LITERATURE

How Naga’s oldest printing press keeps faith and language alive in Bikol

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Since 1946, the Cecilio Press has continued to print and distribute devotional materials that celebrate the power of the local language that is Bikol. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Naga, Camarines Sur (CNN Philippines Life) — After three consecutive miscarriages, my parents decided to pray the novenas to San Ramon Nonato, one of the famous saints invoked by childless couples, and to Nuestra Señora de Salvacion, a popular Marian image venerated in Tiwi, Albay. Like a combo, the tattered/taped novenas have been passed around from one family to the next supplicants. For nine days, my Kapampangan father had to prepare the altar and entertain the barangay’s most requested parapanganam or prayer leaders, Nana Taqui, Nana Bitang and my maternal grandmother, Nana Edad. The three women told the unsuspecting couple that for their novena prayers to be effective, they have to make a vow that if the child is a boy, they would have to take him to the seminary and help him become a Catholic priest.

Three months after the novena, their prayers were granted, and I was given the name Kristian to mark the fulfillment of this contract. In 1999, I entered the seminary, and before I was finally turned over to the rector, they ceremoniously handed me over the two novenas, and jokingly, I said to them, that I will not need those booklets because if I were to become a priest, I should remain celibate for the rest of my life. My mother insisted that I keep them just the same so as to remind me always that if not for those printed prayers, I will never be born.

This, I believe, is the beginning of my love story with this small publishing press that can be found in a nondescript house in Sabang, Naga City. Since 1946, the Cecilio Press has continued to print and distribute devotional materials that celebrate the power of the local language that is Bikol, the language of my birth.

The novenas produced by Cecilio Press served as my first reading materials. After the mass, if his budget permits, my father will buy me a novena to a saint. I would easily learn and memorize the life stories and miracles attributed to these particular saints and of course the effectiveness of prayers addressed to them in case of needs. For snakes and other wild animals, San Benito; for dog attacks, San Roque or/and Santo Domingo; for stomach aches, Santa Teresa de Avila; for toothaches, Santa Apolonia; and for lost things, San Antonio, ad infinitum. Of the novenas I collected, I particularly remember the Letania Nin Sarong Ina Na Nagadan nin Aking Sadang (Litany of a Mother Who Lost a Child), which my grandmother asked me to pray every Friday with her so that we continue to remember the three children my mother lost before I was born. The Letania contains a long poem, a valediction of the unborn child to the mother and the mother’s response of letting the child go. Many times, I have seen my grandmother cry over the sheer power of the words printed on those fragile papers.

Praying the Letania, I felt indebted to these siblings I never had the chance to know. I remember visiting and lighting a candle in a Catholic cemetery in Pampanga, where my supposed eldest brother was buried, who is named Pedro, and the other is Juan, who was buried in our barangay chapel. And then the third one believed to have been devoured by an aswang.

I was about to enter the primary school, when we started praying a novena for my mother, this time, we invoked San Rafael, the patron saint for travelers. My mother was bound for Qatar to become a domestic helper, a katabang to a Muslim family in the Middle East.

Among the Cecilio Press writers, Rosalio Imperial Sr., stands as the most prolific and significant. He translated several Western literary classics including Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” and the Tagalog “Ibong Adarna” to Bikol verses.

All my childhood life since the day my mother conceived me and left us for abroad, I have been dependent on these little intercessory booklets that Cecilio Press has tirelessly published. In my book, this printing press founded by Gaudencio Cecilio, is the glorious reminder of a post-war era, that Bikol, which is the language and people borne out of typhoons and volcanic eruptions, dispersed by thick mountains and high seas, whose histories and cultures remain unknown and unappreciated by many of us now, remain steadfast, standing humbly on its ground because we have cultural institutions like Cecilio Press.

Recently, volumes of unpublished manuscripts, copies of novenas, prognosticos, (dream guides) abecedario and diccionario (language resource materials), caton and perdon, including the first letterpress of the Cecilio Press were donated to the Ateneo de Naga University through its Institute of Bikol History and Culture and the Fr. James O’Brien Library. During this time when access to everything is limited, I still try to frequent the library and spend hours marveling at the cover illustrations, reading and encoding the handwritten manuscripts of ex-seminarians Antonio and Manuel Salazar who wrote most of the Bikol novenas, including those in my special personal collection. The library has some copies of the Kalendaryong Bikol which served as an almanac until the '70s. A Bikol-Spanish-English dictionary written by Luis Dato, one of the early poets in English and at the same time a Bikolista.

Among the Cecilio Press writers, Rosalio Imperial Sr., stands as the most prolific and significant. He translated several Western literary classics including Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” Gustav Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” and the Tagalog “Ibong Adarna” to Bikol verses. A former mayor of Naga City, Sali Imperial (his pen name) can be considered our Bikol’s Lola Basyang, translating many European romantic tales to the common language. Imperial also wrote several poems on love, retold biblical, apocryphal, and fairy tales, including his account of the comet Kahoutek that appeared in 1973.

In these many collections that can now be accessed by scholars and literary historians, one can just marvel how through the years, the very few agencies that promote and ensure the life of the Bikol language are not really someone from the colonized educational system that we have or the culturally malnourished local government units. But Bikol writers like the Salazars, Dato, and Imperial, and this small printing press that up to this day continues to print and distribute its classics and bestsellers, the Bikol novenas written in obviously unadorned recycled papers, but in a language that for me is continuously animated by its humble vision of eternity. Read and performed in formidable cathedrals and makeshift chapels as people’s fervent prayers asking for rains, or for a bountiful harvest, or for protection against this deadly virus, or the dreaded drought, or for someone to pass the board exams, or for heaven to grant their wish for a child or for a safety and peaceful passage to the next life — one can see where every language is anchored and directed — to hope. Hence, language, whether global or indigenous, national or local, should not only be remembered or celebrated every August like this annual Buwan ng Wikang Pambansa. In my case, I continue to struggle with Bikol, in this language of my birth, I continue to imagine and conjure the rawitdawit and usipon and screenplays that I hope will illuminate a certain understanding about the complexities of being Bikol.

In this language of my birth, I carefully read the words that have come before me, fixed as prayers printed in the tattered novenas of Cecilio Press, sacred words that were once in my father’s and mother’s tongues.