In the upcoming Asian Cultural Council Auction 2022, the first big auction of the year, four important lots consist of letters from national hero Jose Rizal. Three of them are addressed to his sister Maria, and one to his mother, Teodora Alonso.
The oldest letter is dated December 9, 1891, sent from Hong Kong and written in Tagalog, and the latest one for his mother, is dated June 3, 1896, sent from Dapitan and written in Spanish.
This last one—never been seen in public before—sends word that his partner Josephine Bracken is leaving for Manila for a bit of rest, bringing with her various gifts which include pajo, coconut oil, and $25 which is to be handed to his mother and father. He assures the old woman that while he has gotten sick again, he has recovered faster having gotten more familiar with the fever going around Dapitan. In just two months, Rizal would sail home to Manila, on July 31, 1896, to meet his destiny.
This group of letters from the Filipino nationalist are the last group of Rizal letters still in private hands. In the essay below, which also appears in the latest Leon Gallery auction catalogue, noted historian Xiao Chua puts these personal documents in the context of Jose Rizal’s life, and the period they were written. They speak not only of the man’s dreams for his nation but also reveal the kind of affection he has for his family.
Anything connected to a significant period in an artist’s life, like the time he produced his masterpieces, is deemed important. When it comes to José Rizal, the country’s foremost hero, his works and writings that are part of the Propaganda Movement in lobbying for reforms, including his political essays, historical annotations in the work of Antonio de Morga, and his novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo are of utmost significance. They are, after all, works that imagined and inspired the birth of a nation and changed the course of history.
But while most would agree that his works and writings while in Europe are extremely significant, some continue to argue that he was not able to translate his ideas into action. Many historians even suggest that Rizal does not deserve to be called National Hero because he did not even talk about the Philippines being a nation in the first place—he only wanted us to become Hispanized Filipinos. Thus, he did not have a concept of a Filipino nation.
But as Floro Quibuyen, author of the book A Nation Aborted: Rizal, American Hegemony, and Philippine Nationalism, correctly points out, Rizal had the goal of creating a nation and had an action plan to go with it. He wanted to organize a social group that aimed to “unite the whole archipelago into one compact, vigorous, and homogenous body.” He even listed his vision for what this nation must possess: “Mutual protection in every want and necessity; Defense against all violence and injustice; Encouragement of instruction, agriculture, and commerce; and Study and application of reforms.”
Rizal thought of organizing Filipinos in the islands after having some conflict with his compatriots in Europe, and after realizing that, as he wrote in a letter to Mariano Ponce, “the battlefield is in the Philippines.”But before coming home, Rizal stayed in Hongkong from November 1891 to June 1892. There, he was able to finally establish a clinic at No. 2 Rednaxela Terrace, D’ Aguilar Street, and in a way he officially became part of what would be the future “Overseas Filipino Workers Phenomenon.”
It was in Hong Kong that Rizal wrote the Constitution of the La Liga Filipina.
It was also here where he was able to reunite with his family after all the pain and anxieties brought about by his own patriotic ideas and the family’s subsequent eviction from Rizal’s childhood home by the family’s Dominican landlords. In a letter written in Filipino to his sister Maria dated December 9, 1891, the uncertainty is so evident one cannot tell if Rizal was worried, joking or asking for pity. “I have not written you for such a long time that I no longer know whether you are still alive or if you still remember me.”
By this time, Rizal was already accompanied by his father Francisco Mercado, his brother, Paciano, and his brother-in-law Silvestre Ubaldo (Bestre), as all the men in the family were already being persecuted one way or the other. Rizal described his father as “always cheerful, …always walking around.” In the letter, he asked Maria to kiss her mother Teodora Alonso and his other sisters Panggoy and Trinidad for him. He told them of his plan to settle and create “the New Philippines” in Sandakan, North Borneo. In telling his sister to take care of their nephews and the other female siblings, Rizal expressed a hopeful note: “They must be patient and our day will come.”
