Finally Understanding Rizal’s Heroism

I knew Jose Rizal was a classical liberal of a sort but I never thought he would have an anarchist tendency.
Claro M. Recto aka Father of Philippine Nationalism

In the Philippines, students are required to take up a course on the life and works of the country’s national hero Jose Rizal. This was mandated by Republic Act. 1425 which was authored by former senator Claro M. Recto and supported by the freemasons, surviving veterans of the 1896 Revolution, Alagad ni Rizal (Followers of Rizal) and the Book Lovers (a book club). However, the law had its opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, established in the Philippine archipelago since the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores over four hundred years ago, and its affiliates such as the Knights of Columbus, Catholic Action of the Philippines, Catholic Teachers Guild and the Congregation of Missions.

The author’s rationale for the law was to instill in the minds of the youth a sense patriotism and nationalism in the 1950s when American neocolonialism in the country was strong and Soviet socialism and aggression had to be opposed somehow. However, the Church was not on the same page. Jose Rizal was the author of novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo that gave the Church a bad name in the country. He caricatured its priests, the Spanish provincial ones specifically, as being arrogant greedy, manipulative, and lustful. It should be no surprise that the Church did not want its reputation to be tainted if not destroyed by the mass education of the Filipino youth on its oppressive and decadent past.

The law was enforced anyway and there was an option for students to read censored versions of Rizal’s novels if they did not want their psyches to be scarred with lascivious priests. Unsurprisingly, Catholic educational institutions were all set with their censored versions of the novels. I read Rizal’s two novels during my high school days and in the end of my reading I was not inspired to be patriotic or nationalistic but instead I found myself confused and even frustrated.

Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, written by Jose Rizal

Spoilers ahead. Why didn’t the nitroglycerine under the table of the Spanish colonial high officials go off? Why did Basilio (or Isagani?) dashed against a defining moment in literary fiction and changed the course of the fictional colony forever? Why did I get a pitiful ending with the conspirator, a victim of injustice long ago, dying a fugitive as he was chastised by a hermit-like priest and the revolution not even beginning?

It was only in attending and participating in the required Rizal class for college students during the summer semester I realized supposedly the more innovative and radical goal of Jose Rizal for the Philippines and the deeper meaning of the words he wrote into his novels.

Knowing Without Understanding

High school education on Philippine history unsurprisingly explored the facts and realities superficially. It was so superficial that the information I learned was mainly general, repetitive and even stereotypical: this hero was born on this date, died at this date, did this and then the human story never breached a paragraph or two. If the person was historically relevant enough then he or she at least got half a page of exposure but the information was still generic. It should be no surprise how shallow our high school understanding of history is given the abundance of “relevant” historical information across the entire scope of the subject that needs to be crammed in a student’s head in one year. An example of this was my past understanding of the Propaganda Movement:

“In late nineteenth century Spain, specifically Madrid and Barcelona, Filipino intellectuals were working together to persuade the Spanish middle class, intellectuals and politicians that the Philippine colony needed liberal reforms through the newspaper La Solidaridad headed by Marcelo H. del Pilar. These (classical) liberal reforms included but was not limited to: freedom of the press and of association, representation of the Philippines in the Spanish Cortes, and the dismantlement of the friar land ownership corporations. Jose Rizal also contributed to the newspaper; writing for reform. The initiative later collapsed due to lack of support of Filipinos back in the colony.”

If I am correct, then that was my understanding of the generic content I remembered from my high school history book and it failed to mention the deeper reason behind the collapse of the newspaper. My Rizal studies in college exposed me to the fact that the newspaper was partially undermined by Jose Rizal himself.

From Reformist to Separatist

From left to right: Mariano Ponce, Marcelo del Pilar and Jose Rizal

While he was active in the Propaganda Movement, Rizal had private doubts about the objectives of the Propaganda Movement and he expressed them to his Austrian confidante Ferdinand Blumentritt through private correspondence. Jose Rizal figured that, regardless of what Filipino expatriates will peacefully do, the Spanish Crown and government will not adopt the reforms necessary for the colony’s development. He further shared that he would not want to involve himself in any secret and dangerous plot against the colonial government but if it continues to oppress the Filipino people then he would have to side with violence.

