It can only be with true passion that one can conquer and accomplish what Filipino hero Jose Rizal had in his thirty-five-year life. He stopped at nothing when it came to expressing his love not just for his country but also his women. His travels across the Philippines and the world swayed him into multifarious relationships that colored almost half his life. There are nine women on record. It’s not to say that all those relationships were serious, but he did pursue when he wanted to pursue, cared, at least, and displayed his attentiveness and charm unapologetically.
He documented his affairs, too, using his much-praised grandiloquence. And based on those documents, let’s just say the man is a high-hiiigh-level bolero. And he wrote them letters (a dying art, so forgive us waxing poetic about it). And let’s not forget he almost fought in a duel with the Filipino army general Antonio Luna, when a drunk Luna made nasty comments about a girl named Nellie Boustead. He was grand when he needed to be, and smooth without trying; an expert playboy—or lover—if you will. Could he be the original GOAT?
But amidst the flirting, he was a big believer that women should be empowered. This was evident in his essay, “To the Young Women of Malolos,” which he wrote for the 20 women of Bulacan who fought to have a night school so they could study Spanish.
He wrote, in part, “No longer does the Filipina stand with her head bowed nor does she spend her time on her knees, because she is quickened by hope in the future; no longer will the mother contribute to keeping her daughter in darkness and bring her up in contempt and moral annihilation. And no longer will the science of all sciences consist in blind submission to any unjust order, or in extreme complacency, nor will a courteous smile be deemed the only weapon against insult or humble tears the ineffable panacea for all tribulations.”
A supporter of women empowerment—who has that swagger? It’s not so hard to imagine anyone flirting back after he inks his first sentence.
As proof of his “ways,” here are the recorded stories of the nine women of Dr. Jose Rizal.
1 Segunda Katigbak
First love never dies they say—unless your first love is already engaged to be married when you meet. Then you have to let it go really fast. Such was the case of Jose Rizal and Segunda Katigbak, a Batangueña, whom Rizal met when he was only a 16-year-old boy.
They met when the young hero visited his grandmother with his friend, Mariano Katigbak, Segunda’s brother. The Katigbaks were close to Rizal’s grandmother, and coincidentally, Segunda was at the grandma’s house when Rizal and Mariano arrived. It was attraction at first sight. Segunda was also a close friend of Rizal’s sister, Olympia, whom he visited every week at the La Concordia College. The two became very close. However, Segunda was already engaged to be married to a man who lived in her town, and Rizal had to stop pursuing her.
Rizal wrote about the incident years later, “Ended, at an early house, my first love! My virgin heart will always mourn the reckless step it took on the flower-decked abyss. My illusions will return, yes, but indifferent, uncertain, ready for the first betrayal on the path of love.”
Our heartache-filled, hugot-induced breakup films would be put to shame.
2 Leonor Valenzuela
Leonor “Orang” Valenzuela, Rizal’s second object of affection, is literally the girl-next-door. They met when Rizal was a sophomore medical student at the University of Santo Tomas, during which time he also lived at Doña Concha Leyva’s boarding house in Intramuros, Manila. Orang, who was then 14 years old, was his neighbor.
During the courtship, Rizal was said to have sent Leonor private and secret love letters, which he wrote using invisible ink made with water and salt—he was adept in chemistry, too. To read the letters, Orang had to heat the letter over a candle or a lamp. (How did we get from this intricate, labored way of courting someone to pressing that heart icon on Instagram? Just wondering.) Rizal also frequented the Valenzuelas’ home, which was a hang out place of the students in the area.
There are, however, documents that may serve as proof that Rizal’s efforts were not effective. Some accounts say he was courting Leonor Valenzuela and and his second cousin Leonor Rivera at the same time—thus the need for invisible letters. (Still, we need to appreciate the effort that went with it.) Rivera apparently knew of this and gave way to Rivera’s attraction for Rizal. When Rizal left for Spain in 1882, it was said that he did say goodbye to Orang, but kept in touch with the help of Rizal’s close friend, Jose “Chenggoy” Cecilio.
Chenggoy was the ultimate teaser—and maybe wingman?—who was amused with the “rivalry” of the namesakes. On one of Chenggoy’s letters to Rizal, he wrote, “…nagpipilit ang munting kasera (Leonor Rivera) na makita si Orang, pero dahil natatakpan ng isang belong puti, hindi naming nakilala nang dumaan ang prusisyon sa tapat ng bahay. Sinabi sa akin ni O(rang) na sabihin ko raw sa munting kasera na hindi siya kumakaribal sa pag-iibigan ninyo. Que gulay, tukayo, anong gulo itong idinudulot natin sa mga dalagang ito!” (Manebog 2013)
Lest it be forgotten, while he was pursuing the two Leonors, Rizal was in Europe taking courses in medicine at Universidad Central de Madrid and painting at Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Calle Alcala. Maybe he still had time on his hands?
