fulgurafrango [blog]
4 April 2014


Rizal’s use of thinly disguised references to real-life characters, places, and events in his novels is well known. Padre Sybila and Padre Florentino, for example, were take-offs from the priests Bienvenido Nozaleda and Leon Lopez, respectively; the comical Doña Victorina was a caricature of the Manila matron Victorina Medel. Meanwhile scenes set in Binondo, Intramuros, and Calamba are described in accurate detail and sentimental attention to the characteristics of those locales.

But just how much Rizal revelled in deploying real-life material can be seen in his use of the device in even the most trivial and incidental details. Chapter 17 of El Filibusterismo contains a humorous episode where Padres Camorra and Salvi and the journalist Ben Zayb wander through a fair in Quiapo and come upon a booth selling small wooden figurines. Among the things they encounter is the following wooden tableau:

Dos soldados de la Guardia Civil que tenian por letrero, civiles, estaban colocados detras de un hombre, maniatado con fuertes cuerdas y la cara tapada con el sombrero: se titulaba el Pais del Abaka y parecia que le iban a afusilar

(Two soldiers of the Guardia Civil, with the name tags civiles on them, were shown behind a man manacled with strong cords, his face covered with a hat. It was titled The Land of Abaca and it seemed they were going to shoot him.) [Lacson-Locsin translation].

What is not widely known is that the figure el Pais del Abaca, which Rizal describes in the above excerpt, is a piece of sculpture that actually exists. Here is a picture of it:


El pais del abaca


This small figure (only 55 cm. tall) can be found in Madrid’s Museo Nacional de Antropologia. (I saw it there personally with a group of scholars attending a Philippine Studies Conference in September 2001.) The museum’s information names the sculptor as one Aniceto Mercado (y Nonato), born in Manila ca. 1858 and died ca. 1920.

In response to my written query, the museum’s director, Señora Pilar Romero de Tajada, confirmed (via e-mail of 9 September 2012) that the piece did come to Spain in connection with the Philippine Exposition held in Madrid in 1887. She adds that there is unfortunately no further information regarding the artist, although she already mentioned Rizal’s reference to the piece in a catalogue she prepared (Filipinas, hace un siglo) when the 1887 collection was displayed at the Manila Metropolitan Museum also in 2001.

The first thing to note is that the Madrid carving in itself is a remarkable piece of caustic social criticism: the title “Land of abaca”, etched onto the base, sarcastically repeats a promotional phrase referring to the endemic crop of the islands, whose commercial potential the Spaniards wished to highlight (not least through the Exhibition). At another level, however, abaca is also an obvious reference to the rope-material used to restrain the bound man. “Land of abaca” in this other sense therefore connotes “Land of bondage”, “Land of repression”. Perhaps thus far the only scholar to appreciate the real significance of this piece is  Sanchez-Gomez [2003:127], who calls it “a dramatic condemnation literally of Spanish policy in the Philippines, a direct and mighty assault on the ideological and racial arguments that provided much of the support to that policy of domination”. [My translation.]

The second point is that the Madrid carving corrects a misimpression conveyed by Rizal’s description in the Fili—there are in fact no Guardia Civil soldiers behind the bound man who “seemed [like] they were going to shoot him”. Noting this same discrepancy, Sanchez-Gomez [2008:128] surmises that Rizal’s description in the Fili  was “evidently dealing with a copy of the piece, which perhaps   came to form part of popular imagery, although in Madrid the figures of the two guards were obviously absent” [My translation; emphasis supplied]. Let’s be clear about this: Sanchez apparently thinks the Madrid piece is one thing but that popularised (folk?) copies of it were to be seen in Quiapo, presumably with the soldiers added, and that Rizal was merely faithfully reporting on this fact in the Fili.

Sanchez’s conjecture, however, unfortunately fails to convince: for how could Mercado’s little sculpture “form part of popular imagery” when it  hardly  had the chance to gain any popularity or currency in the Philippines? It ended up, after all, in a Madrid exhibit. Moreover, as Sanchez himself notes, it hardly attracted attention even there. Not even Lopez-Jaena mentions it in his speech regarding the pieces displayed in the exposition. Indeed Sanchez [2008:128] wonders how “an image so markedly critical can go unnoticed and elicit no reaction from either the critics or the authorities” [my translation]. He ultimately conjectures that this anomalous relegation to oblivion may have been due to the piece being “withdrawn from the competition”, in which Luna’s Spoliarium won gold.

Rather than recording the existence of a copy in Manila, it is more likely Rizal became acquainted with this statuette after having seen it himself in Madrid. But he transplanted it in his novel to an innocuous fair in Quiapo. As for the Guardia Civil soldiers, these were clearly never part of the piece—nor indeed of any possible “copy”. Rather Rizal asked his readers to imagine a stall of figurines where otherwise unrelated soldier-figures—one imagines these as free-standing stock figures—were incidentally juxtaposed [estaban colocadas] on the same shelf on which El pais del abaca was displayed, giving the impression of the former seeking to shoot the latter. Indeed, this misinterpretation of an accidental “collocation” was the humorous point of the whole Fili episode.

This only brings up the last point, however. El pais del abaca was by itself already a scathing indictment of Spanish rule. The sarcasm of the piece is all-too direct and obvious, so there was really no need to add the detail of the menacing soldiers to drive home the point of Spanish oppression. So why did Rizal have to “rub it in”, as it were, and trivialise the work by adding a gratuitous element? He certainly could not have missed the caustic point himself. But was it possible he thought the point might be lost on his Spanish and Filipino readers?

Was Rizal ambivalent—as Sanchez thinks most ilustrados were—about the seriousness of the work of home-trained craftsmen, as compared with accomplished artists like Luna and Hidalgo? Did he think these artists too naïve and literal? Or did he want to call attention to the otherwise forgotten sculpture (calling it by name, in fact) but think it incongruous with the light sardonic tone of the scene?

In the event, the deed was done: Rizal through his work did perpetuate the memory of El pais del abaca, although only by trivialising its message. Ironically, of course, Rizal would get a second chance to depict the image of a captive man—arms bound with abaca rope behind his back, being led to his execution by soldiers—when he himself would participate in re-enacting the scene, this time in deadly serious fashion.



Romero de Tejada, P. and and Metropolitan Museum of Manila [2000] Filipinas, hace un siglo. Madrid: Ministerio de Educacion y Cultura, Secretaria de Estado de Cultura.

Sanchez-Gomez, L.  [2003] Un imperio en la vitrina: el colonialismo español en el Pacífico y la Exposición de Filipinas de 1887. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas.