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The Artist Abroad

From Calamba to Los Baños: A Lifetime’s Journey

/ 03:25 PM July 29, 2012

NEW YORKHe stares straight ahead, all steely gaze and determination, right hand on the holstered pistol, left hand inches away from his scabbarded sword. Clad in the uniform of the Philippine revolutionary army, General Paciano Rizal is frozen, in mid-stride towards battle. In this six-inch statuette I detect in the general’s demeanor a slight similarity to his mother, Teodora Alonso—and at certain angles to my late paternal uncle Andres.

The statuette is a gift from Paciano’s descendants, on the occasion of a visit to his last home in Los Baños, a simple but graceful airy, wooden structure with an enclosed verandah facing Laguna de Bay, now a shrine to his memory. This is where he lived during the final years of his life, passing away at the age of 79. From the verandah and in the living room one can see the lake, and, somewhere to the left, according to 96-year-old grandson Edmundo Rizal Lopez, the town of Calamba. Paciano and Severina Decena, his wife, had departed his hometown (the fictional San Diego in Noli Me Tangere) as it had become the site of too many unpleasant memories. Nevertheless he wished to relocate where he could still see it.

My visit was arranged by University of the Philippines Los Baños professor Dennis Gupa, as part of a program put together by him and fellow professors April Hope Castro, and Dwight Diestro. I had given a couple of talks on the UP campus prior to coming here, one on writing, to aspiring UP student poets and fictionists, and the other, on the history between the Philippines and the United States. The discussions were lively, and, as to be expected, the questions sharp, the students certainly more articulate than I was at that age. And being on the UPLB campus was a treat, with its spacious well-kept grounds and impressive trees—leafy, well-limbed, tall, majestic, cared for, their massive presence rendering the place a welcome refuge. Founded in 1909, the university covers more than 14,000 hectares—its size partly determined by the fact that the university includes the International Rice and Research Institute, as well as colleges of forestry and agriculture.

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I couldn’t get there fast enough. By bus along the EDSA link meant that the fervid, incessant urban noises that bombard Manileños daily were compounded by the bus radio tuned in to Radyo Patrol the whole trip, the bombastic voices pouring out of a line of speakers that could not be switched off; the conductor was kind enough to lower the volume upon request but I have always wondered at the urban Filipino’s seemingly insatiable need to fill up public spaces with a variety of sounds, most rarely pleasing, and at volumes that hint at unconscious, even desperate and Orwellian impulses to always present a bright and happy face to the world, and at the same time point to what seems to be a national fear of being left in silence and solitude. I’d modify the crowd-rallying cry of the eighties, Hindi Ka Nagiisa (You are not alone), the nation’s response to the Aquino assassination in 1983, to Hindi Ka Dapat Magisa (You should not be alone), the thought of at times enjoying being by one’s self apparently anathema to most folks. The concrete traffic- and exhaust-choked arteries of the metropolis constantly remind me of the paucity of public parks, indicative of the corpulent elite’s disregard for the welfare of the toiling masses. What a relief once we came to Pansol, with its many resorts offering the balm and healing properties of hot springs, interspersed with plant nurseries. Mt. Makiling loomed, with its promise of myth and legend. For that verdant stretch at least, the pastoral Laguna I remembered as a child was a reality—on my father’s side we hail from the province—diminished certainly but there.

The added bonus for this trip was a chance to meet the two grandsons of Paciano, simply too good an opportunity to pass up. The younger of the two, José Rizal Lopez, a sprightly charming 88-year-old who did resemble Paciano, conversed easily with our group, made up of myself, a few UP professors, a provincial board member, and a young Filipino-American writer. For lunch, we were seated at the very same table Rizal’s family had used, made of hardwood and built without nails.

Mr. Lopez told us that when the Spanish commander in Laguna surrendered to his grandfather, he confessed that he was fearful he and his troops would be killed. But Paciano treated the surrenderees with respect. In Cavite, in contrast, according to the board member, who happened to have roots in that province, many of the Spanish, in particular the friars, were dispatched summarily, even cruelly—revenge for the centuries of callous and abusive behavior they were notorious for.

I asked him what Pepe’s sisters thought of Josephine Bracken. He replied that only Narcisa looked kindly on the woman Rizal described in Mi Ultimo Adios as “dulce estranjera, mi amiga, mi alegria [sweet stranger, my friend, my delight].” Why was that, I queried. Because, he stated, the other sisters believed Josephine was a spy for the friars. Might it also have been a question of class, I asked, since Josephine’s social provenance was somewhat suspect. He said that was certainly possible.

After lunch, he brought out a box that contained some items of his granduncle: a teaspoon, the wristwatch he had worn on the day of his martyrdom, a crystal container for table salt, a spoon engraved with his sister’s initials NR (Narcisa Rizal), and the board game that Lolo Pepe had devised while exiled to Dapitan, the Sibila Cumana, that I suspect derived its inspiration from the I Ching, the Book of Changes. We even played briefly, choosing from a list of questions in the book.

Before heading back, alas, to polluted Manila, I asked Mr. Lopez for his contact information. It turns out that he not only uses e-mail but Skypes and is on Facebook as well. That is how he keeps in touch with those of his children living abroad. It was one of many small revelations that afternoon—and an affirmation that the welcome Rizal had for new developments, as long as these benefited humanity, was very much alive in his descendant.

Copyright L.H. Francia 2012

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