The Artist and His Conscience (A brief analysis of Ang Larawan)

There is an anomaly that plagues the story of Ang Larawan (The Portrait), making people question its moral and intention. Like anyone who has waited months for the release of what is to become the best musical event of the Filipino film industry for 2017, I was also intrigued about what exactly is the image painted on the portrait of the Marasigans. While the lens of the camera never showed a clear picture of the actual portrait in the movie, the dialogue of the characters revealed enough information about the art and the artist himself. In a conversation between Candida (Joanna Ampil) and her childhood friend Bitoy (Sandino Martino), the former describes the subject of the portrait as an image of Aeneas carrying his father Anchises out of the burning city of Troy. Candida offered a further interpretation of the painting, saying the two characters represent the painter Don Lorenzo Marasigan who happens to be his father. The painting was unofficially named in the story as The Portrait of An Artist as A Filipino. It is also the title of the classic Nick Joaquin play upon which the musical film is loosely based.

I have always believed that Ang Larawan is the Philppines’ answer to La La Land. Watching the film feels like entering a high-end Broadway show, except that the artists are singing Tagalog songs.

Bitoy threw a controversial question to Candida after she briefly discussed the history of her father’s artwork: If it is a portrait of a Filipino artist, then why is it that the inspiration of the painting has a Western and Homeric origin? Don Lorenzo could have painted about any aspect of the Filipino culture since the apparent object of the narrative is to promote the identity of Filipino art, and yet he chose to use a fragment of Greek myth to deliver his curious message. The only way to deal with the seeming inconsistency is to accept the obvious paradox of the story that even Don Lorenzo, who claims to be a Filipino artist, does not hold pure local breed. He is the representation of the dilemma of Filipino art which is the imbalance of unique identity and foreign influence. It was established in the story that Don Lorenzo is a Filipino painter who dedicated his talent to Western market. In fact, the portrait he gave to his daughters Candida and Paula (Rachel Alejandro) is the only artwork available for Filipino spectators since all his previous paintings were distributed right across the big cities of Europe.
The discussion surrounding the identity of a Filipino as an artist is particularly significant in the setting of the story. Ang Larawan was set at the time when the walled city of Intramuros in Manila was preparing for the imminent occupation of foreign troops before World War II erupted. During one of the moving musical numbers of the movie, Candida and Paula lamented over the death of Filipino ideals and artistic views. Throughout the story, they shared the screen with characters who have traded their craft and creative endeavours in exchange for a more lucrative career in commerce or politics. The dominant advocacy of the story is the upholding of Filipino culture on the verge of war where everything appears to be less important than survival. Ang Larawan stresses that pursuing political or commercial profession is tantamount to abandoning one’s artistic potentials to lead a more comfortable life.
Candida and Paula were not spared from the tempting promises of an affluent life. There was more than a single instance in the movie when both the Marasigan sisters were convinced to sell the painting of their father and free themselves from the cruel chains of debts. Despite the insistent effort of their two other siblings Manolo (Nonie Buencamino) and Pepang (Menchu Lauchengco Yulo) to have the painting of their father sold, Candida and Paula resisted, hence contra mundum.
The subject of Don Lorenzo Marasigan’s painting is paradoxical to the basic message of the film because Ang Larawan promotes the identity of a Filipino as an artist and yet the painting itself was inspired by Western culture. This observation can only lead to an obvious conclusion: Perhaps the portrait is not really about being a Filipino artist but being an artist in general. The reason why Don Lorenzo did not provide detailed instruction to Candida and Paula as to what they should do with the painting is that he wanted to let them decide for themselves. The portrait represents Don Lorenzo’s conscience as an artist, showing how he himself had resisted the pressure of society.
The journey of the film has its fair share of paradoxes. Ang Larawan had a rough start with 25 movie theatres across the Philippines dropping the film in less than a week after its premiere. Despite the commercial challenges it encountered, Ang Larawan managed to bag six awards in the 2017 Metro Manila Film Festival, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Joanna Ampil), and Best Musical Score (Ryan Cayabyab). With the support of all the people who believed in its advocacy, Ang Larawan is now in its fifth week of screening here in the Philippines and it just recently premiered in several movie theatres in the US. Indeed, the story and songs of Candida and Paula continue to yell contra mundum across the country and the world.

