In late October, Don Santiago de los Santos, who is known as Captain Tiago, throws a large dinner party in Manila. He is very wealthy and, as such, the party takes place in his impressive home, to which people eagerly flock so as not to miss an important social event. As the guests mill about, groups of soldiers, European travelers, and priests speak to one another. An old lieutenant in the Civil Guard engages in conversation with a quiet but argumentatively cunning Dominican friar named Fray Sibyla, a loudmouthed Franciscan friar named Fray Dámaso, and two civilians, one of whom has just arrived in the Philippines for the first time. Authoritatively speaking over the others, Fray Dámaso lectures this newcomer about the nature of “indios,” or native Filipinos.
The fact that Father Dámaso thinks he can generalize about the nature of “indios” indicates his excessive confidence and lack of cultural compassion, considering that the term “indio” is a derogatory term for Filipinos. Furthermore, his domineering character is evident by his authoritative tendency take command of a conversation, lecturing newcomers instead of welcoming their questions. It is clear right from the start, then, that priests are afforded an outsized amount of power in this community.
Father Dámaso explains to his listeners that his first post in the Philippines was in a small town, where he worked for three years. He boasts that he made strong connections with the townspeople, who he claims loved and respected him. When he was transferred three years later to the town of San Diego, he explains, the town was sad to see him go. He then spent the next twenty years in San Diego, and though he still doesn’t understand very much Tagalog—the country’s native language—he believes himself a good preacher who intimately knows the townspeople. Because of this, he is upset that when he recently ceased to be San Diego’s friar, only “a few old women and a few tertiary brothers saw [him] off.”
Father Dámaso’s ignorance emerges in this moment, when he admits that he has spent 23 years in the Philippines but still doesn’t understand Tagalog, the native language. What’s more, his disrespect for the community and people he claims to serve is painfully apparent in his apathy toward learning Tagalog. Thus, it’s not hard to see that he’s more interested in appearing to be well-liked than he is in actually taking the necessary measures to win the townspeople’s respect.
Continuing his rant, Father Dámaso says that “indios are very lazy.” The foreigner who is new to the Philippines challenges this notion, asking, “Are these natives truly indolent by nature, or is it, as a foreign traveler has said, that we make excuses for our own indolence, our backwardness, and our colonial system by calling them indolent?” As Dámaso refutes this idea, Father Sibyla steps in and puts him back on track, underhandedly prodding what he intuits is a sensitive issue by asking the boisterous priest why he left San Diego after twenty years.
In this moment, Rizal uses the unnamed foreigner as a mouthpiece for his own political belief that powerful colonial forces project their own expectations and shortcomings onto the people they try to govern. Unfortunately, Father Dámaso is too wrapped up in his own self-image—his power and importance—to acknowledge that Filipinos are respectable people; in order for him to feel authoritative, Filipinos must be below him.
For the first time all evening, Fray Dámaso falls silent before slamming his fist into his chair and cryptically shouting, “Either there is religion or there isn’t, and that’s that, either priests are free or they aren’t! The country is being lost…it is lost!” When Sibyla asks what he means, Dámaso says, “The governors support the heretics against God’s own ministers!” This seems to unnerve the lieutenant, who begins to stand and asks Dámaso to clarify. “I mean that when a priest tosses the body of a heretic out of his cemetery, no one, not even the king himself, has the right to interfere, and has even less right to impose punishment,” Dámaso says without explanation. He then references a “little general,” before trailing off, which angers the lieutenant. The lieutenant, a member of the government’s Civil Guard, yells his support of the Spanish king’s representative in the Philippines, whom Dámaso has insulted.
Rizal has a habit of plunging readers into new storylines and alluding to certain plot elements that aren’t explained until later. In this scene, Father Sibyla’s question—regarding why Dámaso had to leave San Diego—prompts an outburst from Dámaso that references the exhumation of an important dead man, though readers aren’t expected to understand the relevance of this until later. For now, it will suffice to point out that Dámaso insults the king and asserts that priests have more power than the government. Unsurprisingly, this infuriates the lieutenant, who represents the government’s Civil Guard. This is the novel’s first manifestation of the tension between the Spanish government and the Catholic church.
As Father Dámaso and the lieutenant approach the possibility of a fistfight, Father Sibyla intervenes with philosophical and diplomatic reasoning. The lieutenant dismisses this, saying that Dámaso is out of line. He explains that the man whose body was removed from the Catholic cemetery was a friend of his—“a very distinguished person.” “So what if he never went to confessions,” the lieutenant says. “So what? I don’t go to confession either. But to claim that he committed suicide is a lie, a slur. A man like him, with a son in whom he has placed all his hopes and affections, a man with faith in God, who understands his responsibilities to society, an honorable and just man, does not commit suicide.”
Once again, Rizal throws readers into a web of specifics they haven’t yet learned how to untangle. Nonetheless, it is clear now that the dead person Father Dámaso referenced earlier was a respected man with friends in relatively high places, considering that the lieutenant vouches for him so adamantly. Furthermore, another delineation between the government and the church becomes apparent when the lieutenant supports the dead man’s decision not to go to confession.
Continuing with his story, the lieutenant says that Father Dámaso exhumed this distinguished man’s body from the cemetery. The Captain General knew about this, and thus transferred Dámaso from San Diego as a punishment. Having finished the story, the lieutenant storms off, leaving Father Sibyla to say, “I am sorry that without knowing it I touched upon such a delicate matter.” Changing the subject, one of the civilians asks about Captain Tiago, the host of the party. Dámaso says that there is “no need for introductions” because Tiago is “a good sort.” And in any case, there are rumors that he has stepped out of the house for some reason, leaving his guests to mingle. Just then, two people enter the room.
It’s worth noting that the Captain General is the highest ranking governmental figure in the Philippines. As such, the fact that the Captain General transfers Dámaso away from San Diego yet again underlines the tensions between the church and state. On another note, Father Sibyla’s apology for having “touched upon such a delicate matter” calls to mind Rizal’s earlier metaphor regarding the “social cancer” plaguing the Philippines, a sickness that is too tender to touch.