Rizal’s Great Loves

(L-R) Jose Rizal, Felix Resurrecion Hidalgo and Nellie Bousted, whom Rizal would have married had she not insisted that he renounce his Catholic faith and become a Protestant. (Source: In Excelsis: The Mission of Jose P. Rizal)

Last I counted, Rizal supposedly had nine loves. Really? I consider only three. There are apocryphal stories of Rizal’s girlfriends. However, I don’t believe what our textbooks say about them, and I’ll tell you why.

1877. First Love: Segunda Katigbak–Teen-Age Puppy Love–Doesn’t really count

Segunda Katigbak (Photo from Pablo Trillana III, The Loves of Rizal and other Essays on Philippine History, Art, and Public Policy)

Rizal’s supposed first love, Segunda Katigbak, was but a harmless flirtation between a 14-year-old convent-bred girl and a teen-aged Rizal. Segunda was already betrothed to a Manuel Luz of Lipa, Batangas, when they met.

Rizal, then 17 years old, had a teen-age infatuation, albeit the beginning awareness of the other gender. In fact, this was the first time Rizal had a tete-a-tete alone with a girl other than his sisters. Remember when you were 17 and you kept walking to and fro in front of the house of your “crush”? You don’t call it real love, do you?


1878. Second Love: Leonor Valenzuela–Imagined love–a Chenggoy Concoction

Leonor Valenzuela (Photo from Pablo Trillana III, The Loves of Rizal and other Essays on Philippine History, Art, and Public Policy)

Rizal’s supposed affection for Leonor Valenzuela, age 14, was a love story made up by his gossipy friend, Jose Cecilio (Chenggoy), who derived pleasure from titillating Rizal. He told Rizal (then studying in Madrid) that there was a rivalry for his affection between Leonor Valenzuela (Orang) and Leonor Rivera (the landlady--she was the daughter of Rizal’s former Ateneo landlord and uncle, Antonio Rivera). Rizal was 18 years old. He had no real love for Orang, just the wandering eye of a Bagong Tao na nag-bi-binata (a young man barely out of adolescence). Thus, count Orang out.


1878-1890. Third Love: Leonor Rivera, Age 15, Long-Distance Idealized But Doomed Love.

Leonor Rivera (Photo from Pablo Trillana III, The Loves of Rizal and other Essays on Philippine History, Art, and Public Policy)

Jose Rizal was never the preferred choice of Leonor Rivera’s mother, who confiscated all the correspondences between Leonor and Rizal till it frittered down to zero. Rizal was 18 going on 21 and was devoted to Leonor. But he was just then opening his eyes to Europe’s Enlightenment, where the women were pleasing and the men were gallant. Rizal really was in love with Leonor Rivera. He even invented a coded alphabet so that they could write sweet nothings to each other. But soon, Leonor faded in memory. Why? Because in Europe, Rizal conveniently romanced other girls and forgot he was engaged to her. Eventually the Leonor Rivera-Rizal engagement did not survive the long-distance romance. In the end, it turned into an idealized one (reflected as Maria Clara in Rizal’s novel, Noli me Tangere), a painful love match doomed to fail from the very start. Yes, count this one as real love. As an engaged couple, they showed real affection for each other while it lasted.


1884. Fourth Love: Consuelo Ortiga y Reyes, the Madrid Flirt

Consuelo Ortiga y Reyes (Photo from Pablo Trillana III, The Loves of Rizal and other Essays on Philippine History, Art, and Public Policy)

In Madrid, Rizal courted Consuelo Ortiga, age 18, the daughter of Señor Pablo Ortiga y Rey, who was once mayor of Manila and who owned the apartment where the Circulo Hispano Filipino met regularly. Rizal, age 23, was then acquiring and developing his charming ways with women. He treated them with special consideration and with gallant courteousness. All the young Filipino expatriates courted Consuelo, and she in turn encouraged every one including José Rizal, Eduardo Lete, the Paterno brothers (Pedro, Antonino, Maximiano), Julio Llorente, Evangelista, Evaristo Esguerra, Fernando Canon and others.

Rizal gave Consuelo gifts: sinamay cloth, embroidered piña handkerchiefs, chinelas (slippers) -- all ordered through his sisters in Calamba (see his letters). Consuelo accepted all the swains’ regalos but played Eduardo Lete against Rizal. She finally rejected Rizal’s attention in favor of Eduardo’s, a Filipino Spanish mestizo from Leyte who, a year later, dumped her.

Two-timing Consuelo didn't really catch Rizal's true fancy except that he impulsively joined the crowd. No, sorry about that.


1888. Fifth Love: O Sei-San, age 22, the Samurai’s Daughter

O Sei San (Photo from Pablo Trillana III, The Loves of Rizal and other Essays on Philippine History, Art, and Public Policy)

This relationship is what I would call Rizal’s Great Love, in bold letters. Rizal, age 27, an author and a doctor had returned to the Philippines in 1887, but because of his Noli Me Tangere, he incurred the wrath of the Spanish authorities. He had to leave in 1888 via Japan to the U. S. and then Europe. In Japan, he met a Samurai’s daughter. They went to excursions and places together. She taught him Japanese and her culture.

