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¿En qué idioma escribe Ud.?: Spanish, Tagalog, and Identity in José Rizal's Noli me tangere

From: MLN
Volume 126, Number 2, March 2011 (Hispanic Issue)
pp. 303-321 | 10.1353/mln.2011.0014

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"¿En qué idioma escribe Ud.?" (142) "In which language are you writing?" This question, that Juan Crisóstomo Ibarra, the protagonist of José Rizal's novel Noli me tangere (1887), addresses to the old scholar Don Anastasio, better known as Tasio, is more than just an expression of curiosity when he sees the latter writing, of all things, hieroglyphs. Tasio is, in Rizal's novel, the one character who is presented primarily as an intellectual—the chapter in which this episode takes place is titled "En casa del filósofo" ("At the Philosopher's House"). Yet he is also emotionally aligned with local values and with the future development of a Filipino nation, despite his pessimism regarding the social, political, and even cultural present. Tasio can be seen, therefore, as representing the anti-colonial Filipino scholar. Ibarra's question—¿En que idioma escribe Ud.?—raises the issue of the connotations and comparative advantages of using the imperial versus the vernacular tongue in anti-colonial and postcolonial contexts.

The importance of José Rizal and Noli me tangere in the history of the Philippines and of the imagining of its national identity grants additional relevance to these already important issues. After all, Rizal is not only a major Filipino novelist, but, after his execution in 1896, he became the central martyr in the archipelago's struggle for independence, even if his own attitude regarding independence was ambiguous.Noli me tangere is much more than a Filipino literary classic. It is a founding document of Filipino nationalism and an instrument central to its maintenance. While Rizal dealt with linguistic issues in some of his other writings, the centrality of Noli me tangere justifies, in my opinion, a concentrated study of implications for anti-colonial and postcolonial cultural production of the novel's discussions about language, in particular, in the chapter "En casa del filósofo."

En el nuestro, en el tagalo

The main plot of Noli me tangere revolves around the romance between Ibarra and his childhood love María Clara. However, their planned wedding is foiled by Father Dámaso, the Spanish priest who, unbeknownst to all, is her biological father, and by Father Salví, who acting independently, helps frame Ibarra as a filibustero (seditionist). The novel concludes with Ibarra turned into a fugitive from the law, while María Clara enters a nunnery and, apparently, goes insane. Despite the obviously feuilletonesque character of the novel's plot, it is filled with passages in which characters constantly and consistently discuss the political options open to Filipino society, from submission to reform, though, curiously and, perhaps, significantly, full independence is never mentioned. These political and cultural discussions are as important as any of the many secondary stories told throughout the novel and, perhaps, even the main romantic plot. The exchange between Ibarra and Tasio mentioned above is thus one of the many discussions about national issues presented in the novel.

Tasio's reply to Ibarra's question, "En el nuestro, en el tagalo" ("In our language, in Tagalog"), provides a possible solution to the question of which language should be used by the would-be Filipino scholar. Tasio's answer presents Tagalog as "our language," that is as a link connecting the local population and, therefore, as one of the traits that make it possible to imagine this population as a nation rather than as a collection of individuals or discrete cultural communities. But even this answer is not unambiguous. Unlike Tasio, Rizal writes in Spanish and it is not stated whether the exchange between Ibarra and Tasio is in Spanish or Tagalog. The implicit claim of Tagalog as a necessary trait of Filipino identity is ironically written in the language of colonization and is, therefore, undermined precisely at the moment it is made.

Sílabas de platino

The issue of which language to use is a vexed one for the anti-colonial or, for that matter, the postcolonial scholar and writer. Should one use the colonizer's language or the local vernacular? This choice is fraught with consequences. Writing in the colonizer's language hints at an affirmation of belonging precisely to the culture which is, at least politically, rejected. The...