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Menchu Aquino Sarmiento



Iloilo City has captivated many with its old world charms coexisting with a vibrant modern social and business life. Significantly, IC’s progressive mayor Jerry P. Treñas has highlighted its identity as #TheCityThatReads.  Since the American Colonial Period, Iloilo has been the center of tertiary education in the Western Visayas. This millennium, more Manila-based colleges and universities such as De la Salle and UST are set to branch out here. Championing reading is the Ilonggo’s own way of pushing back against the tragedy that overall Filipinos rank lowest in terms of reading comprehension, and in international tests of academic achievements. Most LGU public libraries lack both books and readers. Walking the talk, during Treñas’s term, sophisticated and polished publications such as Chef Tibong Jardeleza’s Flavors of Iloilo and the Iloilo Art Book have seen print and been widely disseminated as worthy homages to Iloilo’s culinary and visual arts excellence.

Historically, Iloilo has always had a vibrant intellectual life as evidenced by its witty komposo and sarsuela traditions. Graciano Lopez Jaena of Jaro, founder of the Propaganda Movement and the first editor of la Solidaridad, was a respected public intellectual in 19th century Europe. As a little girl, the Ilongga novelist and playwright Magdalena Jalandoni began writing in Hiligaynon at the cusp of the 20th century, and continued to be productive for the next eight decades or so. The lawyer-journalist and social realist novelist Ramon Muzones was posthumously awarded National Artist for Literature in 2018.

The first half of 2024 saw a burgeoning of things literary and cultural, in keeping with Iloilo’s journey towards a wholistic human approach to development, i.e., one which considers not merely the business-economics side, but also the humanist—music and the performing arts (the Philippine Philharmonic and Ballet Philippines, visiting tenors and solo musicians) and even more galleries and museums.  The return of Cinema Rehiyon 16 last March to the UP Visayas Exmundo theater with its unifying theme of “Patubas sang taliambong, Banwa nga mahamungayaon” (rough translation: “celebrating the nationwide community of cinematic creatives) affirms Iloilo’s place at the heart of national arts and culture.   Film is a medium which melds the literary (scriptwriting), the visual, theater, music as well as design and technological elements. Many classics of Philippine literature have been adapted for the screen.

April as Buwan ng Panitikan or National Literature Month was a milestone for Iloilo City’s identity as #TheCityThatReads. The opening of the 7th Iloilo Mega Book Fair with the theme of “Our Shared Narratives: Embracing Indigenous Voices” coincided with the first “Leoncio P. Deriada Conference on Literature and Cultural Work” held by Hubon Manunulat: West Visayan Writers. Prof. Deriada affectionately known as “Tito Leo” by his many mentees, was a multi-lingual writer and professor emeritus of creative writing and literature at the University of the Philippines in the Visayas. This book fair formally launched the “Flavors of Iloilo” by Chef Tibong Jardeleza, which had been awarded the CNN top food book of the year, and “Benjamin,” the first-ever Hiligaynon novel written by Angel M. Magahum in 1907, translated into Filipino by Dr. John E. Barrios and Fennie Mae T. Tanangonan.  As with its older more experienced Metro-Manila/NCR precursor, BLTX (Better Living Through Xerography) and KOMIKET the 7th Iloilo Mega Book Fair had a wealth of self-published zines by young Ilonggo writers such as Domingo M. Aguillon III, Liane Carlo R. Suelan, Jillian Lei V. Belaro, Mati Carmel F. Villanueva, K.H. Francisco, Francis Ann C. Savar, Gleeza Grace P. Carisma, and Blessiel Anne G. Viejo. In keeping with the Pinoy aesthetic of smallness (see the great Nick Joaquin’s essay “A Heritage of Smallness,”) the festival was also replete with paper and vinyl stickers, which might be the most miniscule form of artwork one can own.

After all the excitement of the past year has settled down, one discovers a bedrock reason for Iloilo’s being #TheCityThatReads: the Iloilo Book Club which meets once a month at the warmly welcoming Book Latte Café, Library and Art Space at the Mega World Festive Walk. But before the Book Club, there was Books4Books, a pandemic era Facebook Group created by West Visayas University Professor of Language and Literature Michael Caesar Tubal as a platform for Ilonggo readers to swap books. This was in response to the arts curator and writer Allyn Canja’s of Thrive Art Projects tweet (Michael remembers the date as May 18, 2020) of how she hoped for just such a page. Michael, Allyn and their artist friend Marvin Monfort managed the Books4Books FB Page.

Yuri Alejandria, an HR practitioner who acts as the Book Club’s president recalls: “That’s how we all – strangely – met each other: online, in the middle of a pandemic, talking about our shared passion for books. We then started doing virtual book club discussions over Zoom or Google Meet. This went on for more than two years I think (2020 to early 2023).”

As pandemic restrictions eased, they naturally gravitated towards the Book Latte which had become the drop-off for the book barter, and later for face to face meetings. “Nothing beats F2F, when we resolved to read our pile of TBRs,” the café owner Tin Estorque laughingly declares. “Iloilo Book Club attendees also call themselves “members of Whine & Mine Book Club” as somebody gets to bring the wine to mask our whines.” There’s no corkage charge, of course.

During the meeting I attended, the books presented were an eclectic mix. A soon-to-be psychometrician introduced us to the intriguing intricacies of the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).  Classics like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Nabokov’s Lolita were shared with the freshness of new discovery. The League of Lady Poisoners was a self-possessed government employee’s picaresque choice. The lively sharing was enthusiastic and unaffected. It was a true reminder of why authors write and why readers read in the first place: for love of the word.

#IloiloCity #TheCityThatReads


Menchu Aquino Sarmiento is an award-winning writer and a social concerns advocate. IRL (Iloilo Represents Life) are short verbal pagmumuni-muni, the essay equivalent of fast fiction–but in real life. She really wants more Filipinos to care, and to do something legal and non-violent about it, preferably together, so that we act more like a civilized country, a mature democracy.

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