SINGKIT - Doreen G. Yu - The Philippine Star

It is one thing to read history, and quite another to sense history – to see, hear and even feel it reaching out to you across time.

Dapitan is one of those places where history is very much a part of the city’s identity; it is, in fact, integral to the city. A recent visit to Dapitan gave me a new perspective and appreciation of national hero Jose Rizal. While we rightfully commemorate his martyrdom today, we should celebrate his life – all that he did, what he stood for, what he fought for.

Dapitan is where Rizal spent four years in exile. Perceived as a rabble-rouser by the powers-that-be, he was sent to Dapitan, far away from Manila; some believe the exile was to protect him from those who would try to harm him.

Rizal arrived in Dapitan on July 17, 1892, and the Dapitanons started in 2022 a reenactment, called Revisitamos, that has evolved and will hopefully become an annual tradition. Last July, Revisitamos featured a sound and light show, a red carpet reception at the Punto del Desembarco, the landing site where Rizal first set foot in Dapitan. The reception menu featured dishes mentioned by Rizal in his writings, like Pancit Ilustrado and Tinola ni Teodora Alonso.

A moving Paseo Simbolico, a walk where participants carried lanterns or farols de combate, saw descendants of Rizal’s students and friends, as well as youth and townsfolk swelling to over a thousand. I’m sure the organizers – the city government of Dapitan and the Romgarjal group – will up the pageantry for next July’s Revisitamos.

While Casa Real, the gobernador’s house where Rizal stayed when he arrived in Dapitan, now only has a plaque marking the site, many of Dapitan’s old structures have been preserved and/or repurposed, like the Sagario house which is now the Travel Bee Hotel, the Adaza house which now serves as the tourism office and the old convent which is now a school.

But one house has been lovingly restored and is now a museum – Balay Hamoy, home of Mariano Hamoy, Rizal’s friend and business partner. Descendants Britz and Kat Hamoy live in the annex behind the original house and give guided tours of the museum, a tour replete with not just historical facts and artefacts but also trivia (the kamuning tree by the gate was there to welcome Rizal and other juicy tidbits) to satisfy the Maritess in all of us.

You can end your tour with a game of Sibylla Cumana, which Rizal invented, a cross between a ouija board and a session with a Madame Auring wannabe – as we did, with hilarious, sometimes telling, results.

The crown jewel is, of course, the Rizal Shrine, situated on a 16-hectare property in Barangay Talisay (although he noted in a letter that there is no talisay tree in the area), which Rizal bought with his share of lottery winnings (P6,000) for the princely sum of P18 – you read that right, no zeroes in the figure. On it he built his house (reportedly for P40), clinic, school and other houses for his students and pupils, all made of nipa and bamboo. It was here that he met Josephine Bracken, the 18-year-old Irish companion of Mr. Taufer, who came to seek treatment by the renowned eye doctor Jose Rizal.    

The shrine has replicas of the houses, under now towering trees which Rizal planted. We were privileged to have been toured around the shrine by Albert Barretto, a researcher from the National Historical Commission who has relocated to Dapitan and to say that he is a walking treasure trove of information on Rizal is an understatement.

We were also privileged to spend a good part of an afternoon with George Aseniero, a true gentleman of the old school, great-grandson of Jose Aseniero, one of Rizal’s pupils. Uncle George regaled us with stories not just of Rizal, but of Dapitan’s history, little known information about Pigafetta’s arrival in Dapitan – complete with documents and maps.

And as if all that was not enough, Uncle George allowed us the rare privilege of seeing items belonging to Josephine Bracken – clothes, shoes, veils, laces, etc. – turned over to the Aseniero family for safekeeping, as it was his favorite pupil Jose Aseniero that Rizal asked to look after Josephine when they returned to Manila, since he was going to Cuba.

Rizal’s stay in Dapitan came to an end on July 31, 1896. He had earlier written to the governor general asking to serve in the Army. On July 30, the ship España arrived in Dapitan with a letter saying he could go to Cuba as a military surgeon, but he was to leave on that same ship the very next day.

While he was happy about this assignment, Rizal was sad to leave Dapitan. The people felt the same way, and the whole town turned out to say a very poignant good-bye. Dapitan may have been a place of exile, but Rizal spent the four years to transform the town, to build lasting friendships, to use his talents and skills to help people and improve lives – as he had always wanted to do.

Rizal set sail for Cuba through Spain on Sept. 2, 1896, but a month later was sent back to Manila, accused of being the main organizer of the revolution and of founding illegal organizations. A preliminary investigation was started on Nov. 20; he was tried and on Dec. 26 was found guilty of rebellion and sedition. Two days later the governor general signed the decision sentencing Rizal to death.

Then as now and throughout history, the powers-that-be realize that their authority is threatened not just by a bladed weapon but by a sharp mind, not just by bullets but by ideas, not just by arms but by the truth, by justice, by the passion and patriotism of those willing to fight – and live and die – for them.

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