Jose Maria Sison and people’s literature, art and culture *

Jose Maria Sison. (Photo by Jon Bustamante)

What he had accomplished in six decades of continuous political writing and support for cultural programs become a benchmark for the sustained nationalist and pro-people development of literature, arts and culture, the milestones of which are undeniable in the unprecedented production of socially and politically motivated and conscious body of work.


Jose Maria Sison is a key figure in the development of a people’s literature, art and culture since the 1960s. As a young teacher, critic and poet in the 1960s, Sison started with social criticism as the basis of development of literature, art and culture. He transitioned to Marxism, adapting this with thoughts of Mao Zedong, for the Philippine context, including the seminal and development of a frame for Philippine literature, art and culture.

What he had pioneered in the 1960s and continuously progressed in the next five decades are what will develop into the framework and category of a “people’s literature, art and culture,” an amalgamation of texts, performances, images, written, painted, performed and produced to serve the disempowered and disenfranchised, the majority of Filipinos, addressing their needs and aspiration for genuine freedom, social justice and sovereignty. Drawing from the conditions of the people, writers, artists and cultural workers are inspired to produced socially relevant works that engage with the political, economic and social issues of the people, representing their concerns, struggles and desires for acceptance and emancipation.

From the ranks of the working class, middle class, intellectuals, women, religious, scientists, indigenous people, students, youth, urban poor and artists, among others formed several generations of a critical mass of writers, artists and cultural workers, honing and persevering in their craft and political endeavor to produce art and culture for the people. Sison inspired several generations of writers, artists and cultural workers that continue to enrich the body of works and experiences in production and reception of a people’s literature, art and culture.

Prior to Sison and the national democratic movement which he co-founded and steered in its formative years, Philippine literature, art and culture addressed the art or society debates, both posited as a kind of either or choice. The literary, art and cultural scenes then represented the romantic tradition, mainly echoing the sentimentalism of the writer and pure art. It preferred literature written in English, pastoral scenes in the visual arts, performances based on foreign classics in drama, dance and music, and commercialism in movies and as a general motivation in producing art.

The modernist painters broke this tradition in the visual arts, the naturalist realism in literature. These breaks were integral in finding other cultural expressions of nationalism. Sison took off from the nationalist tradition in literature, arts and culture, a tradition started with the landmark plays of Francisco Balagtas and its idea of proto-nationalism, concretized in the writings of the independence struggle by the writers and intellectuals of the Reformist movement and the Katipunan in the 1880s to 90s, the seditious Tagalog drama of the 1900s, the anti-American occupation in the dagli form and political cartoons in popular Tagalog newspapers in the 1910s, the indigenization of poetry in Jose Garcia Villa and Alejandro G. Abadilla and in the movies, the anti-Japanese occupation literature, the Hukbalahap songs, the modernist visual artists, and the Agos sa Disyerto literary group in the 1960s, among others.

He harnessed the possibilities of the nationalist tradition in the Philippine arts, and has gone a step further to enhance its political potential for historical and social transformations. What he has pioneered in the 1960s consolidated the creative efforts in the building of the nationalist tradition. What he had accomplished in six decades of continuous political writing and support for cultural programs become a benchmark for the sustained nationalist and pro-people development of literature, arts and culture, the milestones of which are undeniable in the unprecedented production of socially and politically motivated and conscious body of work.

How did Sison accomplish this benchmarking of Philippine literature, art and culture? He mobilized writers, artists and cultural workers through various organizations founded and supported by the people’s movement. Writers, artists and cultural workers saw themselves as part of a larger cause—the people’s movement. At the same time, writers, artists and cultural workers—as part of their orientation in the movement—were also tasked to arouse, mobilize and organize not only the working class, but also their own ranks.

Educational discussions within the people’s movement became integral in instilling the foundations of both a politically distinct art and culture, as well as the political cause of national democracy. Added unto this, the people’s movement was also urged by Sison to undertake an indigenized cultural movement: the formation and transformation of a pro-people, pro-social change consciousness among its members and those they seek to organize.