Check out the details of the international screening of Ang Larawan here: anglarawan.comImage result for ang larawan poster


Like A River Book Launch Event


I can still remember the moments Irally and I shared at the National Bookstore branch in Gateway Mall. It has to be one of our favourite ‘literary trysts’, first because it is perhaps the largest NBS branch with four-storey-worth of books and second, it is situated in the most accessible and strategic location for metro-commute: Cubao. We could not stop from talking about our favourite novels and authors once we claim our perfect spot in the seeming labyrinthine shelves of books. In between those walls of thick chunks of papers, we whispered our dream to become authors ourselves. We would picture our names printed on a book spine and have our work displayed along with the best-selling titles of the month. When we daydreamed all of these, I knew things will happen just how we imagined them. Maybe I am simply being ambitious but I believe in the power of invocation. It turned out Irally has a better grip when it comes to clinging to our dream because the life of a published writer landed in her backyard way sooner.

Following the success of her debut book To The Brightest, Irally Cariaso launches her new title Like A River.

Irally self-published her first zine But They Don’t Know It, Do They? while juggling all the stressful stuff a college student has to deal with. Her readership quickly grew, prompting her to write another book called To The Brightest. Although I was not able to have my own copy right away, I definitely am one of the proudest friends cheering her for such success. There is an incredible sensation whenever I think about the woman whom I used to navigate the aisles of a bookshop is now an actual author herself! Unlike her first zine, To The Brightest is available for online purchase which opened international readership for Irally. My Facebook newsfeed was suddenly inundated with pictures of her readers from right across the globe, giving compliments about how much they enjoyed reading her poems.

A year later, Irally announced that another ‘gem’ is on its way. This year, Like A River became the latest addition to her growing number of books. I saw the massive support from her readers who were all eager to place their orders and grab a copy of the new title. The reception was so strong it inspired me to offer a suggestion to Irally about holding a book launch for the official release of Like A River. Apparently, she loved the idea and became instantly committed to organizing the event. After mustering the support of our ever-loyal friends, the launch came to fruition.

Book Launch turned into Art Fest
As much as we want to label the event as a plain book launch, Irally and I knew right at the very onset of planning that it could be more than just a day about her success. Irally owes the flamboyant covers of her books from two of our artist friends, Zandra Martinez and Michael Lavilla. They both have gifted hands which can make any subject into an artistic masterpiece. And so, we thought of having a mini art exhibition to let Zandra and Michael showcase their collection. What was initially conceived as a book launch has turned into an art festival. All their paintings were peppered around the venue, adding to the already cosy vibe of Tweedle Book Cafe.

Guests had a complete ‘art fest experience’ as they snag lovely bookmarks for every purchase of Like A River. Each bookmark was hand-made by the budding artist and our resident calligraphist, Bea Vargas. (She made a personalized one for me!)

Guests snag a colorful bookmark for every purchase of Like A River and To The Brightest courtesy of Bea Vargas

We also invited two mental health awareness organisations which Irally is actively involved in. The participation of Silakbo PH and MentalHealthPH is our way of making a statement on mental health awareness, especially that the inspiration of Like A River is the importance of conversation and winning our own inner battles. The two organisations were represented by Rissa Coronel and Roy Dahildahil, respectively.

Coronel talked about the vision of their group and how they incorporate the promotion of mental health awareness with artworks and literary compositions through their zine called Cathartic. Silakbo PH publishes its own zine, featuring submissions made by people from various walks of life. According to Coronel, their effort to collect works from artists encourages artistic expression on the status of mental health in the Philippines. Dahildahil, meanwhile, elaborated the current efforts of the government and private institutions in making our country a friendlier environment for the subject of mental health awareness.

My First Literary Hosting Stint

Hosting the event is a great opportunity and doing it for a friend made the experience extra special.

Aside from having the pleasure to witness my friends climb their ladder of success, I too had my fair share of fulfilment during the event. Hosting the book launch is certainly an incredible opportunity for someone who is both a lover of books and conversations. As a fan of Jennifer Byrne, Leigh Sales, and Erica Wagner, I am obsessed with the idea of being able to throw questions to artists and hear them tell the story behind their creations. Presiding events like literary debates and book club discussions help me understand not only the work itself but the process it underwent in order to gain its present form. Being the host also allowed me to cast my personal views on certain topics like self-publication, the elaborate process of choosing a subject, and the separation of identities between the artwork and the artist.
Irally knew how excited I was to hold the microphone and vocally expressed my thoughts. I did host a lot of gatherings before but never a book launch. Hosting the event is a great opportunity and doing it for a friend made the experience extra special. My goal was to motivate Irally, Zandra, and Michael to speak their minds and own the day as if it is the big break they all deserve. I refuse to be called a bragger but I think I succeed on that part. Seeing them talk with no single trace of fear or intimidation reassured me that I accomplished my job.

