Last 18 December 2017, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), gave a tribute to Ka Alex Balagtas, the Museum Curator of Museo ni Marcelo H. del Pilar in Cupang, San Nicolas, Bulakan, Bulacan, as he is about to retire from service early next year. My first acquaintance of him was in 2008, when I was in third year college at the Bulacan State University in Malolos, Bulacan. He visited our mini exhibit about the 110th anniversary of the Malolos Congress. Since then I am with him in various activities of the NHCP in Bulacan, until he encouraged me to apply to the said agency in 2011. I became part of the NHCP in 2013.
One day, in 2015, Dr. Maria Serena Diokno, former NHCP Chair, asked me to see her in her office. There in the Chair’s office were our museum curators in Bulacan–Ka Alex and Tita Nett Jimenez of the NHCP Museum of Philippine Political History in Malolos. Also in the meeting was our architect, Tiang Lui Valerio, a Bulakenya from Pulilan–my second hometown. It was an all-Bulakenyo meeting. (Dr. Diokno’s mother was an Icasiano from del Pilar’s hometown, Bulakan, Bulacan; and del Pilar had a colleague from Bulakan named Pedro Icasiano.) Dr. Diokno asked me if I could write and conceptualize the new Museo ni Marcelo H. del Pilar, as requested by the curators. I wholeheartedly accepted the request, thinking it was my way of showing my gratitude to the man who brought me to the NHCP and exposed me to various opportunities. The museum was inaugurated on 18 March 2016 with Professor Randy David the Guest of Honor. I owe a lot to Dr. Diokno for polishing the museum content.
I admit I knew a little about del Pilar then. I know him since elementary years through his iconic mustache; that he was among the brainchild of the tongue-twisting La Solidaridad; and beyond that, nada. I pondered this in the animation the NHCP produced for the Museo ni Marcelo H. del Pilar.
But I realized that one has to read del Pilar’s four-volume works, compiled from 1955 to 1970 by the National Library of the Philippines, to be able to understand and humanize him. Del Pilar failed us not in having a museum with a humanized hero: his second volume of letters–sorted out as those are all for his wife, Marciana (Tsanay)–is a fountain of refreshing facts about him: that he was first a husband and a father of two children before he became a great man for his countrymen. In one of the galleries of the Museo ni Marcelo H. del Pilar features parts of del Pilar’s letters to his wife relating how excited he was in experiencing using a public telescope in Paris and saw the outer space; the joy he had upon availing a promo-fare trip (via train) to Paris for the Universal Exposition with his colleagues; the delight of seeing the surroundings of Paris atop the then newly inaugurated Eiffel Tower which he compared with Malolos; and the nostalgia upon tasting sinigang na bangus sa mustasa in Europe prepared by his Bikolano compatriot. And on how did del Pilar spend his first Christmas in Europe? Dated 24 December 1889, del Pilar wrote his wife from Madrid the following:
Tsanay: a la cinco y media ng hapon dine, ay a las dos na nang gabi rian, nakapag simbang gabi na kayo’t nakapagsalosalo na, kami rine ay uala ng usapan mag hapon kundi ang saya ng pasko rian[;] nakikini-kinita ko si Sofia at si Anita at ang manga bata sa kapitbahay na nasa araw ng kasayahan ngayon. Kun ang loob ko lamang ang masusunod ay magsalosalo na tayo sa paskong darating kung binubuhay.
(Translation — Tsanay: It’s 5:30 in the afternoon here, while two in the morning there (in the Philippines); you already have your Christmas eve mass and feast (noche buena). Here, we spent the entire afternoon reminiscing how joyful Christmas Day there. I imagine Sofia and Anita and all the children in our neighborhood are enjoying right now. If only my will be done, I’d like to spend the next Christmas with you.
Del Pilar left the country on 30 October 1888 to escape the wrath of the Spanish friars for organizing a massive rally in Manila requesting the King of Spain to expel the friars from the Philippines. He arrived in Barcelona in January 1889 to help in lobbying in Madrid the reforms needed for the Philippines, especially in the justice system and in putting end the friar supremacy he called frailocracia or soberania monacal. He thought he would finish his campaign in Spain in a year, until he contracted tuberculosis, begging his friends and relatives to lend him money, and worse, picking cigarette butts to ease the cold and hunger. In one of the letters from Tsanay contains a one peso coin sent to del Pilar by his youngest daughter Anita just for him to go home. This scene is depicted in a more-than-a-life-size tableau of the father and daughter entitled Bridged by Love by renowned sculptor Willy Layug. It is found in one of the last galleries in the Museo ni Marcelo H. del Pilar.
It is a widely known fact among the historians in Bulacan that Anita hated her father so much and everything about nationalism. In 1920, the remains of del Pilar was brought back to Manila from Barcelona. While almost everyone was in jubilation, only Anita was unhappy. (Read this beautiful article on Anita.)
Unfortunately, during the Battle for Manila in 1945, the original letters of del Pilar deposited in the National Museum and Library (at the basement of the Legislative Building) were destroyed, along with other historical and cultural treasures. Until one day, in 1954, educator Dr. Jorge Bocobo surprised the Bureau of Public Libraries (now the National Library of the Philippines) that he had the galley proofs of the two-volume Epistolario de Marcelo H. del Pilar (Letters of Marcelo H. del Pilar) set to be printed if only World War II did not break out in 1941. In 1955, the Bureau published the first volume of the Epistolario featuring the transliteration of del Pilar’s original letters in Spanish and Tagalog to his fellow compatriots in Europe and in the Philippines. Three years later, the second volume was published. The said volume is entirely written in Tagalog and comprises the hero’s personal letters to his wife and to her two daughters. However, only the first volume was reprinted and translated to English in 2004, gaining more public interest in the 21st century. The said edition was published by the National Historical Institute (now the NHCP), the custodian of all the publications of the Bureau of Public Libraries about our heroes since its creation due to imposition of Martial Law in 1972.
To borrow lines from the late historian Fr. Fidel Villaroel, OP of the University of Santo Tomas Archives about del Pilar’s letters to his family:
Month after month, day after day, for eight endless years (sic, seven years and nine months), the thought of returning to his dear ones was del Pilar’s permanent obsession, dream, hope, and pain. Of all the sufferings he had to go through, this was the only one that made the “warrior” shed tears like a boy, and put his soul in a trance of madness and insanity. His 104 surviving letters to the family attest to this painful situation… (Marcelo H. Del Pilar, His Religious Conversions [Manila: University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 1997], 34).
Most probably one has read a number of articles about how Jose Rizal spent his Christmas abroad. But what about the Christmas experience of Rizal’s compatriots in Europe? Does anyone know that del Pilar’s letters to his wife and daughters exist? How about the hero’s first Christmas away from his family because he had to?