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Looking Back

An edible cure for homesickness

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Expatriate Filipinos today are less homesick than the generation of Jose Rizal in the late 19th century because technology has made communication easier. In his day Rizal communicated mainly by mail, often writing many letters at a time to be sent on a monthly steamer from Europe to the Philippines. Today, a cell phone allows us to text, send photos, or speak to loved ones half the world away. Those who have Skype can even speak face to face across oceans when, a decade or two earlier, such communication was only possible in the realm of science fiction.

If Rizal had a cell phone I would probably not have a career in history today. A phone would have allowed Rizal to text and speak directly to friends and relatives, and made him write less than he did. Without documentation, the lifeblood of the historian, his work is seriously impaired.

Rizal’s letters to his family are heartwarming and reveal much about his life at home and abroad. One could say that in his letters, Rizal practically wrote an autobiography. He even asked that particular letters be kept by his family so he could work on them when he returned home. Most people who read these letters are surprised that Rizal often complained about his allowance from home that was sometimes delayed and often inadequate. On Dec. 30, 1882, exactly 14 years before he was executed in Luneta, Rizal thanked his brother Paciano for an increase in his allowance:

“I’m very glad that you have understood that the amount you used to send me, while more than enough for Barcelona, is not so here where expenses are double. Living economically, forty pesos are enough, if clothing expenses were excluded. With this amount one can go to the theater once a week, but not more often. Perhaps he may have a surplus of one or two pesos a month if he has not had extraordinary expenses. [The other] things that further deplete my money [are] laundry, chocolate, and coffee, because, living as I do in one house, where I’m admirably comfortable, and lunching at another, I have to take breakfast elsewhere, for they don’t give it where I lunch. With 50 pesos one is well off and still can save for bad times.”

To show just how difficult life was, Rizal wrote his sister Maria on the same day, saying he had not bathed since August, or a little over five months: “I thought you were already very tired of angling and boating in the river, fishing day and night. If I were there, then we would still go fishing. Has our river become deeper than it was formerly? When I get home, I’ll indulge in bathing to satiety. You wouldn’t believe it that since the middle of August I haven’t taken a bath and I haven’t perspired either. That is so here. It is very cold and a bath is expensive. One pays thirty-five cents for one…”

Months earlier, Rizal informed his parents that they could send money and other necessities to him through Gregorio Sanciangco:

“If you wish to send me something through him, you can do so; such as jewelry, sweets, jellies,  bagoong, pickled mangoes, tamarind; all these, it is understood, must be well packed in a single box so that they will not be too bothersome; and give him freight money, for it would be odd to make him spend his own money besides making him carry things of no concern to him.

“Tell me when you write what things you are sending or will send me. It is not necessary, however, that you send me all the things I mention above. I believe that the tamarind and guava or mango jelly would be the best, although it is not the mango season. Pickled mangoes do not keep and they get spoiled quickly. In short, you know better than I what you want or can send me. If it is possible, a good finger ring, inasmuch as there are many there, which will be of great usefulness to me under all circumstances.”

During Mardi Gras or the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday 1883, Rizal and his friends literally pigged out:

“We had a luncheon and dinner at the house of the Paternos, each one contributing one peso. With our fingers we ate rice, stewed chicken,  adobo, fritada, and roast suckling pig. We were Felix Resurrección, Emilio and Esteban Villanueva, the two Paternos, the two Llorentes, Figueroa, Vicente Gonzalez, Raymundo Perio, Manuel de Iriarte (the initiator), Eduardo Lete, Juan Fernández, Federico Calero, and me. Yriarte got drunk. All of us ate very well, but as the rice expanded, we were attacked by  buli-buli  the whole day. After each dish, we walked about, and when any one came to inquire for the owners of the house, he was told they were not at home in order not to disturb the feast. Consumed were fourteen pounds of rice, five chickens, four pounds of beef, and of the suckling pig, that cost us a peso and a half, not a bone was left. There was an indescribable confusion.  Valentin Ventura was also with us, so that we were sixteen Filipinos. We missed the  sinigang. The cook was Esteban Villanueva. During the meal we spoke Tagalog. This reminded me of Pansol when we ate there and Marianit cooked wonderful dishes.”

Adobo,  sinigang , sometimes even Spam, give the expat Pinoy a taste of home, an edible cure to homesickness.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu


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Tags: Ambeth R. Ocampo , column , expatriate Filipinos , Jose Rizal , writing letters



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