Our national hero as pretender

By Ambeth Ocampo via Inquirer
PARIS, France—Some of the main sources for this column have been European travel accounts that describe the Philippines and the Filipinos over time, beginning with Antonio Pigafetta’s chronicle of the ill-fated Magellan expedition to current Tourist Guidebooks to the Philippines written and published by foreigners. In the age before YouTube, digital pictures, the Internet and cable TV, people who wrote about their travels to the Philippines left not just impressions or traces of what they saw, but we also see them coming to terms with a new and different people and their culture. For example, Pigafetta wrote a very long description of the coconut that Filipinos find so common it is boring, but when you see a 16th century Italian trying to document his first encounter with a coconut then you see the encounter of two worlds.

Travel accounts give us a view of the past that is long gone and it is important to see in what ways we have changed, or in what ways we remain the same over time. Our problem is that we have very few historical sources written by Filipinos prior to the 19th century, and even if we did, I doubt if a 16th century Mactan warrior would write two pages on the coconut.

I have often wondered what it would be like to turn the table round and see what Filipinos have written about their trips abroad: What was Paris, Madrid, London, or New York from the eyes of an 18th or even a 20th-century Filipino? I have been rereading Jose Rizal’s travel diaries and letters while visiting Paris, Madrid and Vienna in an effort to see what he saw over a century ago. Rizal’s impressions of Paris are extant and one can, with some effort, follow his footsteps and see the City of Light from his eyes. His writings are so detailed, it’s almost as if he is following a Baedeker guidebook going through every important tourist attraction: Notre Dame, Champs Elysees, Luxembourg Gardens, Versailles, etc.

One thing that is strangely absent from his writings is a detailed description of the Eiffel Tower, which was quite new and rather controversial in 1889 very much like other iconic buildings in Paris designed by non-Frenchmen: the Pyramid in the Louvre, Center Pompidou, Grand Bibliotheque Nationale, Musee d’Orsay, and the newly opened Muse du Quai Branly. These modern additions to the city raised a howl but, despite French protests these are now major tourist attractions.

What is also fascinating is how Rizal engaged the French who were quite curious about his origins. You will bump into a Filipino in every street corner in Paris today, but in July 1883 the French could not make him out and mistook him for a Japanese. One would assume that the Father of the Nation would proudly show the French what people of the Philippines were like, but instead he actually pretended to be a Japanese. In Spain where their Asian features were mistaken for Chinese, Rizal and friends referred to themselves as “Inchic”—this before they took on the famous name “Indio bravo.”

Rizal was visiting an exhibition of Japanese art in the Palace of Industry (which that has since been demolished and replaced by the Grand Palais) and he narrated:

“There I saw an exhibition of paintings and many men and women, principally foreign artists, who took me for one from Japan, and they approached me and asked me for information about it. I gave them and told them all that I knew and when I could, I escaped through the history of Japan and her old and modern constitution. I spoke a little about the Japanese artists whose biographies I knew, like Totsugueu, Senko, Nampo, and others. They asked me about their methods and they were enchanted.”

I don’t recognize the above names at all. So far, Rizal’s ruse went well until “it occurred to one of the young ladies to ask me about the meaning of those characters written below the paintings and I found myself in a tight spot, fearing there might be someone among those visitors who understood Japanese characters and they would catch me in the very act of telling a lie. Then I told them that the Mikado, having set up Japan in European style, had sent us to Europe when we were very young and we have been Europeanized, which, added to the difficulty of reading Japanese writing, which was not as simple as the European, explained why we have not studied our native tongue. In Europe, or rather in France, all those who are of our type and are dressed like them are Japanese (Chinese in Spain), just as over there all who wear a beard are Castilas (Spaniards).”

Rizal then made his way to the exit. This was not the only time he pretended to be what he was not. In one of the hospitals he visited, he was taken for a diplomat assigned to one of the embassies in Paris. He was given all courtesies and shown around. Rizal enjoyed his tour and then quietly slipped away.

These are often overlooked details in Rizal’s writings because they do not figure in his heroism or the emergence of the Filipino nation, but getting to know the Father of the Nation better is also important because it makes the hero easier to understand, easier to relate to.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.






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