More than Plume and Bolo

Review of the book: Rizal’s teeth, Bonifacio’s Bones

By Ambeth Ocampo

When I was in high school, I was chosen to compete for a Rizal Quiz Bee. Thinking that it is one of the sensible ways of honouring the great hero, our school conduct the competition every year. The purpose of the quiz cast only few doubts since educational institutions are committed for teaching about Rizal. But me, being chosen to participate is another story. I am not much into Rizal. My teacher in history, however, suggested that since I earned the highest grade in her subject (together with my other friend); it permits and qualifies us to join the contest. I didn’t win the competition and gained experience as a consolation. Aside from failing to answer what is the name of Rizal’s nanny, there are other good reasons why I wasn’t able to bring home the gold that time. Many of the questions take small details from the life of Rizal as a subject which didn’t appear in my reviewer (or did I even have a reviewer then?). One thing worth realizing with this experience is the fact that in so many information scribbled in our textbooks today, twice the number of things are yet to be discovered. Most especially if it is concerned with the main characters of our history—like Rizal.

Author’s expertise

History is the world of the past which serves as the pattern of present. It involves both time and people that gives reason why things behave in such a way they do. Dealing with history is never easy particularly when someone tries to study events which he did not personally witness. Challenging as it seems, the field of history is still a source of entertainment because at least for a while, we can have a glimpse of old people’s lives. Few names have we known who became successful in this colourful profession. Giving new pictures of our heroes, one historian have created a wave across the world of scholars and presented a new approach to our past by the name of Ambeth Ocampo.

More than just a lecturer and columnist, Ambeth became a pioneer for modern approach of Rizal’s life. His personal methods of introducing details overwhelmed students and readers alike. When his book ‘Rizal without the Overcoat’ was brought to the public, many eyes were given a chance to have a wider picture of our National Hero. The image that once filled only with heroism and sublime principles is turned into a more interesting topic when greater things about Rizal were exposed. It has always been Ambeth’s commitment to treat heroes as friends, that there are always more of them than just being frozen in a bronze monument, or stuck in the old pages of a history book. In ‘Rizal without the Overcoat’ Ambeth discussed the hues and colours of Rizal’s life including those none of us expected to be worthy of attention. From the hero’s obsession for tuyo, to his unofficial practice of quackery, these things are the tools of Ambeth to creat a more ‘human’ Rizal.

Ambeth Ocampo is a master of giving something new. Countless accounts about Rizal have already been published. In order to become appealing, one must know how to create a new Rizal through constant research.

In his book, Ambeth shared his experience when he once visited the National Archives, which was referred by him as a ‘friendly institution’, when a researcher from the National Historical Institute learned his request for materials concerning Rizal. The researcher bluntly approached Ambeth and questioned his intention. For the researcher, there is no longer information left unknown about Rizal. He even said that the materials are “gas gas na”. The researcher happened to be the same guy caught by NBI years after the encounter peddling original documents he pilfered from the Philippine Insurgent Records in the National Library. Instead of being discouraged, Ambeth never deserted his pursuit for Rizal’s story and became a great scholar he is today.

From the papers he requested, what awaits him are letters of Rizal sisters. Not directly written by Rizal, but Ambeth believed that it is still worth studying. And so the said papers opened for new angles of looking how our celebrated hero lived using one of the most important context for a biography—family.

It is indeed an advantage to have an attitude of keenness in looking for details. Ambeth knows how to use his talent in sorting what is important from what is not. In the case when he found the letters, Ambeth proved once more that he is a master of information gathering and employs critical thinking to consider stories that have the most value. He can determine from a glance whether a document will create an interesting output and sustain not only the empty gap between the strands of our history, but as well provide excitement to a life observed by many eyes. If history is retelling stories from the past, anyone who dares to be in this profession must have the prowess in narration—something that Ambeth is very much gifted in.

Befriending heroes

In the fifth installation of his Looking Back series “Rizal’s Teeth, Bonifacio’s Bones”, Ambeth reflects his journey and experience he had during his research studies. Stories from his lectures and travel continue inspire academicians on how Rizal can bring to life through impressive stories. But going beyond his usual confines, Ambeth discussed more than a plume and novels of a heroic writer but this time share the spotlight with our most respected Supremo who also earned the title of being “The Great Plebian”.

The first featured story in the book opens with the question ‘did Rizal have bad breath?’. Surely the writer has a good humour, but looking closer to this line reveals the unique way of giving colour to the already flamboyant life of Rizal. As what the dentist suggests after examining the skull of Rizal, our hero is believed to have a Class 3 Malocclusion. This is a condition which would have been treated with the use of braces to correct the alignment of teeth. However, the mentioned dental state of Rizal was severed with the finding that he also suffers from gingivitis and periodontitis resulting to an unwanted halitosis or much commonly referred as bad breath. Now, I can’t help but to ask if there’s a huge difference of hygienic issue before and today. Ambeth also mentioned the nature of toothbrush back then which are mostly made from bamboo. The statement may look mere assumption, but materials possibly affect the quality of outcome. For this particular case, toothbrush is better if made with bristles to prevent problems of its users. Such situations didn’t spare anyone even heroes.

