Sunday, July 15, 2018

126. Our Heroes Up for Auction

The strong women behind our heroes
By: Ambeth R. Ocampo
June 06, 2018

 Jose Rizal' relief sculpture 
depicting a man lifting a barbell
sold for 17.5 million pesos
(Source: Leon Gallery)
A handful of historical manuscripts are expected to sell well beyond my budget at auction this Saturday: a letter from Marcelo H. del Pilar to his wife “Tsanay,” a letter of Gregoria de Jesus to Emilio Jacinto, and letters addressed to Teodora Alonso.

In addition to these is a large relief sculpture on Philippine hardwood by Jose Rizal depicting a man lifting a barbell, made sometime during his Dapitan exile in 1892-1896. The sale comes a week before our 120th Independence Day, and two weeks before Rizal’s 157th birthday.

Over a century old, these documents resonate in our times, framed by some in the context of a strongman president bullying a handful of pesky women: a vice president, a chief justice, a senator, and an ombudsman. We all know that Philippine history has been largely written by men, its narrative dominated by great men who would not be such if not for the strong women who made them whole.

The coming auction is significant because the lots are related to women who are largely absent in the national narrative, except as footnotes. Rizal would not be around if not for Teodora Alonso. Marcelo H. del Pilar would have turned out differently without Marciana or “Tsanay.” Then, of course, there was Oryang—Gregoria de Jesus, the muse, the Lakambini of the Katipunan, Bonifacio’s better half.
All these historical relics are billed as “Extremely Rare and Highly Important” by the auction house writers, who are well-advised to use a thesaurus for more engaging descriptions. While collectors covet originals, historians are concerned about content. While collectors put a premium on antiquarian and monetary value, historians require access.

Marcelo Del Pilar's letter sold for 467,000 pesos
(Source: Leon Gallery)
Del Pilar’s letter to Tsanay, written from Madrid on Aug. 17, 1892, was originally in the collection of Jose P. Santos, who presumably inherited it from his father Epifanio delos Santos, after whom the longest street in Metro Manila was named. The letter opens with a rant about someone who can never finish anything yet slowly destroys what others have put up. If that sounds familiar, throw in the agrarian dispute in Calamba that turned out badly for the Rizals as he predicted. Land has always been at the root of Philippine social problems.

Del Pilar complains that Tsanay had not sent the chocolate she promised, or funds expected from friends that remained empty promises. Del Pilar’s life in Spain was hard; he needed living expenses or fare to return home. He had to borrow money, beg for food, collect cigarette butts from the street, and the only job openings were for servants:

“Sa pautang-utang na lamang ang ikinabubuhay ko … Ako ang natataya sa kahihiyan dine, ang kakanin ko lamang ay dinidiligencia ko araw-araw. Nakarating na ako sa mamulot ng beja ng cigarillo makahitit lamang … Dine ay walang paghahanap na masosooyam. Liban na sa pumasok na alila; datapua’t matanda na ako kung gayon ko lang sisimulan ang pagka alila …”

That so many expatriate overseas Filipino workers today can relate to Del Pilar’s letter to his wife underscores the fact that not much has changed in over a century.
Gregoria De Jesus' letter sold for 467,000 pesos
(Source: Leon Gallery)
The short letter from Gregoria de Jesus to Emilio Jacinto, dated Oct. 29, 1898, comments not just on her own hardships, but also those of her brother and parents who have lost their livelihood. Worse, she is helpless to aid her mother, who scrapes small change from working in a [fish?] pond, mistranslated by the auction house as “water tanks”: “Ang aking ina ay nagtitiis pumasok sa istangki. Gumagana ng sikapat, isang araw, nagtitiis araw gabi … Ako nama’y walang sukat magawa …”
Contrary to auction house notes that claim an undated document by Oryang has never been seen in full, the first accurate transcription from the original was made by me, presented at a conference in 1989, but deliberately left out of the published proceedings. It relates the unfortunate events that led to the Tejeros Convention and its tragic aftermath.

Oryang’s account is but one biased source that needs to be read with others to reveal the painful truth that Bonifacio was set up and betrayed, not by Aguinaldo and Magdalo, but by the Magdiwang he trusted with his life, because its leaders were related to his wife.

A Narration of the Events Leading to the Tejeros Convention of March 1897 and the Days After, Including the Arrest, Trial, Death of Andres Bonifacio in April 1897, and Her Search for Him, signed “Gregoria de Bonifacio, Lakambini (Noble Woman)” Consisting of fifteen (15) Pages, undated.  Sold for 584,000.00  (Source: Leon Gallery)

Auction prices are tempting historical documents out of hiding. As long as historians have access to them and digital copies shared, then we can slowly complete the jigsaw puzzle that is our history.