The man who would land in jail for being the author of a play that tended “to incite and suggest religious conspiracies against the United States”, was born in Santo Cristo, Guagua, Pampanga to Leonardo Tolentino and Petrona Valenzuela on 15 October 1868. At age 5, he was privately tutored until he was old enough to go to regular school in nearby Malolos, Bulacan at the Escuela de Latinidad run by Angelo Gimenez.
Transplanted to Manila, the young college-age Aurelio enrolled at the Colegio de San Juan de Letran and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree. His reputation as a literary savant grew as he kept on winning poetry contests one after the other. So versatile was Aurelio, that he signed up for courses as varied as Law, Philosophy and even Surveying at the University of Santo Tomas. His studies had to be cut short with the death of his father. Returning home, he landed a teaching position in the private school of Don Tomas Gamboa.
When he came back to Manila 5 years later, it was to work as an official in Tondo’s Court of First Instance under Don Francisco Polanco. This led to his meeting with Andres Bonifacio, who, together with Teodoro Plata and Ladislao Diwa, founded the Katipunan on 7 July 1892. Aurelio Tolentino had the honor of being one of the first ten pioneer members of this secret society. He was one of those seized by the Spaniards in the Revolution of 1896, and was jailed for a period of 9 months.
Tolentino’s literary genius shone forth during the American regime. He wrote everything from novels, plays, stories, essays, poems and articles—in 3 languages—mostly with nationalistic themes. His most famous play that would bring him notoriety among the colonizers was “Kahapon, Ngayon at Bukas”, first staged to a jampacked house on 14 May 1903 at the Teatro Libertad (later Zorilla). The allegorical play centered on the triumph of Inang Bayan (Philippines) against its colonizers Haring Bata (China), Halimaw (the Friars), Dilat-na-Bulag (Spain) and Bagong Sibol (U.S.). A key battle scene called for one Tagalog performer to bring down the American flag and then trample it, but the actor froze when he saw a number of Americans in the audience. Tolentino ascended the stage and did the act himself, to the horror of the Americans who saw it as an act of sacrilege against their Stars and Stripes. Arrested, charged and found guilty of “scurrilous libel’, Tolentino was promptly imprisoned.
The works of Tolentino in his mother tongue, Kapampangan, are rich and much varied. He translated classics such as the Count of Monte Cristo and Quo Vadis in Kapampangan. In 1911, he wrote “Daklat Kayanakan” (Guide to Youth), a series of didactic lyrics poems that instructed the young on how to achieve good behavior, sense of urbanity and prestige. He was also at home in zarzuelas, writing “Ing Poeta”, a comedy of errors revolving around the exploits of poet Augusto and how he won the hand of Maria, after successfully staging a merry mix-up of a play in response to Maria’s father’s challenge.
The short drama published in booklet form as shown in this article—Napun Ngeni at Bukas (Larawan ning Balen), is another one of Tolentino’s allegorical works. It is the story of Raxa Lakhan-Balen (Country) who was betrayed by Samuel ( who obviously, represents the new colonizer, Uncle Sam) and left to die in a ravine. His widow, Kalayaan (Freedom) and child Diwa (Inspiration), while keeping vigil on his grave, were taken captive by Samuel, promising material rewards like new bridges, schools and roads. In the end, Lakhan-Balen was resurrected and reconciled with Samuel, with the former, restored to his sovereignty of the country.
Aurelio Tolentino’s writings mirrored his fiery revolutionary spirit, penning words that are seemingly lyrical yet brimming with satire and laced with acerbic humor, all in the name of country and mankind. The poet, playwright and patriot passed away on 3 July 1915.
(20 September 2003)