Looking Back

‘Rizal and me’


(Concluded from Wednesday)

Why should students endure boring textbook biographies of Rizal when he practically left an autobiography scattered in the 25 volumes of his compiled writing? Here, Rizal and me discuss his mother.

JOSE RIZAL (JR): Without her, what would have been my education and my fate? Next to God, a mother is everything to a man.


JR: She taught me how to read, she taught me how to stammer the humble prayers that I addressed fervently to God, and now that I’m a young man, oh, where is the simplicity, the innocence, of my early days?

ARO: What else?

JR: My mother is called Mrs. Teodora Alonso de Quintos, of the family of Mr. José Florentino [of Ilocos], granddaughter, if I remember correctly.

ARO: I think Florentino was her cousin. Perhaps your literary gifts were inherited from Leona Florentino of Vigan who is one of the few women remembered in our early Philippine literary history. Thus, you are also related to her son Isabelo de los Reyes. Let’s not get distracted, please continue.

JR: My mother was a woman of more than average education. She was conversant with literature and spoke better Spanish than me. She corrected my verses and gave me good advice in rhetoric. She was a mathematician and read many books.

Her father [Lorenzo Alberto Alonso], a deputy in the Cortes representing the Philippines, was her teacher. Her brother [Jose Alberto] was educated in Europe and spoke German, English, Spanish and French. He was also knighted with the Order of Isabel la Catolica.

ARO: Was it your mother who taught you to read?

JR: My first remembrance concerning letters goes back to my earliest age. I must be very small yet because when they polished the floor of our house with banana leaves, I would still fall, slipping on the shiny surface, as did little skilled skaters on ice.

It was still difficult for me to climb up a chair. I went down the staircase step by step, holding on to every baluster, and in our house, as in the whole town, petroleum was unknown. Neither had I seen until that time any  quinque  lamp, nor had any carriage ever passed through the streets of my town that I believed to be the height of joy and animation.

One night, when everybody else at home was already asleep, when the lights in the globes had already been put out by blowing them off by means of a curved tin tube that seemed to me the most exquisite and wonderful toy in the world, I don’t know why my mother and I remained watching beside the only light that in all Philippine houses burned all night long, and that went out precisely at dawn, waking the people with its cheerful hissing.

My mother then was still young. After a bath her hair, which she let down to dry, dragged half a handbreadth on the floor, by which reason she knotted its end.

ARO: Wow! I have seen 19th-century paintings and photographs depicting Filipino women whose hair reached the floor. My mother once had hair that measured over four feet. As a sign of her freedom from her parents, the first thing she did upon marriage was to cut that marvelous Rapunzel-like hair. Next, she turned my father’s favorite shirt into a  basahan  (rag). Sorry, please continue.

JR: My mother taught me to read in  Amigo  de  los  Niños  (The Children’s Friend), an old book [by the Abbot Sabatier translated from the original French to Spanish] that [at the time] had become quite rare. It had lost its cover and one of my sisters cleverly covered it again by pasting a thick blue paper, the remnant of the wrapper of a bolt of cloth, on its back.

That night my mother was annoyed listening to me read poorly. I didn’t understand Spanish and couldn’t add expression to the phrases. She took the book from me. After scolding me for drawing rude pictures on its pages, she began to read, asking me to follow her example.

My mother, when her sight was not yet impaired, read very well. She could recite and write poetry. How many times during Christmas vacation afterward, she corrected my poems, making very apt observations. I listened to her full of childish admiration. I marveled at the ease with which she read sonorous phrases from the same pages that cost me so much effort to read and that I deciphered haltingly.

Perhaps my ears soon got tired of hearing sounds that meant nothing to me. Perhaps due to my natural distraction, I lacked attention to the reading and watched more closely the cheerful flame around which some small moths fluttered with playful and uneven flight. Perhaps I yawned, and my mother noticed I had lost interest. She stopped reading and said to me: “Now I’m going to read to you a very pretty story. Listen.”

ARO: Ah, the famous story of the gamu-gamo  known by all Filipino children. Prewar “Philippine Readers” carried illustrations by National Artist Fernando Amorsolo, one of you and your mother reading. Who else told you stories when you were a boy?

JR: We would go to the  azotea  or to some window where the moon could be seen, then my  aya  would tell us stories, sometimes sad and at other times happy, in which skeletons and buried treasure, and trees blooming with diamonds, were mingled in confusion, all born of an Oriental imagination. Sometimes she told us that men lived on the moon, or that the markings we could see on the moon were nothing else but a woman forever weaving.

The publication of “Rizal and me” is forthcoming.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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Tags: Ambeth R. Ocampo , History , Jose Rizal , Looking Back , opinion

  • Guest

    JR: Fernando Amorsolo, who? I don’t know him. I think he didn’t existed during my time. :-)

    National Artist? can I be one?

  • Mon Sparks

    I would have wanted a “straightforward” biographical narrative. But I guess this Q&A style would suit (I hope, excite) younger Filipinos.

    Yes, it’s time for Ambeth Ocampo to write his own version of Rizal’s bio. Let’s just hope the book will not be too costly for Pinoys with average incomes.

  • Ren-ren

    “The publication of “Rizal and me” is forthcoming.”

    Oh what joy! I can’t wait!

  • $14523613

    a total different style of writing Rizal’s biography. i will definitely buy one and cherish ambeth and jr’s conversation.

  • nes911

    What about “bonifacio and me”?

  • Barak_O

    in those days when electric power and appliances were non existent

    listening to folklore in the azotea during a moonlit night

    would be such a bliss

  • tarikan

    Mr. ARO, can’t wait for your book. My Rizal studies was minute to say the least. I have so many things to clarify about Joey Rizal such as how come he has so many names (his father not named Rizal), was it really true that he was a marksman (can write his initials) and fencing expert (could’ve been first Pinoy Olympic gold medalist) , a childless playboy, why did he not take up “true” medicine not this optometrist thing (taga-sukat laang ng salamin?), any discoveries in the field of optometry or medicine for that matter. Hope most of them find their way in your book.

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