As we celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of our National Hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, today, all manner of recollections of the man and his greatness are being made. Over the years many of us Filipinos have been to the Rizal ancestral home in Calamba, his shrine in Fort Santiago, Intramuros, his monument at the Luneta (what used to be Bagumbayan in the old days) where the hero gave up his life for his country, and the beautiful and evocative Rizal Shrine in Dapitan, Zamboanga del Norte. For my part, I'd like to get personal and recall episodes that affected my family, specifically my siblings and I, in our “encounters” with Dr. Rizal in our youth days.
I remember one day when my father, Luis A. Olivares Sr., who was a native of Laguna (many Olivareses are still found today in various towns of the province), and my mother Angustias brought us all to visit our father’s cousin, Tita Meny Ochoa, in her solidly-built ancestral home in Calamba. What was quite distinctive about that visit, apart from the good food we were served (I cannot recall if all nine of us children were brought by our parents, but I recall there was a good number of us, especially the younger ones who were the most impressionable), was the viewing of mementoes of Dr. Rizal in the family’s memorabilia room on the second floor.
We came upon a maniquin on which were fitted the hero’s European-style tuxedo suit and hat, as well as his other clothes and personal effects such as pairs of shoes, a cane, photos of him and his contemporaries, letters, publications of that time, and various other items. We children were lost that morning in the Ochoa memorabilia room---peering with open mouths, noses pressed against glass cabinets, talking in hushed tones as we scrutinized the things that had once belonged to the hero and he had actually worn and used. It struck me how short Dr. Rizal was, judging from his clothes.
I was probably about ten years old then, and I felt that it was like viewing the relics of a saint. I was completely enthralled and awed by that encounter with Dr. Rizal, and to this day, from time to time, recollections of that visit to the Ochoa home would come back to me.
Another episode I’ll recall here, in the spirit of Rizal’s sesqui-centennial birth anniversary, involved all of us younger ones again (that’s the problem with a super-large family like the Olivareses---we tended to divide ourselves into the “older ones” and "the kids"), but this time I’ll let my brother, Washington, D.C.-based novelist Roger Olivares, do the talking, as I reprint here his “Author’s Note” to his book, “Noli Me Tangere II.” As in that Calamba home, we were all together again in Roger’s narration, in the living room of another beautiful and distinguished-looking home this time in the old Sta. Mesa Blvd. in Manila, where the American and allied forces had a year or so earlier rolled down in their tanks during the Liberation of Manila.
In that gathering in the old Sta. Mesa Blvd. mansion, it was obvious that Roger was the most moved among us. An honor student and famed orator in his heyday in the Ateneo de Manila University, who went on to take up his master’s degree in Communications as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana, he was the most impressionable, and that encounter with Rizal was to leave indelible imprints in his life and works.
Relish Roger's prose:
“When I was seven years old, my baptismal godfather, Don Enrique Herbosa, brought out an old oil lamp carefully wrapped in soft cloth. In a dimly-lit nook of his living room, he laid it on a table and told me the story of this lamp. Don Enrique was a grandson of Dr. Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines.
“This was the lamp where Dr. Rizal hid his poem, “Mi Ultimo Adios,” the night he wrote it…before he was executed by firing squad at dawn of Dec. 30, 1896. He was charged with rebellion against Spain for writing his two novels, “Noli Me Tangere,” published in 1887 in Berlin, and “El Filibusterismo, published in 1891 in Belgium. His death and this poem fired up the country into a full-scale revolution against Spain.
“I held that bronze lamp in my tiny hands in awe, felt its weight, and ran my fingers over its golden surface. I imagined Dr. Rizal writing with a quill pen by the flickering light of this oil lamp. The small stone-walled cell was heavy with the soot of burning oil. He wrote all night with the serenity of a man who used his talents well, with the sorrow of one who loved his family and friends dearly, but above all, with the pride of a patriot who loved his God and country fiercely. Before his executioners came, he folded the paper ten times and inserted it in the empty hold of the oil lamp. He put on his jacket. He was ready and resigned to his fate when they came to his cell.
“Since then, Jose Rizal ceased to be just a figure in the history books for me. That magical moment in a dimly-lit room is clearly etched in my memory. And it was with this memory that, when I was in college, I wrote and delivered an impassioned oratorical piece on Rizal.
“If Jose Rizal were alive today, he would not keep still, seeing the decaying state of the country, worse than its condition during the Spanish domination. His writings would certainly be inflaming us to action…”
That chance encounter with Dr. Rizal, through the historic oil lamp of his stirring “Mi Ultimo Adios” (which we Olivares siblings all had experienced, by the way, as we were neighbors of the Herbosas then. Don Enrique Herbosa was Roger’s ninong, while his wife, Dona Fortunata "Atang" Herbosa, was my sister Tita’s baptismal godmother), led not only to a powerful oratorical piece still recalled today in many schools, but also to Roger’s writing what he terms a “modern sequel” to the hero’s “Noli Me Tangere.” In what he audaciously called “Noli Me Tangere II,” the writer took some of the major characters of the old Noli, namely, Crisostomo Ibarra, Maria Clara, Elias and Sisa and transported them from the 19th century to today’s “troubled modern times,” while other characters were his creation.
Roger writes that “I hope to show that our National Hero’s writings are still relevant to our present conditions, and that there will be a renewed interest in our heroes, in our past." He also expressed the hope that “there would be a Noli III in the next century…but with a happier mood.”
He realizes that “it’s a tall order and even presumptuous…to approximate the works of an intellectual giant. One is certain to fall short.” But he argues that these times in our country are not for timid people, and foolhardy as it may seem, TONIGHT I WALK WITH THE BLIND.”
All these because, if I may recall, of the Olivares siblings’ close encounter with Rizal’s memorabilia in that ancestral home in Calamba and the poignant story of the oil lamp as revealed to us by Roger’s baptismal godfather. Close encounters of long long ago.
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