It was not just Blumentritt who got his message but Filipino expatriates as well like Galicano Apacible, Edilberto Evangelista and Antonio Luna. In fact, there was a sizeable faction in the Filipino expatriate community that sided with Rizal because of his sentiments. Luna himself thought that there should not just be a propaganda movement in Spain but also one at home; the former arguing for assimilation while the latter advocating for separation. Amazingly, even if Filipino assimilation into the Spanish nation was achieved he would still be willing to return home as a separatist agent. Apacible was insightful enough to think that propaganda for reform in Spain would prove that Filipinos were willing to use peaceful channels to make their case for their people and that its failure would serve as a justification for the separation movement. He also took the talk of separation up a notch by advising Rizal to setup a headquarters for the revolution in Hong Kong or someplace else to centrally muster support for the cause of independence. At this time, many Filipino ilustrados (enlightened ones) supported Rizal on the understanding that he “was a separatist and the more radical one,” Apacible claimed.

Filipino ilustrados as expatriates in Spain. Rizal is here somewhere…

Unsurprisingly, this talk of independence from Spain, peaceful or violent, was clashing with the program of del Pilar and his reformist faction of La Solidaridad especially after the tragedy of Hacienda Calamba. Hundreds of tenants, including Rizal’s family, of a land-owning religious organization were evicted with support from the colonial government after the supreme court in Madrid sided with the friars in a land dispute. For Rizal, who guided the community and his family through the litigation, this made a lasting impact on his political beliefs. It is safe to say that this critical juncture ensured his sure transition into separatism and radicalism.

Rizal clarified his political position with del Pilar. He wanted to end his association with La Solidaridad’s political goal of assimilation but he was still willing to contribute to the paper just not as frequent as before to give way for more Filipino voices to be heard and he preferred that del Pilar lead the newspaper. Over time, Rizal had his excuses if he stopped writing for La Solidaridad: he wanted to write his books and he thought it imprudent if his published dissenting views be contradicted by other contributors on the same publication but La Solidaridad could not get its paws off him.

Rizal was indirectly mocked by an article in the publication and he was not the only one who sensed this. Many readers of the newspaper hated del Pilar for allowing such a controversial piece to be published and slowly but surely support for the paper’s editor and his cause was running out especially after the tragedy at Hacienda Calamba. Ilustrados back in the Philippines financing the newspaper ended their contributions but del Pilar still held on. In the end, the newspaper was terminated anyway as Filipinos back home surely lost faith in it.

This was the political void that Jose Rizal eventually filled. He argued that Filipinos sent abroad to be educated must come back to the Philippines in order to enlighten the people and bring them up from their manipulation, victimhood, and misery. There was no hope in Europe for change given the stubbornness of the Spanish government and the only hope of change lied in working in the Philippines. This he not only preached but also tried to practice.

Trying to be a Savior

During Rizal’s return from Europe when Rizal’s family and fellow tenants were not yet evicted from Hacienda Calamba, he applied what he learned from Europe by offering free medical services to the poor peasants of the area. Many of his patients were healed by his treatments and unsurprisingly his reputation grew not as a doctor since the peasantry did not understand the science but as a faith healer. Over time, the doctor had his own religious following, especially after his execution, who claim that Rizal was the Filipino Christ, a prophet, and even an incarnation of the Holy Spirit.

One of many “Rizalista” shrines in Laguna province

We could easily dispute the idea of Jose Rizal having divine origins given our contemporary thought systems but for the peasants who have known only religion and oppression and not modern science they could not help but think of Rizal as a gift from the heavens for their salvation. In our own view, he was no savior but he tried to be to those who could not save themselves.

During the issue of Hacienda Calamba, Rizal stepped in to investigate the suspected perpetrators and eventually to defend the victims­. He found out from his fellow townsmen that the Dominican friars who owned the land of Hacienda Calamba have been slowly and discreetly encroaching on the lands of Filipinos who eventually became their tenants. Their greed was emphasized with their relatively high rent and their unchanged tax liabilities to the Spanish colonial government even if their land holdings have expanded. The justice of the peace of the locality ruled against the friars but they quickly appealed to the Supreme Court in Manila which quickly sided with them. But Rizal would not give up and appealed to the Supreme Court in Madrid. While this was taking place, Rizal advised his family to not pay the rent to the friars with the justification that they did not own the land and with moral conviction this was followed by most of the other tenants as well. The friars tried to divide and conquer the coalition against them by offering a compromise to the Rizal family which they rejected. After that, it all went downhill.

