In the early 1990′s a survey was held asking who should be the national hero: Dr. Jose Rizal or Andres Bonifacio? The survey was in relation to the moves not only to rename the Philippines but also to replace some important symbols of the country. The pro-Rizals won and the idea of renaming Philippines lost. For these, the proposals vanished even before a bill was submitted to the Congress.
My response then was in favor of Rizal as we share some common traits (or so I thought) and these included a broad forehead, a love for peace, a fondness for traveling, and an interest in learning more and more things. The only attributes I didn’t acquire are his genius, his being a linguist, and his charm for girls. But a few years later, this adulation for the national hero crumbled when I happened to read an intriguing passage in one of the editions of Gregorio Zaide’s books “Jose Rizal: His Life and Works”. The passage reads: Why is it that on June 19, 1861 there is only one Filipino who rose to become a hero in fighting against the Spaniards?
Whether Zaide was just emphatic or not, his statement lead to some reflections. First, what can be said then of the people in the Muslim Mindanao who sacrificed their lives just to drive away the colonizers? Surely, there must also be some individuals born on June 19, 1861 in that area only that they were unrecognized because almost of the Filipino historians are Catholics and are located either in Luzon or in Visayas. Well, that does not even include the other Filipinos who were also born on that date but also fought the Spaniards in their own might. The only difference is that like our Muslim brothers, their heroic acts were unrecorded because of historical bias. In the very first place, history is what the historians write of a given event in a given period.
Second, is Rizal a Filipino? Filipinos in those days were called as “indios”. If one belongs in the upper echelon of the society, he is an “illustrado” or a member of the “principalia” and not a Filipino. So simple logic says Rizal cannot be a Filipino unless the declaration calling the residents of the Philippines as Filipinos has a retroactive effect. But if that is the case, the title given to Rizal as “The First Filipino” is not applicable to him for Lapu-lapu could be a Filipino, or Princess Urduja, or Datu Sulayman.
But more than this, one can also probe into Rizal’s “Filipino citizenship” by reading his writings between the lines. Ironically, the national hero doesn’t want to be a Filipino but a Spaniard. Even pro-Rizal biographies will attest to this as Rizal’s advocacy is to make the Philippines a province of Spain and not an independent country run solely by the locals. This then leads us to the third question: Is Rizal fighting against the Spaniards?
While almost all Rizal biographies say the national hero is fighting against the Spaniards, the truth is otherwise. Why did Rizal wanted the Philippines to become a province of Spain? Or why did Rizal preferred to spend most of his life in Madrid studying rather than in America or in other countries of Europe? Though it may be true that Rizal also studied in Paris and Berlin but still, a greater portion of his education is under the Spanish system. And why did Rizal chose to have a relation with a lady Spaniard named Consuelo Perez? And why did he befriended a number of Spaniards including Consuelo’s family? These are all because Rizal is not fighting against the Spaniards but against tyranny and oppression.
Next, it should also be noted that most of the writings of the national hero is in Spanish. The reason for this, according to the experts in the life of Rizal, is that the national hero would just like to awaken or arouse the hearts of the Filipinos that they may unite in fighting against the Spaniards. However, if this is Rizal’s real intention, the national hero should have written in the vernacular – either in Tagalog, Bisaya or Bikol. In this way, he could have been easily understood. Besides, isn’t Rizal the one who authored the most used and abused line “Ang hindi marunong magmahal sa sariling wika ay higit pa ang amoy sa malansang isda”? Or is Rizal thinking then that Spanish is the “sariling wika” of the Philippine Islands? If so, then he is not a Filipino but a Spanish which is also consistent with his advocacy on the full recognition of the Philippines as a province of Spain.
These, however, does not diminish Rizal’s heroism. Actually, Rizal can even be considered not just as a Philippine hero but also the hero of the world. In the times when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was still non-existent, in the times when colonialism was a “fad”, there is this individual whose height may be short but had the courage to stand among the giants to cry against oppression, tyranny and in-equality – at least of the races. That is something the family of Rizal, his descendants, and the Filipinos should be proud of.
But in remembering him, in idolizing him, and even in worshiping him (as there are those who consider him as a prophet of God), one should be cautious not to put words in his mouth or go beyond his real intentions. That distorts reality and that changes Jose Protacio Mercado Rizal from what he really is and what he really wants.###
(This article also appears in the column The Sidelines in the newspaper Albay Journal.)