Leon Maria Guerrero, the exile

Two days ago, it was the birthday of Leon Maria Guerrero (LMG), my uncle, the one responsible for that classic phrase about beauty contests – “Basta de barbaridades!” Then ambassador to Spain, when he learned I was on my way to Long Beach, California, he cabled my mother. He was pessimistic about my chances, but when Nick Joaquin asked if he was proud I had won, he answered, “Only because she looks like me.”

LMG was born in Ermita, Manila in 1915, passed the bar in 1939, was among the top 15; a certain Ferdinand Marcos was topnotcher. Their paths crossed during the celebrated trial of the Nalundasan case. As assistant solicitor general, LMG was prosecutor and Ferdinand Marcos, the accused. Nalundasan, his father’s rival, was shot dead while brushing his teeth at a batalan. Marcos took charge of his own defense. Although LMG lost the case at the Supreme Court, “it should not be taken against the brilliance of the man,” said the pundits. Supreme Court Justice Jose P. Laurel called LMG’s presentation “a literary gem,” but acquitted Marcos of murder.

LMG was appointed Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs by President Ramon Magsaysay in 1954. Shortly after, he delivered a speech during an anniversary of the Manila Law School. He boldly affirmed, “I believe I can say with truth that this administration is not only Nacionalista but nationalist. It believes in nationalism, not only for itself but also for others. It believes that Asia belongs to the Asians for the same reason that the Philippines belongs to the Filipinos.”

Like a thunderbolt, the US Charge d’affaires, S.B. Lacy, took umbrage and through the usual cocktail circuit denigrated LMG’s allegedly subversive advocacy of “Asia for the Asians.” The viciously anti-communist US Senator McCarthy was very much in the saddle then, so in that atmosphere even an ingenuous expression on behalf of nationalism was regarded as communist propaganda.

Teodoro Locsin, Sr. (‘Philippines Free Press’) defended LMG: “If Asia is not for Asians, for whom should it be? But, for a Philippine official to say so, it sounded anti-American. The Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs was appointed ambassador to England where he would have nothing to do with policy-making; he would be an echo, not the word.” (February 1959)

As Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James (United Kingdom, 1954-1962) he was also accredited to West Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. It was a graceful way out, but LMG had become an exile.

London’s “New Statesman” (August 1957) reported that the Philippine ambassador’s speeches were “so fresh, so sensible, so free from the conventional emptiness of official utterances that they fully justify reprinting in pamphlet form.” The booklet is entitled, “Alternatives for Asians.”

During his eight years in England, LMG translated the Noli and Fili for Longman Publishing while he vigorously promoted international trade, set up cultural exhibits, and blew the embassy budget on the Bayanihan. He also wrote The First Filipino, a biography of Jose Rizal which was awarded the first prize by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. The Knights of Rizal conferred on him the Grand Cross of Rizal.

After London, LMG was dispatched to the Kingdom of Spain (1962-1966), Pres. Diosdado Macapagal had changed our Independence Day from July 4 to 12 June. LMG wrote “La Nación Filipina Nacida en España” which was front page material. Here is a translated excerpt of LMG’s article: “A rectification was necessary, and that is what is being done today. The Filipinos born of Spain, declared themselves independent and emancipated themselves when they believed they had reached maturity; but having succeeded in leaving the family home, they found themselves converted into an apprentice and pupil in the house of another. Thus, today, the Philippines ought to love the United States as one loves a good teacher…but it ought to love Spain simply as a mother.”

After Spain came India (1966-1973); during the presentation of credentials LMG told PM Indira Gandhi: “India is a very ancient civilization, vast in time and space. On our part, we Filipinos are a young nation …we take pride in the fact that in 1898 we were the first Asian people to defeat a western colonial power and to proclaim the first Asian democratic republic…” The post included Nepal and Afghanistan. There was a brief home leave because his wife, Anita Corominas, passed away.

Then it was another Spanish-speaking post, Mexico (1973-1977), accredited to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Colombia, Honduras, Ecuador, and Cuba. LMG had remarried, my new aunt was Margaret Burke, mother of David of BBDO Guerrero.

During his presentation of credentials, LMG told President Luis Echeverria that the Philippines could learn from Mexico’s 1910 revolution and agrarian reform. I fled to Mexico during Marcos’ martial law years where LMG offered safe haven.

Yugoslavia was LMG’s final bow (1977-1980), the country he enjoyed the least because he could not speak nor read the language. On his deathbed in 1982, LMG received the Gawad Mabini from Pres. Ferdinand Marcos, the highest award for a Filipino diplomat. The exile had come home for good.