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Heroes and Valentines

By LISA GUERRERO NAKPIL, The Philippine STAR Published Feb 11, 2024 5:00 am

Before the age of rockstars dating supermodels and Tinseltown relationships that had their own names (think "Bennifer" and "KathNiel"), there was an age when love and marriage may have been subtler, but every bit as pragmatic.

For our heroes, it was a minefield of social mores and burning emotions, both that had to be tempered by their times of great upheaval.

Jose Rizal, a Filipino with all the right talents and connections, would nevertheless fall victim to the dictum “mejorar la raza” (to improve the race), a term perhaps whispered by mothers in their daughters’ ears since Magellan landed in 1521.

It was a terrible but time-honored practice all over the Spanish colonies where it was important to marry one of the conquistadors—soldiers, government supernumeraries, second sons sent into exile, vagabonds, and even the occasional man in a cassock—for social position and economic gain. Simply put, it meant “to become better” through romance.

Ilustrados in love and at a picnic in Paris’ Bois de Boulougne. At the very center of the photo is Paz Pardo de Tavera wearing a hat. To her left is her husband, Juan Luna, and in front of her, holding what looks to be a portrait in a frame, is Jose Rizal.

Leonor Rivera, as every schoolboy knows, was Rizal’s love of his life; yet she was pre-destined by her mother to marry the English railroad engineer Charles Kipping—the 19th century equivalent of being the Brit consultant of San Miguel’s Skyway 3. Rizal, on the other hand, had gone abroad to do post-grad work and was on the other end of a miserable LDR (long-distance relationship). Rivera’s mother, probably as ambitious as momma-managers Kim Kardashian or Annabelle Rama, routinely intercepted Rizal’s love letters and kept them away from Leonor. (That was sort of like hacking into one’s email and sending all the lovelorn messages to spam.) As a result, Leonor was left to assume she had been ghosted and would give up on Rizal. He never really stood a chance against the ex-pat.

Jose Rizal and Juan Luna and wife, Paz Pardo de Tavera in Luna’s Paris studio

Then there’s Juan Luna who has occasionally been accused by the snobbish of being an indio who married up. He wooed and wed Paz Pardo de Tavera at a destination wedding in Paris, followed by a fancy honeymoon in Venice in a 7-star hotel, all paid for by him, by the way. But the truth is it was a marriage of old money (the Pardo de Taveras) to the most (or shall we say only) world-famous Filipino of the time. Luna was as celebrated as Manny Pacquiao and just as acclaimed. He was the toast of Madrid and Paris and a favorite of the Spanish king. He also had a healthy cash flow from winning prizes and the fat commissions for paintings that came with them, in the same way that a gold-medaled Olympian would reap endorsements. While the Pardo de Taveras were one of those gilded families who were asset-rich from their vast land holdings, one imagines Luna’s cash flow gave him the edge of a glamorous bottle-service lifestyle.

On the other hand, there was his brother Hen. Luna. Antonio was a chemist turned SOCO who was, at one point, in charge of the forensics for the city of Manila. He lived in the same thrilling environment as Rizal and his brother, but did this geek turned military man think differently about romance? We’ll never know—the general would be felled treacherously after a sidetrip (yes, a booty call!) to his Pinay paramour. Legend has it that the mysterious lass from Tarlac was left with a chest of gold coins to comfort her, money supposedly intended to buy rifles for the war against the Americans.

Engraving of Andres Bonifacio based on his only known photograph. His long nose did not matter to Gregoria de Jesus’ parents.

Apart from the responsibilities of nursing a Revolution, Andres Bonifacio was also a widower with no doubt what we today would term as “baggage.” That is, the emotional issues of a man from a tragic relationship—perhaps not as painful as one whose wife has run off with the trainer, but just as devastating. Bonifacio’s wife would perish from an incurable autoimmune disease. (Yesterday’s leprosy was today’s lupus.)

But for Bonifacio and Gregoria de Jesus, it was a real love story: He would first set eyes on Gregoria when she was a zagala at the Maytime fiesta of the Reina Elena. They would wind up eloping to thwart the objections of her parents who were not impressed by Bonifacio’s “mestizo” looks, nor his ability to read and write in French and German. Bonifacio’s family had fallen in dire straits after both parents died and he had been reduced to working as a clerk with many side gigs (selling fans, acting on stage) to feed his brothers and sister. Gregoria would love him to the very end when he was marched into the mountains of Marogondon, never to be seen again.

Juan Luna at the top of the photo wearing a crown of roses and surrounded by his friends, Pedro and Maximino Paterno, dressed as hussars at the front.

Paterno Agustin, ancestor to the princely Pedro Paterno and original Chinoy jillionaire, was a textbook case of how to marry and succeed without really trying.

His father, Ming Mong Lo, by dint of outsized entrepreneurial skills worthy of Jeff Bezos and Amazon, had managed to move his family from the working-class Chinese ghetto of the parian to Sta. Cruz, leveling up to the street that was the turn-of-the-century Forbes Park and BGC.

Paterno would marry not on the basis of looks (perish the thought of just that) or of a sizable dowry (he had plenty of money of his own to burn), but something, which in his estimation, was more important than either. It was something that he could not labor over or purchase. He selected his bride carefully and deliberately because of her elusive pedigree. She was a fair lady descended from the Kings of Manila, no less than Rajah Soliman, by the name of Maria Yamsuan. Imagine marrying Princess Charlotte of Wales, Prince William’s beloved daughter!

The blue-blooded Maria’s family line had a special, additional perk. The Filipino elite (known as the principalia, which reflected its prestige and influence) were given the privilege of holding public office. That would give Paterno the rank of gobernadorcillo, a powerful post of mayor and judge all rolled into one.

And so we come full circle to the idea of love and marriage to vault out of one’s social, fiscal, and even political landscape into a whole new world.

Are there lessons to be learned from the heroes of our country? Indeed: foremost is the idea that they were as vulnerably human, and also as feckless and as enterprising, as all the rest of us.