Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Greatest Heist in Philippine Rizaliana History

THE GREATEST HEIST IN PHILIPPINE HISTORY: Mi Ultimo Adios, Noli, me Tangere, El Filibusterismo Stolen, Dec. 8, 1961.

Reconstructed from  the A. Roces family newspaper clippings, c/o Elizabeth Roces Pedrosa, 1/ 15/2013.

WHEN: December 8, 1961.  The Philippine National Library is burglarized. Three Philippine National Treasures were stolen from a glass- encased-locked display counter.

WHERE:  At the newly inaugurated Philippine National Library building on Ermita Street, Manila.

WHAT:  The irreplaceable original hand written manuscripts of the Philippine National hero:  Dr. Jose Rizal, namely:  Mi Ultimo Adios, Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.

WHY were these historical Rizaliana treasures on display?  The year 1961 was the centennial year of José Rizal’s birth. The Jose Rizal National Centennial Commission  (JRNCC) organized an international conference to celebrate the long-year commemoration of the José Rizal Centennial Year.  An international group of Rizal scholars attended the World Congress. The three original works were on display to highlight the importance of the conference and to attract world-wide support for the Rizal Centenary. 

HOW were they taken?  These were simply lifted carefully from the display case, put in an ordinary ratty buri bayong or native grocery bag and the goods walked away unnoticed.

Conditions observed:  There were no forced entry to the building, suggesting an inside job. The display case was not broken into, suggesting familiarity with the locking and safety devices used.  Two sentry guards assigned to guard the manuscripts were asleep on their posts, suggesting the security was lax.  The thieves walked away unnoticed, suggesting free access to the documents and the thieves had the invisibility of melting in with the crowd. 

THE Period Decade. There was an unprecedented growth of document pilfering.  This unfortunate phenomenon throws strong suspicions of collusion between Rizaliana collectors and the thriving active black market scene. There was unlimited and unrestricted access to the National Library shelves including the Files and Document facilities of the Filipiniana section. 

WHO discovered the national treasures missing?  The building janitor custodian who reported it during his early morning duty, to the National Library, Filipiniana Section Head, Ms. Benita de la Rosa, who reported the theft to the JRNCC director, Dr. Luis Montilla, who called the Manila Police Department.

WHO were the national leaders at this period in time?  The sitting Philippine President was  Diosdado Macapagal.  The contemporary mayor of Manila was the fiery and colourful politician Arsenio Lacson.  The Secretary of Education was Jose Tuason, whose term was ending. His successor to the education portfolio, first day of January, was the youthful charismatic “bigotillo”-sporting  author and writer Alejandro (Anding) Roces.

“Rizal” the contact intermediary and Anding Roces, called the “Sekretario.”

                                         The Drama Unfolds

Act One,  Scene 1. The Theft

Dec. 8, 1961. The theft is discovered.

Dec. 15, 1961. A week later, a ransom note was delivered to the Director of Jose Rizal National Centennial Commission, Dr. Luis Montilla.  The message arrived in the form of cut-out words from newspapers demanding a ransom of one million and a half pesos for its return. 

Dec. 26 1961.  Montilla receives a telephone call from a man who identified himself as  “Rizal."  Montilla was sceptical:  "Are you really the person who sent that ransom letter?  How certain am I that you really got the Rizal documents?  I'm not falling for this scam."

End of January, a packet arrives in the mail containing a picture frame with a broken glass pane where the Mi Ultimo Adios was displayed.  JRNCC Experts confirmed the picture frame as the real one.  

Then the new Secretary of Education, Alejandro Roces had to be informed. The National Library is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education.

Act One,  Scene 2.  Roces enters the negotiation process

Feb. 1st. Thursday. After a thorough briefing from Montilla, Roces received a call from  the thief code named  “Rizal.”

Roces was breezy;  "Are you or are you not the same person who talked with Dr. Montilla? How would I know you are the same person who had the Rizal documents?"

The reply came:  "We were the ones who posted by mail the picture frame of the Mi Ultimo Adios document."

Roces said he wanted those national treasures returned .  However, he has no ransom money. He made the men (they seemed to be a group) believe that  if it is at all possible to include something in his budget, he’ll try.

Over the phone Roces heard a number of gloating and exciting voices.  Greedily, they asked; "When can we get our money?"

Roces stalled, "As all budget hearings go, it will be discussed in Congress before it is passed on to the Senate floor.  Then senate hearings follow before it arrives on the president's desk for his signature. The Budget Office will authorize it for disbursement.  It will take some time."

At this point, Roces brought up an impediment.  In order to justify the funding it is imperative that he sees and physically handle the “real” documents.  

"Rizal" the contact man suggested he could send by mail a one-page document. 

"Bad suggestion."  Roces, now feeling that he has somehow reached into  the culprits' inner psyche lectured him off.   "Don’t you know, the Manila Post Office is the den of thievery!  Everything of value sent through the mails is pilfered with impunity."

 Then Roces offered to meet with the pseudo  “Rizal" the following day behind the Luneta grandstand --a safe unobserved area. The time was set at 3:00 pm on 2 February  (the next day).
Rizal's poem begins with "Adios Patria adorada"  

Scene 2,   At the Grandstand Luneta Park 3:00 to 3:30 pm.

Feb. 2.  Roces was sitting on a bleacher seat by the Grandstand.  Some workers were putting up decorations for a scheduled prayer meeting.   

A regularly built man about 30 years old appeared.  He was of average height wearing a  shabby T-shirt that looked like those worn by sidewalk vendors.  He apparently had never seen the Secretary of Education before.   

