Column: The 10 most important letters Rizal wrote

The third Rizal column, published on June 28, 2011.

I thought it might be an interesting experiment: In the country’s most important correspondence, which letters are the most historic? Several years ago, I came to realize that the best way to introduce a new reader or a new student to Rizal is through his letters. The Rizal correspondence runs to several hundreds, and almost literally there is something in it for everyone. But if one had time only to read the 10 most consequential, what would the short list look like?

It would probably not include some of the more personally interesting letters, such as Rizal telling his sisters that inviting their friends to resettle in Dapitan, where he had just been deported, was “a delicious idea”—in English. Or the letter, in German this time, where he explains to his great friend Ferdinand Blumentritt how to use his new invention, a “sulpak” or cigar lighter. Instead, a short list would probably include those letters that explain Rizal best: how he came to write his subversive novels, how he came to part ways with Marcelo del Pilar, how he came to find himself, for the third time, on board a ship bound for Spain.

Any such list invites discussion; I do not think definitiveness is possible or even the point. The point is to provoke greater engagement with the letters of Rizal. Herewith, my shortlist:

Oct. 12, 1886, to his brother Paciano. Rizal sends off his translation of “Wilhelm Tell” with a letter that speaks of his problems translating in Tagalog, wrestles with the right rendering of liberty and despairs about the cost of printing the “Noli.” “I don’t therefore dare ask you for this amount, for I consider it big for a work that may perchance produce more grief than joy. For this reason, I shall wait for chance, for the lottery, and see if I win… It is very painful for me to give up publishing this work on which I have worked day and night for a period of many months and on which I have pinned great hopes. With this I wish to make myself known, for I suppose that it would not pass unnoticed; on the contrary, it will be the object of much discussion.”

February 1889, to the young women of Malolos. In a long letter in Tagalog prompted by a request from Del Pilar, Rizal considers the question of womanly courage. “Nang aking sulatin ang ‘Noli Me Tangere,’ tinanong kong laon, kung ang pusuang dalaga’y [the woman of courage] karaniwan kaya diyan [was a common thing] sa ating bayan.”

Nov. 4, 1889, to del Pilar.Kaibigang Selo,” begins this letter in Tagalog, one of only two surviving letters which reference the secret group “Rd. L. M.”—one of three societies Rizal formed during a busy year in Paris. The letter, apparently an effort to get a fellow Mason access to high-ranking Masons in Spain, is replete with appeals for caution: “Kailangang huag sa kanino mang harapan ang pagkakapatid namin o natin.”

May 28, 1890, to del Pilar. The first intimation of an inevitable split. Rizal asks leave to temporarily stop writing for La Solidaridad. “Sadya akong hindi nagpadala sa iyo ng articulo sa ating Sol … dahil dito’y ang nasa ko’y tumago muna sa lilim upang ding ang mga bago’y lumitaw.” The last can be translated as: because of this my desire is to hide under the shade so the new [talents] can appear.

October 1891, recipient/s unknown. Only fragments of this highly figurative letter in Tagalog survive, but they show a forceful Rizal explaining why the struggle must shift from Spain. “Ang parang na paglalaban ay ang Filipinas, doon tayo dapat magtatagpo.” (The field of battle is the Philippines; there is where we should meet).

Oct. 13, 1891, to Del Pilar. Rizal explains his differences with Del Pilar in terms of the nature of La Solidaridad: Del Pilar saw it as “una empresa particular” (a private enterprise), Rizal said, while he understood it as “una empresa nacional” (a national undertaking). He nevertheless ends with a reassurance: “I say I work in parallel with La Solidaridad.”

June 20, 1892, “A los Filipinos.” The letter was written because Rizal fully expected to be sentenced to death on returning to the Philippines. It includes the much-quoted passage: “I wish to show those who deny us patriotism that we know how to die for our duty and our convictions. What matters death if one dies for what one loves, for native land and adored beings?” It ends with: “Publish these letters after my death.”

Nov. 11, 1892, to Fr. Pablo Pastells. In the second of five letters Rizal wrote from his Dapitan exile to his former teacher, he makes an impassioned defense of the small or modest cause. Pastells had chided Rizal for wasting his talents (on reformist and separatist initiatives). Rizal replies: “It is very possible that there may be better ones than those I have embraced, but my cause is good and this is enough for me. Others undoubtedly will yield more profit, more renown, more honors, more glories, but the cane, on being born in this land, is for the purpose of supporting nipa huts and not the heavy bulk of the buildings of Europe … But He who has arranged it thus sees what the future brings, does not err in any of His acts, and knows very well for what use are even the smallest things.”

Sept. 28, 1896, to Ferdinand Blumentritt. Written on the Isla de Panay, en route to Spain for the third time, Rizal explains why Governor-General Ramon Blanco’s late authorization forced his (Rizal’s) hand. “This letter upset my plans, for I was not thinking of going anymore to Cuba in view of the fact that more than six months had already elapsed since I filed my application; but fearing that they might attribute [my decision] to something else if I should now refuse to go, I decided to abandon everything [decidi abandonar todo] and depart immediately.”

Wait, that’s only nine letters. Perhaps we should leave the tenth choice open.


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