Demythologizing Rizal by Ambeth Ocampo
Whether you are talking about your neighbor, your enemy, a politician or someone who lived 200 years ago, sex never fails to catch people's interest and imagination. Despite columns I have written about Apolinario Mabini's polio and that he died of cholera after drinking infected gatas ng kalabas [water bullfalo's milk], people still insist on the tsismis [gossip] that syphilis caused Mabini's paralysis. So many readers have asked me to elaborate on the sex lives of former Philippine presidents or our heroes.
I am always asked if Andres Bonifacio's widow, Gregoria de Jesus, was really raped by Colonel Agapito Bonzon when they were in captivity, or whether it is true that General Antonio Luna's girlfriend really was a presidential ancestor named Isidra Cojuangco. Whenever I volunteer information, it is always seen as tsmis regardless of my documentation. Maybe this is a way of copeing, because our heroes have been so glorified that people cannot imagine them eating, drinking, womanizing, or having plain human emotions like you and me. It is for this reason that we go into the national hero, José Rizal.
Doctor Maximo Viola, as every schoolchild knows, was the man who paid for the printing of Rizal's Noli me Tangere. What the schoolchild doesn't know, however, is that Rizal and Viola traveled together around Europe and that Viola had written an account of this trip.
Rizal stayed with Viola in Barcelona around June or July 1886 at a time when Viola was preparing for his medical examinations, so Rizal was forced to roam the city alone. Viola writes:
"It can be said that the life of the illustrious traveler in this city had nothing notable about it. He visited without pomp and ceremony... During the day I couldn't accompany him in his excursions as much as I wished, for I was preparing for my final examinations. At night, I sometimes accompanied him to the Café Pelayo -- gathering place of the Filipino expatriates -- and sometimes to other amusement centers, including casas de polomas de bajo vuelo (in Pilipino, kasa ng mga kalapating mababa ang lapid); in English brothels whose ways, luxury or poverty, and other customs of refinement of vice were unknown to him in Madrid. In as much as he was eager to know everything, because the day when, as a writer, he would have to combat such a vice in its diverse manifestations for being unnatural an anti-psycological, according to him, he would be informed of its cause the better to correct it. It must be noted that in these excursions, rather of a character more inquisitorial than voluptious, he always hinted to me thathe had never been in favor of obeying blindly the whims of nature when theeir call was not duly justified by a natural and spontaneous impulse."
The original Spanish is florid and corny, so much the better to veil Rizal's "educational-observation" trips to the brothels. I use a translation by the José Rizal Centennial Commission because if I translate these notes to their bare essentials, it will appear as if I were trying to denigrate Rizal. What one should keep in mind while reading Viola is that these recollections were not written in 1886 but in 1913, so many years after the actual events. Rizal was already the national hero and so, Viola had to paint a dignified picture of his friend. It is because of writings like these that Rizal has become a figure of myth to today's Filipinios.
Viola says that the brothels "were unknown to him (Rizal) at Madrid." But if you take the time to read the volumes of Rizal's correspondence, hyou will find a letter of Rizal to his brother, Paciano, from Madrid dated 13 February 1883 (three years before he visited Viola in Barcelona). Rizal says: "Women abound even more (here in Madrid) and it is, indeed, shocking that in many places they intercept men and they are not the ugly ones either."
I have seen these dark esquintitas in Madrid, like Calle de la Montera, where my sisters were always warned never to go after six. Here you find pretty young things (but it's hard to be seen in the semidarkness) who lie in wait; the ugly ones are aggressive out of despair, so they pull men off the street into their sleazy little rooms. I wonder where these kalapati [doves] were in Rizal's time. From Rizal's letter it is obvious he know what he's talking about.
"With respect to morality there are some who are models of virtue and innocence and others who have nothing womanly about them, except their dress or at most their sex. Rightly it has been said that the women in the South of Europe have fire in their veins. However, here prostitution is a little more concealed than at Barcelona, though not less unrestrained."
Now, tell me, how can Viola say with a straight face that these "amusements" were unknown to Rizal?
In May 1887 Rizal and Viola traveled together around Europe. It was in Vienna where Rizal "encountered the figure of a temptress in the form of a Viennese woman, of the family of the Camellias or hetaeras of extraordinary beauty and irresistible attraction," who seemingly had been expressly invited to offer for a moment a cup of mundane pleasure to the apostle of Philippine freedom who until then had enjoyed among his intimates the fame worthy of his glorious namesake, St. Joseph.
"With these exceptions of this case, I knew of no other slip of Rizal during more than six months that we were traveling together..."
Is this column tsismis (gossip)? The documentation exists. The point is that there is not need to hide the humanity of our heroes because it is precisely their being human that makes them admirable. Whether Rizal was a saint or a sex fiend does not detract from his greatness. The problem today is rewriting all the distorted hagiography teachers force students to read. What of today's sex scandals?
I'll leave that for the historical columnist of 2089 A.D.
Source: Ambeth Ocampo, Rizal Without the Overcoat, Anvil Pub., 1990.