Many articles, books, essays and literary materials were written about Jose Rizal’s life, works and ideas, but sometimes we tend to neglect knowing who Pepe was before writing the Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. Knowing Jose Rizal starts by knowing him as a child.
The seventh child of Don Francisco Mercado and Doña Teodora Alonso, Pepe was born on June 19, 1861, a Wednesday. After three days, Father Rufino Collantes baptized the baby, who was named Jose Protacio, in honor of Saint Joseph and Saint Protacio. Doña Teodora was a devout
follower of Saint Joseph and it was their tradition to honor him every 19th day of the month. On the other hand, Saint Protacio is the patron saint for June 19, who was martyred in Milan, Italy.Writer Felice Prudente Santa Maria’s book, In Excelsis once explained why Rizal was called “Pepe”. According to her, “Saint Joseph was the putative (commonly accepted) father of Jesus Christ. In Latin, San Jose’s name is always followed by the letters “P.P” for pater putativus. In Spanish, the letter “P” is pronounced “peh” giving rise to the nickname Pepe for Jose.”Unfortunately, Pepe’s original baptismal record was burnt in 1862. It was only restored through the help of reliable eye witnesses, under the direction of Father Leoncio Lopez, a Filipino priest at the church across the street, and a friend of the Mercado family. As a boy, Pepe loved to visit Father Lopez, with whom he could talk about anything. The priest never got tired of answering Pepe’s questions and talked with him sensibly. Father Lopez became Pepe’s inspiration in characterizing Father Florentino in the “El Filibusterismo”.Growing up Pepe was curious about the things around him. When his yaya Aquilina told stories about theaswang, nuno sa punso and an imaginary ghost called Bu by the Europeans locally known as parce-nobis, Pepe listened attentively. His yaya often scared him if he failed to finish his meal. Pepe remembered those spooky stories even until he went to high school, writing in his Memorias de un Estudiante that everytime his yaya frightened him, “…my heart was fed with sad thoughts”.
In 1868, six days before his seventh birthday, Pepe went to the Antipolo shrine with Don Francisco for a pilgrimage as vowed by Doña Teodora on the day he was born. There, Rizal witnessed the strong devotion of the believers. In the church patio, he saw vendors selling a variety of religious items. He bought a picture of the Virgin of Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage, and pasted it in his suitcase, believing that the Virgin would keep him safe in his travels.
Commenting on this event, writer Nick Joaquin wrote that Rizal would have most likely undergone a boy’s first rite of passage into manhood- circumcision: “on returning from his pilgrimage, Rizal had another event to experience; his seventh birthday – and one can guess that this was followed by still another event: his circumcision, most probably supervised by Paciano”. Joaquin explained that during Rizal’s time, the nursery limit in the Philippines was seven years old. Circumcision was a symbol of separating boys from men.
In 1872, for high school, Pepe enrolled at the Ateneo Municipal de Manila in Intramuros. The administrator refused to admit him for two reasons. First, Doña Teodora’s arrest and he was considered physically weak and small for his age of eleven. Through the intercession of Manuel X. Burgos, nephew of Father Jose Burgos, one of the martyr priests executed just four months earlier, Pepe was admitted. Perhaps, he was fated to spend his early years at Ateneo, taking subjects such as Religious Studies, Mathematics, Sciences, Languages, Geography, and History. He also attended a class on culture called “Clase de Adorno”, where he had to choose between Art and solfeggio. Solfeggio is a system of arranging the scale by the names, which includes singing lessons. While he had a passion for music, singing was not his forte, admitting in his memoirs that he had a terrible voice. He wrote that “If you hear me sing, you’d think, you were in Spain, for you’d hear the braying of an ass!” For that reason, Pepe chose Art studies. One of his works as an Art student was carving an image of the Virgin. His Jesuit professors of Ateneo were amazed upon seeing it and asked him to sculpt the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which was later presented to Father P. Lleonart, who wanted to bring the statuette with him to Spain, but he forgot to put it in his trunk, leaving the image in Ateneo.
Pepe finished high school just before turning 16. His last night in the school dormitory was filled with sadness, giving him a sleepless night. As he lay in bed, he felt that the happiest days of his life were over.
On December 29, 1896, the night before his execution, Father Luis Viza brought the image of the Sacred Heart that Pepe had carved long ago at Ateneo. As the Jesuit placed the statuette on the table inside his cell in Fort Santiago, a sudden rush of memories brought him back to the happy days at Ateneo. It was a brief though bittersweet, reprieve from his impending execution. Pepe cherished his childhood so much. The passage from his Memorias, would have described that moment. ““I would give anything to get over this trying time of my youth. Goodbye, beautiful unforgettable period of my life! Farewell, fortunate hours of my lost childhood!”
Penitente. Rizal, The Magnificent. Jose Rizal National Centennial Commission. 1960
Reminiscences and Travels of Jose Rizal. Jose Rizal National Centennial Commission. 1961
Sta. Maria Felice. In Excelsis: The Mission of Jose P. Rizal. Studio 5 Designs Inc. 1996