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Leona Florentino: The Subtle Satirist

Leona Florentino

The Subtle Satirist

(1849–1884, Philippines)

Leona Florentino was a Filipino writer. Why do I describe her as a subtle satirist? Why, because it’s right there on the historic marker that honors her life and achievements:

“Foremost Ilocano poetess, subtle satirist and playwright.”

It’s been hard for me to find much written in English about Leona, but here’s what I’ve got.

Leona was born in Vigan, about 250 miles north of Manila on the Philippine island of Luzon.

Yes, as in Manila Luzon, one of my all time fave queens from Rupaul’s Drag Race!

Leona’s family was kind of a big deal—wealthy and influential.

She started writing at a young age, but wasn’t allowed to pursue college because, you guessed it, she was a girl.

So Leona was educated privately, learning to write in both Spanish and Ilocano.

Maybe the real reason the family wasn’t keen to ship Leona off to university was because they married her off at the tender age of fourteen!

I can’t figure out how old the husband was, but he was definitely her cousin! Dear God.

Now a married lady, Leona birthed five kids, but she kept on writing.

Her poems and plays explored feminist and sexual themes, and she was often asked to read aloud at public celebrations.

Cousin-husband was not happy about this!!

He was about as annoyed as Manila Luzon when she was prematurely eliminated from Drag Race All Stars Four by the gorgeous traitor Naomi Smalls!

Cousin-husband kicked Leona out of the family, and he sent at least one of their kids away to be raised by Leona’s sister and her husband.

Leona lived on the outskirts of town by herself, free of cousin-husband AND children, writing poems and plays to her heart’s content.

Leona continued to perform her work at events.

One of her satirical poems that was fit for public consumption (i.e. not too erotic) was called “Felicitación satírica.”

Translation: “Satirical greeting.”

Look! It’s got satire right in the title!

I haven’t been able to find an English translation of the poem, but thankfully I found a graduate thesis by Sarah Blanton that describes what it’s about.

Blanton writes:

“Felicitación satírica centers on a solterona, or spinster, on the occasion of her twenty-eighth birthday.

...the woman in question suffered from ill-humor because she desired a young suitor and the only individuals seemingly displaying interest in her were older men.

This piece playfully offers advice to the woman who is considered by many to be beyond her prime.”

I can easily see a witty birthday poem about being a 28-year-old spinster on the front page of McSweeney’s.

Not everything Leona wrote was funny, of course, because can you imagine writing funny ALL THE TIME? She ran the gamut from entertaining to erotic to emotional and many things in between.

Prolific as she was, Leona didn’t have the chance to publish any of her writings during her lifetime.

And she died at the young age of 35—not sure how.

WHY DO ALL THESE GREAT WOMEN DIE SO YOUNG UGHHH.

But Leona’s public readings had been so effective that “people in the city could recite her verses even after her death.”

Also after death, some of Leona’s poems were included in the Encyclopedia Internationale des Oeuvres des Femmes, Madrid’s Exposition Filipina and the Exposition Internationale in Paris.

Later, Leona’s son who had been sent away to be raised by her sister became a famous writer, activist and Filipino politician (Isabelo de los Reyes).

He also helped translate some of her work and keep her legacy going.

Like Manila Luzon, Leona was underappreciated in her time. But her story lives on.

You can now visit a statue and plaque at the Leona Florentino house in Vigan!

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