The Life and Times of Josephine Bracken
by Macaro Ofilada
Jose Rizal and Josephine Bracken became lovers for just 22 months. As a great story of a doomed, tragic, passionate relationship, it rises above the vapid stereotypical telenovela, not only because it was true but also because within it is the archetype of selfless giving. Within it, too, is the tragedy of the Filipino.
Macario Ofilada is Bracken's great grandson through her adopted daughter, 'Dolly' Dolores. His biography draws on published and unpublished sources as well as family tradition, which he knits together skillfully, giving us a strong sense of the woman and the times and painting a picture of Josephine as a flesh and blood personality. Here is a spirited, independent-minded woman, certainly no obedient Maria Clara.
Bracken was just 18 when she met Rizal, still a teenager, and he was 35. She was not a physical beauty, but her free-spirited, some might say erratic, personality is the sort that Rizal would have been challenged by. It was a challenge he accepted.
As her grandson, Ofilada does seem to feel his objectivity compromised by his relationship between himself and his subject. His style veers between the over-scholarly and pedantic to the weepy telenovela. He is at his best when he drops his guard and allows his evident passion for the story of Josephine to show through.
Ofilada argues convincingly for Josephine's oft-doubted legitimacy. Indeed, the physical descriptions of her indicate that she can only have been of whole European stock. His arguments in favor of a last-minute marriage just moments before Rizal's execution, and thus Rizal's retraction against Freemasonry, too, hold water. As does his analysis of the suspect description.
It is in the minutiae of her life with Rizal that she comes alive. She was a resourceful wife, managing his modest household, washing, cooking, finding ways to make-do when food stocks ran low, and trying desperately to build bridges with Rizal's snooty family. Bishops refused to allow the couple to get married so they went ahead and lived together as man and wife, probably with a sacrament greater than that of mere bishops. Josephine tragically miscarried their only child, a serious blow to both of them.
Rizal's letters assure his family that Josephine is being brought into comfortable obedience a little too often. There is much between the lines.
Ultimately, Rizal was executed under Spanish orders, leaving his wife a widow almost as soon as they were married.
All but a couple of the Mercado family treated Bracken with little more than contempt. Josephine was not Spanish, nor of the Filipino middle-class elite. She was of Irish working-class stock. It was as if Rizal had taken up with the parlor maid.
"Show compassion for poor Josephine", wrote Rizal as his death approached, but his family largely ignored him.
After his death, Bracken briefly joined the revolution and became committed to the Filipino cause, before being banished to Hong Kong, where she re-married and adopted Macario's grandmother. Whether the earlier miscarriage meant Josephine could no longer bear children, or the earlier miscarriage was a symptom of a condition that precluded her having children, is not discussed.
Also not discussed, is what influence Bracken may have had upon Rizal and his thinking. She was of Irish stock, with an Irish character, and it is impossible that she could not have been aware of Ireland's colonization by the English and its own struggle for independence.
She had never been to Ireland, but that has not stopped others taking to themselves the cause of the Irish. How could she not draw parallels between the English in Ireland and the Spanish in the Philippines?
The Rizal family, and others, roughly elbowed Jose's 'poor Josephine' aside in an indecent haste to grab whatever was left of his estate. And therein lay, in some ways, an even greater tragedy. In Rizal, among the noblest men of his, or any other race, Josephine had seen the face of what the Filipino could be. In the actions of Rizal's family and others she saw the Filipino unmasked, as they actually were, not Rizal's Filipino.
"(Filipinos) are not what I thought them to be, I took them to be like my husband, but I see that I am deceived,” wrote an embittered Josephine from Hong Kong.
Rizal's name and his books have been quoted repeatedly since his death, his story is known to every schoolchild, yet the country of Rizal's imagination is as unborn as the child he and Josephine almost had. In their story is the sad story of the Philippines.
Read Ofilada's book; if only to weep about what might, and should, have been.
What do you think of the story of Josephine and Rizal? A downplayed historical facet, or an unimportant sidetrack to the National Hero's story? Give us your thoughts in the Talakayan Board
Source: Review by Errante Golondrina; Submitted by Bob Couttie