Tita Lacambra-Ayala striking a pensive pose, cigarette poised between her fingers. Photograph from Good Reads Inc.
Culture Books

The eternal Tita Lacambra-Ayala

Mother to Joey Ayala and Cynthia Alexander, Tita Lacambra-Ayala was a legend in her own right and was an iconic voice in the world of Philippine letters.
ANC-X Staff | Jan 25 2019

Tita Lacambra-Ayala was an outlier, a rebel, and a true artist. Any way you look at it, she lived for art, or—in the case of several people she mentored—art lived for her. She was the kind of extraordinary woman who could spawn two music icons, Joey Ayala and Cynthia Alexander, and make poets out of ordinary writers. When contemporaries built their careers in Manila, Lacambra-Ayala built a haven in Davao, where art seemed not so much a career as a calling.

The writer’s accoutrements and awards seemed secondary (perhaps tertiary, or of no count at all), though she was not without her share of them.

The inimitable Tita Lacambra-Ayala was one of those rare things: a much-loved writer. Photograph from Ateneo Library of Women's Writings

Perhaps to get to the heart of a writer is to ask them which among their written work counts as their favorite creation. For Lacambra-Ayala, it was “Sunflower,” her first poem—an ode as much to the sunflower as to the resilience of the self, learning to stand up after a hard lesson, and carrying no bitterness for whatever or whoever taught it.

Poised to the sun, like warning of violence,

Its neck arches subtly hiding there

Whatever wistfulness it has from

The uninvolved eye. And its worship is gay

Bedecked in reflected sunshine

Honest as dress of green the coolness

Of rivers. This is the plant of courage

Growing rank among the stones (how well

It hides the bitter of its sap) …

We see in the poem more than a poetics, we see a philosophy, a quality of heart, even a Tao.:

…preening without pretense, loving itself as much

as the source of its roots and ends

in whatever season or age, warming

November and December’s gloom like,

Wherever it can, a piece of sun.

The sunflower is not the subtlest of flora (indeed it preens without pretense). The key to the sunflower is not its wide eye, but its neck as it turns toward the sun, hiding whatever bitterness it has at the source, and carrying a bit of sun with it wherever it goes, and in whatever weather. Lacambra-Ayala, in this poem, could very well have been talking about herself, or her dream self. She dispelled winter gloom wherever she went.

Sunflower poems was Tita Lacambra-Ayala’s first book. It was published in 1960. Photograph from Gathering Books

It was her care of our local literature that won over some of our country’s best scholars and writers. Renowned critic and poet Dr. Gemino Abad noted that Lacambra-Ayala was one of our finest poets because it was in her hands that the poem lived. It was neither artifact nor relic, it was an experience. “She cared for her words,” he says, and that care for words was care for light (like the Sunflower in her poem).” And Lacambra-Ayala was a light source for so many. Writer and Treasurer of the Davao Writers Guild, Jhoanna Lynn Cruz, recalls how, during an International Women’s Day celebration, Lacambra-Ayala had mentioned Cruz as one of the women writers she was reading. “I had long been a feminist,” Cruz says, “but I felt like that moment had turned me into a feminist writer, joining a weave of women writing of their experiences as women and for each other…I needed to keep writing because Tita was reading me.”

A leading female voice in Philippine poetry in English, Lacambra-Ayala published four books of poetry between the years 1960-1999. These were Sunflower Poems (1960), Ordinary Poems (1969), Adventures of a Professional Amateur (1999) and Friends and Camels in a time of Olives (1999). Lacambra-Ayala was also decorated for her work, having won a Philippines Free Press award for the short story in 1970 and the Gawad Balagtas for poetry in English in 1991.In Davao, she founded the Davao Writers Guild, and was hailed as this generation’s  “Mother of DavaoeƱo” literature. Among literary circles, Lacambra-Ayala was a beloved figure, striding through readings and the rare festival wearing a fedora hat, offering coco-bead necklaces to writers she felt an affinity toward and drawing a crowd around her of rookies and old-timers.

Lacambra-Ayala was also the driving force behind the Road Map Series, serving as series editor and publisher of the literary zine. The series featured poetry and art in the accessible and portable form of a map. The zine was unprecedented, and showcased a knack for finding original and creative formats of publication. Her support of artists both known and rising was legendary, and it was this series that she considered her major literary work—one “untrammeled by deadlines,” and done in a format where “even the busiest reader can, at a glance or two, become informed of an artist’s work.”

Poster celebrating an important milestone in the history of the Road Map Series. Photograph from Gathering Books
Issues of the Road Map Series with their corresponding years of publication. Photograph from @roadmapseries on Facebook

Acclaimed poet and writer Alfred “Krip” Yuson recalls her as being “much loved and so loving. ” He remarks that the poet passed at the age of 88—the “token number of infinity,” he says.  A number perhaps as endless as Tita Lacambra-Ayala herself.