3 Leonor Rivera
Leanor Rivera and Jose Rizal lived the tragedies of Shakespeare’s poems.
They met when Rizal was 18 and Leonor was 13, at the boarding house of Rizal’s uncle in Intramuros, Manila. Leonor was Rizal’s second cousin.
It was a perfect love story in the beginning: he, the intelligent charmer, and she, the beautiful student who had a beautiful singing voice and was a talented piano player. Soon, they fell in love. But as tragic love stories go, they were besieged by obstacles. Leonor’s parents highly disapproved of their relationship as they were wary of Rizal being a “filibuster.” In his letters, Rizal called Leonor “Taimis” to hide her identity.
Before leaving for Europe in 1882, Rizal said that he had found the woman he wanted to marry. But even his brother, Paciano Rizal, disagreed with the idea, saying that it would be unfair to Leonor if he were to leave her behind after getting married.
But their love—as young loves are—wanted to go against all that stood in the way. Although they did not get married, they tried to continue sending each other love letters, a lot of which were intercepted and kept hidden by Leonor’s mother. In 1890, Leonor wrote a letter to Rizal saying that she was engaged to be married to a British engineer named Henry Kipping. That same year, the wedding pushed through.
Upon the coercion of her mother, Leonor burned Rizal’s letters to her—but it was said she kept the ashes of those letters. A story goes that she hid some of these ashes in the hem of her wedding gown.
But their dark romance didn’t end there.
In 1893, Leonor died during second childbirth. Documents show that when Rizal heard of the news through his sister, Narcisa, he didn’t speak for a few days. It is believed that Rizal immortalized Leonor through the character Maria Clara in Noli Me Tangere. Like we said, it’s a Shakespearean kind of dark—and no love story is more intense than the one that lost the battle with circumstances.
4 Consuelo Ortega Y Rey
Consuelo Ortega Y Rey was the daughter of Don Pablo Ortiga Y Rey, who was Mayor of Manila when Maria dela Torre was the governor. While Rizal was in Madrid, he would hang out at Don Pablo’s house, which became a place where Filipino students would often get together. Through one of these gatherings, Rizal met Consuelo.
He showed affection towards Consuelo but was not serious in his pursuit as he was still engaged to Leonor Rivera at the time. Yes, he loved the company of women, but during that brief period, he too was lonely and yearning for the physical void left by Leonor.
Although most accounts say the dalliance didn’t turn serious, Rizal wrote a poem for her, entitled, “A La Señorita C.O.y.P.” Of course, these days, when you write a poem for someone, that’s like a marriage proposal. In the end, Consuelo got engaged to Rizal’s friend, Eduardo de Lete. It is said that Eduardo’s love for Consuelo was also the reason Rizal didn’t pursue the mestiza. Or maybe, in modern parlance, theirs was a classic case of a rebound fling.
5 Seiko Usui
In many of his diary entries, Rizal wrote about how he was charmed by Japan’s beauty, cleanliness, and peace and order. But if there was one thing that almost kept him in the country where cherry blossoms bloom most beautiful, it was a woman named Seiko Usui, affectionately called O-Sei-San.
It was in 1888. Rizal had just arrived in Japan from Hongkong upon an invitation to take a job offer at the Spanish Legation. One day, while he was in the office grounds, he saw O-Sei-San walk past the legation’s gate and was immediately enthralled by her beauty. With the help of a Japanese gardener, he asked to be introduced to the woman who captured his eyes—and the gardener acquiesced. Rizal spoke little Japanese at the time, so the gardener had to serve as a translator. However, a few minutes into the conversation, they both found O-Sei-San spoke English and French, which was a relief as Rizal spoke both languages. When the language barrier broke, they started to build a relationship.
As days went by, O-Sei-San taught Rizal the ways of the Japanese. They went gallivanting, visiting museums, galleries, and universities. They talked about the arts and culture, switching their language from French to English and back as they pleased. Their love was childlike and spirited. According to many accounts, Rizal was ready to move to Japan, stay with O-Sei-San, and live a peaceful life with his love.
Unfortunately for this relationship, country-saving duties would call and he had to leave Japan for San Francisco. He never saw O-Sei-San again. Their affair lasted for around two months. It’s shorter than an average season of a Netflix series, but you know Rizal and his intensity.
