Column: Rizal’s open secrets

Over 15 months after I posted the first installment of a two-part column on Rizal’s Tagalog correspondence, the other shoe finally — finally! — drops. My apologies for the great delay. This column was published on January 4, 2011.

The Tagalog letters exchanged between Jose Rizal, Mariano Ponce and Marcelo del Pilar give the modern Filipino reader a privileged glimpse not only into the life and work of the three leading Propagandists but the nature of the work of the Propaganda itself. Like all other learned men of the time, they wrote in Spanish most of the time; every now and then, however, they would turn to Tagalog. The longest stretches of Tagalog letter-writing were in November and December 1889 (eight letters) and from May to July 1890 (10 letters all together).

What prompted the repeated attempts to return to Tagalog? I can think of at least three reasons. The first seems clear, from the circumstance. In the writing of postcards, Tagalog provided an additional layer of privacy.

Of the letters in Tagalog, at least 12 were postcards. In fact, the very first letter in the Tagalog correspondence, from Rizal to Ponce, was a “tarjeta postal” postmarked July 21, 1888 (not July 7, as I mistakenly wrote last week) in London. In it, Rizal thanked Ponce for introducing him to the work of “Piping Dilat” (Wide-Eyed Mute) and finding in the work hope that “nagsisitubu na ang mga anak na maalam magmahal sa kanilang ina”–the children who know how to love their mother are growing”. He then asked a question that, from the modern Filipino’s perspective, seems unbearably poignant: “Sino po si ‘Plaridel’? (Who is ‘Plaridel’)”?

The answer, as it happens, bore dramatic consequences for Rizal and his many projects. Both Plaridel and Piping Dilat were pseudonyms of Del Pilar, Rizal’s only real equal in political writing and polemical cunning and the most important new ally he would find in his second European sojourn. Their alliance did not end well, but even after the recriminations and resentments both Rizal and Del Pilar continued to think of each other as friends. (Rizal’s letters show that he was aware of the Tagalog translation of his “El Amor Patrio,” the first essay he wrote on foreign soil, in 1882, and the first of his many pieces to be published in a newspaper, in this case the bilingual and short-lived “Diariong Filipino.” Apparently he did not know then that it was Del Pilar who did the translating.)

Rizal and Ponce, and eventually Del Pilar too, when he arrived in Spain, used postcards for their convenience: they were cheaper and faster. Rizal the penny-pincher knew the economics of postage intimately, and it is no surprise to discover that all but two of the 12 postcards in Tagalog were from Rizal (to Ponce). What did they contain? Mostly instructions about submitted articles or queries about editing, or the various details involved in the administration of a fledgling publication (“La Solidaridad”) whose contributors resided in different parts of Europe–eminently practical, time-bound stuff.

Thus, for example, the postcard of May 26, 1889, sent from Paris:

“Kaibigan: Kasabay nito ang sagot ko kay Barrantes. Ypalimbag ninyo kung sakali akala ninyong nagmamarapat. Ylagay ninyo ang ngalan ko man o ang Laong Laan. Sabihin mo kay Plaridel at kay Jaena na sila na ang bahalang magputol o magalis ng labis na hindi nila maibigan. Ako ang sasagot ng ano pa man–Friend: With this is my reply to Barrantes. Print it if you think it worthwhile. Put my name or Laong Laan. Tell Plaridel or Jaena to cut or remove any excess they would not like. I will answer for anything.”

But as we have already seen last week, the three Propagandists used Tagalog when they wanted to wrap something in (or bind themselves to) secrecy. Thus, the Masonic letter of November 4, 1889, where Rizal in Paris asked Del Pilar in Madrid to help a secret brother in need. Or the lengthy letter in Spanish to Del Pilar the following December 5, where we suddenly find, toward the end, a couple of sentences in Tagalog: “Sinulatan ko na si I.B., ngunit hindi pa ako sinasagot. Kailangan kong matanto kung bait at ang mga I.B., ay ayaw sumagot sa aking mga sulat (I already wrote I.B. [Indio Bravo] but he hasn?t answered. I need to know why the I.B. [Indios Bravos] don’t want to answer my letters.)”

The real significance of the Tagalog correspondence, however, lay in Rizal’s quest for authenticity. Ponce and Del Pilar responded to Rizal’s Tagalog letters with gusto, and it must be said that Del Pilar was a much more vivid letter-writer than Rizal–his letters to his wife Chanay, written entirely in Tagalog, are Chekhovian in their humor and humanity–but it was in fact Rizal who began the turn to Tagalog. To forge a unity of purpose, it was, as always, necessary to set an example. And because the question of language was becoming more and more central to their attempt to found a nation, he began writing them in Tagalog.

One still under-appreciated consequence: Some of the most important letters in the Rizal canon were written in our own language. For instance, Rizal’s June 11, 1890 letter to Del Pilar, explaining in great personal detail his wish to slowly retire from writing for “La Solidaridad”:

“Ang nasa ko’y lumitaw ang iba at mabihasa ang tainga ng iba sa ibang ngalan. Ako’y sinisiglahan ng malulungkot na pagiisip… Niaong kabataan ko’y paniwala akong lubos na di ako sasapit sa tatlong pung taon, aywan kung bakit gayon ang isipan ko. Mayroon na gayong halos dalawang buan na halos gabi gabi’y wala akong ibang pangarap kundi ang mga patay kong kaibigan at kamaganak.(My wish is for others to surface and the ears of others to be familiar with other names. I am assailed by sorrowful thoughts … In my childhood I fully believed that I would not reach the age of 30, I don’t know why I thought so. It has been almost two months now that almost every night I have no other dream but that of my dead friends and relatives.)”

It wasn’t the answer Del Pilar wanted, but it was certainly a revelation.

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