The Supreme Court in Madrid ruled against the Rizal family and the other tenants and the Supreme Court in Manila followed suit with an eviction order. The friars evicted all of them with the help of the Spanish colonial military regardless of the consent and preparedness of the tenants. Their houses were razed and some of the tenants were even exiled to the farthest jurisdictions of Spanish colonialism in the Philippines like Rizal’s brother-in-law. Even Rizal’s mother, an old and frail Teodora Alonzo, was forced to hike on rural roads for dozens of kilometers. It was only after the tragedy did Jose Rizal realized the unrelenting, cruel institutions of Spanish colonialism which veered him towards separatism. But he was not going to give up to determinism just yet and appealed to good fortune once again. Third time’s a charm.

Sabah was also known before as North Borneo.

This third time might just be the most radical endeavor Rizal would make setting aside authoring the most subversive novels in the colonial histories; it was dubbed by historians as the “Sandakan Project.” After the mass eviction of the hundreds of tenants of Hacienda Calamba, Rizal decided to lobby and network for the transfer of his Calamba community and family to Sandakan, Sabah. He coordinated with the British North Borneo Company and the Spanish colonial government in Manila in order to ensure the transport and settlement of the migrants. The terms of the lease were ridiculously advantageous but real: permanent settlement with property rights over the land for 999-year lease and exclusion from forced labor and military service. We can only speculate what else Rizal had in mind for the colony in a foreign land besides resettlement and the continuation of Filipino agricultural life and work but we can surmise that he desired to create a new society that transcended the corrupt colonial one back in Spanish Philippines. An agricultural society that was self-sustaining and self-governing that not only had power emanating from its members but also ensured individual freedom for all. To take it up a notch, some historians have even gone as far as to speculate that the colony was also meant to be a military base of operations for the coming Revolution.

But the Spanish colonial government was just as adamant as Rizal in reaching its goal of regulating its people and restricting Rizal’s influence and so rejected his daunting operation with the rationale that workers are needed in the colony’s agricultural sector. And so he failed to become a savior but at least he tried.

Trying to Share What You Know

Jose Rizal may have not been the perfect, constantly-winning savior some of us want him to be but at the very least he worked for many small victories brought about by sharing what he learned from his studies in Western Europe.

After his disassociation with La Solidaridad, he returned to Manila to bring the political campaign from the political and middle classes of the Spanish motherland to the larger society of the Philippine colony. He had a vision of an organization he sought to found, its ultimate goal and the means to reach it; this organization was named “La Liga Filipina.” The organization was not exclusive to ilustrados like La Solidaridad but it was open to all Filipinos, rich and poor, who cared deeply for the colony’s situation and its people’s welfare. Its objectives were not just to unite the country and study and apply desired reforms but it also included public service, shared protection and even research and “development of education, agriculture, and commerce.” Practically, it was supposed to be a non-government organization (NGO); a research or policy institute; a think tank using the American variant. On its opening day, many people attended the event with much hope even after the fall of del Pilar’s La Solidaridad. We could go so far to say that La Liga was supposed to be the country’s first and finest think tank for the Filipino people but sadly it only lasted for four days. Rizal was later arrested on the grounds of subversion and alleged involvement in rebellion by the Spanish colonial government and later exiled to Dapitan in the far southern island of Mindanao but even from there he still tried to serve the Filipino people as best as he could.

In Dapitan, Rizal invested himself in the local community by constructing and managing a public school for the youth, offering his medical services to those who were sick, and even setting up an enterprise for the local people to compete economically against the Chinese migrant entrepreneurs, however he was not constantly on the lookout for people to serve with his erudition. Besides reading letters from the outside world and replying to them, he experimented in farming and gardening, undertook scientific research in the field of biology and actually found time to invest his heart in an Irish young woman.

One of the many flags of the Katipunan organization.

The larger world would eventually knock on Rizal’s door for his expertise and influence once again when an emissary named Pio Valenzuela came for a visit. He represented the interests of the Katipunan, an underground revolutionary organization founded by Andres Bonifacio after the demise of La Liga Filipina. He came for advice, specifically Rizal’s take on the revolution. Rizal actually preferred non-violent means to achieve independence for the Philippines but giving his advice portrays how much he conceded to the fact that Filipinos have lost tolerance for Spain’s colonial oppression and political stasis. Rizal had four main ideas that he wanted the Katipunan to keep in mind:

1) Collect as many weapons and ammunition as possible.
2) Many wealthy Filipinos must align themselves with the Revolution for they can potentially turn against it.
3) If the conspiracy was discovered, then start the revolution anyway because to delay it would diminish its power and fury as conspirators are arrested over time.
4) Wealthy Filipinos who do not side with the Revolution are potential threats who must be eliminated.