The success of the event is made possible by every single person who took part and rendered their dedication. We have a lot of photos of Irally signing copies of her book, the same woman who once dreamed to become an author. Now as I recall everything in retrospect, I realise how much truth there is in the adage that dreams do come true. After seeing countless smiles during the book launch, I am sure there is more than one dream fulfilled on that day. Kudos #TeamLikeARiver!


Grab your copies of Like A River and To The Brightest by clicking the links below:


Dia Del Libro 2017

The furnace-like humid of a summer afternoon stood no match against the energy of book and art lovers at Ayala Triangle Park last April 22. It was the time of the year again when literary enthusiasts flock together for Dia Del Libro, an annual book festival organized by Instituto Cervantes, the cultural arm of the Embassy of Spain in the Philippines. The event is inspired by the Sant Jordi Festival in Barcelona where every year on April 23, people exchange books and roses as part of the celebration.


True enough, I felt like I was transported to Barcelona when I arrived at the venue. There was a great display of Spanish culture as musicians render live performances which added to the already exciting mood of the event. Ayala Triangle Park became a lively garden in the most literal sense. As part of the tradition, every purchase of a book from participating bookstores will entitle the buyer to a rose. The entire park was full of people holding a rose or two, and I just can’t explain how lovely the view was especially that I am obsessed with roses.

Dia Del Libro is an educational and cultural experience more than anything else. It is designed to celebrate the works of the finest authors in history including celebrated Spanish novelist Miguel De Cervantes, whose name was placed dead center at the venue. I enjoyed the event because of its commitment to bring classical literary works closer to the interest of modern generation and promote the love of reading.


I am also impressed with how Dia Del Libro gathered not only the country’s top bookstores and publishing houses to offer huge book discounts, but also private organizations which perform initiatives to celebrate the art of literature in the Philippines. One of which is The Book Stop Project Library designed by WTA Architecture and Design Studio. It is a pop-up library where people can either swap or donate their books and let other people who will visit the library enjoy the perennial pleasure of reading. I reckon this concept already exists in other countries, but it is the first of its kind in the Philippines which is why I am excited to take part of it. I brought with me five books to donate. I actually did not have the intention to swap it with the other books from the library’s collection (since I have more than enough books on my shelf), but the staff insisted so I grabbed a copy of Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By. She also gave me a free copy of Context and Intent, a magazine made for anyone who holds interests in architecture and design.

The Book Stop Project Library situated right at the center of Ayala Triangle Park
Aside from great books, there are also other literary products available. I bought this shirt with a Cervantes quote in it. The quote is from the 15th Century novel, Don Quixote. “Freedom, Sancho, is one of the most precious gifts that heaven has bestowed upon men; no treasures that the Earth holds buried or the sea conceals can compare with it.”


Traveling to Europe, let alone Spain, is often part of the bucket list of any traveler. People who wish to walk the streets of famous cities like London, Madrid, and Paris have different reasons why they want to capture the so-called European experience. And although I do not consider myself as a fully committed traveler, I also have my share of fascination with Europe. I admire the unparalleled value that Westerners place on their culture and tradition, and how that value continues to shape their country as a result.


If one day I wake up and find myself somewhere in Barcelona, I would immediately head straight to the nearest museum for I am a massive fan of the style and themes of Western art. It is my wildest dream to encounter the works of famous artists like Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Vermeer etc. I know it will take quite a while before I realize this dream, but Dia Del Libro gave me a simulated experience of acquainting myself with European masterpieces through the exhibition, El Museo Del Prado Filipinas.


The exhibit featured 54 paintings created by some of the most influential names in art history. Each painting has a description about the styles and themes used for its creation, which is useful for anyone who would like to study the background and techniques of the featured artists. But aside from the educational functions that it may serve, the collection is simply a feast for the eyes. Without exaggeration, the exhibit offered me the best-simulated experience of what it is like to roam around a European museum.

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico – Ca. 1425-28

My favorite pieces are The Annunciation by Fra Angelico, Bacchanal of the Adrians by Titian, and Amalia de Llano y Dotres, Countess of Vilches by Federico De Madrazo among others.

Moses rescued from the Waters of the Nile by Orazio Gentileschi – 1633


A festival of books will not be complete without book signing events. And although he has not released any new book, the presence of the renowned Filipino historian and author, Ambeth Ocampo, is one of the major highlights of Dia Del Libro 2017.

