Farewell to Virginia Moreno, The High Priestess of Philippine Poetry

| Written by Celeste Ann Castillo Llaneta

Filipino poet, playwright and cultural icon Virginia R. Moreno at her tribute to National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, which included an exhibit dedicated to Joaquin, and the video screening of Joaquin’s Portrait of an Artist as Filipino (film adaptation, 1965), directed by National Artist for Film and Theater Lamberto Avellana, UP Film Center, 19 May 2018. Photo from JW Capili.

She became known among her fellow poets, writers, and literary icons as “The High Priestess” and “The Empress Dowager of Philippine Poetry.” Lofty titles, true, but in the case of Filipino writer, poet, playwright, educator, and founding Director of the University of the Philippines (UP) Film Center, Professor Virginia Reyes Moreno, the monikers are well-deserved.

Professor Moreno, sister to Asia’s Fashion Czar Jose “Pitoy” Moreno, also a UP alumnus, passed away on August 14, 2021, with news about her death at the age of 98 reported on social media.

Born in Tondo, Manila, on April 24, 1923, Moreno lived a storied life, with her work spanning literary genres, from poetry to theater to cinema. She earned her degrees at UP Diliman, where she was literary editor of the Philippine Collegian, and the Kansas Institute of International Education, as a Rockefeller fellow in creative writing. In 1969, Moreno studied at the British Film Institute in London under a British Council grant. In 1973, she was a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. She also co-directed the documentary The Imaginative Community: 7 Poets in Iowa.

Throughout Moreno’s career, she mentored generations of Filipino writers, visual artists, academic scholars, teachers, curators and filmmakers, who remember her as a feisty and lovable professor of English and Humanities. She was the leading proponent for establishing the Humanities Center in UP Diliman, which evolved into Bulwagang Rizal or the UP Faculty Center (destroyed by a fire in 2016). In 1959, she co-founded the UP Department of Humanities, now the UP Department of Art Studies. She became the first executive director of the UP Film Institute’s Film Center in 1976, a post she held until 1991.

Her play, Straw Patriot (1956), was translated into Filipino by Wilfredo Pascua Sanchez in 1967 as Bayaning Huwad. In 1969, The Onyx Wolf, also known as La Lobra Negra and Itim Asu, won the National Historical Playwriting Contest. The Cultural Center of the Philippines turned the play into a ballet performance a year later, with National Artist for Dance Alice Reyes performing as the lead.

Moreno’s first poetry collection, Batik Maker and Other Poems, garnered the Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Poetry (First Prize) in 1972. The book is also notable because of the care and craftwork that went into it. As described in the website of the Ateneo de Manila University’s Library of Women’s Writings

“Of the 13 handcrafted copies made for its 1975 CCP-launching, 5 vanished altogether, spirited away by those possessed by its lush dreamwork and haunting strains. Bookmaker Hilario S. Francia meticulously crafted and stitched each copy of the book. In the famous broken-sword motif of Javanese royalty, Moreno herself chose the batik-cloth cover and flew it in from Jakarta. Her brother, Jose Moreno, supplied the Kyoto rice paper for its pages, bought from one of his Osaka sojourns. (National Artist for Music) Lucrecia Kasilag deployed her gamelan orchestra for the occasion. Seasoned actors Vic Silayan and Lolita Rodriguez, along with Moreno’s diplomat friends, recited the poems in three languages—in the lyrical English master text, in the elegant French translation, and in Larry Francia’s masterful Filipino.”

In 1984, Moreno won the Southeast Asia (SEA) Write Award, recognizing the impact of her literary excellence and cultural leadership in the ASEAN region. In 1991, she was conferred the Chroslais dans l’Ordre des Palmes Academiques by the French Government. She also served as chair of the UNESCO Culture Committee of the Philippines. Until she passed away, she was President of J. Moreno Foundation, Inc.

Moreno’s literary legacy will live on among the writers, artists, playwrights, and filmmakers—Filipino and foreign alike—who have been touched by the bold and creative spirit of “The High Priestess of Philippine Poetry.”