Leonor Rivera: Rizal's first love, inspiration for 'Maria Clara'

By Anna Valmero

MAKATI CITY, METRO MANILA—Before he became the country's national hero, Jose Rizal, the romantic, fell in love for the first time with his childhood sweetheart Leonor Rivera, who later became the inspiration for the iconic character Maria Clara in his novel “Noli Me Tangere”.

Leonor, a native of Camiling, Tarlac, was Rizal's first love.

“Their love did not have a happy ending but you will see from the letters they wrote to each other their deep affection and how romantic Filipinos are,” said Jeannie Javelosa, curator of Yuchengco Museum during the launch of the exhibit “Rizalizing The Future.”

Rizal was linked to many beautiful girls including Nelly Boustead, Josephine Bracken, Seisan, Gertruse Beckett and Narcisa Lopez but Rivera outshines most, if not all of them.

This could be attributed to the tragic ending of their love story or the artifacts proving how the two remained faithful to each other even after Rizal moved to Europe to study, said Javelosa.

The two were known as “lovers by correspondence” because of their countless love letters written in different languages such as Filipino, English, Spanish and French. The shift in the languages used by Rizal was to prevent interception of the letters by Spanish authorities,” said Carla Martinez, information associate at Yuchengco Museum.

Those letters, however, failed to reach Rivera because her mother burned them, never to be seen by the intended recipient. Her mother was against Rizal for he was tagged a “filibustero” or subversive after joining the propaganda movement against the Spanish.

After not getting a word from his lover, Rivera consented to his mother's wish to marry Henry Kipping, a railway engineer whom she met when her family moved to Dagupan. At that time, the Dagupan-Manila railway was being constructed.

“It could be noted that when Leonor married Kipping, Rizal had his first heartbreak because theirs was a young love and she was his first love. Their love lasted for a little over a decade,” said Martinez.

Luckily, the ashes of Rizal's letters were kept inside a box with a cover featuring the lovers' initials. The box was donated by the descendants of the Kipping family for display during the month-long Rizal exhibit.

Also on display are payoneta with Rivera's hair cuttings and gold jewelries.

“It was sad that we will never know the prose in these letters but the existence of the ashes is more than enough proof to tell us how Rizal loved Leonor [Rivera] and this proves the hearsays that the two expressed their love through letters for each other,” said Martinez.

A renowned pianist and singer during her time, Rivera told her mother that she would marry Kipping on these conditions: that she would stop singing or playing the piano, and she'd die young.

“She did this to show her dislike for not marrying her first and only love, Rizal,” narrated Javelosa.  Rivera gave birth to a child and died with the letters of Rizal stitched to her gown and buried with her “because of her undying love,” added Javelosa, who says Leonor's undying fidelity made her the epitome of a loving Filipino woman.

“Rizalizing the Future” can be viewed every Mondays and Saturdays, from 10a.m. to 6p.m. Entrance for a whole-day museum tour for children and senior citizen is P25 each, while the fee students and adults is P50 and P100, respectively.

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