A family visit with Siony, Naty and Carmen, the grand nieces of José Rizal

By Sir Carlos Arnaldo – KGOR
“Magandang umaga po, maaari po ba kaming umakyat?”
“Tuloy po kayo. . . Ako po si Mrs Anna Maria Belen Lopez Rizal Bantug, these ladies are my mother, Mrs Asuncion Lopez Rizal Bantug, and her sisters, Mrs Natividad Lopez Rizal and Mrs Carmen Lopez Rizal Consunji. All are the grand nieces of José Rizal, grand daughters of his elder sister, Narcisa.”

I felt honored to be welcomed into the home of these three elegant ladies, the last vestige of a long gone era of heroism and national ardor. When they heard I was coming to visit, they even proposed to wear their old Filipina gowns with the large balintawak shoulders. But this was not possible, everything was burned in the family home last November 2009.

Over late morning coffee, we started talking about whether Rizal was a mason or not, and whether he recanted as it is still hotly debated today. Even our tempered discussion fell into a quiet hush amidst puzzled faces. It must be recalled that in the actual days of Rizal, fealty to the church and the friars was expressed in outward devotions, like mass, sacraments, baptisms, generous contributions. To be a free mason or propound any of their beliefs would immediately be taken as an act of disloyalty with the risk of all the punishments and stigma attached. To admit even a hint of masonry at that time, could be perilous. Silence today was a gesture of loyalty to their Lolo José.

In her book, Lolo José: an illustrated portrait of José Rizal (Quezon City: Vibal Foundation, Inc. and the Intramuros Administration, 2008), author Asuncion Lopez Rizal Bantug is less silent. She discusses both sides of the question, “One faction insists that he did [retract], having been won back by two Jesuits who visited him on his last night, bringing with him an old school medallion of his and a statue of the Sacred Heart he had carved as a boy. According to this claim, he wrote down his retraction, confessed, heard Mass in the morning and received communion, and was then married to Josephine Bracken.”

And yet this explanation does not fit in well with other historical events following the execution, like the ‘disappearance’ of his body and its being found unidentified in a burial place in Santa Ana. If he retracted, he should have been buried with discrete honor in a Catholic cemetery and the friars should have been celebrating the triumph of his defeat.

And so “Another faction ,” writes Siony, “argues that it’s not only what we know of Rizal’s character that militates against this claim of retraction, but also what we know of his activities on his last night, which leaves no room for the various religious functions he is said to have joined. Or so avers this group—which therefore brands as a forgery the document of retraction allegedly found in the church archives in 1935.”

I would tend to believe, with Siony and her daughter, Mrs Belen Lopez Rizal Bantug, that through his Jesuit education, Rizal had reached a higher level of intelligence that could assimilate seemingly contrary beliefs and philosophies which when seen at a lower, more fundamental level, seem irresolvable; but when looked at through a higher logic and more profound understanding, can be reconciled.

Also recall at that time that Rizal’s antagonist was not the credo of the Catholic church, but the lavish lifestyle of the friars and their frivolous, contemptuous treatment of the peasants. And hence, Rizal could have expressed his stance for social justice in terms of the socialistic philosophies of the time without at all putting into question any Catholic doctrine. But such declarations of social justice, however inherent in catholic dogma itself, would have a direct accusatory bearing on the life style of the friars and the guardia civil who supported them, and who in effect ignored the basics of Catholic dogma and hardly ever lived it. In effect, Rizal was not so much a threat to Christianity or to Spain, as a threat to the religio-political connivance of friars and the local governor lords.

And so “A third is that there was no retraction, because Rizal never apostatized and thus didn’t consider himself outside the Church. He refused to retract ‘religious errors’ because he did not feel he had committed any.”

In this way, Siony in her book fills in the many gaps of other works on Rizal, she fills them in from the memory of the stories her father, Dr Leoncio Lopez Rizal, had told her. She started this book, by noting down his stories, and over the years comparing these with other sources she read. These then became a pile of anecdotes that she meticulously reorganized into coherent chapters, thus filling in, through the memory of her father, the many gaps, that are found in the other accounts of the national hero. The first edition was published in 1988 through the support of Dr Jaime Laya, then the Action Officer of the Intramuros Administration. The second edition was published in 2008 with a preface by Nick Joaquin who aptly writes that Siony is writing not research from documents and archives, but “reportage: the words of witnesses, the testimony of primary sources, the gospel of disciples. But even more exciting is the unfamiliar material, the private details known only to and lovingly cherished by the family.” The book is also rich with images and illustrations of the period.

I was therefore most pleased when Siony took the pen and signed my copy of her book!

“You are leaving already,” asked Naty with a tone of sadness. “We are enjoying your company, you must stay this afternoon and dance with us.” And Carmen began waving her hands to the beat of a cotillon. Several times a week, the three ladies dress up in dancing gowns and have an hour of dance class. “We all dance very well,” she said invitingly.

And on that happy note, we left, passing by their burnt house, symbolic of the real threat to paper-based history, documentation and archives. If it weren’t for the equally fragile living memory of Siony and her sisters, and how they transmit this to their children, and their children’s children, how could we ever know all we know of Lolo José today?

Carmen concluded this intimate and rich family visit with a smile full of a lifetime of memories: “Ako, apo ni Rizal, I’m proud to be the apo ni José Rizal.”






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