Reviving history like instant noodles in hot water | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Reviving history like instant noodles in hot water

When my students encounter Jose Rizal’s 1883 Madrid diary for the first time, they roll their eyes, assuming I want to bore them. How relevant is a ball of yarn, for example, to the writing of the “Noli Me Tangere”? What is the significance of his purchase of two pen knives—a cheap one first, followed by a more expensive one the next day? Isn’t this a lesson in false economy?

If Rizal bought the expensive one right away rather than the one made in China that broke upon use, he would have saved some money.

Students who at least read the first page find a recorded nightmare. Rizal dreamt he was an actor dying, his sight grows dim and he starts to fall, he vainly tries to catch the attention of his roommates and wakes up. He probably came from a party and had too much to eat or drink before his sleep triggers bangungot, or the unexplained sleep deaths in Filipino males.


Isn’t it uncanny that this nightmare occurs 13 years before his date with destiny in Bagumbayan on Dec. 30, 1896? Does the nightmare describe what Rizal felt after the bullet snuffed the life from him?


Two diligent students added up Rizal’s expenses, which don’t reconcile. They concluded that data are missing, or Rizal was a bad accountant. Another did a pie chart showing percentages of his regular expenses: The biggest expense was for books and subscriptions (he was a student after all), and postage stamps (he was homesick). His smallest expense was for food. He bought 1/10 of a lotto ticket weekly.

While personal revelation is scarce, one can still discern Rizal’s personality—what was important to him from the way he spent his money. The point of all this is not to memorize the century-old data, but to engage the students to analyze and draw conclusions from a primary source text.

Rizal’s Madrid diary came to mind when I examined the manuscripts and ephemera that are staples at Leon Gallery auctions. There are two sets of prewar postcards available: one represents the valedictory poem, “Mi Ultimo Adios,” each stanza illustrated in color; the other black-and-white photos from Austin Craig’s 1917 biography, “Life Lineage and Labors of Jose Rizal.” There is a map of Paciano Rizal’s Los Baños property. The single most valuable manuscript is a previously unpublished, authentic handwritten letter by Rizal dated Oct. 10, 1883, that is now added to Rizal’s known correspondence.

Rizal wrote his family from a first floor apartment on 15 Calle del Baño [Bath street], Madrid, that he shared with three other Pinoys: Eduardo de Lete and two Llorentes. Rizal said this apartment was better and cheaper than his previous digs on Calle del Lobo [Wolf street]. He described his typical day as follows: 8-11 a.m., he studied in the medicine and surgery clinics; 11 a.m.-12 noon, Landscape Painting at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando; 1:30-2:30 p.m., Greek and History; 2:30-3 p.m., lunch; 3-4 p.m., Perspective; 5-6 p.m., Gym; 6-8 p.m., Drawing  and Modeling from Antiquities. To justify his tuition and allowance, he remarked: “In this you can see that I am occupied all day.”

From this schedule, it is clear that he balanced study with exercise, that he was inclined to the humanities than the sciences. Everyone is told that as a dutiful son, Rizal studied medicine to cure his mother’s failing eyesight, a complicated solution to a simple problem. Wasn’t it easier for Rizal’s mother to consult a specialist abroad, rather than sending a son to study for five years to treat her?

Rizal said the cold season presented itself early, leading them to fish out winter coats and capes from storage chests. He complained about two or three countrymen who didn’t take their studies seriously, but held back on naming those who conducted themselves in a very reprehensible manner. Rain detained him that day as he came out of class and impeded his letter-writing. He concluded: “Forgive me for this short letter but know that I wish not to fail in satisfying you. Kisses to the nephews and nieces, hugs to my brother and sister.”


Manuscript letters are sought after because they literally give a collector a piece of Philippine history. Letters like these revive heroes like instant noodles to hot water; they remind those who forget that historical figures are mortal, their flaws the core of their greatness.

Comments are welcome at [email protected].

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TAGS: ambeth ocampo, History, Looking Back, Noli, Rizal

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