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The Meaning of Josephine

by Floro Quibuyen

|Josefina, Josefina, |Adios, padres y hermanos, trozos del alma mia, | |Que a estas playas has venido |Amigos de la infancia, en el perdido hogar; | |Buscando un hogar, un nido, |Dad gracias, que descanso del fatigoso dia; | |Como errante golondrina; |Adios, dulce extranjera, mi amiga, mi alegria; | |Si tu suerte te encamina |Adios, queridos seres. Morir es descansar. | |A Shanghai, China o Japon, |(Last stanza of Rizal’s farewell poem,1896) | |No te olvidas que en estas playas | | |Late por ti un corazon. (verse composed by Rizal when Josephine | | |left Dapitan in mid-March,1895) | |

Of all the attractive women who aroused Rizal’s romantic interest, Josephine Bracken was something else. Unlike the sweet, demure colegialas Segunda Katigbak of Batangas and Leonor Rivera of Pangasinan, both of landed ilustrado families, or the intelligent and gamely Nellie Bousted of the Parisian bourgeoisie, or the elegantly flirtatious Consuelo Ortiga y Rey, daughter of the Mayor of Manila in de la Torre’s time, or the hauntingly lovely Miss Sei-ko (or, as Rizal called her, O-Sei-san) of the once glorious samurai, Josephine was neither well-born nor well-educated, and was, besides, illegitimate. But it was to Josephine that Rizal dedicated the penultimate line of his farewell poem—Adios, dulce extranjera, mi amiga, mi alegria. Equally significant, Josephine is the first and only woman foreigner to have been involved in the Philippine revolution.

Yet posterity has not been too kind to Josephine. She has not been honored in the Philippines or elsewhere—no streets have been named after her, nor monuments erected in her memory. The problem is that we know very little of Josephine. What compounds the historian’s task is the paucity of reliable documents, not to mention the existence of spurious ones, including the so-called autobiography of Josephine, “Discriptions of My Life,” which is an obvious forgery. In the absence of a definitive biography, Josephine may forever occupy that liminal space between fact and legend. But this, unfortunately, gives rise to unkind, if not malicious interpretations. Nothing of course is wrong with such interpretations if they are based on fact. But one wonders how Austin Coates came to the conclusion that—

[Josephine] knew nothing of [Rizal’s] political aspirations, his writings, his educational ideas, then or ever. She wished only to serve him, be with him, love him and be loved. If Josephine had had a stronger personality she would have been a figure of great tragedy. But there is no tragedy about a leaf borne on the wind—only beauty and pathos. (Coates, 1968: 274)

How on earth did Coates know that Josephine knew nothing of Rizal’s ideas and sentiments? And what is Coates’ basis for declaring that Josephine did not have a strong personality?
Coates’ view of Josephine has become dominant because of his reputation as the one “who knew her background.” Coates’ stint as Hong Kong Colonial Secretary may have provided him the opportunity to find documents about Josephine kept in the island’s archives. In the Philippines, the indefatigable Coates also gained access to the valuable Rizaliana collection and oral family tradition of Rizal’s descendants, in particular his grandniece Asuncion Lopez, and her husband Dr. Bantug. Indeed, Coates had been astute at unearthing...
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