Column: A Tagalog conspiracy

Column No. 175, the first of a two-part series on Rizal’s Tagalog correspondence. Published on December 28, 2010.

“Kaibigang Selo: Ang may taglay nitong sulat ay isang lihim na kapatid natin sa Rd. L. M. no. 2 ang taas. Walang sukat at dapat maka-alam na siya’y kapatid kundi ikaw lamang at ako.” Thus Rizal, conspiratorially, to Marcelo del Pilar, on November 4, 1889.

Most of Rizal’s letters were meant to be read in company, to be passed from hand to hand, to be copied and circulated (indeed, copies of some of his letters were found by the raiding party that broke into the warehouse where Andres Bonifacio was employed, and were used as evidence in his trial for treason). A few, like this letter from Paris, were meant to be confidential, and a hundred and twenty years after it was written we can still easily intuit why.

“Friend Selo: The bearer of this letter is a secret brother of ours in Rd. L. M., of the second degree. No one should know he’s a brother but you and me.”

The secret brother in Freemasonry whom Rizal recommended to Del Pilar’s good graces was a Filipino priest, “most likely Father Jose Chanco” (in the considered view of eminent historian John Schumacher SJ). Chanco needed the help of Del Pilar and Julio Llorente, whose Masonic friends of similarly high rank were well placed in Spanish officialdom. “Kaya nga,” Rizal wrote, “alinsunod sa pangako niya sa akin na tayo’y tutulungan niyang lihim, sa lahat ng makakaya, iniaalay ko naman sa kaniya ang ating tulong—That is why, following his promise to me that he will help us secretly, to the utmost, I am offering him our help.”

It was not often that Rizal, whose 114th death anniversary we remember this week, wrote in muffled tones, in cloak-and-dagger (or overcoat-and-fog) fashion. His correspondence with Antonio Luna, plus a few other fellow separatists, had some of the same quality. But that is another matter, for another day. For the moment I only wish to point to Rizal’s use of Tagalog.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Rizal did not write only in Spanish. He wrote a few pieces in English (published in England and Hong Kong) and—I did not realize this until a couple of years ago, and I suspect many other Filipinos suffer from the same symptom of miseducation—he wrote a considerable amount in Tagalog.

Some scholars and historians have remarked on Rizal’s return to Tagalog, but mostly in passing. “To emphasize the role of language in this effort at solidarity and unity, he began to write his colleagues in Tagalog,” Jovita Ventura Castro wrote in her introduction to “The Revolution,” her faithful translation of the “Fili”—and then left it at that. The most programmatic of Rizal’s biographers, Gregorio Zaide, reserves only four paragraphs to Rizal’s Tagalog writing, combining it with his advocacy of a new orthography. “In spite of his European education and his knowledge of foreign languages, Rizal loved his own native language,” Zaide’s first paragraph began.

Perhaps only author and academic Nilo S. Ocampo has studied Rizal’s use of Tagalog in real depth and consuming detail. His “May Gawa na Kaming Natapus Dini: Si Rizal at ang Wikang Tagalog” is bracing, a necessary corrective. The title is borrowed from Rizal’s last (extant) letter to Mariano Ponce, written in his last month in Hong Kong while preparing to return to the Philippines; cast entirely in Tagalog, the letter expresses Rizal’s appreciation for Ponce’s loyalty and then, characteristically, proposes a project: for Ponce to return to the Philippines with a printing press. “May gawa na kaming natapus dini,” Rizal adds—a resonant line that can be rendered either as “We’ve completed some work here” or “We have some completed work here.”

In fact, Rizal never stopped writing in Tagalog; it was the language he used in writing many of his letters to his sisters, and he was always ready to translate works he thought useful back home: Schiller’s “Wilhelm Tell,” Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, even (when he was in Hong Kong) “The Rights of Man” as proclaimed by the French Constitutional Assembly in 1789. He also attempted several times to begin a third novel, in Tagalog.

All together, and as Ocampo proves, Rizal’s Tagalog writings constitute a substantial body of work.

But it was in his correspondence with Del Pilar and Ponce, the engines of the Propaganda, that Rizal’s turn to Tagalog is most telling, and most relevant to us. Ocampo tallied 28 Tagalog letters exchanged by the three Propagandists, including two partially written in the language.

But my own research finds that, of the surviving letters, there are 47 entirely in Tagalog (including seven between Del Pilar and Ponce). And there are five more partially written in the language. The Tagalog letters were exchanged between July 7, 1888 (when Rizal was newly settled in London) and June 15, 1892 (when Rizal was preparing to depart Hong Kong for Manila). The first was a mere postcard from Rizal to Ponce; the last asked Ponce to consider going into the printing business.

I expected to trace the start of this turn to mid-February 1889, when Del Pilar asked Rizal to write a letter of encouragement in Tagalog to the women of Malolos who had bravely petitioned for the privilege to be taught Spanish. But in fact the Tagalog writing started before that, and then petered out after. It surged again, and then dissipated. And then it gathered up again, only to dissolve once more in the sea of Spanish the propagandists swam in. It came and went in waves.

What prompted the repeated turn and return to Tagalog writing?

To be concluded

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