What happened to the Alberto House in the armpit of Biñan, Laguna? This was a 19th-century house that had seen better days. The house must have been built on a site that must have been good “once upon a time” because it is strangled today by commercial establishments and a swarm of public transport. It was acquired by a man who collects old houses, very much as others collect stamps or Barbie dolls. He takes these down piece by piece and rebuilds them in Bataan, in a place that is both a theme and education park, where one can literally walk into and through visual aids.
What made the acquisition of the house in Biñan controversial was that it happened to be associated with Jose Rizal’s maternal relations. Heritage activists stepped in to keep the house in situ resulting in two groups with the same aim (preservation) but with different means to achieve it. I remembered the Alberto House not from a research trip almost three decades ago but when I was writing the Biñan part of my book “Rizal and Me.”
This new biography of Rizal is written in Q&A or interview form. I ask questions or make comments while Rizal’s replies come from his own writings. Biñan was the place where he got separated for the first time from his family:
Jose Rizal: Biñan [is] a town more or less an hour and a half distant from mine. This is where my father was born, where he sent me to continue studying the rudiments of Latin that I had begun at home. One Sunday, my brother took me to that town after I bade my family goodbye, with tears in my eyes.
I was then nine years old and already I tried to hide my tears. Oh, good manners, Oh, shame, that oblige us to hide our true sentiments and to appear different! How much beauty, what tender and pathetic scenes the world would witness without you!
We arrived at Biñan at nightfall and we went to the house of an aunt where I was to stay. The moon was beginning to peep, and in the company of Leandro, her grandson, I walked through the town that seemed to me large and rich but ugly and gloomy.
Ambeth R. Ocampo: Oh, that means you didn’t really stay in the controversial Alberto House in Biñan that was recently taken down piece by piece, transported and rebuilt in Bataan? Can you tell us about Justiniano Aquino Cruz the schoolmaster, what was he like?
JR: My brother left me [in Biñan] afterwards, not without having first introduced me to my teacher who had also been his teacher. He was tall, thin, long-necked, with a sharp nose and body slightly stooped forward, and he usually wore a sinamay shirt, woven by the skilled hands of those women of Batangas. He knew by heart the grammars by Nebrija and Gainza. Add to this a severity that in my judgment was excessive and you have a picture, perhaps vague, that I remember of him.
ARO: What else do you remember?
JR: I remember only this. When I entered his class for the first time, that is, in his house, which was made of nipa and low in height and about 30 meters away from my aunt’s (for one had only to pass through a portion of the street and a little corner cooled by an apple tree), he spoke to me in these words: “Do you know Spanish?” “A little sir,” I replied. “Do you know Latin?” “A little sir,” I answered again.
Because of these answers the teacher’s son,
Pedro, the naughtiest boy in the class, began to sneer at me. He was older than I, and was taller than I. We fought, but I don’t know by what accident I defeated him, throwing him down some benches in the classroom. I released him quite mortified. He wanted a return match, but I refused because the teacher was already awake by this time, and I was afraid of punishment.
After this I became (in)famous among my classmates, perhaps because of my small size so that after class, a schoolmate named Andres
Salandanan challenged me to arm wrestle. He offered his arm to twist and I lost, and almost dashed my head against the sidewalk of a house.
(From) my classmates, I got more sneers, nicknames, and they called me a name. (This I wont share with you anymore, as a matter of fact I crossed this out of my memoirs though in most editions the word “Calambeño” has been provided!) Some were good and treated me very well, like Marcos Rizal, son of a cousin of mine, and others. Some of them, much later, became my classmates in Manila, and we found ourselves in very different situations.
ARO: Teachers today cannot hit children and risk a charge of child abuse. So, corporal punishment was part of the system?
JR: I don’t want to indulge myself by counting the caning that I suffered nor describe what I felt when I received the first beatings on the hand called palmetazo. Some envied me and others pitied me. Sometimes they accused me wrongly, sometimes rightly, and always the accusation cost me half a dozen or three lashes called disciplina… despite the reputation I had of being a good boy, it was unusual for a day to pass when I was not laid on the bench and whipped or given five or six palmetazos.
ARO: Now I see the autobiographical source for Chapter 19 of the “Noli Me Tangere” where the schoolmaster wanted to turn “the school house from a place of sorrows [to] the site of intellectual recreation.” Leon Ma. Guerrero translated this wonderfully by saying that you, speaking through the characters in your novel, wanted a school that was not a “torture chamber but a playground of the mind.”
* * *
Comments are welcome at email@example.com