Brian Salter's Blogs:
A Super-hero in Calamba


What is it about us that we all seem to have a need for heroes? I don’t just mean the super-heroes that come out of Marvel and Hollywood, but real-life heroes – those we can look up to and admire in some way.

If you were to do a Google search of “Philippines, hero” you would find that one name crops up over and over again: that of José Rizal, who is generally considered the greatest Filipino hero ever, and often trotted out as THE Philippine national hero, even though he has never been explicitly proclaimed as such by the Philippine government (though they are, apparently, still thinking about it!).

José Protasio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda, to give him his full name, was a Filipino nationalist who lived in the latter half of the 19th century, during the tail end of the Spanish colonial period of the Philippines. Though he was an ophthalmologist by profession, Rizal became a writer and a key member of the Filipino Propaganda Movement which advocated political reforms for the colony under Spain. He was executed by the Spanish colonial government for the crime of rebellion, after the Philippine Revolution – inspired in part by his writings – broke out.

So it is no surprise that anywhere that can be linked with Rizal in any way whatsoever has been turned into some kind of national shrine; and the two most prominent are where he was born (Calamba) and where he died (Intramuros).  

Not sure where Calamba is? Maybe this map will help, helpfully displayed inside the museum. Manila is in the top left of the picture and Calamba is just to the left of where it says Laguna on what looks like a root of ginger, which depicts the local lakes.

The museum is but a stone’s throw from Calamba’s town plaza and parish church and is actually a replica of the house where Rizal was born on 19 June 1861. The seventh child and second son of Francisco Mercado and Teodora Alonso, Rizal regularly recalled his childhood home in Calamba, longing for it ‘like a weary swallow’ while he was travelling in Europe.

Unfortunately, because of a land dispute with the Dominican friars, the Rizal family was evicted from this home in 1890 and the house soon fell into disrepair and was demolished. The present structure was erected in 1950 by National Artist Juan F. Nakpil from funds donated by schoolchildren.

Maybe it’s because I’m not Filipino, but as a museum I found this place distinctly underwhelming, albeit that the house is very impressive. If you are not familiar with Rizal, you are going to have to do a lot of work here to learn anything much about his life and times. The museum appears fixated, for instance, on displaying quotes from his writings – deep, and meaningful stuff such as “It has been said that love has always been the most powerful force behind the most sublime actions”. Wow… dynamic or what?

There are also posters such as this one that depict birds in Rizal’s reminiscences. Hmmm…

The house itself is of two storeys and is made from stone with narra wood floors, and has capiz shell windows (an important cultural icon in the Philippines, using shells from the ‘windowpane oyster’ – placuna placenta – that have been used for thousands of years as a glass substitute because of their durability and translucence). There is also a library, dining room, three bedrooms, a kitchen and pantry leading out to a balcony. Located on the ground floor were the servants’ quarters, workroom, and a storeroom for food supplies. The backyard was planted with various fruit trees, which Rizal frequently mentioned in his writings: atis, santol, tampoy, makopa, plum, balimbing, and kasuy. A small nipa hut served as the young Jose’s hideaway.

Here. For instance, is the 'antesala' – used as a library and guest dining room.

This is the bedroom of the brothers Paciano and José. The blurb tells us that it is small and has a single bed made of narra wood. It also has a marble-topped table and a wash basin. What we are left guessing is whether the two brothers shared the bed, took it in turns (while the other slept on the floor perhaps?) or whether there was actually more than one bed, but that the museum couldn’t afford to put in a second one.

The blurb-signs go on to tell us that here is the bedroom of Jose's nine sisters. Like their brothers' bedroom, this room is small and has a single bed made of narra wood. We can also see here the authentic sewing machine owned by Saturnina.

Well I doubt you could get nine beds into this one room, so I am even more intrigued now about the Rizal family’s sleeping arrangements!

Relatives and close friends were received in the living room. There were usually two or three sets of furniture, although as there is no extant record of the actual furniture arrangement, the set up here is based on that found in other houses of the same vintage as the original Rizal-Mercado house.

Rizal was born in his parents' bedroom, where you can find furniture such as the matrimonial bed, a rack (for pillows, mosquito nets, and mats), an altar and a chair.

At the top of the stairs, the museum staff have seen fit to install a TV screen, that not only seems a daft place to watch TV, but is almost certainly unlike any TV the Rizal family could have dreamt of owning!

But from the upstairs windows, there is a good view of the gardens, with their manicured lawns, where the remains of Francisco Mercado and Teodora Alonso are now buried.

According to Valentina Sanchez, the family cook, Jose's favourite meals included relleno (green chilli pepper stuffed with minced meat and coated with eggs), adobo (cuisine that involves meat, seafood, or vegetables marinated in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and black peppercorns – widely considered to be the unofficial national dish of the country), estofado (stewed pork with beans, carrots and banana), puchero (stewpot) and tinola (soup-based dish served as an appetizer or main entrée in the Philippines). Carne asada (grilled beef, cooked with a certain amount of searing to impart a charred flavor) was his absolute favourite.

In the kitchen, Doña Teodora Alonzo apparently loved to cook sweets, sausages, shrimp paste and pickles, which she sold in a small store downstairs.

But the room that gets most people posing for a selfie has to be the family loo – or CR, as the Filipinos insist on calling it. Why a hole in a plank of wood should draw so much attention – especially when you consider that Rizal’s situpon never actually graced this particular loo seat – is anyone’s guess. But it’s somehow nice to imagine our super-hero as being a little “human” after all, don’t you think?

The family bathroom, however, is hardly alluring in any way whatsoever, I fear; and few people were wanting their photos taken here!

One thing we do know about young Rizal is that he had sticking out ears – that is if his self portrait is anything to go by.

I guess we could also work out his shoe size too, from this old pair of his socks that are on display in the museum.

His top hat is also on display… He obviously wasn’t big headed (British humour… sorry!)

As for this pair of long-johns he wore, I’m not sure what one can deduce from this. And in a country as hot as the Philippines why would anyone be wearing undergarments like this anyway? Could they have been used by him when he visited Europe? Alas we are not told.

There’s also a display of bank notes with José Rizal’s mug shot on them. Here is the 1916 ₱2 bank note, for instance. Rizal’s portrait regularly featured on ₱2 notes from then on, when they were in circulation.

There’s also all-manner of medals and medallions featuring our hero.

But I somehow feel that these ‘I ♥ Rizal’ badges verge on necrophilia, and certainly I have yet to see anyone in the Philippines proudly sporting them.

Super-heroes are one thing. But one must surely draw the limit somewhere!