Sisa’s Vengeance: Jose Rizal’s Sexual Politics & Cultural Revolution
By E. San Juan, Jr.
Quezon City: Vibal Foundation, 2021

Review by Jeffrey Arellano Cabusao
English and Cultural Studies, Bryant University
Smithfield, Rhode Island

The 2021 edition of Sisa’s Vengeance: Jose Rizal’s Sexual Politics & Cultural Revolution by E. San Juan, Jr. reintroduces a volume structured around an essay (“Sisa’s Vengeance: Rizal & the “Woman Question”) originally presented at the 2011 International Rizal Conference at the University of the Philippines, which commemorated the 150th birthday of the national hero of the Philippines (vii).  Reflecting upon insights in previously published works such as Toward a People’s Literature (1984), Rizal In Our Time (1996), and Balikbayang Sinta: An E. San Juan Reader (2008), San Juan uses the auspicious event of the sesquicentennial celebration to address a specific gap or silence in his earlier assessments of Rizal—assessments which “somehow eluded tackling the crucial problematic of the gendered division of social labor and its implied sexual politics” (vii).  The collection Sisa’s Vengeance takes on gender and sexual politics within the context of “the Rizalian project of discovering potential agents/leaders of the ongoing enterprise of national redemption” (x).  San Juan examines the centrality of “the woman question” in Rizal’s “call for participating in the vocation of forging the collective conscience” (x).

book cover

San Juan recovers the radical Rizal by pushing against dominant modes of reading which position Rizal as reformist (Constantino) or remove Rizal from history and the colonial environment he inhabited in order to psychoanalyze him (Radiac) or frame him as a “short-sighted moralist” (Anderson).  By pushing against the grain, San Juan’s collection teaches us how to read Rizal through a uniquely Filipino historical materialist feminist optic.  San Juan’s methodological approach combines three interlocking projects.  The first is the Rizalian project of becoming Filipino (“forging the collective conscience”).  We are reminded that there “is no question that Rizal’s prodigious commitment in trying to represent an emergent nation/people is unprecedented in the annals of the ‘third world’” (7).  The second is a historical materialist approach that situates Rizal and his writing within the historical specificity of 19th century Philippine colonial society—an approach that “relocate[s] individual protagonists in the political economy they inhabit” (26).  The third is a project of decentering Rizal’s novels to read that which is submerged—a critique of gender and sexual politics which function as the “kernel of Rizal’s radicalism” (68). 

Decentering refers to shifting our gaze to the function of women characters in Rizal’s novels – Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo (Sisa, Juli, Dona Consolacion, Dona Victorina, Maria Clara, Paulita Gomez, and others).  San Juan’s methodological approach highlights Rizal’s interest in critiquing women’s oppression while simultaneously supporting the development of women’s agency.  San Juan is able to discern this crucial dimension of Rizal’s literary imagination by reading the novels in conversation with other works within the Rizal archive – the Memorias, letters, essays.  For instance, San Juan returns to “Message to the Young Women of Malolos” (written in Tagalog in February 1889) which reveals Rizal’s deep interest in the development of Filipino women’s independence as it intersects with Philippine national sovereignty.

In “Message to the Young Women of Malolos,” Rizal provides support for women’s education—specifically learning the Spanish language in order to “have access to the mentoring wisdom of Teodoro Sandiko, Rizal’s progressive compatriot, whom they wanted as a teacher” (89).  Rizal’s interest in the development of women’s literacy is informed by his understanding of the ways in which the maintenance of Spanish colonialism relies on the oppression of Filipino women.  Rizal “protested against frailocracy or ‘rule of the friars’ as the epitome of the gender-based authoritarian system” (19). Within Philippine colonial society, the family and church function as ideological apparatuses within which women’s minds, bodies, and reproductive labor are regulated, surveilled, and controlled.  In his letter, Rizal rearticulates the institution of motherhood (where the heteronormative family and religion intersect) as a protest against frailocracy.  Motherhood could be reimagined to support women’s education, independence, and agency (a reclaiming of mother-right from pre-Hispanic Philippine society) as central components of Philippine sovereignty. 

According to San Juan, “Rizal valorizes the agency of mothers as educative/formative forces primarily responsible for shaping the character of their children” (90).  This is evident when Rizal encourages the young women of Malolos: “… you are the first to influence the consciousness of man… Awaken and prepare the will of our children towards all that is honorable, judged by proper standards, to all that is sincere and firm of purpose, clear judgement, clear procedure, honesty in act and deed, love for the fellowman and respect for God” (San Juan, 90). 

