The Maria Clara Effect

Maria Clara

{Photo by Joan Cuenco}

"Why in the world did Jose Rizal placed Maria Clara," my classmate said, "on the pedestal?"

I was taken aback by his question, having been dazed by the just concluded play of Rizal's famous first novel at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. The play, a required freshman viewing way back in college, was an enjoyable affair. The question is an abrupt awakening from a daze.

"We are all a product," I said, "of our own time."

Maria Clara is the demure, delicate, Spanish-mestiza, secret-bastard daughter of a friar, in Rizal's novels. The conservatives have exulted her as an icon - from Mother Country to the Virgin Bride. On the other hand, some liberals would want her to be a satire. While others want her eradicated altogether from our consciousness, to be a figment of an era gone by.

But why is Maria Clara, a Tisay, instead of tan skinned or for that matter a pure white blood woman? The reason is that the Creoles (pure whites) didn't exist in the pure sense anymore during Rizal's Victorian time. The Creoles who settled in the Philippines have vanished into the native within a generation (the Aranetas, the Legardas), through intermarriage. Even those who tried to stay Creole by sending their sons and daughters to Europe, transformed into Tisoys (Sorianos, Zobels, Ortigas, Madrigals and Roxases), by the third generation.

Thus, the Tisoys, although a minority, become part of our country (I see them everywhere), and became Filipino themselves. For just like the Chinoys (Chinese Mestizos such as Emilio Aguinaldo, Carlos Palanca, Jose Rizal, Corazon Aquino), Japanese Mestizos (such as Ferdinand Marcos), Amerasians, East Indians, Arabs of Mindanao, and the black-skinned Aetas - they can never return.

Sending the descendants of mixed race, back to their ancestor lands is fatal. As Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin showed, the Klu Klux Klan lobbying to send black Americans back to Africa or enslaving them is not the answer. Lincon, put a nail in this coffin of an issue, when he won the civil war. As Anne Frank's Diary showed, in the horror of Hitler's genocide, those who want to keep the face of their race pure and unsullied, have perpetrated mankind's greatest atrocities.

Look at a typical half-blood. Anita's great grandparents from both sides have white Spanish blood, and Chinese too. But the white-chinese blood in her has been diluted to the point that her skin is now almost pure tan. Anita is by right a Filipino.

Do you suppose, that Anita should be sent to her great-great grandparents ancestral country, where she neither have friends nor relatives. Here, her soul calls home. The Philippines is hers - her mother native land - the rich soil embracing her past as well as her future.

Thus, the Tisoy Fernando Poe Jr., is as Filipino as Manny Pacquiao.

And so it came to pass that with good intentions, Rizal unleashed Maria Clara. After decades of propaganda, the wheel of time transformed her to the ideal Filipina, even though she is a mestiza. Maria Clara then, became the ideal beauty (as you can see in the movie/television which is saturated with mestizos). Add to this a residue in colonial nostalgia, and the Scarcity Principle (we value/demand those which is few in supply), and all of a sudden you have an ideal - a Pinay heroine. I would go further to say that the Korean, Japanese, and Chinese telenovelas, are the New Maria Clara - a Pinay's wishful baiting of some soap-opera Tsinoy of Forbes, of Corinthian's, of Ayalabang origin.

As for me, Maria Clara, is no ideal, no heroine. Rizal is a hero, Maria Clara is not.

For I have no qualms on whether a woman is virgin or not. Passion, happiness, love - this is important to me - not a piece of hymen. Whenever I hear people, chattering among themselves, that no pinoy would honor a non-virgin woman, I couldn't help but think: pa-Maria Clara Effect. Only the most conservative, are still bound by this dated ideals.

Or how about those virgin fetishes, those Dirty Old Men who would pay a virgin, huge amounts of money, for the experience of first entry? pa-Maria Clara Effect.

Nor do I think beauty is tied to a race. There are ugly whites, as there are ugly browns. There are beautiful whites, as there are beautiful browns, black, red, yellow. It perplex me that some pinay who are tan-skinned, would act like some black Nigerian women, applying skin-whitening lotion to their skin, in order to live up to Maria Clara.

