Tessie Jose was F. Sionil’s ‘muse, counselor, protector’ 2
Tessie and F. Sionil Jose photographed in the book shop they co-founded, Solidaridad in Padre Faura, Manila. Photograph by Jilson Tiu
Culture

Remembering Tessie Jose: Mother to Filipino writers; ‘muse, counselor, protector’ to F. Sionil Jose

She was his “muse, counselor and protector,” wrote the New York Times about Mrs. Tessie Jose who passed away this weekend.
Jerome Gomez | Oct 10 2022

“When you talk of Frankie you can’t help but talk about his wife,” says the writer Krip Yuson in an NCCA documentary on the National Artist F. Sionil Jose’s life. 

Krip, of course, is talking about Maria Teresa Jovellanos-Jose. And to those who know the Jose couple, Tessie was indeed so much a part of her famed husband’s journey—especially with how he built his career to become one of the Philippines’ foremost writers and cultural icons, with more than a dozen novels and numerous short stories to his name. Sionil is even known to shed a tear or two when talking about Tessie in his speeches.

F. Sionil and Tessie
Tessie and Sionil met in Sampaloc, Manila in the late 1940s. Screengrab from NCCA Philippines video titled “Sagisag Kultura TV: F Sionil Jose”

“I have described Sionil before as a ‘one-man cultural dynamo,’ but that’s because behind him was Tessie Jose who quietly but steadfastly backed him all the way,” says Lito Zulueta, adviser of the Varsitarian, the UST newspaper which Sionil also served when he was in college. “He nearly singlehandedly established ‘Southeast Asian studies’ by his literary and cultural writings, his Solidarity journal, Solidaridad bookstore, publishing house, and art gallery (which was the first to exhibit Olmedo, Saguil, De Guzman, etc.) — and all of this he was able to do because Tessie loved and supported him.”

Tessie and Sionil met at a friend’s birthday party in Sampaloc, Manila in the late 1940s. She was 19 and he was 24. They saw each other first by the staircase—he was about to leave while she had just arrived, the chaperone of a friend. As soon as he saw her, “Bumalik ako,” he told CNN two years ago. First, he told her his friend wanted to dance with her (she refused). “Afterwards he came to the boarding house and I asked him who does he want to see,” recalled Tessie. “[He said] ‘You.’” 

F. Sionil and Tessie
“Ang husay mag-handa at mag-estima sa tao,” recalls the playwright and stage actor Frank Rivera of Mrs. Jose in the NCCA documentary. Screengrab from NCCA Philippines video titled “Sagisag Kultura TV: F Sionil Jose”

Before their first encounter, Tessie had not heard of Sionil who was then already an editor at the Varsitarian. When she told her parents and relatives she was dating a writer and journalist, they didn’t hide their dislike of her choice for a romantic partner. “Kawawa kang bata,” they told her. 

But the lady was already very much in love with Sionil, and so after a year of being together, the two eloped. He had no money, that was true. They used to live in an aksesorya in Singalong during their early days. It was only after 20 years after they eloped that he was able to give him a first gift. Two, in fact: an engagement ring and a wedding band.

F. Sionil and Tessie
“He would always hold my hand and kiss me,” recalled Tessie of her husband. Screengrab from NCCA Philippines video titled “Sagisag Kultura TV: F Sionil Jose”

In 1965, Sionil was looking to publish an arts and ideas journal called Solidarity. With his meager savings and a bit of funding from the Congress for Cultural Freedom, he was scouting for a place to house the publication’s office in. His father-in-law suggested the Jovellanos family’s old house in Padre Faura. It seemed a little too big for the office in Sionil’s mind—he only needed a room—but Tessie suggested they also open a bookshop. That bookshop, of course, would become the most iconic of all book shops in the Philippines: Solidaridad. He had intended to earn their keep from the publishing house but it was Solidaridad that became the family’s “milking cow,” said Sionil. 

The Padre Faura building didn’t only become a retail space for books and publishing office, it also became a venue for gatherings, specifically of Sionil and Tessie’s friends from the literary and political circles. Poets and dignitaries, fictionists, intellectuals and politicians—Ninoy Aquino, Raul Manglapus, and Ka Pepe Diokno to name a few—would gather at the round table on the second floor to discuss culture, revolutions, and the day’s political climate.

F. Sionil and Tessie
“Tessie’s financial stability, intelligence, love, and devotion for Frankie allowed him to become the man he was,” says writer Cecilia Manguerra Brainard. Screengrab from NCCA Philippines video titled “Sagisag Kultura TV: F Sionil Jose”

In these gatherings, her husband’s Philippine PEN meetings among them (Sionil was the founder of the writers’ group), Tessie would play gracious host. She would prepare food for the guests and assist in entertaining. “Ang husay mag-handa at mag-estima sa tao,” recalls the playwright and stage actor Frank Rivera of Mrs. Jose in the NCCA documentary. In its confirmation of her passing, the Philippine PEN described Tessie as “a great mother and friend to Filipino writers.”

Frankie and Tessie made for a very loving couple. They were together for seven decades and had seven children. “They were very romantic,” recalled their son Eddie in the same documentary. “They would dance very often in the living room [while the stereo played],” Their favorite tune to dance to, he said, was a song called “Ramona.” 

Said daughter Jette Jose: “One of [my father’s] advice to people who want to be a writer is to have a partner always supportive of you. That idea you see thru how my mother was very supportive of him, and they have a very incredible relationship.” 

“He would always hold my hand and kiss me,” recalled Tessie of her husband. “And at night he would always say, ‘Babe, I love you.’”

The writer Cecilia Manguerra Brainard describes the couple’s relationship as a marriage made in heaven. “Tessie’s financial stability, intelligence, love, and devotion for Frankie allowed him to become the man he was,” says Cecilia. “Tessie enabled Frankie so he could be F. Sionil Jose and spend day after day writing or dealing with literary matters. I doubt Frankie had to deal with mundane matters like a leaky faucet. Frankie knew this; the love these two had for each other was very obvious. ‘Honey,’ they called each other, as they walked with linked arms, deep in their 90s.”

F. Sionil and Tessie
Brainard describes the couple’s relationship as a marriage made in heaven. Photo by Jilson Tiu

Tessie Jovellanos Jose passed away Friday, October 7, nine months after Sionil died. She was “his muse, counselor and protector,” wrote the New York Times, clearly aware of the controversial image her husband created for himself in the years before his death.

Says the poet Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta of Tessie: “She always struck me as being the one who managed everything behind the scenes so that Manong Frankie could be free to be who he was without having to attend to everyday affairs. In the last years of his life when he became somewhat scandalous online and lost many friends who sat at his table or by his feet, you always got the sense that Manang Tessie didn’t take anything against them, and would welcome them back in a heartbeat.”

On Sionil’s Facebook page, a piece he wrote about Tessie last year was posted three days ago, following the announcement of her passing. “As I said before, we all hurt those we love, and then we lose them,” it said. “Heaven knows our quarrels and the many times I hurt her. Even now, I still cannot find the words to express my gratitude to Teresita, my happiness and God's most precious gift to me."