I became a fan of Ocampo after a college friend lent me his famous book, Rizal Without The Overcoat. I immediately admired his style of writing and I knew right after reading his essays that he is an exceptional writer. History is a cerebral topic for many people, but Ocampo’s gift lies in his capacity to shape historical accounts into interesting pieces of information which hold so much relevance even up to the modern generation.

I brought a copy of Ocampo’s Rizal’s Teeth, Bonifacio’s Bones. It is the fifth installment of his Looking Back series. The book was given to me by a friend after he asked me to write a review of it for his English course in college. I am a fan of Ocampo but not as obsessed as the other people I encountered while lining up for his autograph. They were holding a complete set of his books while I cling on the single volume I have. It was an awesome experience to have a brief chat with the celebrated Filipino historian. In an effort to create a jest out of the awkward fact that I was holding only a single book of his, I grinned and said, ‘Ayoko po kasi kayong mapagod kaya isa lang ‘dala ko’ ( I don’t want you to get tired that’s why I brought only one book). I tried to make him laugh because I understand how exhausting it must be to sign massive stacks of books.

Ayoko po kasi kayong mapagod kaya isa lang ‘dala ko’
An encounter with the ‘great Filipino historian‘–Sir Ambeth Ocampo

To formally end the program, Ayala Triangle Park was transformed into an elite opera house as the Manila Symphony Orchestra serenades a congregation of literary buffs. They played several classic Spanish symphonies, as well as lesser known pieces. After the exceptional performance, my friends and I left the venue with full of excitement about what next year’s Dia Del Libro might bring.

Enhorabuena Instituto Cervantes!

Concierto Clasicos en el parque by Manila Symphony Orchestra


A ‘New’ Dream to Dream

One thing I don’t like about Les Miserables–it happened so fast. The two-and-a-half-hour performance was not enough for me to absorb all the emotions of the show. It seems that the gap between the prologue and epilogue lasted only for a few minutes. While watching, I got lost the sense of time and just enjoyed the spectacle unfolding right in front of me. My body automatically reacted to the art and brilliance of Les Mis that my brain did not have to tell my hands to clap, my mouth to laugh, or even my eyes to shed tears. It all just happened without me being conscious of it. And perhaps this is the reason why writing a review about Les Mis is difficult. It is one of the few musical theatre performances which communicates to the heart rather than the mind.


My humble experience in watching theater does not allow me to compare this new and re-imagined production of Cameron Mackintosh’s classic mega-musical from the original show playing in London. What I can only assert after watching it is that whatever modification they did to present Les Mis to the 21st-century audience, it is undoubtedly an improved version. I haven’t seen the original production but based on my subjective view, what I saw could be the best rendition. Mackintosh and his two French musician allies, Allain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, the geniuses who also gave birth to an equally acclaimed West End show ‘Miss Saigon’, talked so much about their efforts in putting a different twist to the orchestration of this new Les Mis. True enough, there is an obvious change to this new production in terms of key and tunes compared to the many versions available on YouTube (including Lea Salonga’s I Dreamed a Dream and On My Own). However, both the original and the new are great that the question which one is better is impossible to answer (or even immaterial to ask). The creative team is successful in doing a crucial task to recreate a masterpiece without losing the essence of the show.

Hardcore Les Mis fans have all the reasons to celebrate that Jean Valjean’s tale continues to endure after its first performance more than three decades ago. I cannot speak for Mackintosh, but I think the need for a new production of Les Mis is to make it last rather than forgetting the original as if the show does not already hold the title for being the longest-running musical in both West End and Broadway.


Meanwhile, I have more than few things to say about the cast of this Asia production who all gave justice to the characters of the epic story. Manila is so fortunate to experience Les Mis through the combinations of talents from Broadway, London’s West End and Australian productions. It’s like getting a piece from every great cast in order to put up a humongous and even more phenomenal performance. My top three actors would be Simon Gleeson (Jean Valjean), Earl Carpenter (Inspector Javert) and Cameron Blakely (Thenardier). Gleeson was so true to his character and brought me memories from the time I was reading Victor Hugo’s novel. He is like the Valjean who the author wrote about and it felt like I was transported at the very milieu of the story. On the other hand, Carpenter does not only have a great voice but also the best acting ability. While the life of Valjean is redemptive, Javert is someone who chased a running fugitive in an effort to accomplish his duty and be a faithful protector of the law. This adds to the complexity of his character sketch because anyone who would play the part must have a balanced air of power and integrity, both of which Carpenter has excellently portrayed. When it comes to showmanship, Blakely certainly has the charisma to win extra favour from his audience. The audience wanted to render applause to him even if his acts were not yet done, a good hint on how impressive a performer he is.

