Looking Back

Rizal and Leonor Rivera’s secret affair

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Some years ago, I advised a friend looking for a dining table that she was better off buying a second-hand hardwood table from Bangkal in Makati than getting the plastic or glass-top versions readily available in the malls and department stores. With some effort, I told her: You can find a good table of Philippine hardwood like molave and narra. Why settle for less?

To my surprise, my friend took my advice to heart and asked me to accompany her to a Bulacan printer who had a sideline dealing in antiques. We were shown into a dark and dusty bodega where pieces of furniture were piled on top of one another so precariously I worried that these would fall and bury me within. I could imagine the tabloid headlines screaming of a historian killed by antiques: “Historiador,  patay  sa  antik!  Nadaganan  ng  aparador! ”

What caught my eye in the dark was the top of the wrought-iron entrance to the old Colegio de la Concordia in Manila that had probably been sold for scrap after the renovation. The arch read “Ave Maria Purisima” and, below it, “Colegio de la Concordia.” The price was reasonable, but I didn’t know how we would take it in the car back to Manila. My friend asked what I would do with it. I replied that it could be recycled as a headboard for my bed.

To cut the long story short, I did not buy it. And I have since been wondering if this arch was in use in the late 19th century. If it was, then under this arch passed Jose Rizal, the Rizal sisters, as well as Rizal’s loves Segunda Katigbak and Leonor Rivera. As a historian, I am keen about finding connections between past and present. This is the romance of collecting, or at least looking at, old things in shops and museums.

Filipinos are familiar with the story of Rizal and Leonor Rivera, especially how she was forced by her mother to break her engagement with him and marry an English engineer working on the Manila-Dagupan railway. Unfortunately, the correspondence between the lovers is not extant because it is said that shortly before her wedding, Leonor gathered all of Rizal’s letters, read them, and burned every one. She then gathered the ashes and sewed these inside the hem of her wedding gown.

This may sound like a very romantic thing to do but for a historian in search of those letters, it is very frustrating. I guess some things are meant to be kept private, to be kept between Rizal and Leonor and away from the prying eyes of historians and the curious public.

Two of the letters from Leonor that have survived give us a sense of what she was like and how the lovers tried to keep their relationship secret. On Jan. 2, 1881, Leonor wrote Rizal:

“Esteemed Friend,

“I received your letter dated 30 of last month and I am informed of its contents.

“If I have not answered your letters, it was not because I’m bored corresponding with you. In fact, twice I wrote replies, but on the day I did so, nobody came to visit me at the college (La Concordia), so I destroyed them, and besides I was already embarrassed.

“I am doubtful if the letter is yours, because the signature is different. Perhaps you have put another name, fearing that I might despise it and if I despise it, it will not be your name that will be despised but somebody else’s. If that is what you think, you are mistaken for you do not know how glad I am when I receive one of your dear letters; but you did well in putting another name in case, as you say, it may fall into the hands of strangers.

“Command your servant who kisses your hand. Taimis”

The second letter was written so many months later, on Dec. 28, 1881, saying:

“Esteemed José

“I would be glad if on the receipt of this you are in good health and happy.

“I was very much surprised that you had a letter for Papa and none for me; but at first when they told me about it I did not believe it, because he did not expect that a person like you would do such a thing.  But later I was convinced that you are like a newly opened rose, very flushed and fragrant at the beginning, but afterwards it begins to wither.  Before, however, when I did not write you, you wrote me, but now no more. It seems that you have imitated my example when I went to Antipolo and you have done wrong, because I was not at my own house, and besides you know very well that you cannot hide any thing from those girls. I could very well write to Papa, but in order that you might not say anything, I did not, though Mama had ordered me to do so. You cannot have these pretexts because you are at your home and nobody meddles with you. Truly I tell you that I’m very resentful for what you have done and for another thing that I’ll tell you later when you come.

“Excuse the writing and all the mistakes you find in it. Command at your pleasure your true servant who kisses your hand. Taimis.”

Putting these letters in context is hampered by the fact that we do not have copies of Rizal’s letters that Leonor replied to. Why was Leonor worried about their relationship being made known or discovered by others? A new book on Rizal’s loves should be written soon, if only to remind a younger generation that the National Hero fossilized in bronze and marble was made of flesh and blood like them.

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Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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