I can never love someone who is in essence an ornament, a caricature, a one-dimensional cardboard character in an advertisement. For I prefer a real person - with dreams, problems, and aspirations. If Maria Clara existed in the 21st century, she would have been one hell of dull woman. For her lack of self-love, her repressed erotic passions, her overdependence - strikes me as rather infantile. Where's the real joy of the spontaneous women who could bring wrinkling tears of laughter unto us? I pity, nay, those, who, in present time, would emulate the ever self-effacing ancient Maria Clara.

Some would react, sure enough, that Maria Clara is worthy of a heroine status. After all, she chose a lonely convent, rather than marrying a person she didn't love, rather betraying the love that Ibarra have given her. Isn't this a sign of strong will?

That could have been the case, except Maria Clara is, in reality, Leonora Rivera, the long time object of obsession of Jose Rizal. Rizal, though a great person, is just like us - human - imperfect. One of Rizal's defect is to flee from women he loves. This is not bad per se, for love doesn't have to last for eternity, but but in context of his love-flee is unlike Peter Pan fleeing Wendy. If he pursued Leonora Rivera, I suppose it wouldn't have lasted, yet facing Maria Clara, he could have also face his demons.

Some would defend this flaw, by using the analogy of Shakespeare's Hamlet (his great love is supposedly his country). But that is an unsatisfactory theory. In my opinion, Rizal is insecure. His height and body is diminutive, so he has to prove all his life that he is bigger than life. Without a small body, he wouldn't have exerted so much great effort in his endeavors, and our country would have been deprived of a Filipino as great as Rizal.

Rizal in his women insecurities, invented impediment, such as escaping to another country. Leonora Rivera (Maria Clara), waited eleven years for Rizal, can you blame her if she married another man after? To cry foul would be folly, when all this years he is nowhere to be found. Perhaps Rizal doesn't subscribe to the notion of proximity (we form relationship to those who are near). See, if he really loves her, he would have pursued her despite the engagement to another man.

A product of his time, Rizal, would have been both delighted and scandalized to know that our greatest heroines have put on male trousers (in literal, and in metaphor).

Gabriela Silang, Trinidad Tecson, Valeriana Palma, Teresa Magbanua all LED an army, throughout the Philippine revolution. Rizal could have molded Maria Clara into someone like our real-life heroines in his novel. He could have showed a Maria Clara metamorphosis. But then again, to do so, would not be as satisfactory, and would not have ignited the revolution within of our countrymen.


  1. Angela (13 January, 2006 11:27)

    Playing safe si Rizal. Hay, too bad I wasn't able to take PI (Rizal) back in UP, although I read Noli and Fili back in High School. :dance:

    pinky (21 March, 2006 10:28)

    I never saw Maria Clara as a heroine. I think she's one of the weakest women in literature. Pero kapag tinignan mo naman kasi ang background niya, bunga talaga siya ng kanyang panahon at siguro magulo ang formative years niya kaya naging ganun ang character niya. Too bad nga lang, matagal din siyang naging "ideal" woman ng maraming kalalakihan.

    anansi girl (04 August, 2006 23:11)

    I don't think Rizal created Maria Clara to be an idealized version of the Filipina. She was more like a tragic example of the kind of woman our society kept trying to turn our females into -- the kind who satisfies our elders' conservative sensibilities, and who is so obedient to tradition and social expectations that she's become too weak to determine her own destiny.

    sun goddess (20 June, 2008 11:51)

    Very well said. I see her no more than an epitome of an oppressed Filipina.

    I've often wondered why most chose to be more like Maria Clara when we have the likes of Gabriela Silang to look up to...

    Anonymous (03 August, 2009 15:06)

    we can always be maria clara and gabriela silang at the same time.,.

    Anonymous (11 September, 2010 22:33)

    For me, it's not entirely her characteristics that makes up an Ideal woman of today as most woman long time ago were just like Maria Clara. Dependent and at home and it's sad that most people mistake this.

    If Maria Clara as an Ideal women would exist in the 21st century, she would be just the same as she was except for a few things. She'd be independent and active but not overpowering, open minded and strong but still feminine and have respect and she would still be as conservative, graceful, respectful and obedient but not too traditional that she'd end up as someone from the victorian era.

    The thing is that whenever Maria Clara is a topic, we view her as the ideal woman a man would want but we get the sense that she is also the weak one woman wouldn't want to be.

    It's a complicated misunderstanding.

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