Emily Langridge is also a favourite. With her operatic voice, she undoubtingly can play the part of Christine Daae in The Phantom of the Opera or be the next Fantine in other productions of Les Mis. Paul Wilkins and Chris Durling are very fitting to their roles as the charming French schoolboys of the June Rebellion in 1832. Their cherubic faces are an excellent bonus for their amazing voices.


Les Miserables Manila Curtain Call during the first preview, March 11 2016

I love the songs which involved a huge number of ensemble singers like ‘Master of the House’, ‘Lovely Ladies’, and ‘At the end of the day’. These scores show what melody the whole cast can produce when they sing together. The orchestra created music that made my spirit shake every time the conductor’s baton hit the air. Many may find this an exaggeration but I had a hard time breathing during the first minutes of the show. The sound of the instruments has a unique effect, inviting people to immerse into the performance. ‘One Day More’ remains to be the iconic anthem of the uprising, followed by the ‘People’s Song’. But I like the former better. The exchange of lines in the song is perfect for the cast to belt out notes. It is also a scene where every aspect of the show works, from the music to set design. Everything smoothly flows as a remarkable conclusion to the first act.

The re-imagined production of Les Mis made good use of technology in creating a modern backdrop. The LCD curtain (I don’t know what was the exact material used) is a popular subject of conversation after the show. Everyone can’t help but be awed with the translucent curtain where the backdrop of each scene was projected. It has to be the greatest innovation applied to the show since such technology did not exist back in 1985 when Les Mis performed in front of its first audience in Barbican Theater, London. Instead of using common pictures or painted sets, the production converted some of Victor Hugo’s paintings into moving background in order to be faithful to the taste and imagination of the author himself.

I would love to see once more the suicide of Javert not only because of its drama but with the texture of the scene. Up until now, I am in deep contemplation on how Carpenter managed to float in the air (if ever he did because that’s how it appeared) and created the illusion of him falling into an abyss. Likewise, the scene when Valjean carried Marius in underground sewers was like watching a 3D movie rich in visual depth.

The people who operate the stage deserve compliments for making a seamless flow. The stage of THE THEATER AT SOLAIRE was decorated with large props which made it a perfect mimicry of the 19th-century Parisian street. There were windows, balconies, and doors everywhere that you cannot possibly know where the next character will appear, or which exit he will take for the transition of scenes. The objects used on stage were remote-operated. It was particularly fun to watch because there were no crew members seen pushing or pulling away sets when there is a need to change props.

View from my seat (Premium Gold, DD 11)

There are portions of the show which displayed figurative and subliminal messages. In ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables’, Marius reminisces his moments with his friends and on the latter part of the song, the dead children of France appeared carrying candles. These candles represent human soul as its fire die out at the end of the song, leaving Marius’ candle the only light kindling in darkness.

There is no way to express how much I love to watch Les Mis again. Watching theatre isn’t cheap and I have to wait for another milestone in my life to make myself deserving for a wonderful reward (my ticket was a graduation gift from my parents). But I am eternally grateful that I was able to experience something that will stay in my core memory. The common words used to describe the show: ‘breathtaking, ‘spectacular’, ‘unforgettable’ etc. no longer justify the art of Les Mis. As its quality continues to improve, from scoring to aesthetics, critics should also think of new terms to describe a show that is still maturing up until now. I stick to my only complaint about the show. Two hours were not enough to fully grasp everything the show can offer. Thus, I cannot do the job of providing new words in order to make sense of Les Mis. But I will certainly join the chorus in saying that it is a one-of-a-kind piece of theatre, which after three decades since its birth, continue to dream new dreams for its audience.

To all the people who are planning to watch Les Miserables for the first time, I encourage you to read the Victor Hugo novel before booking tickets. It is a substantial literary piece made up of more than 1400 pages. However tedious it may sound, it can help a lot in understanding why the characters behave the way they do; why Fantine suffered a terrible fate, how Jean Valjean managed to escape from Inspector Javert during their confrontation in front of Fantine’s deathbed, and the story behind Marius’ ring that has an interesting origin involving the historic Battle of Waterloo. These details support the excellent reputation of Hugo in the world of literature and why Les Mis is arguably the best material converted from ‘page to stage’.



The secret ingredient of Les Mis is conscience. A rare element that can trigger all known human emotions. We see through the life of Valjean that conscience is enough to win over life’s misery and stage a revolution to call freedom from the prison of our soul. And in the core of its story lies the one thing we all live by—LOVE.

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.