Unfortunately, the plan for a Sandakan settlement did not bear fruit, but his mother and sisters were able to follow him in Hong Kong and they welcomed the New Year 1892 together. Thus, his stay, and this letter, are important. With his parents, brother, and sisters with him, and with his fame as an ophthalmologist on the rise, one could only wonder what great reason Rizal had to leave behind everything in Hong Kong and return to the lion’s den. It seemed the establishment of the La Liga Filipina was top priority, and he deemed it very important.
Rizal returned to the Philippines on the 26th of June and went immediately to the new Manila-Dagupan Railroad to meet friends that might help the cause. On July 3, he established the La Liga Filipina in the house of Doroteo Ongjungco. In attendance was Andres Bonifacio, who eventually founded with his friends the Kataastaasan Kagalang-galangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan (Highest and Venerable Association of the Sons of the People).
But Rizal’s arrest only three days after the meeting crushed his dream of organizing his idea of a nation. On July 17, he arrived in Dapitan, Zamboanga del Norte, which at that time could be considered one of the farthest corners of the colony. Beyond its border was already the Sultanate of Maguindanao. The exile was meant to break Rizal’s spirit. He was a well-traveled Filipino, a cosmopolitan man, but he was now boxed within a provincial setup.
Despite being “on lockdown,” Rizal tried to be productive. It was in Dapitan where he tried to crystallize his vision of the La Liga Filipina. When he won a prize in the Manila lottery along with his warden, Comandante Politico-Militar of Dapitan Don Ricardo Carnicero, he bought a piece of land which he named Talisay. This is when he got into agriculture, engaged in organizing the Dapitanons into a cooperative, opened a free clinic for the poor, and put together a small school for both his nephews and the local kids wherein serious attention was given to the aptitude of each child.
Rizal also engaged in civic work. Using his environment as a pedagogical tool, he created a relief map of Mindanao in the town plaza. One time, he realized that while Dapitan was beside the sea, no one knew modern fishing. So he asked his sisters to send him a fishing net and to send two fishermen, not only to teach fishing to Dapitanons but because fishing can be a lucrative source of livelihood. With this, Quibuyen said Rizal was ahead of his time in that he was able to demonstrate in Dapitan three things—progressive education, social entrepreneurship, and community development. This is what he would have done if given a chance to be a public servant. He was a one-man NGO.
But as Noel Villaroman wrote in his definitive book Dapitanon, despite his productivity, Rizal had episodes of depression, which is why he requested authorities for some of his family to be allowed to stay with him in Dapitan. In his letter to his sister Maria dated August 28, 1895, Rizal writes, “If they will come here and can endure our situation, I would not wish to leave this place anymore, and I would just engage in farming as long as they live.” He reiterated his wish in his letter to Maria on June 6, 1895 and extended the invitation to other relatives. “Please tell Sra. Lucia that she can send me her children as soon as I am settled.” Indeed, there was a time when Rizal’s mother, sisters, and nephews stayed with him in Dapitan.
In the letter dated June 3, 1896, two months before he left Dapitan, Rizal wrote his mother in Spanish thanking her for her love and affection, and also for the food that was sent to him. This gives us a glimpse of his relationship with his parents and his affection for them.
Simply put, the letters show us Rizal, the Dapitanon, as very human, longing for family as he went through perhaps the most important period of his life, when he attempted to socially engineer a little town to be a little more dynamic. The letters show too that he was able to accomplish many things despite his human frailties. The Hong Kong and Dapitan eras in Rizal’s life are connected by the fact that these were the times when he tried to make real the nation he imagined by empowering the people of a most sleepy town. Ultimately, the letters remind us of the supreme sacrifice made by one man for his country.
[The Asian Cultural Council Auction 2022 is on March 5 at 2PM. For more information and to see the offerings, visit Leon Gallery online.]
Photos courtesy of Leon Gallery