Juanita Cruz: The Cinematography of a Sarswela

Mar 4, 2011 by

A Calixto Zaldivar Professorial Chair Lecture for the 60th Anniversary of the U.P. Presence in Iloilo

Juanita and the Sarswela

In the 1970’s Magdalena Jalandoni wrote a novel entitled “Juanita Cruz”.  Based on earlier researches, “Juanita Cruz” was deemed to be a novel of grand proportions because it traces the rise and fall of a woman in her fight to find her voice in a highly patriarchal society. The niece of Magdalena Jalandoni, Ophelia Jalandoni constantly claimed that the novel is highly visual that parallels itself to the movie classic “Gone with the Wind”.  The story, of course, is very much different.

The dream-like opening scene with an old Juanita (played by Ma. Asela Labaro) and the narrator (played by Elsie Flores-Gancia)

Juanita as the title “Juanita Cruz” suggests, is borne into a rich family that lives in Bagong Banwa.  This is the name of the place, the main setting of the story as identified by the writer.  At a very early age, Juanita is exposed to the problems in the society especially poverty.  “Ang imul kag manggaranon indi magkatuhay”. (The poor and the rich are not equal.)

The Young Juanita (played by Faith Pinedes) with her mother (played by Debbie Andaya) in a scene where they talk about the difference between the rich and the poor.

Young Juanita (Faith Pinedes) and her poor friend Nita (played by Mel Madriguera) singing the song of the poor and the rich.

Juanita's maid, Sitang (played by Elsie Flores-Gancia) is her accomplice in her secret rendezvous with her love, Ely Macavinta.

Ely Macavinta (played by Basti Salazar)

Juanita had to bear the punishment of her father, Don Macario (played by Winston Lee) who felt betrayed by her.

When Juanita grows up she falls in love with a poor man. Even if she is betrothed to a rich man’s son, she defies all odds. She runs away.  She makes her parents believe that she has died. From Bagong Banwa she moves to another place and starts a new life.  She ends up with Ely, the love of her life and she helps in the revolution against the Spaniards.  At the end of her life, she looks back and realizes that indeed she has lived well despite the obstacles she has encountered.  These are the very obstacles that have given her the voice she has been looking for.  She becomes a heroine, a feminist in contemporary perspective, a rebel in her own time.

The framework for “Juanita Cruz” has the makings of a sarswela.  There is the bida, the contrabida, the passionate desire to go against all odds in pursuit of a goal and there is the fight against oppression.  In Juanita’s case this is manifested in her struggle to defy the wishes of her parents and later on her struggle to support the revolution for the betterment of her fellow citizens.  However, unlike in a typical sarswela where the love angle of the protagonists of the story is followed until they live happily ever after, the case is not so with Juanita. In the novel, Ely dies wounded from battle.  He dies in the arms of Juanita who has gone in search for him in the battle field.  Such is not an ending for a traditional sarwela since the genre requires an upbeat and happy resolution.  What we have instead, to use Nicanor Tiongson’s term, is an anti-sarswela – a presentation that closely follows the pattern of a sarswela but makes deviations to achieve certain objectives.

The Road to Bagong Banwa

We wanted a sarswela because of the elements that were already present in Juanita.  However, we also wanted to update the sarswela to make the production more interesting to the MTV generation so to speak.  The question we had to address here was to what extent would be the sarswela and to what extent would be the contemporary approach.  From the start we wanted a merging of theater and film.  We wanted the power of the two media to heighten the visual impact of the production. We wanted a new approach to a production where performers go in and out of the stage and into the screen and back to the stage again.

Ely's death scene is one of the most memorable scenes in the sarswela.

Semiotics is visual language.  It is what is not spoken that also carries over a message.  At the end of Act I of “Juanita Cruz”, we used this element to create not only visual impact but also to reflect the turmoil of Juanita as she runs away from home.  Her father has disowned her after he catches her in the embrace of Ely.  Realizing that it is no longer possible to exist in her family circle, decides to drown herself.  However, she instead goes to church to seek solace.  Her turmoil is reflected in the merging of theater and film as the waves are projected on her at the end of Act I.

The interspersion of multimedia and live performance at the end of Act I.

At the beginning of Act II, Juanita is in a new place living a new life.  The waves that almost engulfed her or drowned her are symbolic of the obstacles she is facing in life and at the same  time symbolic of her cleansing or her transforming into a new life because in Act II, she assumes a different name – that of Celia.

If in our presentation we tried to reinvent the sarswela much like Juanita went through a rebirth, we also kept much of what is required of the genre and the period presented in the story.  As Celia, she is consistent of her womanhood – conservative in the face of her man.  In this courtship, while Celia is seemingly liberated from her family life, she maintains her decorum.

Juanita disguises herself as Celia in Act II.

We also remained consistent with the costuming of the period and we preserved the language of Magdalena Jalandoni.  We also kept much to the “pretty” melodies required of the form. This is especially heard in the early courtship of Juanita and Ely in Act I.  The song is much like a kundiman, however, it is not only sang by man to his lady love.  In parts the woman sings it also for the man.

In the original story of “Juanita Cruz”, Ely dies at the end.  This clearly is an anti-sarswela.   A sarswela has a happy ending.  Even in “Walang Sugat”, the hero who appears to be wounded at the end and is near dying, recovers and a wedding with his lady love ensues.  We could not change the ending of our story because such was the intention of Magdalena Jalandoni.  Ely had to die for love of country.  Juanita had to make the sacrifice also because of her love for country.  That was the most valiant thing to do.

