Column: The rape of Pia Alba

After Carlos Celdran pulled off his cinematic Damaso protest on the altar steps of the Manila Cathedral, opinion writers (myself included) joined the fray. Published on October 12, 2010.

Two columns in the wake of Carlos Celdran’s Damaso protest got me thinking about the vexing relationship between Maria Clara’s mother and Padre Damaso, and about the meaning of Damaso himself. On reflection, I must say it was the historian Ambeth Ocampo who got it wrong, and the anthropologist Michael Tan who got it right.

In his October 8 column, Ambeth makes a larger point, about how the popular image Filipinos have of Damaso differs dramatically from Rizal’s own sketch of the rude Franciscan. I will return to this point; for the moment, I will follow a secondary argument of Ambeth’s, and worry the question of rape.

In his October 6 column, Mike writes of Pia Alba, wife of Santiago de los Santos, as a victim of the villainous Damaso: “Pia is seduced, her vulnerability coming in part because she so desperately wants to have a child. In the end though, she is raped—and dies at childbirth.”

Ambeth does not allude to Mike’s column, but references instead an overenthusiastic WikiPilipinas entry on Damaso, which accuses the friar of raping Pia Alba. To this Ambeth responds: “Where did we get the idea that Pia Alba was raped? Remember, Capitan Tiago was an opium dealer and probably had no time for his wife who found solace in her spiritual adviser.”

The attentive reader will be astonished by Ambeth’s apparently rhetorical question, because in fact the answer is in the book itself. In the sixth chapter of the “Noli,” we read (in the most useful Jovita Ventura Castro translation): “Thanks to this wise advice, Doña Pia felt signs of motherhood … alas! like
the fisherman that Shakespeare talks about in Macbeth, the one who stopped to sing when he found a treasure, she lost her joy, became very sad and she was not seen to smile anymore. ‘Caprice!’ said everybody including Capitan Tiago.” Two and a half paragraphs later, we glimpse yet another clue: “Aunt Isabel attributed these semi-European features [of Maria Clara’s] to the caprice of Doña Pia; she remembered having seen her many times during the first months of her pregnancy cry before San Antonio …”

This is not the conduct we expect of a young wife whom Rizal portrays as desperately childless, or even of a woman who has “found solace” in a lover. Besides, and this reflects some of the criticism that has come Ambeth’s way, as the country’s most popular historian, finding solace in an extra-marital affair
seems so late 20th-century—Ambeth’s own formative years in research. In other words, the custom of blithely flouting both convention and creed, by taking up a friar as a lover, is an anachronous explanation, for the Philippines of the late 1860s or early 1870s. It is possible that Pia Alba was unusual for her time, but where’s the proof? The novel itself should make us ask, “Where did we get the idea that Pia Alba was not raped?”

But Rizal, the true forefather of our telenovelas, kept the best proof of forced sex for last. After Crisostomo Ibarra’s conviction because of vaguely reformist passages in a letter he had written Maria Clara, and his escape with the help of the formidable Elias, he confronts her in her own house. Only too
glad for the unexpected chance to explain how his letter ended up with the prosecutor, she tells him something she had only recently found out herself: “Two letters of my mother, two letters written in the midst of her remorse when she was carrying me in her womb! Take and read them and you will see how she cursed me and wished my death … my death that my father vainly tried with medicines!”

It is possible that Damaso, that man of God, tried to abort the pregnancy only because he did not want to shame Doña Pia; it is also possible that Pia’s remorse was for finding a lover’s solace in the first place. But the social circumstances, the novel’s own purposes, even the character of Damaso himself,
all tell us otherwise. Pia Alba de los Santos was suffering the classic symptoms of pregnancy by rape.

Ambeth’s larger point, about the popular misreading of Damaso, is based on the idea that Rizal’s characters have become stereotypes mainly because we do not read Rizal closely enough. I would agree with his example of Sisa, in the sense that today’s image of the madwoman misses the essential nobility of soul that Rizal was careful to draw in the novel. But his notion that Sisa was never “raving mad” again goes against the evidence. “She wandered aimlessly here and there, crying and howling strange sounds; anybody who heard her would have been frightened: her voice had a strange timbre that the human larynx does not usually produce.” To be sure, this is Rizal’s moving description of her initial
descent into madness, in Chapter 21; “the following day, Sisa was wandering about smiling, singing or talking with all the creatures of Nature.” But who is to say an artist like Fides Cuyugan Asensio, whom Ambeth criticizes for popularizing Sisa’s “caricature,” cannot appropriate, make art of, that original
moment?

As for Damaso himself, Ambeth makes the case that he was, well, misunderstood. “Was Damaso really evil? Or was he just being an over-protective father who didn’t approve of his daughter’s boyfriend?”

These questions would have astounded the novel’s original audience. “Who does not know ‘Fr. Damaso,’” the exile Antonio Regidor writes Rizal in May 1887. “Ah, I have met him; and though … in your novel he wears the habit of the dirty Franciscan, always rude, always tyrannical, and invariably corrupt, I have met him and studied him in real life in the Philippines.” Damaso, in other words, was the symbol of the soul-destroying hypocrisy of friar rule. That he was genuinely protective of his daughter does not mean he was any less evil; it only makes his evil all the more real.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Notes on Readings, Readings in Rizal

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