Maria Clara at Ibarra: ‘Hindi magagalit si Rizal’

Why the series people are talking about works for GenZ, even for me

Barbie Forteza, Dennis Trillo, Julie Ann San Jose in 'Maria Clara at Ibarra' : Making people re-read 'Noli Me Tangere'

Credit: GMANetwork/YouTube

Set in “1844,” the modern-day Maria Clara “Klay” Infantes is transported into the make-believe pages of Noli Me Tangere, Jose Rizal’s first novel published in 1887.

Nursing student Klay frustratingly complains, “Ano ba ang kinalaman ng Noli sa nursing?” The irked professor, Mr. Torres (a character who comes and goes within the novel world) has made her do a book report. Because she could not finish reading the Noli, the professor lends her an old book with magical time travel powers, and thus becomes responsible for transporting Klay into the world of Rizal’s Noli.

In full costume, the young actors (Barbie Forteza and Julie Ann San Jose as the two Maria Claras) apparently relish putting Rizal’s characters on the TV screen (also streamed on the internet, with full episodes). Juan Crisostomo Ibarra (Dennis Trillo) and his friend Fidel (David Licaoco), who is not in the original Noli, wear European period garb complete with cravat, top hat and canes.

Maria Clara at Ibarra, the engaging series on life at the time of Rizal, has been capturing millions of viewers. It is an education on the social, religious and political mores of the time.

Shocked to find a bra and panty, Tia Isabel and Maria Clara don’t know what to do with the underwear. “Wala kayo niyan?” an equally shocked Klay asks. Klay must learn to cover her “pecho” (breast) with “alampay” over the baro and a short tapis over the saya, sometimes with a train. I cannot imagine the women of yore sashaying in dusty or muddy kalyes in that attire.

This teleserye every evening, Monday to Friday, after the news on GMA, made me re-read the Noli, this time to enjoy and find out how close to the novel the script is, even as Klay is trying to “correct” the ills of the times. Her teacher Mr. Torres insists, “Hindi mo na mababago ang nakatakda o ang nakasulat (You cannot undo what is meant to be or what is written)”.  Ang because Klay has not read the novel, she herself is in the dark, which becomes the element of suspense.

Klay is the vehicle to make the comparison of the eras. It is nice that the series uses the Tagalog spoken at that time— “Siyang tunay” interspersed with the Spanish “Bueno”, for instance. The uber religious aunt Tia Isabel always reminds Maria Clara and her friends how to behave…so much restraint on the part of women who are expected to just listen, obey and pray. At least the novio (fiance) Ibarra and Maria Clara are allowed to embrace towards the end. The man is limited to kissing his fiancee’s hand. By the way, there is much kissing of the friar’s hand by the “Indios”.

Klay bursts into English as she lectures the men about the “universal right to education of men and women,” even as she is relegated to another table since it is not socially acceptable for a lone woman to be in the company of men.

Living in the house of Ibarra is scandalous, so Klay has to be brought to Maria Clara’s house, where the two women become close friends. Klay is able to make Maria Clara see the invisible bars that keep the women of her time prisoners of society.

Interestingly, the script, written by Suzette  Doctolero, head writer and creative consultant, under the watchful eye of National Artist in Literature Ricky Lee as content development consultant, made me see the Noli in a new light. To be honest, I read only the classics Komiks to get by in  high school. Was it history or Filipino literature? It’s all a blur to me now.

Noli Me Tangere was in the Catholic Church’s Index of banned books because of its anti-clerical characters such as Padre Damaso, who, it was revealed, raped Maria Clara’s mother and that the Franciscan friar was really the father of Maria Clara, and not Don Santiago “Capitan Tiago” de los Santos.

An aside: in our hometown, in the ‘50s, the Filipino parish priest was rumored to have sired children—the supposed nephews and nieces and their mother lived in the convent. We refused to say our Confession to him and would dash off instead to the neighboring parish. Take note that that was mere rumor, or in today’s colloquial term, “marites”— a funny part of the dialogue has the characters using the word, taught by Klay.