Jose Rizal might be a pacifist but he was far from stupid to let the revolution collapse on itself. He has studied history and has also recognized the disruptive and destructive powers of not just military technology but also the influence of wealthy, self-interested social groups. He wanted the Katipunan to have them under control as much as possible in order to surely steer the people’s revolution towards the preferred end goal.

Without a doubt the goal of Rizal and his supporters and sympathizers was independence but it was not the only one and it was not enough on its own.

A Nation Without a State

The histories and contemporary realities of some developing countries has shown that independence without an effective state or an ingrained sense of nationhood would leave a country prone to fracture or even dissolution. Jose Rizal knew the importance of the idea of the nation since he studied historiography and the histories of Western European countries.

He did not want to establish the Filipino nation as an identity that was based on race and ethnicity, which was the norm at the time in Europe, but wanted to construct one that transcended these unchangeable human physical traits. He wished to incorporate abstract concepts like culture and ethics into the idea of a nation so that the criteria for belonging would not just be easily attainable by those who wish to become a part of it but would also be truly relevant in affecting the affairs of the larger community.

The Diversity of Philippine Languages.

Rizal conceived of the Filipino nation that was based on a shared language, culture, history and code of ethics. He must have taken into consideration that the Philippines was an archipelago diverse in the area of languages and that to mandate a national language on everyone in it would be no different from Spain’s uninvited intervention. We can only speculate what he meant by a common language for the Filipino nation but it is safe to assume that it would be a lingua franca collectively agreed upon that would allow speakers of different languages of the archipelago to communicate while respecting the existence, relevance and practicality of the diversity of languages in localized settings.

Finding a lingua franca suitable for all Filipinos would probably be the most difficult approach of unifying a diverse nation but consolidating it through shared history, culture, and a code of ethics might just be an easier process. Virtually every Filipino had the same recent history and culture: the dominance of the Roman Catholic faith or superstition, Spanish colonialism, and the numerous harmful policies it has wrought on everyone. This oppression emphasizes the forced capitulation of human dignity and it can inspire acts of vengeance or self-exile from a victim on an individual level. Usually, such lone cases will be insignificant and forgotten in history but on higher levels of socialization the possibility of historical or political irrelevance decreases and the latter has happened many times before Rizal’s time in the many peasant uprisings with some even lasting for decades. This is what Jose Rizal wanted the Filipino people to realize: that they were not alone in their suffering and in their fight against foreign oppression. This creates a sense of sympathy and most importantly solidarity with other victims they do not personally know which fosters a national consciousness.

With Filipinos aware of their belonging to a larger community, a code of ethics must be ingrained in them in order to ensure the survival and general welfare of the nation. Rizal implicitly highlights this necessity for a return to civic virtues given the characters and their behaviors in his novels. Most of the Filipinos he has portrayed are representations of personal flaws such as arrogance, victimhood, resignation, dependence, and even betrayal for personal advancement. But he has also featured characters who have gone against human folly through education, insight, love of country, and work for the common good. These are at least some of the virtues that Rizal wanted the Filipino nation to espouse.

The Filipino nation, to survive and thrive on its own, must first work against their own vices and resist deprivation and replace these tendencies for hedonism and victimhood with a morality that advances not just the individual’s dignity, freedom, and power over one’s self but also the good of the larger community. Erasing these distractions from the minds of people will better channel their energies and capabilities to sacrifices that lead toward the betterment of the nation they belong to. In unity, they can fight for themselves, for each other against despotism and demand for justice, their liberty and the preservation of their dignity. What the Spanish colonial government would not give to the Filipino people, the Filipino people can work and fight for instead. There is no point in relying on a government that does not deliver and ending the passionate fight with mere blame would be incompetent. The fight and work for the common good must continue.

The people taking responsibility for themselves and acting when the opportunity arises was what Rizal wanted from the Filipino nation. Not only did he want it to be separate and autonomous from the state but he also wanted it to be at par with and even opposed to the state — a radical perspective in itself. He wanted to have faith in people’s natural capacity to do good. It can be thought that this was sufficient to create and govern the nation without the state. That capacity for the people to act, together with effective “moral and intellectual leadership,” has the potential to create a national culture of civil society and that is something he would have wanted for the Filipino nation had it not been malformed.