We could not resurrect the dead.  We decided to continue the story of Juanita beyond the text.  At the beginning of the production, we already introduced an old Juanita. The whole production becomes a memory play.  It is Juanita’s reflection on her life which echoes the intention of a sarswela which is to examine society and roles of the people living in it.  It is also about the examination of the colonial rulers, the feudal elite, patriarchy and oppression and how these factors the way we live – or how Juanita lived her life. At the end of the production – which happens at the end of Juanita’s life, the old Juanita goes on stage again.  Alone and looking very frail she hopes that she has lived her life well.  She sings her last song and as she does so, the people of her life come back.  As the song is about to end, Ely appears.  Juanita and Ely are reunited.  While they cannot live happily in their present lives, they can now live happily in their after-life.

Thus, we bring back the concept of the sarswela – an ending that is uplifting because of the reunion of the two souls.

Looking Back at Juanita

The work involved in Juanita and our move towards redefining the sarswela required us to wrestle with our material. However, in our desire to present an updated sarswela, we were conscious to stick to the storyline. We were conscious about validating our material especially with the events in the revolution to make sure that we were consistent with real time events.  While “Juanita Cruz” is a work of fiction, its milieu is a part of Philippine history that really existed.

We are aware that there are purists – people who believe that a sarswela must be a sarswela in the sense that it strictly follows the requirements of the art form.  And we did – closely that is, follow the required elements of the form.  We made adjustments to update the form.  The fact that we used film – the presentation is an equal division of film and live performance – is already a depart from a sarwsela.  Whereas the sarswela used a painted “telon”, we used a practically blank screen where we projected images that suggested the setting of a particular scene. However, being consistent with the time frame of the story, we also rendered our film in black and white.  Further, to add texture to the genre, we also did not use dialogues in our film.  In the tradition of silent films, the film aspect of “Juanita Cruz” featured dialogue or narrative boxes and were accompanied by instrumental music.  At the start of the presentation, we already redefined the genre of the sarswela.  Performers go on stage in contemporary costumes.  They sing an upbeat composo then they open the “bauls” on stage and change into period costumes.  That was when the sarswela began.  At the end of the presentation, performers go back to their contemporary costumes.

If what we were trying to communicate to our audience was that making a sarswela becomes a trip down memory lane or a visit to the past, so be it.  Nothing should keep us from resurrecting, reshaping, redefining what is part of our heritage.  Art should render itself to adaptability.  It should be able to accommodate changes in times especially in the aspect of the performing arts.  While we have given our contemporary audience an art form that was one of the major sources of entertainment in the history of performing arts in the Phlippines, we have also made adjustments to the form or the sarswela to cater to the present day temperance.  If historically the sarswela eventually suffered with the advent of cinema, we achieved a happy merging between the two.  What the stage could not approximate, the film medium provided for.  The semiotics at the end of Act I when Juanita runs away is already a prime example.  It would have been impossible to create the waves on stage and be realistic at the same time.  The battle scene would not have been as effective, as well as the depiction of the bodies of men left in the battlefield at dawn when Juanita finds Ely dying.   The horse drawn carriage would have been left to the imagination as well.  The evacuation scene would not have captured the stirring scenario of oppressed Filipinos in our history.

What the stage offered were actors in the flesh, alive, and not flat images of themselves on the screen. The stage created an intimacy with the audience that the screen could not provide.

In the creation of “Juanita Cruz”, we wanted to approximate the vision of its writer, Magdalena Jalandoni.  When five artists got together that vision came into fruition.   With Alice Tan-Gonzales as writer for the stage, Roman Sanares for set design, Rhodora Solis for cinematography, Crista Sianson-Huyong for music, Susan Ong for costumes and yours truly as director, “Juanita Cruz” heightened the experience of theater and cinema.  The production became a sweeping interpretation of a literary work that would have otherwise been gathering dust in a shelf.

At dawn, while shooting the battle scene, Roman Sanares and I were walking along the field.  After years of working together, we were asking ourselves if “Juanita Cruz” would be the pinnacle of our production life.  The move to merge stage and film certainly broadened our canvass.  The production gave us a challenge that we never thought we would have in our artist life.  But there we were looking at the expanse of the would-be battlefield.  And our vision surged forth.  And that vision became a reality, and that became “Juanita Cruz”.

POST SCRIPT: Juanita Cruz was staged in 2004 at Colegio del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus and was Executive Produced by Sr. Ma. Lourdes S. Versoza, DC, Produced by Dr. Ma. Helena Desiree M. Terre and featured performers from CSCJ and some seasoned actors of Iloilo.

The full cast (from L-R): Winston Lee, Elsie Flores-Gancia, Archie Arenga, Ma. Asela Labaro, Basti Salazar, Debbie Andaya, and yours truly.

The production was brought to the Cultural Center of the Philippines for the national theater festival in 2004.


  1. hayley

    Where can I find the full video of this zarswela??

    • bobby

      Kindly please call Colegio del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus in Iloilo City. Thanks!

  2. alisa

    where could i find a video of this zarsuela??

    • bobby

      You can call Colegio del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus for the documentation. Thanks!

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