That day, all the lights were out. There was a strange combination of childish excitement and relief, sensing that, for a few hours, a break in the monotony of classroom life would take place. I was quietly seated in my wooden armchair, bony elbows propped up against the juvenile inscriptions.
A small TV had been set up in front. Whenever I go back to this day of nearly two decades ago, I only recall the silhouette of my classmates, but never their faces. Two people then flashed to life: a naked woman on a bed, and a priest walking toward her.
Later on, Joel Torre would come on screen, and vaguely, I would think of the odd chance a celebrated local actor shared the same name as my dad. This fascinated me, and sometimes, it still does.
Then there was a party, and the explosion of an argument. I thought about how everyone was wearing old clothes, and on that attribute alone, seeing the 19th-century commotion ensue seemed less believable to me than Martians landing on earth. Joel Torre became furious at the priest, enough to threaten to kill him with a knife. But no such thing as murder on the dinner table happened, which was a terrible disappointment.
A little while later, Joel Torre would return, but now sporting dark glasses and longer hair. A sinister aura swirled about him, which, strangely enough, made him even more endearing. Even his new name sounded vengeful: Simoun.
That was as far as my memory of that day would go. Even now, as I see patches of it in my head, I still doubt how much of it was actual memory or pure imagination. It was impossible to excavate a two-decade-old recollection without suspecting that its spirit hasn’t been tainted by strange dreams overlapping with even stranger realities. But that was what I got when I tried digging through my childhood for the very first memory I had involving Jose Rizal.
Everybody knew the ending of this particular movie: Cesar Montano, playing as our national hero, would be shot in the end. History books have already spoiled the conclusion. Like many others of my generation, it wouldn’t surprise me if this was how we all envisioned Rizal—through the lens of a mainstream movie.
Like any dutiful student, I read about Rizal as prescribed in textbooks, accepted through mind-numbingly repetitive lessons that he was our National Hero, the greatest one of all the others who simply made our exams longer because we had to enumerate their names on paper. Don’t get me wrong—I like studying history. War, conquests, the fight for liberty, victories and defeats—it is no different than reading adventure novels, though the events happened to occur in real life (or so we were made to believe). To say that I was interested in Rizal beyond the few checkmarks he could garner for me in an exam was equivalent to saying that I was interested in the architecture of an ingrown toenail.
High school did even less to spark in me an appreciation for our national hero. In fact, it even contributed to my growing indifference for him. Both the Noli and Fili were taught to us in the kind of Filipino that made my head spin, and the accompanying illustrations merely encouraged everyone to vandalize their books. I was largely a reader in English, and my comprehension of our national language was at the proficiency level of a potato (though I’ve since made it a point to remedy that).
Our teacher wasn’t much help either. While it seemed to me that she tried her best to explain the subject matter, it merely left in me the impression that her understanding was no better than mine. Everyone else thought it was boring, and so did I.
The only time my opinion of Rizal or his writings changed was when my dad asked me to help him with a story he was trying to write. Three books made their way into my hands: English copies of Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo translated by Soledad Lacson-Locsin, and Rizal without the Overcoat by AmbethOcampo.
Since I furrowed my brows at the sight of the first two, I opted for the third book.
I began my reading journey with basement-bottom expectations. It was easy to suspect that the book was another one of those academic lectures on Rizal that would, at best, cure my insomnia.
For once, I was more than glad to be proven wrong.
As I read through the pages of Rizal Without the Overcoat, I suddenly came face to face with the man Jose Rizal and not the stiff, perfectly sculpted statue that years and years of formal education had erected in my mind. Rizal transformed from the mythical, near-superhuman (though not bulletproof), genius-level hero I had to crook my neck heavenward to see, to a man who was just a few inches taller than I was.
With each flip of the page, the bronze monuments slowly melted away. In time, I found myself, oddly, gaining a friend.
Rizal Without the Overcoat is a treasure trove of stories, which I had the good fortune of sharing with a classmate. When our Rizal course came, we were, perhaps, the only two people ecstatic to see that subject in our list. We would situate ourselves at the very back of the class and giggle among ourselves, gossiping about Rizal’s womanizing, his being a penny-pincher, his obsessive-compulsive cataloging of books, his homesickness—anything and everything that brought this once distant man to eye-level.
Naturally, our professor would occasionally call us out for disrupting her lecture with our constant whispering, but my classmate and I would simply bite back the urge to giggle even more. It didn’t exactly help that we shared the same birthday.
Learning about Rizal had become more than delightful, to say the least. Whatever indifference or animosity I held toward him as a teenager had vanished, largely thanks to Ambeth Ocampo’s book. When it was my younger brother’s turn to read it, he devoured it like a chocolate bar, and we would spend countless hours discussing what Rizal was probably like as a teacher, or the possibility of him becoming the president of Sabah, or even the Philippines, among other things. We often came to the conclusion that he’d probably have Congress assassinated.
When I received a copy of the 2018 edition of Rizal without the Overcoat, I felt as though I was reuniting with a friend who brought along stories old and new, best shared over drinks and peanuts. It felt like a journey through nostalgic avenues, as well as a discovery of unexplored alleyways where you could stroll with ease and anticipation. Ocampo walks with you in his writing, shining a lamp on the image of a man obscured by time and myth. If you look closer, you will find that Rizal was never far behind—just right beside you, in fact, leading the way.
At an age when mention of heroes bring to mind those seen in summer blockbusters, it feels good to go back to one who needs neither overcoat nor cape.
Rachel P. Salud is a writer, illustrator, gamer, and coffee-guzzler. She used to work for a Canada-based publishing company as a proofreader and associate writing coach. She currently manages her freelance proofreading and editing website at pinkpencilproof.wixsite.com/home.