The script hews closely to Rizal’s novel except for the scenes made for dramatic effect, like Ibarra climbing the pulpit fulminating at the sufferings of the Indios, the power of the friars (if you obey, you are sure to go to heaven), ang sugo ng Dios.Paumanhin dahil nagbulagbulagan sa pang-aapi sa mga indio…(The indio is turning a blind eye)” and the church congregation chanting “Dinggin mo kami! (Hear us)”, no different from today’s rallies.

There are more scenes of Sisa and Elias, the surreptitious rebel, and Pilosopo Tasio, the prophet of doom.

The series about to end, I enjoyed re-reading the Noli (translated into English from the original Spanish by Ma. Soledad Lacson-Locsin when she was 86 years old. She also translated El Filibusterismo, Rizal’s second novel.)

Rizal lyrically described the fictional town of San Diego “of 6000 souls” in Laguna—its surroundings and  natural settings. There was detailed description of the house of Capitan Tiago filled with religious paintings, mirrors and chandeliers; how the rich partied complete with orchestra, the women segregated from the men as dictated by social mores.  There was ample commentary of the times. He quoted Cicero in Latin, Homer, Shakespeare, and with humor, he described  “freeloaders and social parasites” like Dona Victorina and her attempts at Spanish.

Even Mr. Torres is no longer sure how the story would end, where Klay has been able to influence some of the characters “dahil sa pakikialam mo (because of your meddling)”. Klay finds herself applying her nursing skills in some dramatic moments, such as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when Ibarra nearly drowns, to the vehement objection of Maria Clara. Upon such display of modern skills, she earns the reputation of a “mangkukulam (a witch).”

 ‘Klay is the disruptor of Noli, gisingin si Maria Clara, mag-isip, magtanong…’

In Howie Severino’s podcast (Jan. 4, 2023), Doctolero said she and her team felt Noli and Fili are still relevant and can still resonate with today’s society. They wanted  to contribute to the motherland, and promote our history and culture through a soap opera that is entertaining yet substantive “na masasakyan ng masa at hindi magagalit si Rizal (the masses can relate to without causing Rizal to get mad)”. Putting a GenZ makes it relatable and gives the heavy material some lightness.

Doctolero admitted to tweaking the original story to portray a stronger Maria Clara, who comes under the influence of Klay. The team also had a history consultant and a Spanish coach from UP.

The series uses today’s language to show the culture clash— daserve, OA, babu, hellar, marites. Doctolero said, “Klay is the disruptor of Noli, gisingin si Maria Clara (wake up Maria), mag-isip (think), magtanong (ask)…as her teacher told her, she is a witness to the story.

“To move forward as a nation, look at the past. Bakit paulit-ulit (Why the repetition). Panahon pa ni Bonifacio (From the time of Bonifacio), (hanggang) Edsa? May hindi tayo natutunan (Something we didn’t learn). There is still inequality, injustice. That’s why  the effect of the serye is, we need to question, ‘Anong nangyari? Pag-isipan (What happened? Think).’ A writer can reflect sa sarili…sa labas ng sarili (about himself, beyond himself).”

I think Doctolero succeeded. It shows the power of the pen. The interest generated in Rizal’s work may have sparked curiosity, if not a bit of nationalism.

The book ends with so many questions. There is no closure where the main characters are concerned. Although the epilogue explains what happens to others. While Klay is able to return to the present, her relationship with the Noli characters drives her to read the Fili.

It looks like there will be a sequel to this series. This time, you guessed it, it could be the Fili. I am looking forward with delight. Now I need to read up on El Filibusterismo as well.

Noli Me Tangere is latin for ‘Touch Me Not’
Rizal’s dedication to the painter Resurreccion Hidalgo dated March 5,1887
‘The book has matters which no one among ourselves has spoken of until now–
so delicate that they cannot be touched by anybody…’

Credit: GMANetwork/YouTube

About author


She is a freelance writer and editor, a former columnist, occasional poet, and frustrated cook and plantita. She writes about her grandchildren, women's issues and seniors coping with the pandemic. She is a reluctant "catwoman" (the cat chose her).

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