BantugCOUNTLESS accounts of Jose Rizal have been written since his death in 1896, but it was not long until a member of his kin decided to compile the bits and pieces of the hero’s life through first-hand stories passed on from their generation to the next.

Asuncion Lopez Bantug, Rizal’s grandniece and journalism and education graduate of UST, provided a genuine portrait of the Filipino patriot in the biography Lolo Jose (1988) as she carefully recounted family narratives about the child who was once called “Pepe.”

‘Lolo Jose’

Bantug is the granddaughter of Rizal’s older sister, Narcisa. She is the eldest among her siblings Carmen Lopez-Consunji, Natividad Lopez-Francisco, and Leandro Lopez.

Although she never had the chance to meet her famous lolo, the anecdotes she wrote in her book would give an impression that she knew him intimately.

“As I was growing up, I never saw him as a hero. For me, he was our Lolo Jose,” Bantug’s daughter Ana Maria Belen Bantug-Tan said.

While most teenagers would usually be tending to trivial matters, she was already rubbing elbows with the titans of literature such as writer Rafael Palma and National Artist Carlos Quirino. She entered the first manuscript of Lolo Jose in the National Rizal Biography Contest in 1938, bearing the pen name “Apo ni Dimas.”

“My mother had a lot of notebooks,” said Tan, noting her mother’s passion for writing about anything under the sun.

As written in her book, Bantug stated her anxiety of the younger generation’s perception on Rizal. She wanted the youth to know that “no man is born a hero,” adding that her grandfather was just like any man who laughed and wept.

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“The young must be made to realize that our hero was once like them, like all of us, of flesh and blood, prone to weaknesses and temptations,” she stated. She added that Rizal knew how to overcome these flaws and used all his potentials to “lift himself from the common rank,” unlike most people.

Family’s stronghold

Bantug taught at St. Theresa’s College in San Marcelino, Manila before she turned into a full-time housewife.

“My mother was not a disciplinarian,” Tan said, uttering in a jest and wishing that her mother was a bit stricter instead of tolerant.

Tan shared that their family was exposed to the perils of World War II while they were still living in Manila.

“Everytime there was a bombing, I remember my mom would rush me and my brother downstairs and put us under piles of mattresses. We didn’t have any area of shelter to keep us safe,” said Tan, recounting the instances when their mother had been the family’s stronghold in times of trials.

Despite keeping her family safe, Bantug could not help but lament the loss of her only brother, Leandro, during the Japanese occupation.

“The tragedy was the fact that they didn’t know how he was killed, or if he was killed. He just did not return and they never had any trace of him,” Tan said.

The 71-year-old daughter said that her mother never complained during those times, which she thought was her “hardest years.”

“Everybody suffered during the war. My mother suffered in silence, but she suffered

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Familial bond

The matriarch has kept a close-knit family through the years.

She now has five children and 19 grandchildren with whom she had shown love and support through mentioning them in her notes and essays.

Although her only daughter admitted that she is not a writer like her mother, Tan noted that some of Bantug’s grandchildren and great grandchildren have inherited her craft.

Bantug has contributed to various Philippine publications and is a member of the Women’s Writers Group which also includes Thomasian Maria Kalaw Katigbak. She has also written the book Indio Bravo (1997), an illustrated biography of Rizal intended for young readers.

Bantug’s second to the last son, Leandro “Dinky” Bantug, shared that his mother used to write about anything, as long as it does not touch politics.

“In fact, she told us not to go into it because politics has too many compromises,” Dinky said.

The 65-year-old son also articulated that their mother never wrote for money or popularity, adding that “she just wants to write, not caring about what other people will say.”

The two siblings agreed that their mother’s writing was continuous and did not cease until she had become too weak to even hold a pen.

Lasting legacy

For the past five years, Tan has been taking care of her mother in their welcoming home in Parañaque City. At 98 years old, Bantug is one of the oldest Thomasians to date.

Even if she has been weakened by old age, Bantug’s principles have remained steadfast.

This heiress of Rizal has always been known for her remarkable quality of wanting a simple life, an attitude she inherited from her father.

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Tan said her mother never liked jewelry or anything luxurious. “The only jewelry she possesses might probably be the pair of earrings she inherited from her mother,” she quipped and continued she does not remember shopping with her mother.

Dinky also recalls how a mere bread and butter meal with a little chocolate for dessert would satisfy and make her happy.

“She always wanted to live a very simple life,” he said, adding that “she never really bothered about money and ambition.”

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