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.
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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.
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.
Should Rizal think of expressing his gratitude to his mother by way of a gift, the gift probably would not 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 auctioned off by Leon Gallery around this time last year. The documents were 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.
This story originally appeared on Metro.style