement now has regional chapters involving children, college, and community theaters and traditional arts. 

One of her projects of “cultural caregiving” is by providing free arts training to street children, the disabled and indigenous youth because she believes that “the arts are a peaceful and powerful means of transmitting values.” She deserves to be called a “cultural caregiver.”

Cecile is the youngest to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Outstanding Asian Award for Public Service in 1972. But when Martial Law was declared in September 1972, Cecile and her fiancé, Heherson “Sonny” Alvarez hastily got married in Manila and escaped the brutal regime of Ferdinand Marcos and settled in the US East Coast. While there, she pursued her theater activities with La MaMa Experimental Theater in New York.

After the People Power Revolution of 1986 that ousted the dictator, Cecile and her family moved back to the Philippines where she headed the Philippine Center of the UNESCO International Theater Institute (ITI).

On the 50th anniversary of the founding of PETA in 2017, the organization received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for using “the power of theater arts in empowering communities and in social change.”

Cecile is also the first Filipina to be elected to the ITI Executive Council as the foremost exponent of dynamically applying cultural diversity for achieving its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), where she was designated as ITI spokesperson in UNESCO’s UN high-level meetings.

Widely recognized as the “Mother of Philippine Theater”, her cultural vision of a national theater that reflected and promoted Philippine languages, cultures and traditions has been realized and is now a vibrant part of the Philippine cultural scene.

The author, Rey E. de la Cruz, was a playwriting student in the Czech Republic, where at 16, he wrote his first play, Tatlong Maynika, a tragic farce on the Philippines’ class warfare and was first staged by PETA. He writes not only in Tagalog and English, but also in Spanish and Ilocano, the lingua franca of his hometown in Cagayan, Philippines.  He resides in Glenview, Illinois.

The book’s illustrator, Beth Parrocha is a visual communication graduate of UP Diliman. She has won numerous awards as a children’s book illustrator, including the grand prize at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in 2017 in Singapore. She is one of the founders of Ilustrador ng Kabataan (INK), a group of visual artists dedicated to graphically representing children’s books.

ROSE CRUZ CHURMA established Kalamansi Books & Things three decades ago. It has evolved from a mail-order bookstore into an online advocacy with the intent of helping global Pinoys discover their heritage by promoting books of value from the Philippines and those written by Filipinos in the Diaspora. We can be reached at kalamansibooks@gmail.com.


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