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Rizal’s Mother, Her Brother And His Wife: The Teleserye-Level Drama Behind The Book That Shook The Nation

By now the Mother’s day listicles, gift, staycation, and restaurant guides have been save-linked for next year, and every mom whose celebration has been secretly lifted from these where-to guides is happily content with the last bites of her strawberry cake, and the last few whiffs of lemongrass oil from her free spa day. Since our lives are all about milestones—the everyday doesn’t really thrill us, though I’ve heard it’s been made into a happiness challenge—I look at June and its milestones.

I know June means Independence Day, and sometimes I know that June 19 is Jose Rizal’s birthday—but I had to look it up this year. Before the deluge of fun facts about our national hero floods in, I ponder the great post-colonial, capitalist question: What Mother’s Day gift would Rizal have gotten his mother?

Teodora Alonso, was arguably the biggest influence in her son’s life. From various sources, we learn that she was his first teacher, that she managed the family’s various agricultural businesses, that she taught him virtues like thrift and perseverance—which served him well when he was on a tight budget in Europe—and that she was the main character in a life-changing event in her son’s life.


Photo of Teodora Alonso, Jose Rizal’s mother; courtesy of Leon Gallery?


Before Rizal started secondary school, his mother was imprisoned by Spanish officials in their hometown. The story has all the elements of a teleserye—Teodora’s brother Jose Alberto had an errant wife who had been carrying on with another man while he was away. Good Catholic woman that she was, Teodora had convinced Alberto to forgive his wife and return to his home, or to what was left of it. In true kontrabida fashion, however, the wily wife connived with a member of the guardia civil to come up with an impossible twist to the story—the woman claimed that Teodora and Alberto had tried to poison her.

History’s rumors place her accomplice as a man the Rizal family had offended in a minor business transaction. Long story short, Teodora was incarcerated and was made to walk a grueling fifty kilometers from Calamba to a jail in Santa Cruz, Laguna. The young Rizal knew of this and wrote an account entitled The Injustice Done To My Mother, in which he details the events that took place and the great unhappiness it brought him.


Photo of Jose Rizal, courtesy of Leon Gallery


He was anywhere between eleven and fourteen years old at the time of the arrest, and was made to go to Manila to take secondary school exams—no doubt to save him from witnessing, well, the injustices that were done to his mother.  Teodora was eventually tried and freed, but not after an imprisonment that took all of two and a half years. She wasn’t a young woman at the time of her incarceration—news has it that she suffered in jail but that she carried on proudly despite.

This life-changing event left a deep impression on young Rizal—in his literary forays, his depictions of the guardia civil mirrored how he experienced certain ranking members in real life. In his books, the guardia civil are depicted as being capricious and cruel—his characters suffer badly in their hands for reasons not far removed from the ones stated in his mother’s warrant of arrest. There’s Andong who is sent to jail in Manila for picking bananas for dinner; there’s Tarsilo who is tortured by Spanish officials, there’s even a cochero (coachman) who is beaten up by a member of the guardia civil for the simple crime of failing to produce a cedula. These are immortalized in Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, the novels which sparked the most important revolution in our history.

To return to the question of what Rizal would give his mother for Mother’s day, it probably wouldn’t be a gold tambourin or a lace-handkerchief, but a first edition, hot-off-the-press copy of Noli Me Tangere: Here’s a book about you, mama, it might be important someday. Cut to 1896.

On quite another—though related—note, lasting proof of Teodora’s incarceration are court documents that have been preserved over the years, and that list among the Rizal Family Papers set to be auctioned off by the Leon Gallery on June 9, 2018. That’s just ten days shy of Rizal’s one hundred fifty seventh birthday. The documents are yellow and brittle with age, but one can imagine them as the seed from which the greatest Filipino novel shot up and sprouted to shake a nation.


The court documents filed by Juan Domingo Vasquez against Teodora Alonso and her brother Jose Maria Alberto before the Superior Tribunal of Don Mateo de San Buenaventura, Criminal Case No. 2476; photo by Chris Clemente


A letter to Teodora Alonso From Antonino Lopez, her daughter Narcisa’s husband dated 13 September 1892.?


A letter to Teodora Alonso from “Mr. Xavier, dated 7 January 1893”; photo by Chris Clemente?