6 Gertrude Beckett
In the same year he began and ended his relations with O-Sei-San, our JR, then 27, went to London and met a woman named Gertrude Beckett, the eldest daughter of his landlord. Gertrude showered Rizal with all the love and attention of a girl who is hopelessly in love. She even assisted Rizal as he finished some of his popular sculptures, “Prometheus Bound,” “The Triumph of Death over Life,” and “The Triumph of Science over Death.” He called her Gettie, she called him Pettie. But all documents lead to say one thing: the feelings weren’t mutually shared.
In 1889, Rizal left London, and left Gettie a composite carving of the heads of the Beckett sisters. Marcelo del Pilar, Rizal’s friend, said Rizal left London to move away from Gertrude, whose idea of their relationship was more than what it really was—the most tormenting kind: an unrequited love.
7 Suzanne Jacoby
Maybe Rizal was repulsed with the idea of having an idle mind. With all the loneliness and anxiety from the turmoil of his country and family, he was even able to fill his resting moments learning new things—like flirting with women. When he arrived in Belgium in 1890, he lived at a boarding house that was run by two sisters whose last name was Jacoby. The sisters had a niece named Suzanne. You probably can guess now what happens with Rizal and his caretaker’s kin. If it’s not a neighbor, it’s a caretaker’s kin. Are we seeing a trend here? Obviously the guy is too busy to explore beyond a one-kilometer radius.
The relationship was probably a fling, too, as Rizal made no mention of Suzanne when he wrote letters to his friends about his stay in Belgium. Rizal left the country in August that year. Suzanne was heartbroken. Rizal continued writing El Filibusterismo, writing for La Solidaridad, and worrying about his family back home. It was said that Suzanne wrote Rizal letters. Rizal may have replied once. In 1891, Rizal went back to Belgium—not for Suzanne—but to finish writing El Filibusterismo. He stayed for a few months, left, and never returned. Maybe she got the point after that.
8 Nellie Boustead
Remember that famous time when Antonio Luna and Jose Rizal almost got into a duel because of a girl? The girl in the middle of that madness was Nellie Boustead. Rizal and Nellie met in Biarritz, where Nellie’s wealthy family hosted Rizal’s stay at their residence on the French Riviera. Before Biarritz, Rizal already made friends with the Boustead family a few years back, and even played fencing with Nellie and her sister.
During his stay at the beautiful Biarritz vacation home, Rizal learned of Leonor Rivera’s engagement and thought of pursuing a romantic relationship with Nellie, who was classy, educated, cheerful, and athletic. After strengthening their relationship, Rizal wrote letters to his friends, telling them about his intention to marry her. They were all supportive, including Antonio Luna.
Although they seemed like the ideal couple, marriage for Rizal was still not meant to be. First, Nellie’s mother did not think Rizal had the resources to be a good provider for her daughter. Second, Nellie wanted Rizal to convert to Protestantism. Rizal refused. But their friendship must have been strong enough because they ended up being friends after all the drama.
Before Rizal left Paris in 1891, Nellie wrote him a letter: “Now that you are leaving I wish you a happy trip and may you triumph in your undertakings, and above all, may the Lord look down on you with favor and guide your way giving you much blessings, and may your learn to enjoy! My remembrance will accompany you as also my prayers.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you become friends with your ex.
9 Josephine Bracken
Josephine Bracken was the woman who stayed with Rizal until his execution in 1896. She was also, allegedly, the woman whom Rizal married. However, accounts of their marriage have been much-debated over the years.
Josephine was the adopted daughter of one George Taufer, whom she lived with in Hongkong for years before she needed to seek help from an ophthalmologist due to George’s blindness. They then sought the help of Jose Rizal, who was already exiled in Dapitan, Zamboanga del Norte at the time. Rizal and Josephine fell in love and in a month made the announcement that they wanted to get married. But just like the other Rizal great loves, this one was once again complicated. No priest would marry the two, for reasons that are still unclear—but perhaps it was because of Rizal’s status in politics. Without a legal paper, Rizal and Josephine lived together, and had a son, who died a few hours after birth. Rizal named his son after his father, Francisco.
Up to this day, there is no legal proof that Josephine and Rizal ever got married.
In retrospect, maybe Rizal was not meant for a long commitment, like marriage—with all his travels and freedom-fighting obligations. Maybe heroes can only be alone with their thoughts. Left alone, they will naturally think too much, and thinking for an entire country, we assume, can be exhausting. Maybe Rizal just always needed a companion.
But if there’s one thing his dalliances and longings and pursuits remind us, it is that heroes are humans, too. Humans have needs. And he did die for our country. He gets a pass—even when he was a master in ghosting.
Photographs from www.joserizal.ph