Marcelo H. del Pilar (1850-1896) was editor of La Solidaridad (Solidarity), the fortnightly newspaper in Spain that called for reforms in the colonial Philippines. He is immortalized not just in our history textbooks and monuments of bronze and marble; his name is found on schools, streets, and town plazas. When I was a boy, people still pronounced the street in Ermita with his name in the Spanish fashion: “E-meh Hat-che del Pilar.”
In Bulacan we have a town named Plaridel, which was but one of his many pen names. During his long journalistic career he used anagrams, jumbling the letters of his name to form: Carmelo L. O. Crame and D.M. Calero. He used Kupang, the name of his birthplace. He also used Hilario, which, contrary to popular belief, was a surname rather than a first name. His family was known as Hilario before the Claveria decree of 1849 that rationalized the use of surnames in the Philippines and that gave him a double surname (like Juan Ponce Enrile). But he shortened Hilario del Pilar by using “H.” and further shortened his full name by dropping his maternal surname or middle name Gatmaitan.
Del Pilar was also known as Dolores Manapat, a name developed from his inverted initials. He published strongly worded essays best described in Filipino as “maanghang,” that led him to use the pen name “Siling Labuyo,” whose English translation reminds us of the American rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Aside from the official commemoration of Del Pilar’s birthday in Bulacan tomorrow, the association of journalists called Samahang Plaridel will have its own memorial in the fashionable restaurant row, Remedios Circle, where a rousing bronze statue by Jullie Lluch was installed and ironically locked behind iron bars by an overprotective local government. All these point to the sad fact that Del Pilar is but a name in textbooks, a hero remembered once a year on his birthday, a hero who wrote a lot for a nation that does not read. Speeches will be read about his contribution to the birth of the nation, to the cause of press freedom, etc., but how many of his countrymen have read him? How many of us even know how lonely he was in Spain, separated from his wife Marciana (Tsanay) and his two daughters Sofia and Anita?
In Del Pilar’s heartbreaking letters to Tsanay, we see his homesickness. How he missed Philippine food and celebrated when he and his friends had sinigang and lechon in Spain. All his letters inquire about his children and express his longing to see and hug them again. He catalogues all of his ailments, such that a doctor can probably diagnose from his symptoms what brought about his death in 1896, a month shy of the outbreak of the Philippine Revolution in Balintawak and two years shy of the declaration of Philippine Independence in Kawit.
Writing from Madrid in August 1893, Del Pilar shed tears resulting from a dream:
“Si Sofia hindi sumusulat sa akin. Wala akong balita sa ineng kong si Anita. Parati kong napapanaginip na kandong ko si Anita at kaagapay si Sofia, sa paghahali-halili kong hinahagkan, ay inuulit-ulit rau sa akin ng dalaua: ‘Dito ka na sa amin, tatay, huag kang bumalik sa Madrid.’ Nagising akong tigmak sa luha, at gayon mang sinusulat ko ito ay di ko mapigil-pigil ang umaagos na luha sa mga mata ko.”
Not all dreams were sad; sometimes Del Pilar had funny dreams, like one detailed in a letter of June 1893 that made him wake up laughing. He had laughed so loudly that “Naning” (Mariano Ponce?) came into his room to check on him:
“One day, according to my dream Eugenio the Painter went to the house carrying a canvas where he would paint a group portrait of the most notable people in town. The faces of Capitan Pedro, Capitan Ramon and Capitan Jacinto were already painted on the canvas together with others. Eugenio then said that the portrait of Antonio Roxas resembled me. If you wish, he said, I would just paint a moustache (bigote) on my brother in law Toniong and you will be in his place since he doesn’t want to pay me anyway. I laughed and replied ‘How will you include me in the painting when I’m not as important a person like the others?’ Then everyone laughed heartily including Ka Teang, Sofia, Balbina and Ramon. Nevertheless, Eugenio was very determined that just putting a bigote on the face of Toniong would change it to my face and he was convincing us to buy what he was selling. Then Ramon said to me, controlling his laughter, ‘Marcelo, just shave off your bigote and you will look like Antonio in the portrait!’ Everyone laughed even harder and Eugenio was surprised why we were all laughing. This is why I woke up laughing.”
I can only wish that a professional medical doctor or a psychiatrist can go through Del Pilar’s letters to reveal new insights into a hero who was once flesh and blood like you and me before we fossilized him into monuments and official commemorations. All these years I have been writing about the human side of our heroes and have drawn criticism for peddling what has been described as “historical tsismis.” I would like to think that getting to know Del Pilar and other heroes as people does not bring them down from the pedestal, but makes them more inspiring. To know that heroes are human makes us know that we, too, can aspire to be heroes. That we don’t need to wear those body-hugging lycra outfits or need superpowers to become heroes ourselves.
Comments are welcome at [email protected]