Remember, Rizal had been exposed in Germany to ethnographers (Fedor Jagor, who studied the Igorots) scientists (Dr. Rudolf Virchow, linguist, who studied the “Mangianes” or Mangyans) and anthropologists/historians (Ferdinand Blumentritt). Rizal, now a self-confident, mature gentleman-scientist, was attracted to the Japanese culture and immersed himself in its ancient tradition.

What if Rizal unconsciously (he never planned it) entered into a treaty-port marriage, which had existed for centuries in Nagasaki Bay as early as 1630? One-month treaty-port marriages were common, especially in Nagasaki. They cost $4 for a license plus $15-$25 for a house and $10 for a servant. What if Rizal and O-Sei-San, for the whole month in Yokohama, got into this cultural arrangement? Just saying.

There is no mention of this kind of marriage in any of Rizal’s biographies. Why? Probably because the Samurai cultural practice of “temporary marriages” was mainly hidden away from the lenses of “staid and proper” westerners. However, this was an ancient and respectable Japanese tradition. The women were neither geishas nor prostitutes. They belonged to the top of the social class as Samurais’ daughters!

Did Rizal and O Sei-San write sentimental haikus together? Painted Japanese art? In fact, we have several Japanese art he made, kept at the Rizal Historical Commission. Did they admire Japanese temple architectures like Meguro amid Japanese gardens together? Did their hearts bond over the rituals of the Tea Ceremony, “a cultural event never duplicated but always imbibed in its peaceful and tranquil meditative aspect”?

Could the Samurai code of loyalty, love of nature’s simple beauty, and options for self-effacement and self-improvement have made Rizal cherish his month-long relationship with O Sei-San? Could he and O Sei-San have shared a simple and honest love without hypocritical guilt and unburdened by embarrassment? One only has to read Rizal’s journal to intuit the answer.

“O Sei San, sayonara, sayonara! …. No woman like you has ever loved me. … Like the flower of the chodji that falls from the stem whole and fresh without stripping leaves or withering... you have not lost your purity nor have the delicate petals of your innocence faded--sayonara, sayonara.

… I have thought of you and that image lives in my memory. … I'll always think of you—When shall I return to that divine afternoon … your name lives in the sighs of my lips and your image accompanies and animates my thoughts. … When will the sweet hours I passed with you return? When will I find them sweeter, more tranquil, more pleasing … its freshness, its elegance …? Sayonara, sayonara.”

You be the judge. But I’m treading on dangerous ground here, and I know I'll be mercilessly crucified if I’m not careful. For me, however, the entry hints of true love and deep longing.


1886. Sixth Love: Gertrude Beckett, age 19, a Contemporary Pastime

Gertrude Beckett (Photo from Pablo Trillana III, The Loves of Rizal and other Essays on Philippine History, Art, and Public Policy)

The flirtation Rizal indulged in while staying in house number 37 Chalcot Crescent, London, was an innocent pastime, not real love. Rizal, age 27, had been thrown among his landlord’s daughters–Gertrude (Tottie) and Sissie. When Tottie showed signs of ardor, and when Rizal felt being slowly drawn to her, he left her high and dry without notice and without answering her yearning letters. You don’t really do that to a “loved” one. No. Zero points earned here.


1889. Seventh Love: Suzanne Thill, age 18, Clean Fun re: The “Naughty Boy” of Brussels

Suzanne Jacoby Thill (Photo from Pablo Trillana III, The Loves of Rizal and other Essays on Philippine History, Art, and Public Policy)

In Brussels, Rizal lived in the house of the Jacoby sisters: Marie and Suzanne. Marie was 48 and Suzanne, 45. Both were besotted with Rizal’s gallant and charming manners. Their 18-year-old niece named Suzanne Jacoby Thill lived with the sisters during Rizal's time. Our historians say Aunt Suzanne Jacoby became Rizal’s girlfriend. Why would Rizal, age 27, go for a 45- year-old, when there was a young 18-year-old (called Petite Suzanne) who was also enjoying his attention? There’s a letter signed by a Suzanne J. Thill saying, in effect: “I wear out the soles of my shoes going to the mailbox waiting for a letter from you. Why don't you write, you naughty boy? ”

In a recent talk at the San Francisco Public Library, I heard historian Ambeth Ocampo explain what “naughty boy” really meant--something lustful or “naughty doings, ” while other historians make it appear like forbidden love between the two. But I disagree.