What the organizations of writers, artists and cultural workers attained, on top of consciousness-raising and organizing the working class and their ranks, was the production of people-oriented works of literature, art and culture. The founding of PAKSA (Panulat para sa Kaunlaran ng Sambayanan), the writers’ organization formed under the wing of the people’s movement, in 1971 marked a milestone in Philippine literature, directing to a writing and a literary movement linked with the people’s struggle.

The founding of PAKSA also led to the formation of a translation committee that sought to translate foreign counterpart people’s literatures, and more importantly, to translate movement documents and writings in Tagalog, the national language then. This move realized the Filipinization drive in the 1960s to come up with local anti-colonial writings on various subjects and disciplines, as well as a kind of writing that supported the experiences of those from below. The translation efforts of writers and the people’s movement paved the way for an unprecedented hallmarking of the national language as the language of operation of a national organization.

In due time, the movement also paved the way for the various translations of documents and writings in other major local languages as attested in the variety of languages used in various regional formations. The people’s movement pioneered the intra-Philippine languages translation of documents and writings. It also introduced poetry, fiction, testimonies, skits and illustrations in its organizational and cultural publications in the various languages. At present there are 24 publications of various organizations affiliated with the National Democratic Front in various Philippine languages, including English.

In fiction, Sison’s writings and support for progressive writers generated the literary movement, “Sigwa” (Storm), known for their social realist fiction in Tagalog. This writers’ group included Ricky Lee, Romulo Sandoval, Wilfredo Virtusio, E. San Juan, Jr., Norma Milaflor, Domingo Landicho, Edgardo Maranan, Fanny Garcia, Jose Rey Munsayac, and Efren Abueg, among others—all to become major literary figures.
From Sigwa, the tradition of a people’s literature in fiction, was further taken up with the founding of Katha: grupo ng kabataang kwentista in the 1980s that harnessed the social realist tradition, with stories focused on abject characters of the post-Marcos state. This group also produced major figures that continue to pursue a socially relevant fiction in Filipino in the country.

In the field of visual arts, theater and architecture, the Nagkakaisang Progresibong Artista-Arkitekto, founded in 1971, organized these ranks for the first time. The pioneering efforts paved the way for progressive theater and artists’ groups to brave the initial years of martial law and rally the people in the struggle against fascism and dictatorship. The Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) moved from its initial Filipino theater season to a more political—and original at that—theater productions.

Teatro Bodabil and Peryante of UP Diliman introduced the street play, and also pursued theater in the urban communities. Various college and regional theater groups were formed and mobilized for a people’s theater during the time. Some of these groups remain active to the present, and personalities of these groups are now in various positions of administration in arts and culture that still continue to pursue the direction of a people’s theater and culture.

In the visual arts, social realism as studied by art critic Alice Guillermo introduced a newer visual idiom to represent the conditions of oppression of citizens under the Marcos dictatorship, and the artists’ solidarity with the toiling and struggling masses. The mural, effigy, poster, wall news and street graffiti, among others became the protest art forms that engaged with the people. Hallmark artists of this visual idiom are Papo de Asis, Orlando Castillo, Antipas Delotavo, Edgar Talusan Fernandez, Neil Doloricon, Jose Tense Ruiz, and Pablo Baens Santos, among others, all from the group Kaisahan, formed in 1976.

Art critics have marked several generations of social realist visual artists, beginning with Kaisahan. Sison’s writings and support have also forged unity among filmmakers, theater artists, visual artists, musicians and writers. Through the Concerned Artists of the Philippines, founded in 1983, and led by National Artist for Film Lino Brocka protested against the censorship policies and practices of the Marcoses, and fought for the right to free expression. The group remains active to the present, with National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera, Pete Lacaba, Neil Doloricon and Joi Barrios as succeeding heads.

Sison’s writings largely come from him being a poet. What he did for his poetry is also what he did for this political writing: to generate a social consciousness that is anti-colonial, anti-feudal, and of course, in the service of people and their need for social and historical transformations. It is this creative wellspring that serves as inspiration to the ranks of writers, artists and cultural workers. He has a wide view of literature, art and culture that is inspired not only by Marx and Mao but also from Southeast Asian progressive intellectuals. His modality in the adaptation of Mao, indigenization of Marx and filtering of thoughts by Southeast Asian progressives for the Philippine national liberation struggle becomes a model of reaping the best ideas and practices from foreign and local intellectuals to the contemporary social conditions for writers, artists and cultural workers in serving the people.

