The first part of this series showed that Rizal wrote of Catanduanes in his “Annotation of Morga’s ‘Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas’” in order to establish proof that the pre-colonial natives were already civilized before the coming of the Spaniards. So it can be said that Rizal knew Catanduanes. In this second part, I will reflect on bits and pieces of my personal experiences of Rizal – not in person of course but in various representations – culled from my growing-up years in Virac. I offer these vignettes as reflective of our attitude towards the national hero, which it will turn out, is complicated and not as positive as we think it is.
Rizal in Stone
seashore, church, plaza, munisipyo and marketplace. As children, we avoided the market area as much as we could; in the family, we were brought up with the imagination of its negative influences. The seashore conjured both danger and delight, so our ventures into it were regulated. Meanwhile, the adjacent spaces of the church patio, the plaza and the front grounds of the municipal building were one continuous paradise of childhood adventures. What more, this wonderland expanse was populated by monumental beings. First, there were the heavenly residents of the patio (the Cristo Rey with three sentinel angels, the Lourdes and the worshipful St. Bernadette, and the Virgen Milagrosa). Rizal (the old monument, not the current one) presided over the plaza, and at the municipal grounds stood a lady dressed as Dalagang Bukid perched at the center of a fountain with a nigo of fruits on her head. I always thought Rizal and this lady were a duo: she was his girlfriend.
Among these larger-than-life stone characters, I was most attached and attracted to Rizal. While there was tight competition between the religious icons in the patio, Rizal stood singular over the plaza which was like the center of the Virac universe of my childhood. As for the Dalagang Bukid, she did not project much character because she was nameless and generic. My favored regard of Rizal slowly developed through the years, brought by things taught in school. Besides, I was reading much more of him than usual, courtesy of my father’s modest library at home. But the Rizal estatuwa did a lot to create my high estimation of the hero. He stood there atop the pedestal in quiet dignity, confidently heroic but not arrogant, garbed in his signature knee-length coat. It looked and felt exactly like the studio pose we see in books. What really impressed me was his intelligent gaze, not grim but reflective, looking through the far reaches of the surroundings of the here-and-now (not like the holy personages with eyes fixed to the heavens in ecstasy). He exuded greatness but was humanly accessible. Perhaps he had dandruff underneath the wavy bangs. On hindsight now, I realize that I have been assuming the same gaze – physically and otherwise – over life as I found it, but surely bringing forth much more modest fruits than my model.
Materially, the original Rizal monument at Virac plaza was amply respectable. Esthetically-wise, it was well conceived and executed. Understated with a white-wash, the details were fine. The pedestal had clear simple lines, with a matching concrete fencing around it. Bunga palm trees surrounded it. As a young teen, I used to walk the short distance from home to plaza during late afternoons. I would sit on the cement barandilla around Rizal’s stone representation, whiled away time, brooded over puberty blues, and absorbed the sights and sounds of Virac poblacion moving on to dusk.
In the early 80’s I moved to Manila for graduate schooling and later on to work. In one of my trips home for vacation, I had utter shock to discover that the Rizal monument had been demolished and replaced. What else, the new one was horribly unworthy of the person being represented and honored. The body itself was stiff, thin and appeared famished, and set on a kitschy pedestal, all of which were painted in mock gold. The whole thing looked like a cheap trophy sold in Quiapo, the type given out to winners during pa-liga sa barangay. Whatever the intentions were of those responsible, the effect was a demeaning of the national hero, which was quite in step with the over-all devaluation of history among many Filipinos.
If anything, it might as well be manifestation of a larger trend: the disregard for our heritage. Alongside the destruction of the old Rizal monument and its careless replacement with kitsch came the similar fate of some other estatuwa in the area. The Dalagang Bukid disappeared with the fountain to give way to an expansion of the munisipyo that did away with the old classic facade and gave rise to the current building that looks like a third-rate mall. At the patio, the Cristo Rey was relocated to a spot that made it look like an outsider, a bisita that is not being allowed in. Our institutional decision-makers, whether in government or not, must be well-advised that monuments and other aspects of the built-environment are to be treated with great care; they are not to be easily messed up with. They are not subject to short-term schemes. They are statements of collective values and they provide a sense of rootedness and continuity on the people. They are heritage.