Revisiting Rizal’s emphatic support for Filipino women’s agency in “Message to the Young Women of Malolos” enables San Juan to return to representations of gender and sexuality within the Rizal archive.  Throughout the four essays that comprise the collection, San Juan advises us on how to read Rizal.  We must read his life and work as they are situated within the historical context of Philippine colonial society and its multiple conflicts.  This approach is applied in San Juan’s reading of Sisa in Noli – a character who descends into an unspeakable form of madness (one that literally escapes language) as a result of the dissolution of marriage and motherhood.  How do we read this representation of Filipino womanhood?  Leaning upon the insights of Ernst Bloch, philosopher Douglas Kellner reminds us of the complexity and “Janus-faced” nature of ideology as a site of manipulation that reproduces the oppressive social order.  Ideology also contains a “utopian residue” that could offer a critique of social institutions in need of change (see Kellner, Media Culture, 2020). 

On one hand (on the surface), Sisa’s madness reproduces dominant representations of womanhood as constructed by the ideology of domesticity.  In other words, the disintegration of marriage and motherhood leads to the disintegration of the female subject.  On the other hand, San Juan’s reading reminds us that Sisa’s madness must be contextualized within the systemic violence of patriarchal colonialism.  Her madness within the text also functions as “transgression against patriarchy” (84).  It is symptomatic of the corruption and oppression of Spanish colonialism and offers a critique of a Philippine colonial society in need of transformation.

San Juan points out that Sisa’s madness represents alienation from colonial urban civilization.  Her escape into nature is a disavowal of “the urban circuit of money and commodity-exchange” (76).  Sisa’s dehumanization by Spanish patriarchal colonial violence (accused by guardia civiles as the “mother of thieves”) leads to a process of naturalization—her “transformation into the voice of Nature, the sentient environment of rural Philippines” (77).  Sisa becomes one with the rural landscape within which masses of Filipinos toil under a system of feudal exploitation.  Unlocking the revolutionary potential of the Filipino masses is inextricably intertwined with the process of unlocking Filipino women’s agency which was suppressed (pre-Hispanic mother-right which provided economic independence) with the rise of class society as developed under Spanish colonialism.  San Juan cites Filipino feminist scholar Elizabeth Eviota: “Centuries of economic, political and religious imposition had transformed the lively sexual assertiveness of Filipino women into a more prudish, cautious image of womanhood” (67).

While Sisa functions as a “metaphor for the problem of gender inequality” (111), she also anticipates the emergence of woman warriors in the movement for Filipino self-determination.  Sisa’s vengeance refers to how that which has been suppressed (Sisa’s anguished and muffled voice) re-emerges in the flesh of “other surrogates and avatars—Melchora Aquino, Salud Algabre, Felipa Culala, Maria Lorena Barros, Cherith Dayrit, Luisa Posa-Dominado, Kemberley Jul Luna, and other militants in today’s national-democratic insurgency” (80).  Sisa’s vengeance is also registered in San Juan’s method for re-reading Rizal.  Casting Sisa at the center of our analysis highlights how the subversive and transgressive nature of Rizal’s novels actually stems from addressing the politics of gender and sexuality as they intersect with anticolonial critique.  (See detailed thematic mapping on page 132—decentering Rizal’s novels by centering Sisa.)  

With the return of the Marcoses to Malacañang, the approach of the 50th anniversary of the declaration of martial law in the Philippines, and the intensification of poverty and political repression in the Covid age, it might seem that the only options are succumbing to despair or performing various rituals of neoliberal activism (transformation of the individual as consuming subject).  Sisa’s Vengeance, however, reminds us of a long and durable tradition of anticolonial struggle in the Philippines by way of re-reading Rizal.  In fact, San Juan advances Rizal’s reflections on the liberatory potential of literacy (the ability to read, write, and think critically) as articulated in his letter to the young women of Malolos—a document that, according to San Juan, demonstrates Rizal’s understanding that “political agency implie[s] sophistication in ideology-critique” (20).  Beginning with the essay “Discovering the Radical Rizal” and ending with “Sisa’s Vengeance: Rizal & the ‘Woman Question,’” San Juan’s collection could easily be titled How to Read Rizal in its application of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s concept of “conscientization”—a rearticulation of the Marxian notion that [s]tudy, as collective learning, is part of emancipatory praxis that connects human agency and the ecosystem” (88).  Moving beyond the fetishism of hero worship, Sisa’s Vengeance gives us the tools to read like Rizal—to comprehend the complex trajectory of Filipino becoming in ways that connect us to our rich history while simultaneously unleashing our collective potential to determine our future.


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