pop Who was Wenceslao Emilio Retana?
      by Elizabeth Medina, © Coypright 1998

Wenceslao Emilio Retana's name is omnipresent in any important work of Philippine historiography, as the foremost bibliographic contributor and writer on 19th-century Hispanic Philippines. However, a bias has persisted against him because of his initial "anti-Filipino" phase from 1884, when he arrived in the Philippines with a minor appointment as a financial officer in the governorship of Batangas, until around 1898. During these years he defended the Spanish colonial regime against advocates of civil rights for the Filipinos. He married a Filipina of high social rank during his tour of duty in the Philippines, asking to be repatriated in 1890 because of a heart ailment. He left in early 1890 for Madrid and never lived in the Philippines again, though he may have returned for a visit, as he did keep studying our history and was responsible for the Tabacalera's sale of its fabulous Barcelona Filipiniana collection to the Philippine National Library, around 1912. In Madrid, he became the ideological opponent of the writers of La Solidaridad.

After Rizal's execution Retana experienced a "conversion," and wrote the first published biography of Rizal to show that Spain had committed a gross error by executing him. His biography not only paints a portrait of Rizal the man, but compellingly describes the process of Spain's loss of her most important remaining colony.

After Spain had lost the Philippines and the Spanish people had put the entire affair behind them, Retana continued to study and write about the Philippines, compiling a total of 36 scholarly works, until his death in 1924 at the age of 62. He was a member of important European cultural organizations, and held a series of prestigious government positions, such as deputy to the Cortes, civil governor of the cities of Huelva and Teruel, and Chief of the Barcelona police. Some of the titles he produced: 500 abbreviated biographies entitled "Index of the Generals, Chiefs and Artillery Officers who have been in the Philippines (1521-1898)"; "The Origins of Printing in the Philippines" (1911); Historical-Bibliographic News on Theater in the Philippines, from its Origins until 1898 (1910); "Censorship of the Press in the Philippines" (1908); "The Inquisition in the Philippines. The Unusual Case of Governor Salcedo" (1910)" etc.

Retana's point of view in this biography is that of a Spanish liberal examining the actions of his own country as a colonial ruler in the Philippines with a very critical eye, the character and psychology of Rizal, and the development of the revolution. He includes all the perspectives: that of the conservative peninsulars, of the friars, the intelligentsia, and that of the common people. He expresses his own feelings, and sometimes this means he eulogizes Rizal and the Filipinos, and other times he criticizes. Though he is involved, he is able to take distance from his own biases. Filipinos today do not know what cultured, self-critical Spaniards thought at that time, how they saw what was happening -- I believe Retana was one of the very few who took the time and trouble to write it down. He was deluged with valuable collaborators and had access to such excellent sources as Paciano Rizal, Epifanio de los Santos, Spanish officials, deputies, journalists; the politico-military commanders of Dapitan who were with Rizal during his exile, and Prof. Blumentritt. The translation and commentaries are 230 pages long, including 143 footnotes which consist of Retana's own parallel comments and my explanations of Hispanic cultural meanings and Spanish political events and personages.

Retana doesn't sound dated or boring, but speaks in a voice so modern it is astounding. His humor, sarcasm and witty irreverence are a delight, whether aimed at the friars, the Spanish authorities or the Filipinos.

In my opinion, what makes Retana most deserving of being read today is as a creditable witness of the historical moment that has had the greatest impact on the Filipino consciousness, and how Rizal transformed himself into its symbol. He gives witness as one who embodied and was able to clearly state the meanings that the mentality of those times ascribed to those events. Thus, I believe, he is able to transmit to Filipinos a hundred years hence a vision that is both moving and explicative in a culturally accurate manner -- he succeeds in transporting us to that compelling time, so that we may gain insights that a conventional academic approach cannot give. Given the distancing that our North American colonization produced in the Filipino psyche vis a vis the mythical figure of Rizal and the legendary time he lived and died in, the Retana biography's availability today, translated and explained with cultural sensitivity, after the long forgetting of both the work and its creator's fascinating figure, is an important cultural event during our Centennial year.

See also by the same author:
Rizal According to Retana: Portrait of a Hero and a Revolution

The book "Rizal According to Retana: Portrait of a Hero and a Revolution" is available from the author.

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created: September 15, 1998
updated: September 15, 1998
APSIS Editor Johann Stockinger