City of Manila

Remembering Leon Maria Guerrero

With so much buzz going on at this time of writing regarding the Philippines’ new foreign policy direction (which is, at the very least, leaning away from a traditional pro-US stance) as stated by Pres. Rodrigo Duterte, the Urban Roamer can’t help but be reminded of a figure in our history who, more than 60 years ago, held a somewhat similar view on what the Philippines’ foreign policy should be.

And for this story, we shall be roaming to the area around Plaza Nuestra Señora de Guia in Ermita, Manila, where this story began about 101 years ago.

Plaza Nuestra Señora de Guia, Ermita, Manila

The area around the plaza, which was known before as Plaza Ferguson, was a prominent neighborhood before the war where some influential families lived. One of these families was the Guerrero family, who counted among its more prominent members the botanist, writer, and revolutionary leader Leon, (II) his painter brother Lorenzo, and writer and politician nephew Fernando, among others.

A historical marker in the plaza dedicated to one of the Guerreros, the writer Fernando Ma. Guerrero
A historical marker in the plaza dedicated to one of the Guerreros, the writer Fernando Ma. Guerrero

On March 24, 1915, another member of the clan was born: a boy who was named after his grandfather,  the aforementioned Leon (II). Like the other members of the family, the younger Leon grew up to be a brilliant and eloquent writer, as well as his sister Carmen. Yup, the Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil’s his sister. He began his career as a writer for the Philippine Free Press and eventually wrote a number of essays throughout his life, in both English and Spanish.

Having obtained his A.B. degree from Ateneo de Manila in 1935, he then took up and finished law at the Philippine Law School in 1939. Heserved as an official of the Philippine Army during World War II; after the war he would later on become the assistant solicitor general where he found himself at odds over a young Ferdinand Marcos over the merits of the 1935 Julio Nalundasan murder case, a case that Marcos was originally found guilty of but was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1940.

But he would later rise to prominence, as well as controversy, in a different field: foreign service. In 1954, Guerrero was appointed as undersecretary of Foreign Affairs by Pres. Ramon Magsaysay. Guerrero barely warmed up his seat when he gave a speech about an “Asia for Asians”, offering a critical viewpoint about the Philippines’ pro-US stance. This did not sit well for many people for two reasons. One, the “Asia for Asians” idea was the same idea Japan used as pretext to launch offensives on neighboring Asian countries before and during World War II and establish their dominance in the region. And being that the war was just about 10 years ago then, the wounds and horrors of the Japanese occupation were too fresh to forget.

Leon Ma. Guerrero III (photo courtesy of
Leon Ma. Guerrero III (photo courtesy of

More importantly, the quote was a slap on the face to the pro-US foreign policy of the Philippines, especially of the Magsaysay administration. Remember, this period was at the height of the Cold War, and the US was trying to assert its influence in the midst of the communist wave in the region that has already swept Mainland China, North Korea, and North Vietnam, a wave America was trying to contain as a strategy to win this “war”. And there’s also the US’ significant military presence in the country in Subic, Clark, and Sangley to complicate matters further.

In the wake of those remarks, Magsaysay quickly distanced himself from Guerrero, remarking that his (Guerrero’s) remarks do not reflect his administration’s policy to maintain and strengthen its close ties with the United States. Later that year, the Philippines formalized diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom, and Guerrero was swiftly appointed to become the first Filipino ambassador to the United Kingdom. But while it was both an honor and privilege to have that distinction, many observers saw it as a way for the Magsaysay administration to send him somewhere far away as possible from further trouble.

Nevertheless, Guerrero thrived in his career as a diplomat. He would serve a total of 7 years as ambassador to the UK. He would later be assigned as the country’s ambassador to  Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Germany, India, Nepal, Mexico and Yugoslavia, among other assignments throughout his 20+ year career in foreign service, making him one of the most distinguished diplomats the country has ever known.

As we kids would say, he's got some swag. Image taken fromt the cover of the book
As we kids would say, he’s got some swag. Image taken fromt the cover of the book “LMG: The Leon Maria Guerrero Anthology” published by Guerrero Publishing Inc., 2010

But it would be his contributions in the field of Rizaliana where Guerrero would make the greatest impact on generations of Filipinos. In 1961, he published of the most exemplary biographies on Jose Rizal titled “The First Filipino”. He would also translate Rizal’s two novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo into English, with both translations became known as the standard for English translations for Noli and Fili for many years until Soledad Lacson-Locsin’s English translations of the novels were published, which were more faithful to the original.

For all his contributions to foreign service and to the studies of Jose Rizal, it was fitting that he was awarded the Grand Cross (Dakilang Kamanong) of the Gawad Mabini, the highest honor conferred to Filipinos who have rendered distinguished foreign service, on the occasion of Rizal’s birthday, June 19, 1982. At that time, Guerrero was already on his deathbed at the Lung Center of the Philippines and Ferdinand Marcos, his old adversary who became president, personally conferred the award to him. Despite the opposing viewpoints, the gesture showed Marcos’ respect for Guerrero for the contributions he has made to the country all his life.

Leon Maria Guerrero died 5 days later, on June 24, 1982, leaving behind a rich and notable legacy that has influenced Philippine society, in one way or another, for years to come. Even until today.


Acknowledgements as well to the Philippine Star, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Wikipedia, and the book “Cold War: Southeast Asia” by Malcolm H. Murfett via Google Books

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