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Looking Back
Why Rizal’s house turned green

By Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:19:00 06/03/2009

Filed Under: history, Heroism, People, Places, Monuments & Heritage Sites

There is a brewing controversy in Calamba these days, and fortunately it has nothing to do with sex videos or corruption in government. Residents of this sleepy but traffic-prone Laguna town woke up one morning to see the Rizal Shrine painted a light shade of green. Generations used to the old, dirty gray color, or older folks who imagine all bahay na bato to be white reacted negatively. Within days a text brigade began, and some of the irate texts were forwarded to me.

Cultural Center of the Philippines president Emily Abrera and photographer Dulzzi Gutierrez sent me one text from potter Tessy Pettyjohn which began, ?Some idiot has painted Rizal?s house green!?

I owned up to the deed and texted, ?Hi Tessy, this is Ambeth, the idiot who painted Rizal?s house green.?

Pettyjohn may not have been convinced by my reasons but at least she listened.

Then a descendant of Rizal was brought into the fray. Barbara Gonzales, who is descended from Rizal?s sister Maria, was appalled by the color but was objective enough to print in her column the reason for the color change.

In many columns and lectures, I have always pointed out that Filipinos go through life seeing things but rarely noticing them. Rizal is a fine example: He is everywhere?on the one-peso coin, Rizal monuments gaze at all public schools, municipios, and capitolios all over the archipelago?but have we read his works? Do we know him at all?

Rizal?s house in Calamba is not just the place of his birth and early life, it should open our eyes to the agrarian roots of social unrest in the country. While our lawmakers debate the pros and cons of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, while farmers march to Congress to push for the implementation of CARP, we should remember that one of the seeds of Rizal?s heroism was that his family was evicted not just from Calamba but from Laguna. Contrary to popular belief, the Rizals did not own land; they were tenants of the Dominican hacienda. They refused to pay increased rent, went to court and lost.

In our imagination, we see Guardia Civil driving them away like the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) does to squatters. Contrary to popular belief, the Rizal house was not burned and razed to the ground. They took what they could and used the materials to build a new home and life in Manila.

The eviction of the Rizal family made Rizal speak out as forcefully and directly in ?El filibusterismo.?

Rizal?s house in Calamba is not just a tourist spot, it is a place that should inform, educate and inspire. It should open our eyes to new ways of seeing.

Most negative reactions are understandable. ?It should be painted the way Rizal saw it, the way history unfolded it.? For most people, Rizal?s house should be white and to paint it another color would be like, ?dressing a 90-year-old woman in a tube and miniskirt.?

Only the Rizalistas were open enough to change and took the new green color to mean that Rizal was an environmentalist.

Let?s go into some history. Contrary to popular belief, the present Rizal Shrine is not the original home of the National Hero. It is not covered by the same rigid conservation principles applied to a 19th century house. The present Rizal Shrine is but half a century old, having been reconstructed by Juan Nakpil in the 1950s and funded by donations from schoolchildren. Nakpil based the reconstruction on a faded photograph of the house, and what was left of the original foundation found on the empty lot. The interiors are divided based on floor plans of existing colonial-period houses. The interior is bare because some descendants of Rizal refuse to loan pieces of furniture to the Calamba Shrine and insist that these should stay in Fort Santiago.

Contrary to popular belief not all bahay-na-bato were white. Based on archival research, Martin Tinio, formerly of the Intramuros Administration, suggests that houses had color in Spanish times, but were limited to available paint colors: blue, yellow, red and green. However, during the cholera epidemics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most bahay-na-bato were whitewashed with kalburo or lime in the belief that this was a disinfectant that would repel the plague. Hence, old houses in living memory are white.

Finally, the reason for painting Rizal?s house green highlights and informs visitors of the meaning of his surname. Following the 1849 Claveria decree giving surnames to Filipinos for tax and census purposes, the Rizals who were also known by their other surname Mercado (market) chose ?Risal? from the ?Catalogo alfabetico de apellidos.? The word comes from the Spanish ?ricial? which describes a green field ready for harvest. It was hoped that after asking, ?Why is Rizal?s house green?? the visitor will get a relevant answer: the green hues are meant to honor the memory of the Rizal family and their way of life.

My only regret is that despite our repeated instructions to find a green the color of palay or ripe rice stalk, the NHI historical preservation division didn?t take the initiative to have paint mixed specially for the Rizal Shrine and depended on the offensive, commercially available green paint. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the educational purpose of the new coat of paint far outweighs personal preferences.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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