MANUEL E. ARGUILLA
Writer, Patriot, and Martyr
Manuel E. Arguilla, acclaimed short story writer, patriot, and guerilla hero, was born in Bauang, La Union on June 17, 1911. He was the fourth child of Crisanto Arguilla and Margarita Estabillo, hard-working farmer folk who owned a small piece of land. Aside from being a farmer, his father was also a carpenter; his mother, on the other hand, was an occasional potter.
When he was seven years old, he enrolled in a school in the neighboring barrio, where Alfredo Abuan taught him the cartilla. Later, he transferred to the public elementary school in Bauang, La Union and graduated in 1926.
Arguilla was a brilliant and active student. Aside from excelling in academics at the provincial high school in San Fernando, he edited as well the school’s official organ, La Union Tab. A wide reader, he won in a vocabulary contest held in the school. He was a champion swimmer and an expert tango dancer, constantly winning in dance contests. He was known to have a “therapeutic” personality and was well loved by everyone he knew, he liked to listen to people tell him their stories. Anything that interested him became an almost intrinsic part of him. It took him only three years to complete his secondary education, graduating as class salutatorian in high school.
In 1929, he entered the University of the Philippines. While studying, he worked as a writer and printing assistant at the Carmelo and Bauermann office. He became a member of the UP Writers Club, and eventually led it in the school year 1932-1933. He also came to edit the Literary Apprentice. In 1933, he received the degree of Bachelor of Science in education from UP. During the same period, he married Lydia Villanueva, another aspiring writer.
After graduating, he taught at the University of Manila while working at the Bureau of Public Welfare. The Arguilla’s home along M.H. del Pilar in Manila became a sanctuary for friends and fellow writers, such as Estrella Alfon, Jose Garcia Villa, N.V.M. Gonzales and A.V.H. Hartendorp.
Believing in the literature of social commitment, Arguilla did not remain a teacher for long for he also believed that writers were born, not made, and that a talent for writing was an innate attribute that could never be taught or acquired. Before leaving his students, he counseled them to just read volumes of stories. His only collection of stories "How my Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife" won first prize award for the short story (English) in the first Commonwealth literary contest in 1940.
In 1940, he became the managing editor of the Bureau of Welfare newsletter, the Welfare Advocate. He worked at the Bureau for three years until the latter half of 1943. By then, the country had been under Japanese occupation for two years. He was appointed to the Board of Censors and was asked to serve in the Japanese propaganda agency. But Arguilla had also just become an agent of the Markings Guerillas. Thus, while apparently working for the Japanese, he was actually heading the “Porch,” the Markings’ counter-intelligence and propaganda unit operating in Manila.
It was not long before the enemy discovered his guerillas activities, and subsequently, had him arrested in February 1944. Along with his mother and few relatives, he was incarcerated at Fort Santiago. His wife was initially unaware of his arrest but, later, was able to evade the dragnet. After two months, Arguilla’s mother and relatives were released, while he was transferred to the Old Bilibid Prisons. Later, after being tortured and subjected to a sham trial, he was brought back to Fort Santiago for execution.
Arguilla the writer often portrayed the life of the ordinary Filipino, usually the rural Ilocano, in his more than 50 short stories that have permanently enriched Philippine literature. The critic Leopoldo Y. Yabes cited him as “the best craftsman among Filipino fictionist in English, (whose voice) is the only really authentic voice. He is shamelessly Filipino.” His stories are still considered unrivalled in their depiction of the life of the Ilocano farmer.
In the prime of his life Arguilla died a hero’s death. Yet he would not be forgotten. On June 12, 1972, Arguilla was honored with a posthumous award, the Republic Cultural Heritage Award. He
was cited for producing literary works that have “continued to influence Filipino fiction writing…literary scholarship.”
CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art Volume IX. Manila: Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1994.
Valeros, Florentino B. and Estrelliya Valeros-Gruenberg. Filipino Writers in English. Quezon City: New Day Publishing Company, 1987.