by Francis C. Macansantos
E, San Juan, Jr. was one illustrious young poet of the sixties, showing mastery of the medium in both Filipino and English. He has since reinvented himself as scholar of literature and culture, in America where he is based. With a Ph.D. from Harvard and professorships emeritus from several universities in the U.S., he is deemed an intellect of the first rank in literary and philosophical circles abroad. But just like Rizal, our first intellectual, San Juan is an exile, opting though to return to his country in the form of the books and articles he has written elsewhere, scholarly vessels that contain riches of insight on his motherland’s history, culture, and politics. Some who admire his poetry would prefer verse, but from his published offerings it seems as though he has hung up his lyre.
In prose, however, the rapport he has kept up with his motherland has been fervidly dynamic. Her freedom from post-colonial chains is the constant poem in this scholar’s heart. He reminds us of that other illustrious viajero, the controversial novelist, Dr. Jose Rizal.
And it is obvious that like most Filipino intellectuals, San Juan can never drop the subject of Rizal or his continuing relevance to the idea of liberation. What he does reject is the notion that we need to choose between Bonifacio and Rizal, one against and excluding the other. Indeed, he even sets aside discussion (postponed for another book, perhaps?) on Rizal’s refusal to join the revolution, preferring instead to emphasize the hero’s achievement in conceptualizing an authentic ideological guide to freedom.
In Sisa’s Vengeance, San Juan takes up and evaluates the views of practically all the major Rizal biographers and commentators, pointing out their shortcomings. He takes special exception to Under Three Flags by Benedict Anderson, whose assessment of Rizal lowers his stature as political thinker to that of a “mere moralist and novelist.” On good authority (of Jim Richardson who exposes Anderson’s numerous errors) he attacks Anderson’s “ignorance” and lack of conceptual rigor.
But it is only towards the later chapters of Sisa’s Vengeance that San Juan fully discloses his main theme (and to most of his macho countrymen a startling one): that the proof of his authenticity as revolutionary is his principled belief in and his fervent advocacy of women’s rights.
It comes to light in the book’s latter chapters that for San Juan, the cause of women’s liberation is the sine qua non to any authentic movement for human liberation. An authentic vision of social change requires a profound understanding and staunch espousal of the cause for women’s rights.
Media has tended to present Rizal as a fickle playboy with a girl in every port. Such popular representations flatter the self-image of Filipino machos. But San Juan’s sensitively scrupulous view yields to us a more respectful, even at times diffident man in love—often a victim of heartbreak, all despite Maximo Viola’s account of Rizal’s presumed encounter with a Viennese woman of the streets.(Rizal, in fact, was actively involved in the rehabilitation of sex workers.)
Rizal idolized his mother who was an exceptionally gifted and cultured person, and he was made aware by his studies in London of Morga’s Sucesos ,of the high social status of women of the Philippine islands before the Spanish conquest. It was in London in the midst of his research on Morga that he wrote—upon the request of M.H. del Pilar—his rightly famous letter (written in Tagalog) to the women of Malolos proclaiming their right to education and their duty transmit their learning to their children.
Apart from these women, his mother, and those whom he was linked with amorously, Rizal had other—albeit imaginary—women: Maria Clara, Sisa, Juli, Doña Consolacion, Salome, and others—the women of his novels. Sisa, especially, is central to San Juan’s meditation on Rizal’s character, as it is she who embodies the victimization of women and of the motherland. After establishing the necessary link between the patriarchal system and all oppressive (because profit-oriented) systems, San Juan adroitly transforms Rizal’s arguably feminist position into a fulcrum to elevate and authenticate his revolutionary status.
Indeed, San Juan’s readings of Rizal’s literary works recommend themselves directly to students and scholars of literature. Sisa’s Vengeance provides a plethora of insights into Rizalian texts that are a fitting reward for any reader who has plowed through the rather difficult–often specialized—prose. Such oases, or epiphanies (pun intended) are surely traces of a poetic sensibility.
Francis C. Macansantos is a Baguio-based writer,who writes poetry, essays and fiction in English and Chabacano, his native language. He is a Palanca award winner and an NCCA Writers Prize awardee. His latest book, Balsa: Poemas Chabacano, was recently launched at Ateneo de Zamboanga, where he received the Most Outstanding Alumnus of the Year award in December 2011.