He revealed false assumptions about the appearance of the “Sekretario.”  He was looking around  for a portly man of around 50, heavy with beer belly, with dog-eared sagging cheeks as a signature of experience, and who walks in a slow slumbering trod  (the very picture of the former Secretary, Dr Jose Tuason. )

The pseudo “Rizal” was surprised when a young man,  (at age 32  Roces was the youngest Secretary of Education).  He was immaculately dressed in Barong Tagalog, trim, suave, sporting  a “bigote”  (moustache) and who acted like a celebrity movie star.  He approached the contact man and immediately went into business.  

"Show me the document," Roces's request sounded like an order.

The thief produced a piece of folded paper.  Then using a letter size paper  as wrapper,  he rolled these into a scroll and  handed  it over to Roces.

Slowly and with great care, Roces opened the scroll.  There, on a 5 by 7 inch sheet (as wide and long as Anding’s open hand palm, or 13 by 15 centimeters.  Kasing laki ng "Post It" na biggest size), was Rizal's own handwriting.  It was Mi Ultimo Adios! 

Roces swiftly pocketed it and said, "I need to have this authenticated by experts."

"Wait a minute, Sekretario," the thief caught unawares showed some anxiety,  "I might not get it back."

"Sigurado yan, you are right," Roces affirmed.  "You're not getting this back.  However, as consuelo de bobo (as a fall back position) you still got the two novels. "

Waving  goodbye Roces abruptly left. The meeting took only half an hour.   

The thief, visibly scared, was outwitted by this nimble-handed and brilliantly assertive Sekretario.  Stunned,  the thief "Rizal" was left holding the bag.  

Observe side.  Poem starts with stanza 8 "Y si desciende y posa sobra,"

Roces drove back to Ermita as if participating in the Indy Race.  In Montilla's office, a slew of Rizal experts declared the document the real thing.  It was Rizal’s Swan Song.  Then at Malacañan Palace, the two officials directly gave President Macapagal Rizal's Mi Ultimo Adios. 

The newspapers had a scoop! The headlines triumphantly averred not a single centavo was paid for its return.


About Mi Ultimo Adios.  

On the eve of Rizal's execution, he wrote several last letters to his parents and to Blumentritt.  In the middle of the night he wrote his last thoughts in the form of a 14 stanza stirring, emotional, patriotic and powerful poem.  Squeezed into a small space as big as the palm of a hand, Rizal's handwriting is steady, clear, very neat, and distinctly readable. Rizal wrote on both sides.  He hid it inside the table alcohol burner's empty wick receptacle (see my blog  11/15/12  for how he was able to conceal it).  It is reported that on the morning of his execution, on December 30, 1896, he gave the burner to his sweetheart Josephine Bracken,  who came accompanied by Trinidad Mercado Rizal.  Rizal said in English in a low voice; "There's something inside."  

Others  (Zaide) says, it was given the day before to Trinidad. According to historians, he gave it to Trinidad and addressed her in English in order to confuse the guards who understand no English.  My own personal view is different.  

Remember, Rizal gave away many personal mementoes to his nephews and sisters, saying in Tagalog, “This wicker chair is for you, Narcisa; this watch fob with a golden chain is for you, Mauricio;  this handkerchief is now yours, Angelica.” 

Josephine and Trinidad speeded to Fort Santiago that morning. Rizal addressed Josephine, handed her the burner and looking at her says in English  (a purely natural thing to do) “There’s something inside.”

In our textbooks and in all Rizal biographies, it is written that the alcohol burner with Mi Ultimo Adios manuscript was given to Trinidad.  But, in Carlos Quirino's biography it says it was "given to Josephine and Trinidad," (Chapter Nine). If taken in context, my alternative interpretation may deserve some serious study because, historically, that document belonged to Josephine Bracken. 

If it was given to Trinidad, why would he speak to her strangely in English when towards all the rest of the Rizal family, Tagalog was spoken?  According to our history texts, it was a dissimulation so that the guards will not understand.  According to Guerrero's Rizal biographer Trinidad spoke English.  To me that's  "an after statement,"   a justification if you will, not a natural occurrence.

Somehow, I sense that many of us most likely tend to underestimate the Rizal-Josephine relationship.  Somehow we (including me) tend to belittle historical facts involving Josephine. Bracken.  

Allow me to take you along MY view.  If the guard noticed Rizal talking to Trinidad, not in Tagalog, neither in Spanish, but in English-- a foreign tongue, wouldn’t that arouse more suspicions?  However, if the burner and the message was meant for Josephine, then wouldn’t English be the most natural way of communication between the two without inviting suspicions?

Proof is, when Bracken returned to Hongkong  in 1898, she had this document among her precious possessions.   So, in my view, the alcohol burner went to Trinidad, but the content—the Rizal poem-- went to Josephine.  Our history texts do not clarify this.   The Ultimo poem was first circulated in in Hongkong where copyists preserved it for posterity.  

Josephine soon married a Spanish-Filipino criollo, Vicente Abad, the director of  Tabacalera Filipina in Hongkong. (Macario  Ofilada, Bracken's great grandson writes that the Ultimo Adios  belonged to the Abad family).  When she was widowed from Abad, she experienced hard times.  As a last resort she sold the document for 100 pesos to an American antiquarian collector. The American later sold it to the Philippine government for 500 pesos.  

Stay with me for Act Two of this compelling historical drama.  

In my next blog, we will examine the next continuing and unbelievable drama of the theft and return of the El Filibusterismo and Noli me Tangere.