Marcelo del Pilar left behind dozens of letters—altogether a wonderful read for Filipinos interested in history. Many of his letters were written in Filipino, especially those he wrote to his wife and his daughters, but these also include important, indeed historical, letters to Jose Rizal.
I think Del Pilar was very much Rizal’s equal as a political writer; it is instructive to read La Solidaridad, for example when their bylines or pen names appear in the same issue, sometimes even one after the other. Del Pilar was no novelist; perhaps he lacked what the eminent literary critic V. S. Pritchett called, in an entirely different context, the “vegetative temperament” necessary to write a novel. But Del Pilar had an instinct for politics (he never apologized, as Rizal did repeatedly, for sacrificing art or life or fill-in-the-blank “on the altar of politics”), and that instinct informed not only his analysis but also his pragmatic conduct in the circles and corridors of Madrid.
As a letter-writer, however, he was the more engaging correspondent. His letters brim with character and spontaneity and humor and, as his exile in Spain stretched to four, then five, then six years, with undisguised heartache.
Or maybe I say this because his letters seem better suited to modern tastes. He was aware, for instance, of the time difference. On Dec. 24, 1889, during his first Christmas in Spain, he wrote his wife Marciana (Tsanay or Chanay—he spelled it either way):
“A las cinco y media ng hapon dine, ay a las dos na nang gabi rian, nakapag simbang gabi na kayo’t nakapagsalosalo na, kami rine ay uala ng usapan mag hapun kundi ang saya ng pasko rian nakikini-kinita ko si Sofia at si Anita at ang manga bata sa kapitbahay na nasa araw ng kasayahan ngayon.”
(Half past five in the afternoon here, it’s two in the morning there. You’ve been to midnight mass already and you’ve already eaten. Here we talk all afternoon about nothing but how happy Christmas is there. I can visualize Sofia and Anita [his two daughters] and the neighbor’s children on this joyful day.)
This notion of simultaneous time might be unremarkable today, but I cannot think of any other letter from the propagandists written around this time which displays the same sure sense of both audience and the idea of time zones.
Del Pilar could also be playful. Visiting Maximo Viola’s anxious girlfriend in Barcelona, in February 1889, he teases the girl about why the new doctor did not visit more often. His letter to his wife cheerfully recounts the conversation.
“—May kinalilibangan po—ang wika ko.
“Nasama ang mukha, ay agad kong idinugtong: alam po ba ninyo kun sino?
“—Sino po? Hangos na ng pagtanong.
“—Ang mga may sakit po, ang uica ko—Siyang pagkangiti pa lamang ng pobre.”
(He has found a diversion, I said. Her face turned sour, and I immediately added: Do you know who? Who, she asked breathlessly. Those who are sick, I said. Only then did the poor girl smile.)
Like Rizal, he found Spain unimpressive but fell under Paris’ spell. In October 1889, he wrote Chanay from Barcelona:
“Ng sumapit ako rine sa España buhat diyan sa atin ay nasabi ko sa loob kong ‘ito lamang pala ang España, palibhasa’y malaki ang palagay ko sa liit ng nakita ko. Ng sumapit ako sa Paris ay hindi ko napigil ang aking paghanga.” (When I arrived here in Spain from our place back home I told myself, “So this is all Spain is,” because I expected more from the little I knew. When I arrived in Paris I could not help being impressed.)
It helped that, the day after he arrived in Paris, he found himself part of a charming “piknit kainan” or picnic-and-meal with fellow Filipinos, including “ang mga tala ng Filipinas na si Rizal, Felix Resurreccion at Juan Luna” (the stars of Filipinas, Rizal and the two most famous painters). But even in this state of enchantment, his wit and taste for practical gossip proved irrepressible.
“Doroon din naman ang isang ingles at ang asawa niyang filipina, sampo nang dalawang anak na dalagita nila si Adelina ang pinakamaliit, at dalaga na kun tauagin ay si Neli; ang wika ko kay Rizal ay baka ang Neli ay maging Noli ay ualang nagiging panagot kundi ipakita ang sinsing niya sa kalingkingan, tandang siya’y may katipan na: si Leonor.” (There too [at the picnic] were an Englishman and his Filipina wife, together with two daughters, the young lady Adelina who is the smallest and the lady who is called Neli [he means Nelly Boustead, one of Rizal’s many love interests]. I told Rizal maybe Neli would become a Noli [a joke he repeated in his letters to Rizal] and he had no answer except to show the ring on his finger, a sign that he was committed to someone: Leonor [Rivera].)
when he complained, he did it in style. He wrote Rizal in January 1889 about Isabelo de los Reyes’ account of Diego Silang’s revolt, which he believed to be mistaken. Then his complaint: “Isabelo Reyes va a tronchar mi trabajo con su deplorable fecundidad.” (Isabelo de los Reyes will ruin my work with his deplorable fecundity.) It is a dig at both De los Reyes’ sometimes reckless productivity and his industriousness as a father. (By the end of his life, “Don Belong” had married thrice and fathered 27 children.)
I wonder if Del Pilar realized just how closely his name would be attached to Rizal’s. When they finally parted ways it was because of a difference in strategy; the pragmatist Del Pilar wanted to continue the campaign in Spain to reform its Philippine policies. Rizal wanted to bring the fight to the Philippines. It was a contest that Del Pilar seemed to have won, in part because Rizal returned home, via Hong Kong. After Rizal left the scene, no one in the Filipino community in Spain proved equal to Del Pilar.
But he died penniless in Madrid in July 1896—a month before the Philippine Revolution which he helped inspire began, and half a year before Rizal’s martyrdom.
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