Jose Rizal, who would have turned 161 on 19 June, was a sociologist by instinct, an irrepressible observer of human nature. He could not resist conjuring scenes and creating incredible characters from the frenetic tumble of events that marked his life. He wrote a short essay about Dapitan, where he was banished for 4 years (1892-1896), which is a glaring contrast to his depressing poem “Mi Retiro”, also about Dapitan. In the essay, Rizal’s sense of irony was razor-sharp once again; he was so astutely funny, you can almost hear him chuckle under his breath.
At first sight, he was enthralled with the landscape: Dapitan was nestled on an island that separated it from “the vulgar world. ‘ It was framed by a river which split into two silvery arms that embraced Dapitan and offered it to the sea as the most beautiful gift it could find. Then, Rizal shoved us back to grim reality by comparing the church, the biggest structure there, to a gigantic insect. On either side of the temple of God, there were heaps of little houses, (places named Banono and Bantig), which looked like elytra (insect wings). He compared them to legislative chambers both with antagonistic ideas. Around the plaza in front of the church-winged insect, was the Casa Real (governor’s residence), a school and the quarters of the captain of guards. From there, green fields extended to the shore.
Dapitan was famous for a red blanket with stripes of bright colors, in demand everywhere, but could rarely be found, wrote Rizal. Weaving that blanket was the only town industry, but that town was not meant to have industries, so the weavers produced mere trifles when not huddled under their houses, snoozing.
Rizal described the houses as “affectionate”, a polite way of criticizing the quality of materials and construction. Made of nipa and bamboo, the houses admitted rain, sun and wind; some inclined towards the street as if greeting passersby, others leaned backward-looking for guests, still others swayed sideways to gossip with the neighbors.
Meanwhile, his cast of characters appeared from the wings. A madman speaking Castilian roamed the streets while offering flowers to those he met on the way to the Governor’s house where he made a speech and laid flowers in homage. There were pious women (like the manangs of the Noli) who believed the governor was a saint. He was a bachelor, did not tolerate the presence of women in his house and compelled his servants to be celibate. No hens laid eggs because roosters were castrated, like the Governor’s pet dog. The bitches in heat would growl and bite the poor canine in fury.
There was a pharmacist and a “vaccinator” who invented diseases; a town mayor who danced in front of St. James (Santiago Matamoros) to get cured but became worse. The Lieutenant-Major was called Lieutenant-Minor for not bringing food to the table, while the China man owned everything. The most famous gambler died as he left the cockpit because a coconut fell on his head; that would have endangered Newton’s theory of gravity, Rizal wrote in jest. But, the sabungero must be enjoying St. Peter’s company. “All are famous, all are celebrities who merit separate chapters, admiration, invocation, narrations and period,” said Rizal.
Where did Dapitan come from? According to foreigners invented by Rizal, Dr. Blockhead believed it was founded by Phoencians, while Dr. Naseweis (nosy brat, in German) affirmed Dapitan is an ancient Carthagenian city built on Greek ruins; he based his thesis on theories of Dr. Niemand ( meaning a nobody), Dr. Stultus (stupid), the ethnographer Grandtaupe (grand marsupial) and Archeologist Asinelli (donkeys). Another foreign source that claimed Dapitan was an ancient Chaldean colony was opposed by Dr. Van der Niesen (sneezing) because there is no lime there, not even for chewing betel.
The locals have an entirely different story, according to Rizal. Newsman Desbarrados (swept away) , after analyzing the word concluded that Dapitan come from the phrase, “Dad, dad que pitan!” which was what the Spanish conquistadores with Magellan shouted at the natives when they wanted them to leave the Spanish boats. In time, this was corrupted into “dadquipitan”.
Forty -six years after Magellan’s ill-fated enterprise, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived with Fr Urdaneta who shortened the phrase to Daquepitan which became Dacpitan, then Dapitan which was easier to pronounce.
To end, Rizal wrote that that is all we know of Dapitan where everyone is a celebrity, except a lonely exile “from the other extreme of the world, from the flowery island of America. The story of this unknown exile will be the study of the following chapters.”
Rizal’s imagination was titanic, a pity he could not write yet another novel for our enjoyment and illumination.