Not Your Typical Filipino Expatriate

So far, Rizal has contributed much to nationalist thinking and to the process of nation-building but stereotypically like all human beings he had his own flaws. During his stay in Western Europe, he would always remind his fellow Filipino expatriates that they went abroad to learn, not to engage in life’s pleasures, and to return home for service once their education was finished. Contrary to what he preached, Rizal engaged in all kinds of leisure in his spare time such as fencing, partying, drinking, and even monthly visits to a brothel. He was also demeaning towards women, previously writing that women belonged to domestic life to support her children and husband in their pursuit of the national good and that women should not express their sexuality. This sexist opinion of his eventually changed somewhat when he found out that the women of Malolos, Bulacan province fought for their right to pursue an education.

Jose Rizal with the Pardo de Tavera family

There were other episodes in Rizal’s life where we would find him amusing and even stupid. During his close call with death by starvation, Rizal thought that he could survive the ordeal through hard exercise only to fall deeper into sickness. What is even more comical is the fact that he was studying to become a medical practitioner. When the play Hamlet was in town, Rizal loved it so much that he watched it three times in less than a month. Contrary to our Filipino stereotype, Rizal did not know how to sing but he knew how to play a musical instrument. And for all his knowledge of the languages, he was ignorant of Bisaya.

BONUS: 1939, Filipinos await the journey to Alaska from Seattle, Washington State.

But at the very least, the one thing that we should give this Filipino expatriate credit for is the fact that he returned. In contemporary times we all know that a majority of Filipinos, given the choice, would rather work and live abroad comparing the stability and quality of life overseas and at home. To go against the norm would be a personal challenge but even if that was the case over one-hundred years ago Rizal adamantly came back to the Philippines to help his nation with what he learned overseas and that in itself is a rare thing. What is even exceptional is the fact that he sacrificed his life for his people.

It was only in taking the required Rizal class in college that I began to gradually understand what Rizal meant in his novels. The Philippines did not just need separation from the remains of the Spanish empire but also the nation-building necessary for the country’s stability and progress. He wanted to achieve separation through peaceful and virtuous means even if it meant pushing the envelope hard against the breaking point of the Filipino people. And even if the breaking point was breached, manifest in the establishment of the Katipunan, he settled with the revolution by giving his advice to the clandestine organization for the successful overthrow of the Spanish colonial government.

Indeed, we are now a separate country but what about the current state of our nation? It is still far from the ideal that Rizal imagined; actually, it is safe to say that it has regressed since the Katipunan began to fracture. We have political factions pit against each other over the wealth of the country, a state that has co-opted the essence and responsibilities of civil society, and established systems that only accelerate the Filipino diaspora.

Unsurprisingly, New Jersey and California are full of Filipinos. You will never be alone (ethnically and racially).

Rizal’s nation, built on a united people with a strong ethical, cultural, historical, and intellectual foundation that nurtures a robust civil society, has yet to be fully realized. Although, at least his vision was somewhat salvaged by the many NGOs and think tanks that have arisen in the country sustaining the Philippine intellectual and civic traditions that the ilustrados started.

Heroes Unknown and Unsung

Jose Rizal is understandably our hero not just because it was American colonial policy but also because he had the most written evidence or documents to justify his post mortem position. Actually, there are many Filipino heroes that deserve similar recognition, praise and even critique for their efforts in building the nation but they did not have the significant number of troves of records about them like Rizal to fully recognize their agency.

Sadly, these characters of history only get general descriptions not exceeding half a page in high school history books when in fact they should be deserving more: academic essays at the very least or even a book. However, such enterprises can only begin when their respective stories have finally been uncovered and verified. For the mean time, we can only wait on the word of our historians. Or maybe, it is just too late to find out more about them but at least we have a hero whom we know so much about and whom we can be somewhat proud of.


Special Thanks
I would like to thank Professor Ma. Crisanta Flores for teaching PI 100 or “The Life and Works of Jose Rizal” to my class which has actually inspired me to write this protracted but insightful article. Mr. Floro Quibuyen also deserves my thanks for writing his book “Nation Aborted: Rizal, American Hegemony, and Philippine Nationalism” which challenges the past notions of Jose Rizal that strip him of admiration. Some chapters of his book I used as references for my article and the same goes for some required readings of the Midyear 2017 PI 100 class of Professor Flores.