Embedded in national democracy is the adaptation of Mao’s cultural revolution and the 1896 revolutionaries’ propaganda movement, to what Sison has referred to as the “second propaganda movement.” This means that a progressive and pro-people consciousness becomes part of the lived experience of activists of the various sectors. This cultural consciousness-raising and remolding led to a change in ideas and actions that defied hegemonic practices of the status quo. Workers and peasants were treated as co-equals in the struggle for genuine social justice and transformation. Indigenous peoples, especially the peoples of the Cordillera and the Moros, were given a prominent place in the movement set-up. Women were treated with respect and rendered as partners in the national democratic struggle.

Scientists were organized to address the development of a mass-based science program for the people. Artists and writers continue to be mobilized for a people-sensitive writing and engagement. The idealism of students and youth formed a vanguard for projecting issues of the people. Teachers became the core for espousing a nationalist, scientific and pro-people education. The Catholic sector was also organized to espouse a more responsive religious experience of the people. From progressive organizations formed in the early 1970s and banned in the declaration of martial rule in 1972, these organizations transformed themselves into the underground movement that nurtured the people’s aspirations against the dictatorship.

Many more underground and legal sectoral and regional organizations were formed after 1972, and continued to transform to other organizational opportunities for the youth, farmers, migrant workers, teachers and education workers, urban poor and media workers, among others. Each sector and region have a body of thematic and literary publications, with some even their own cultural groups especially in alternative media, that continue to produce and add on to the integral body of work of a people’s literature, art and culture.

As a supporter of various progressive organizations, Sison set a different cultural program that intimately ties organizing with cultural formation and transformation centered on serving the people. Documents via messages and essays testify to Sison’s support and influence in the founding congresses of PAKSA and Nagkakaisang Progresibong Arkitekto-Artista (NPAA) in 1971. In the 1980s, Sison expressed support messages to the founding of GABRIELA, League of Filipino Students (LFS) and the Makabayang Alyansa ng Sining Anakpawis, and the convening of the UP Writers Club and NPAA.

In the 1990s, Sison’s messages extended to the congress of the Cordillera People’s Alliance, College Editors Guild of the Philippines, and the founding of the first alliance of cultural workers and organizations in the country, Sining Bugkos. Sison’s continuous support stretched in the 2000s with the convening of the Congress of Teachers and Educators for Nationalism and Democracy (CONTEND) and LFS, and in 2010s in the congresses of the Center for Nationalist Studies, CONTEND, and Karatula, a youth-based cultural organization.

Sison pioneered, influenced and continues to be a major force in the people’s literature, art and culture. Even with the excesses of the revolutionary movement, especially in the late 1980s to early 1990s, Sison was first to spearhead the rectification movement within the ranks of the national democratic organizations. He radicalized the people’s perspective of the various sectors and regions, consolidated a national vision that is pro-people, and worked for its social and historical transformation. He provided the seed of continuity from the nationalist tradition in 1896 to the present, radicalizing this further to its contemporary pro-people formation and transformation. Sison nurtured and transformed Philippine literature, art and culture to its present dynamic pro-people substance both in terms of form and content, production and dissemination.

And for this major contribution in people’s literature, art and culture that helped define sectoral, regional, national and diasporic Philippine literature, art and culture, Sison deserves a place in the table of recognition.

* Tala mula sa awtor: May isang pagkakataon noong 2017 na may lumapit sa aking org para magpatulong gumawa ng nomination para kay Jose Maria Sison for National Artist. I know, right, not the most ingenious move. Ito rin ang naisip ko.

Kesa i-turn down ko agad, nag-request ako ng research materials na mayroon na sila at pinag-aralan ko ang mga ito. Napagtanto ko na substantial ang kontribusyon ni Joma sa progresibo at rebolusyonaryong pihit ng reaksyonaryong panitikan, sining at kultura simula 1960s hanggang sa kasalukuyan; na siya at ang kanyang panulat ang naging giya ng isang organisadong kilusang kultural, at ilang henerasyong manunulat, artista at manggagawang kultural.

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