Reenactment of Martyrdom
Years ago, the anniversary of Rizal’s martyrdom at Bagumbayan was observed in Virac with a colorful pageantry. A cast of players would be assembled to reenact the event. Playing Rizal was Guillermo “Tang Guimoy” Arcilla, erstwhile municipal secretary of Virac, father to pioneering Dean of the CSC College of Engineering Engr. Solon Arcilla and grandfather to the eminent geologist Dr. Carlo Arcilla. USAFFE veteran Lino Sorra took the role of the priest who ministered to the would-be martyr. Then there were the soldiers who shot Rizal. It was a curious thing that they were referred to as “katipuneros” and indeed I remember them sporting the wide brim hats whose front flaps were propped up, more like Pancho Villa’s guerillas than anything.
At about seven in the morning a crowd would gather at the plaza to witness the pageantry. Rizal in a black suit and with arms bound with pisi, was escorted to the open grounds from the munisipyo, to the sober tempo of a lone drum. Then, he would recite the “Ultimo Adios” in Spanish. As soon as the last line “Morir es descansar” was intoned, the command “Fuego!” would be heard and a volley of fire followed. The actor playing Rizal would hit the earth. The dead Rizal would be carried away in a stretcher to the mournful sound of the taps. I would follow the deathly march to the munisipyo and be mesmerized as Tang Guimoy would rouse again from his feigned demise and see Tata Ino Sorra, who was a neighbor in San Juan, disrobe of holy vestments.
I must have witnessed this short but poignant pageant five times. Then there was no more of it. Much later (must have been in the late eighties), my sister Dr. Estrella Placides revived the practice. A diminutive Jay Sorreda who was in his sixth grade (he is now a medical surgeon) played Rizal. He delivered the “Ultimo Adios” in Spanish without a snag. I am not sure if it was followed up in subsequent years. Nowadays, people in Virac hardly realize the historical significance of December 30. But they would troop in droves to the plaza on that day, from every nook including the nearby towns, starting late afternoon. They will wait in earnest vigil for nightfall. It will be last day of the Christmas Cheers where there would be big-time raffling of material give-aways sponsored by the provincial local government. Bearing raffle tickets distributed by their barangay leaders, every one of them is hopeful to bring home the grand prize.
Orasyon El Filibusterismo
One Christmas break during my mid-high school (the mid-70s), my elementary school buddy Carlo Arcilla came and invited me to join him to interview a local informant for his paper requirement in school. He was taking his secondary education at the Philippine Science High School. The assignment was to do research on traditional tambal for snake bite. So we went to see this old man in Sa Pedro. Through his gleaming eyes and hoarse voice, he regaled us with his exploits, knowledge and practice as a celebrated para-tambal.
I have forgotten the details of the process by which the fatal effect of snake venom is neutralized. What stuck in my memory however was how the old man explained the power behind his extraordinary kamatidon. He said that he was in possession of a librito (small book) that contained instructions and orasyones written in Latin. According to him, there were passages rendered in red which he was not supposed to read as it would be dangerous to do so. Can we see the book? No, he said, delikado. But he divulged the name of the potent librito: “Su sinurat kasu kaidtong bantog na Doctor Jose Rizal, ang El Filibusterismo!”
I saw Carlo suppressing an amused smile while I stared widely with incredulity. Years later, as I studied sociology and anthropology, I realized that the case of the old para-tambal was not so much about the ignorance of the uneducated. Rather, it was an indicator of how Rizal had become for the ordinary powerless folk a personification of victory over the oppressor, albeit in mythical, magical proportions. On the other hand, it also demonstrated the failure of the Rizalian novels. Rendered in Spanish, it was not accessible to the very people who needed to read them.
Belatedly, the novels would be translated into Filipino and made a required reading in schools, but still to dubious results. Reading them in high school, I remember how we students scoured the text for bits of information – names, places, events, snatches of dialogues – and memorized them to be able to answer test questions and get good grades. The literary gems of the novels – the wit and humor, the poetry and passion – all but escaped us. And so too were we oblivious to their subversive nature. Would we be so different from the para-tambal who extracted passages for magical incantations that could ward off illness and perhaps also lightning? Are we better off now in our regard for Rizal?
I hope I am wrong. But it seems to me we have squandered the legacy of the national hero. In Virac, this is all apparent in the manner that the Rizal monument had been shrunken into emasculation and kitschy-ness. This is all too evident in the way people anticipate December 30 not to commemorate the supreme sacrifice of our prime martyr for freedom, but as the day of hope for big-time luck at the tambiyolo. It is hardly the kind of salvation Rizal offered his life for at Bagumbayan.