Column: A mistake in Rizal’s letters

Published on December 30, 2008

The letter is the 12th printed in chronological order, out of the 226 included in “Letters Between Rizal and Family Members 1876-1896.” It is dated Jan. 17, 1882, written in Madrid and addressed to Jose Rizal’s brother-in-law Silvestre Ubaldo.

Ubaldo had repeatedly asked Rizal to work for his transfer to the government telegraph station in Calamba. Rizal’s reply was practical to a fault: “I’ll see if I can do something for you at the ministry, but my acquaintances are still few. If you didn’t expect much from the post you hold, I believe it would be much better if you would devote yourself to farming.”

He does not fail to end on a light note, asking Ubaldo to give his regards to his wife Señora Ipia (Rizal’s sister Olimpia), “who turned out to be stout as I believed. Tell her to stop wriggling.”

The letter, however, is erroneously placed in the chronology. Rizal did not leave for Europe until May 3, 1882. He did not arrive in Barcelona until June 15, and did not begin his studies in Madrid until Oct. 3. How could he have written a letter from Madrid before he even left Manila?

I have not seen the original letter, but I can make an educated guess about the mistake. It was the turn of the year, and 1883 was not even three weeks old; Rizal wrote down the wrong year.

It happens. It happens even to the best of us; and it happened to Rizal.

What makes this particular, decidedly trivial error instructive, however, is that some of the country’s best historians in the 1960s, and then again in the 1990s, did not see it as erroneous. To be sure, it takes some chutzpah on my part, a mere student of history, to take to task the very people on whose shoulders I and my generation of Rizal readers now stand. But I cannot help but think that the National Heroes Commission, which printed several volumes of Rizal’s letters in 1963, including those he wrote to and received from his family, accepted everything Rizal wrote as holy writ; and that the National Historical Institute, which reprinted the same volumes starting in 1992, passed up the chance to edit Rizal’s letters according to contemporary standards and by the light of the latest research.

(Could it be that blame for the perpetuation of this admittedly minor error goes all the way back to Teodoro M. Kalaw and his “Epistolario Rizalino”? If I correctly read the introductory note to’s impressive “epistolary bibliography,” which unfortunately repeats the sequencing error, perhaps the answer is yes.)

There is plenty of evidence — both internal to the letter and external to it — that would have told anyone that the date of the letter, even if affixed by the hand of Rizal, was wrong.

Rizal begins the letter by acknowledging receipt of a previous letter from Ubaldo, dated Dec. 23, and by mentioning that he had already replied to Ubaldo’s entreaties (“I thank you for your perseverance in writing me”) not once but twice. These circumstances would have placed Rizal in Spain sometime in December 1881, perhaps even earlier — clearly an untenable thought, if, that is, the thought had been entertained.

The letter as placed in the sequence is also jolting; it jumps out of context. (This is, in fact, what drew my attention in the first place.) On one spread, Rizal is enduring a chastening from Leonor Rivera and making plans to survey a piece of land; on the next, he is dispensing advice to his brother-in-law from Madrid. Indeed, the very next letter in the sequence, No. 13, is from that good man, Rizal’s older brother Paciano, writing from Manila on May 26, 1882, and informing the younger brother — then en route to Europe — about his parents’ grief upon hearing the news of his departure.

If these weren’t enough, there is the evidence of Ubaldo’s own letters. On June 26, 1882, Ubaldo raises the request for the first time: “If you can do me a favor there by having me transferred to Calamba, recommend me to the Inspector General of Communications.” He follows it up on Oct. 5, 1882. There are also three other letters touching on the request: Paciano’s of July 24, 1882; Rizal’s of Oct. 10; and finally Rizal’s again of Jan. 11, 1883. “I received Silvestre’s letter,” he writes, “and I’m very sorry that I can’t do anything for him now.”

Admittedly a small error, and an even more minor mystery, the obvious key to which may lie in the preface to the volume of “family” letters. The last sentence of the preface (written, I assume, on behalf of the National Heroes Commission) reads: “Going over all these letters can never fail to reveal to us Rizal the man, or Rizal the patriot, or Rizal the hero and martyr whom we fondly and unquestioningly worship.”

Ah. Hero worship.

* * *

Some of Rizal’s letters are a little too earnest now for our taste, but many of them are alert with both precision of description and intensity of passion, and quite a few are genuinely funny. Their greatness lies in what they show us: his protean mind, but his constant character.

The real mistake is not in his letters, but in the way we handle them. We should not confine our attempts to publish them to a few thousand copies, in large-paper formats, bound like precious and unavailing dissertations. We should publish, in time for the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2011, hundreds of thousands of copies, in formats that we can read on the bus, in the ferry, while lying in bed.

It would be the best way to get to know him. Writing his sister Josefa, for instance, he couldn’t resist another poke at the stout older sister. “Is Sr. Ipia there already? Do her eyes still become small when she laughs?” The only thing missing, it seems, is the now obligatory LOL.


1 Comment

Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Rizal

One response to “Column: A mistake in Rizal’s letters

  1. rjhay


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s