Wednesday, April 25, 2018
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Looking Back

Conversation with Rizal

Often I am asked who among the people in Philippine history I want to interview. At the top of my list, of course, is Jose Rizal followed by Apolinario Mabini, and the hot-headed Luna brothers: Juan (the painter) and Antonio (the scientist turned military general).

My list says a lot more about my personality than my research interests. For two years now I have been working on a new Rizal biography that draws from the 25 volumes of writing he left behind. Rizal practically wrote his autobiography but the material needs to be collated, shaped, and formed by someone who must be careful not to intrude into Rizal’s narrative. My first draft was in the form of an interview, with questions from me and answers from Rizal. An editor commented that I seemed detached, and recommended that I talk about myself in conversation with Rizal. Hence, the book in progress is tentatively titled “Rizal and me.” Here are excerpts:

Ambeth R. Ocampo (ARO): According to my mother, I was born a premature baby. According to my birth certificate, I was born in Manila at 8:25 a.m. on Aug. 13, 1961. I heard you were in a hurry to be born as well. There is a legend about your mother Teodora Alonso going to church when she was heavy with child and you were heard crying and wailing from within her womb. I’m sure that story isn’t true, so let’s start with something we all know. When were you born?


Jose Rizal (JR): I was born in Calamba on the 19th of June 1861, between 11 and midnight, a few days before the full moon. It was a Wednesday and my coming out in this valley of tears would have cost my mother her life had she not vowed to the Virgin of Antipolo to take me to her (the Virgin’s) sanctuary by way of a pilgrimage.

ARO: In Western astrology I’m a Leo and you’re a Gemini. If we use the Chinese system I’m an Ox, you’re a Rooster. Surely a lot can be dug up on this alone, but let’s not get derailed. How many brothers and sisters do you have?

JR: I had nine sisters and one brother.

ARO: That’s a very large family compared to mine. I have three sisters—the elder died a few months after she was born, the others are younger than me. If I drew a family tree it wouldn’t have as many branches as yours. Your family tree shows you were the second of two sons, the seventh of 11 children. That’s easy to remember due to the 7-11 convenience stores all around Manila today. Let me enumerate for our readers then. Francisco Mercado and Teodora Alonso had the following children: SATURNINA (1850-1913), later Mrs. Manuel Hidalgo; PACIANO (1851-1930), unmarried, but acknowledged a daughter, who married the son of NARCISA (1852-1939), later Mrs. Antonino Lopez; OLYMPIA (1855-1887), later Mrs. Silvestre Ubaldo; LUCIA (1857-1919), later Mrs. Mariano Herbosa; MARIA (1859-1945), later Mrs. Daniel Cruz; JOSE PROTACIO (1861-1896); CONCEPCION (1862-1865); JOSEFA (1865-1945), unmarried; TRINIDAD (1868-1951), unmarried; and SOLEDAD (1870-1929), later Mrs. Pantaleon Quintero.

Can you tell us about your early life, your home life? Let’s begin with your father, Francisco Mercado.

JR:  My father, a model of fathers, gave us an education commensurate with our modest means, and through thrift he was able to build a stone house, to buy another, and to erect a little nipa hut in the middle of our orchard under the shade of a banana tree and other trees.

Whenever I see old men … I believe that my father will also reach that advanced age because he is healthier and stronger than I and longevity runs in his family. My father is kind and loves young people.

ARO: My father was a consulting engineer who specialized in civil works. Like him I taught at the University of the Philippines (Diliman). He writes far better than me but remains a closet writer who gave up the pen to make a living that provided us a happy home filled with books. You also grew up in a happy home with books.


In 2008 I was criticized for painting the replica of your boyhood home in Calamba green to draw people’s attention to the fact that your surname came from the Spanish “ricial,” which refers to a green field ready for harvest. You used Rizal over “Mercado” (market). I asked for palay green, not knowing that when rice is ready for harvest it’s not green but gold! Following government regulations we used the cheapest available paint in what turned out to be a sick shade of phlegm. We painted your house green but people saw red. Thus, for the record, please tell us about your surname.

JR: It is a crazy story. After the sad catastrophe [of 1872, my brother Paciano] had to drop out of the University [of Santo Tomas] because he was a liberal, and the friars disliked him for he had lived in the same house as Burgos. It was at that time that I had to go to Manila to study. To avoid difficulties he advised that I use [our second surname] Rizal, because at home my father, my sisters, my brother and my relatives have always preferred the old name, Mercado. In fact our family name is Mercado. But in the Philippines there were many Mercados who were not related to us.

It is said that a provincial governor who was a friend of our family had added the name Rizal to our family name. My family did not pay much attention to this matter but now I had to use it.

ARO: This must have caused some clerical problems when you were in school.

JR: Thus, it seemed as if I were an illegitimate child. More on Friday

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