In any book I read, if the first chapter didn’t attract my attention and interest, I drop it right away. I even promise myself that no bad books will win a space in my shelf. If we are not supposed to judge a book by its cover, I think it is fair to qualify is using the first words it offer. Good thing to say, Ambeth Ocampo’s RTBT has impressed me right at the beginning. The unconventional style of introducing the subject is what I love most about the author. This book is one of the rare, if not the first historical material that instead of telling dates, time and places, readers are first served with very basic things we ought to know about a person which is the physical features. Usually it takes only minutes for a person to fall into reverie or sleep whenever engage to a history discussion. But reading Ambeth is never the same experience. One of his secrets in the success for his career is to know how to befriend his characters.

When we want to know a person, we don’t ask what the novels he has written are or inquire for his noble accomplishments. We simply ask the basic and look the person’s physical being. We examine how he smiles, how he laughs, how neat his hair is, even the way he pick his nose. Because little did we realize that recognition actually starts from simple things. And after being conscious with these aspects, more than just knowing the person we can already introduce them to others. The same method is what Ambeth employs. He gets to know Rizal first hand with the aid of all the data he acquires from research and interviews. The idea can be strange for some, but Ambeth found a stage for his artistry in discussing the hygiene of Rizal. In order to be personally attached, one should encounter people in a personal level as well regardless of the age and time they have lived. After all, it is always amazing to have friends from the past.

In Search for Bones

Your death mirrors the quality of life you lived. When Ninoy Aquino was shot dead in the tarmac of the Manila International Airport, the grief of loss was echoed all over the country. The public is allowed to visit his remains during his burial and multitude of people joined his casket as it marches towards the hero’s grave. The event won a special place in our history. 26 years after, the same public attention was given to the death of Cory Aquino, former president and wife of Ninoy Aquino. These two moments proved the world how we Filipinos give value to people who protected our identity as a nation. Unfortunately, not every hero is given the same honour. Not because he is less of a noble compared to others. But because his remnants are yet to be found that even putting him in cemetery is impossible. Andres Bonifacio is in this particular case.

The mystery of Bonifacio’s death is an enigma that continues to haunt our past and yet affect the present. Accounts show that the Supremo was killed in the mountains of Cavite together with his brother. Many believe that Aguinaldo is guilty, being in the position and has the reasons to do so. Yet the claim still doesn’t bear enough certainty to become absolute truth. Since then, no one has ever found Bonifacio’s body and accomplishing this endeavour is a process in progress.

The book discusses its second prime thesis using research studies. The closest encounter with Bonifacio’s body, according to Ambeth, is during the excavation din Cavite in 1918 where a set of human bones was found. Although no conclusive statement was provided, the official report of the autopsy done by Dr. Sixto de los Angeles, Fidel Cuanjunco, and Augusto Atenas, all of which are from the University of the Philippines, merely described the remains. One remarkable line of Ambeth regarding this subject: “Andres and Procopio Bonifacio still lie in the Maragondon range waiting to be found and given a proper funeral by a grateful nation.” It seems the author is one with the voices who call for a greater investigation about the death of Andres. It’s about time for the government to double its effort in answering questions which are long overdue.


Debunking Old Myths

Readers also witness the talent of Ambeth in presenting arguments to clarify myths that have boggled the minds of people. The details are still fresh to me when I had a talk with my friend as he share to me a secret he conceive about Rizal. Allegedly, Rizal is the father of Hitler. My friend cannot determine the source of this account. But after reading RTBB, it greatly helped me to understand the story and gave convincing evidences to assert that the claim is untrue. The scheme of events is impressively situated as how it is told. But expertise of Ambeth repainted the picture.

Hitler was Austrian, contrary to the common belief that he was a German. This fact lone demolished the argument that since Rizal studied in Heidelberg University, and being the Pinoy Don Juan he probably sired a son who later turned out to be Adolf Hitler. This is said to be supported by the features that Hitler and Rizal share in common: small stature, dark hiar and dark eyes.

But another account says that Rizal visited Austria in May 1887 and spent a night with a prostitute. In order for Ambeth to shed light on the grey areas in the story, he used practical reasons. First, he capitalized with the point that Rizal, granting he sired a child during his stay in Germany; the possibility of siring a son is as great as having a daughter. The explanation broke half of the belief. Therefore, to father Hitler, aside from being a boy also happen to be distinguished man in history, is of minimal tendency. Also, Ambeth questioned the cogency of the one night stand of Rizal with a woman. The two could have done something else prior to what malicious impression raises.

