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Teodora Alonzo Was a Woman of Steel

So that’s where Jose Rizal got his fire.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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Today is the death anniversary of Teodora Alonzo, mother, teacher, and protector of the Rizal family.

When Jose Rizal was only 11 years old, he witnessed the extraordinary bravery of his mother: The Spaniards arrested Doña Teodora and made her walk 50 kilometers around Laguna. 

Upon arriving at Santa Cruz after more than a day of walking under the sun, the exhausted Doña Teodora was charged and imprisoned for two years without trial for falsehoods leveled against her, particularly an accusation that she attempted to poison her sister-in-law. She was around 45 years old at the time. 

According to Barbara Cruz-Gonzales, great-granddaughter of Teodora, the poisoning accusation was rooted in Doña Teodora trying to mediate between her brother Jose Alberto and his estranged wife, Teodora Alberto. Her brother wanted to divorce his wife, but Doña Teodora dissuaded him from doing so to preserve the family’s reputation. This enraged the wife, who was purportedly sleeping with a leader of the Guardia Civil.

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One day, when Doña Teodora brought food to Teodora Alberto, the latter refused to eat it and instead fed it to her dog, which allegedly died after eating the food. With the help of her Guardia Civil lover, Teodora Alberto had Doña Aurora arrested in front of her whole family. Naturally, the family patriarch and her husband Francisco Mercado attempted to fight, but Doña Teodora calmed everyone down. Powerless, she didn’t protest, but carried out the punishment with as much dignity as she could. 

To shame her and prolong her punishment, the Guardia Civil made Doña Aurora walk 50 kilometers around Laguna. Then, they put her in prison without trial. This happened in the 1870s when Jose Rizal was 11 years old. Doña Aurora was around 45.

This was just one of the numerous sacrifices she had to endure to protect her family. It was also these persecutions that planted the seed of indignation in an 11-year-old Rizal and compelled him to write powerful propaganda against the Spaniards many years later.

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The Affluent Life of Doña Teodora Alonzo

Before marrying Francisco Mercado, Doña Teodora lived a comfortable life. She came from a long line of principalia, which explains why her family was wealthy. The principalia was the Filipino nobility during the Spanish occupation. They came from lineages of ex-datus who were the original principalias. These datus cooperated with the Spanish in subjugating their former subjects, and in turn, were rewarded with government positions as gobernadorcillos (mayor) and cabezas de barangay (town chief). The principalia status was hereditary—including the government positions they held.

As members of the principalia class, Doña Teodora’s family was afforded special privileges like holding public office, being exempt from paying taxes, and leasing vast tracts of farmlands.

Her father and grandfather served as their town’s gobernadorcillios, which is the highest position any Filipino could hold in government. Her father, Lorenzo Alberto Alonso, served as Biñan’s gobernadorcillo in 1844. Her grandfather, Cipriano Alonso, held the position in 1790 and 1802.

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As a child, she was sent to study at the Colegio de Santa Rosa, one of the most respected and expensive school for girls in Manila. In school, she was described as graceful, diligent, and someone who resolutely avoided gossip.

Rizal Got His Talents from Doña Teodora

At a very young age, Doña Teodora displayed a special inclination toward the arts, especially literature and music, something that would be passed on to her children. At a very early age, she taught her children how to read. She taught them discipline, justice, and compassion. Most important of all, she taught her children to treat Indios as equals. In his later life, Rizal would use these skills and his sense of justice to fight back for his mother whom he very much loved. If there was anything that the Spaniards did to awaken a flame inside Rizal, it was repeatedly punishing his mother for sins she did not commit.

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The Punishments that Doña Teodora Endured

Doña Teodora was unjustly persecuted twice in her life. The first time was during the 1870s at Santa Cruz, Laguna where she was held without trial for two and a half years. She was accused of attempting to poison her sister-in-law. Incidentally, her sister-in-law was also named Teodora.

Then, in the 1880s, she was again arrested for allegedly refusing to use her Spanish name Rizal. She preferred to go by her birth name, Alonzo. Alonzo and Mercado were already Spanish names, but all Filipinos were still required to adopt new Spanish names.

By that time, the elderly woman of 64 years was almost blind due to the advanced stage of her cataracts, but the Spaniards didn’t mind: They forced her to walk 90 kilometers from Manila to Santa Cruz, Laguna. They traveled through mountains and roads under the sun’s heat.

She silently endured the cruelty without complaint or protest. When she arrived at court in Santa Cruz four days later, she was so parched, exhausted, and in mortal peril. The Laguna governor, upon seeing her, immediately ordered her release without question.

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Protecting Her Youngest Son, “Pepe,” Whatever the Cost

Doña Aurora was the invisible and silent yet powerful woman behind Rizal’s successes. But her instrumental role is often glossed over by history books.

As the youngest child, Rizal enjoyed a special connection with his mother. She accompanied him to Hong Kong where they spent a happy Christmas together. Here, Rizal operated on the cataracts of her mother.

Then, in 1893, when her beloved son was exiled in Dapitan, she was also there, housekeeping for Pepe despite her advanced age.

In 1896, just after the discovery of the Katipunan, Rizal wrote his mother: “Don’t worry about anything; we are all in the hands of the Divine Providence. Not all who go to Cuba die, and when finally one has to die, at least one may die doing some good.” Rizal was on his way to Cuba then.

In the same year, when Rizal was sentenced to die by a puppet court, Doña Teodora, then 69 years old, pleaded with the governor-general and people in the courtroom to spare her son’s life. They refused. Knowing that it was the last moments of Rizal, she asked them if she could give him one last embrace. They refused. Doña Aurora was in such a state of anguish and desperation.

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At this point, Rizal knelt before his mother, kissed her hand, and asked her for forgiveness. Grief swelled inside Doña Teodora Alonzo. On December 30, 1896, she experienced all mothers’ worst nightmare: She lost her child, who was allegedly also her favorite.

In 1911, at the age of 83, Doña Aurora witnessed the dedication of the Rizal Monument to her son. A week later, she died.

Today, Doña Teodora’s remains rest in the Rizal Shrine in Calamba, in a corner that is just as unassuming as her life. When the American government offered her a lifetime of pension as a sign of gratitude, she courteously refused. She explained that the family had never been patriotic for money, but if the government had extra funds, it would do well to lighten the taxes on the Filipino people.

Her silent and dignified suffering may have escaped the attention of many Filipinos, but her legacy shows the incalculable depths of a mother’s love that will sacrifice and endure anything for the sake of protecting her family.

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Mario Alvaro Limos
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