Last summer 2012, in Brussels, I visited the apartment of the Jacoby’s where Rizal was a lodger. Rizal’s room was facing the street on the first floor. There’s a Rizal Historical Marker on that building. Susanne Thill’s room was on the same floor facing the street, next to Rizal’s room. The two aunts lived on the second floor above. The house was a few walking blocks away from the famous fountain, a two-feet bronze statue of the Manneken Pis.

I could picture Petite Suzanne and Rizal enjoying each other’s company, walking down that street, sitting in bistros enjoying the passersby, who were admiring and giving naughty judgments of that statue of the naked little urchin boy relieving himself in front of a crowd. Then I discovered to my great amusement, that actually, the local name for that beloved cutie is Naughty Boy. Now, let’s suppose it was Rizal and Petite Suzanne (not the elderly Tante Suzanne) who enjoyed each other’s company and used the naughty boy line to recall strolling down the streets of Brussels, wouldn’t that be a personal private little joke between them? Rizal, age 28, was then waiting for his novel El Filibusterismo in the printing press in nearby Ghent.

Little Suzanne and Rizal could easily have had a healthy boyfriend-girlfriend relationship, but it was just that. Clean fun and very tentative, spent under the watchful eyes of two elderly aunts within the same roof, while strolling by the streets, where a naughty boy is shamelessly urinating in public. Yes, for a very short-lived, lovely experience. Not a great, shattering love affair.


1891. Eighth Love: Nellie Boustead, age 19, the Rich Heiress. She antedated the modern Pre-Nuptial Agreement

Nellie Boustead (Photo from Pablo Trillana III, The Loves of Rizal and other Essays on Philippine History, Art, and Public Policy)

In Paris, Rizal fell in love with Nellie Boustead, a Filipina whose father (Filipino-Anglo French) Edward Boustead owned a villa in Biarritz. Rizal was on the rebound at the time, because he received news that Leonor Rivera, his arranged fiancé, had married Charles Kipping, a British engineer working on the Dagupan railway.

Rizal (now free from a romantic engagement) did propose marriage to Nellie. He was anxious to start his own family at age 30. Nellie was a good candidate. Her mother was from the Genato family in Manila. She was well-educated, good at fencing, very intelligent and good-looking.

I wouldn’t call it Rizal’s great romance, because from the very start the courtship encountered many complications. First, Antonio Luna thought Nelly was favoring him. Luna and Rizal almost came to a sword duel, but Luna withdrew and gave up the suit. In the end, Nellie, who was a Protestant, gave some marriage conditions that Rizal could not accept--to renounce his Catholic faith and become a Protestant. I would hesitate to call Nellie Boustead Rizal’s great love. It was more a Rizal licking-of-wounds-love after having been spurned by Leonor Rivera.

I see Nellie Boustead as antedating a modern pre-nup. Not a real love, more like a marriage transaction. If it had succeeded, Rizal would have become a practicing ophthalmologist in Paris and eventfully would have become a Frenchman. Definitely No Love Lost on this one. The possibilities are too staggering to contemplate.


1895. Ninth Love: Josephine Bracken, age 18, the Dulce Extranjera

Josephine Bracken (Photo from Pablo Trillana III, The Loves of Rizal and other Essays on Philippine History, Art, and Public Policy)

Rizal was already 34 when he met Josephine. She accompanied her stepfather, George Tauffer of Hong Kong, who sought Rizal’s expertise as an eye doctor in Dapitan. This European woman brought back memories of his European sojourn. At first, Rizal pitied the young Irish girl, but their proximity sparked their love. Remember, Rizal was an exile, deprived of many liberties and conveniences. His future was uncertain. Josephine was there. She was kind, loving and served Rizal hand and foot. Rizal wrote in his journal that she had fulfilled his needs more than any Filipina girl could ever give him.

Did he sound very lonely and vulnerable? Yes, and did he fall in love? Yes. They pledged themselves to each other, but not canonically as husband and wife. They planned to marry within the church, but couldn’t. The Archbishop of Cebu demanded that Rizal sign a retraction letter prepared by the diocese. Rizal refused. The couple conceived a (boy) who, in its last trimester, was lost in a miscarriage. The infant was named Francisco, and Rizal buried him in Dapitan.

We read Rizal’s letters constantly praising Josephine for her character and attributes. He even begged his sisters to be nice to her. In my view, Josephine Bracken was the dulce extranjera whom he loved dearly, of whom he made a sculpted face, left sketches and dedicated a book before he was executed. It read: To my dear and unhappy wife, Josephine. She served as his dulce amor. But it was a sad ending, as we know, on the morning of 30 December 1896.

Yes, I believe, Josephine Bracken was José Rizal’s great love.

Penélope V. Flores, Ph.D.

Penélope V. Flores, Ph.D.

Penélope V. Flores, Ph.D. is a Professor of Education Emeritus at San Francisco State University. Her main interest is in "Tracing the Footsteps of Jose Rizal in Europe." She is  building a Rizaliana library in San Francisco where scholars and researchers can have free access to her collection.