Historians like Ambeth not just review the past but give fresh answers for today’s curiosity.

He could have been a Lifestyle show host

A homophobic is more likely to stir by merely hearing the word ‘gay’. Certainly, because of the gradual increase of the members of LGBT community, gay has been a term used to refer a person that suffers in reconciling his sexual orientation from reality. This explains why only few of the people who utter the word understand its meaning. Only through reading classic novels can I encounter the word gay used as synonymous for happy.  Maybe contemporary writers today prefer to use other term. Due to a different societal context, homophobias are best advised to have a critical understanding to read Rizal’s 1884 diary where he literally wrote: ‘I am a gay.’

The hero simply wanted to share how joyful he is for being surrounded with good atmosphere. His letter for his sister Maria was composed by descriptive words to tell how French and German decorate their homes. He explained how plates in Europe help to provide pleasing mood and even included sketches to show how those plates are actually hung. Rizal’s keen observation was clearly reflected in his words, good enough to say that only if he still lives today, he might have hosted his own lifestyle show. Crafts really have a special place in Rizal’s heart and made him the imaginative and artistic hero we have known. The secret perhaps is the gay spirit he never failed to wear.

Excellent student makes a good Teacher

The life of a student is often controlled with numbers called grades. And as the student become aware of the rewards it could give, they become more dedicated to acquire good records. Multi-talented Rizal is a model student during his time. Records from the schools he attended show how diligent he is when it comes to his studies. If all children today will take Rizal as an inspiration, every parent will have reasons to be proud. When Rizal attended the Jesuit-run Ateneo Municipal, he earned sobresaliente or ‘excellent’ in all his subjects. It is equivalent of today’s 100%. His excellent grades were caused by Rizal’s great interest in humanities.

Rizal’s remarkable standing did not change much when he moved to UST (University of Santo Tomas), but he was forced into great adjustments. As a college student, he had to take subjects he did not like, subjects he was not good at. His Ateneo record is full of Sobresaliente while his UST grades were composed with Aprovechado, Bueno, and one Aprobado. Contrary to the status quo, the situation is otherwise wherein college programs offer more interesting topics since it is base in the desired profession of the students, unlike lessons in secondary which are mostly influenced by general knowledge.

I personally consider tertiary level as more exciting, because I get to study a particular lesson which I know caters my inclination. Challenging, however, college is still an essential stage for defining one’s future. What we can learn from this is that even hero like Rizal can face personal challenges in school without letting his studies be compromised and finally becoming one of the great scholars of this land.

Another side of Rizal that was discussed in the book is his prowess as an educator. Apparently, Rizal is not selfish with whatever knowledge he had and took extra effort to teach it to others.

When he was exiled in Dapitan, a good part of his time was devoted in teaching his three nephews. Estanislao “Tan”, Teodosio “Osio”, and Mauricio “Moris” Cruz were all under the supervision of their uncle. They owe a lot of their knowledge in writing from their uncle who patiently corrects their grammar, spelling, and even penmanship. And just to prove how his teaching capacity can reach even the longest of miles, Rizal’s nieces in Manila receive lectures and lesson from him through exchange of letters. On the same way, his sister Lucia receives updates about the progress of her sons. To serve as an exercise, Rizal let Tan, Osio, and Moris to write their own letters for their mother.  One thing noticeable from these efforts of Rizal in teaching is his compassion for children, most especially in the aspect of literacy.

Indeed, Rizal had always believed to the importance of education. For him, unless someone falls to the admiration of studying, he will not live his life worthily. I believe that it is more than just being intelligent. But more so, it is one’s burden to justify his existence and contribute to the wisdom of the world that made him human. And it helps to go back how Rizal earned this sublime principle: he started as a good student. The duty, therefore, lies to the young minds who sit in comfortable rooms, listening to lectures that appear boring to them and think everything will never make sense. Rizal had proved that in order to teach, submission of oneself in the complex process of learning is of the essence.

It would be a cliché to say that there is a hero or ‘Rizal’ in each of us. To suggest that there is a teacher inside all of us is more appropriate. And I am no longer referring to the profession we have commonly known. But in a more definite sense, being a ‘teacher’ is reminding people what they should do to turn their aspirations into reality. This means, an engineer, doctor, or even a future broadcast journalist like me can be and expected to be a teacher of my people. And thanks for the example set by Rizal, at least I know where to begin with. The work will start inside my classroom, where I will become an excellent student. At the end of the day, this is what takes to become a hero, more than just having a brave plume or bolo.


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