As early as I can remember, it was Dr. Leoncio Lopez-Rizal, Lolo Leoncio to my generation, who was the “ Captain of the Guard”. His mother, Narcisa Mercado (married to Antonio Lopez) was the third child of Francisco Mercado and Teodora Alonso y Realonda. Because he was a sickly child, he was not sent to Dapitan to study in his uncle Pepe’s school like his cousins Mauricio Cruz (son of Maria) and Estanislao Herbosa (son of Lucia). Lolo Leoncio more than made up for that lost opportunity by becoming the guardian of the Rizal narrative. He collected Rizaliana, engaged in serious research and hosted descendants of Rizal’s European friends whenever they came to Manila. That was how the rest of us met Franz and Hans Hack, the great grandsons of Pastor Karl Ullmer of Wilhelmsfeld, Germany, Rizal’s landlord.
Imperceptibly, Lolo Leoncio passed the torch to his daughter, Asuncion Lopez Bantug, Tita Sony. During the Commonwealth, she wrote a Rizal biography which won the third prize. That precious book, product of painstaking research, has had several enhanced editions since then. Dr. Floro Quibuyen who met Tita Sony when he was a 20-year old Rizal researcher has unforgettable stories about her kindness which I shall tell you about in another column. Until the day she died, Tita Sony was the supreme guardian of the Rizal narrative.
At this point, I must mention that the Guerreros, my mother’s family, were admirers of Jose Rizal. My grandfather, Dr. Alfredo Guerrero and his father Dr. Leon Guerrero, the botanist, inhabitants of Ermita, walked to Bagumbayan to witness the execution of Jose Rizal. Lolo Alfredo was only 10 years old then and that experience must have been so indelible, it became a bedtime story for me and my brother. Rizal loved his country, he was not a traitor so when he was shot, he turned around so he could die facing the light of a new day. It was an early lesson in patriotism. My grandma, the family beauty, won the ” Esperanza de la Patria ” title, her rendition of the “Ultimo Adios”was considered the best. You can imagine how happy they were when their daughter Carmen married Ismael Cruz, Rizal’s grand nephew. In 1961, my uncle Amb. Leon Maria Guerrero wrote a prize-winning biography of Jose Rizal titled, “The First Filipino”.
Suddenly, I was thrust to the forefront. In 1964, I was elected Miss Philippines during a contest sponsored by the City of Manila, after which I was sent to Long Beach, California to compete in the Miss International Beauty Queen pageant, which I also won. Totally unknown and unheard of, I became an object of curiosity as news items mentioned that Maria Rizal, the hero’s sister, was my great grandmother. For the past sixty years, I have been invited to attend, if not preside over, Rizal Day commemorations. For the Rizal Centennial, I came home from Mexico to participate in wreath-laying ceremonies, attend and/or give lectures. On 19 June and 30 December, there are interviews by trimedia practitioners. I always insist that Rizal has so many descendants as he had 10 siblings; perhaps I am the less shy, but I certainly am not his only living relative.
Not too long ago, I was invited by Prof. Oggie Medina of the University of Makati to give a lecture on Jose Rizal. I accepted the invitation but suggested that he invite some of my cousins, so instead of a stiff lecture, we had a story-telling session with the participation of his pupils. I invited a niece from the Maria Rizal branch and two cousins, great granddaughters of Gen. Paciano Rizal. When a professor from the National Teachers University asked me to answer questions for his thesis, I suggested he field them out to my nieces and nephews; he got very good results.
It is time for a change of the guard, we have to pass the torch to the younger generation. Last June 4, I convened the descendants and insisted that the younger generation had to attend, it was a Sunday so no school, no work. ( However, two of them missed the meeting due to the UPCAT). We agreed to flock to the Rizal house in Calamba, Laguna on 19 June. The mayor, whose surname is Rizal, invited all of us for the wreath-laying ceremony and asked that someone speak on behalf of the family. We appointed two descendants of Gen X, Maxine Cruz and Paolo Azurin, and at this writing, they are busy reading, researching , and preparing their speeches. We also plan to present to Dr. Emmanuel Calairo, newly-appointed chairman of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, a plan on how to improve the interiors and display panels of the Rizal house, as well as docent training. So many things have changed since the days of Lolo Leoncio and Tita Sony Bantug, and that morning I went to Calamba as Miss International. Prepare for the changing of the guard.