“Why independence if today’s slaves will be tomorrow’s tyrants? And they will be, because without a doubt a person who submits to tyranny loves it.” –José Rizal, El Filibusterismo A s known to every Filipino as George Washington is to Americans, his name and face are everywhere: on one-peso coins, match books, sports arenas, universities, banks, insurance companies, even hospitais and funeral parlors and, especially, in every town plaza and city square throughout the Philippine archipelago, where a statue in his likeness, portrayed in the European-style morning coat he wore to bis execution, forms the backdrop to street life. As Ambeth Ocampo, the preeminent Filipino authority onJosé Rizal, points out, Rizal has become “a brand name that covers you from cradle to grave. Imagine being born in a hospital named in honor of Rizal and be[ing] handled in death by Funeraria Rizal.” In my education, however, he was a “nowhere man,” to quote the Beatles, absent from the curriculum at the private schools I attended.
I have no recollection of any course that examined his life and works. You would think that, at least on the university level–and I am a graduate of the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University, whose most famous alumnus was this man–such a course would have been mandatory. Indeed, in theory it was, since 1956, when Republic Act 1425 mandated that schools had to have copies of Rizal’s works in their libraries and that these were to be “included in the list of approved books for required reading in all public or private schools, colleges, and universities.” But my college transcript, there in black and white, says otherwise. Strange, to say the least. At the time, knowing next to nothing about this late-nineteenth-century historical personage, primus inter pares in the pantheon of Filipino heroes, I never really questioned this lack, this absence that spoke eloquently about how our own history was being misrepresented–an official history partly determined by the fact that the schools we attended were conservative Roman Catholic and this largely explained the disconnect between Rizal and our lives.
Ina region dominated by Islam and Buddhism, the Philippines is the only predominantly Roman Catholic nation, the most enduring legacy of 333 years of Spanish colonial rule (1565-1898). Its church hierarchy is one of the most conservative in the world and, to paraphrase Gerard Manley Hopkins, meekly recks the Vatican’s rod. In his writings, Rizal was a fierce and brilliant critic of clerical authority, for which the unforgiving Spanish friars had him killed. His novels were proscribed by the Catholic hierarchy through to the first half of the twentieth century, the blink of an eye when considering that the Vatican harbors resentments for ungodly periods of time–it took four centuries before Rome acknowledged its error in condemning Galileo. And its right-wing practitioners still mutter that it was his fellow Jews who killed Christ. The dominant Catholic prelate in the country in the 1960s, when I was in college, was Rufino Cardinal Santos, the Archbishop of Manila and an ultra-conservative–he forbade, for instance, the mixing of the sexes at the then all-male Ateneo.
He opposed implementation of the bill, as did the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), claiming that Rizal’s writings violated Canon Law 1339, which bans works that attack church dogma or defend errors condemned by the Holy See. A staunchly Catholic senator made the rather curious argument that Filipinos could venerate Rizal without having to read bis works. In the CBCP’s current objections to government-sponsored family planning, finally made law in 2012 after previous attempts had failed, I see the same insidious refusal to acknowledge the separation of church and state. But before detailing the precise history of Rizal’s nationalist anticlericalism and his impact on a country then still in the making, it is essential to examine his life in the context of nineteenth-century fin de siècle Philippines. In other words, who was José Rizal and why is he so enshrined?
Born in 1861, the same year as Rabindranath Tagore, and the seventh of eleven children, Rizal came from, according to Benedict Anderson, “a cultivated Spanish-and-Tagalog-speaking family, of mixed ‘Malay,’ Spanish and Chinese descent.” His father, Francisco, was a prosperous gentleman farmer, an inquilino –someone who didn’t own but leased the land that his tenant farmers cultivated. The landowners in this case were the local Dominicans, whose hacienda of over 35,000 acres in Calamba, Rizal’s hometown, was the largest in the colony. His mother, Teodora Alonso, an upper-class woman who had gone to college–unusual for those times–and whose father had once served in the Spanish Cortes or Parliament, exerted a powerful influence on his intellectual development. A precocious child, Rizal grew up to be a polymath: botanist, ophthalmologist, fencer, essayist, and novelist, among other things. And a polyglot as well, conversant in ten languages, correspondent in six.
Though short in stature (only five feet, three inches), he commanded attention everywhere he went, due to his prodigious intellect, charisma, and a genuine and intense curiosity about how other people lived. Being from a prosperous family, Rizal and other young men like him were considered ilustrados , or enlightened ones, in the parlance of the day. By the time he first left his homeland in 1882, at the age of twenty-one, the Spanish empire–at one point, the world’s largest-had long been in irreversible decline. The diminution of empire meant a tighter hold on its remnants–the Philippines, the Marianas (modern-day Guam), Puerto Rico, and Cuba. Spain had controlled the Southeast Asian islands since 1565, except in 1762, when the British seized Manila during the Seven Years War–a global conflict between England and France, with Spain an ally of the latter. Spain would exit these territories permanently when defeated by the United States in the 1898 Spanish-American War, enabling the latter to join in the grand game of colonialism.
Educated at the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila, where he graduated in 1877 summa cum laude , and the Dominican University of Santo Tomas in Manila–established in 1611, it is the oldest in Asia, older than Harvard–where he studied land surveying and assessing, Rizal went on to obtain a medical degree in Spain, specializing in ophthalmology, with further studies in Paris and Heidelberg. The young man soaked in the ideas of the Enlightenment, finding in Europe a more secular spirit than would have existed in the Manila of his time–the ironic trajectory of the colonial moving to the metropolitan center and there finding the intellectual freedom to sharpen his anticolonial arsenal. His experience, the resentments brought about by colonial rule, coupled with the systematic attempts of the state and the friars to keep the indigenous population ignorant, made Rizal take up the pen. He wrote his first novel, Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), published in 1887, five years after leaving Manila, followed by El Filibusterismo (The Subversive) in 1891.
Brilliant, anticolonial critiques at the same time that they offered unforgettable portraits of nineteenth-century life, the books zeroed in on the moral rot infecting colonial society, exemplified by state-sponsored cruelty, friar abuse, greed, and betrayal of their sacred vows. In Noli the young protagonist, Crisostomo Ibarra, only son of a wealthy Spanish mestizo landowner, has just returned from seven years of study in Europe (paralleling the real-life situation of the author) full of evangelical zeal to better the lot of his countrymen through education. However, he learns to his shock that his father, Don Rafael, has died in jail and, worse, his corpse was thrown into a nearby lake. Subsequent events expose the corruption, venality, and vehement friar opposition to any progressive ideas that might lessen the colonial stranglehold. Set up by Padre Salvi, also a friar, he gets implicated as the mastermind of a faux rebellion. The beautiful Maria Clara, his childhood sweetheart, betrays him in order to protect her parents’ honor.
She winds up in a convent, he is imprisoned but manages to escape with the help of the enigmatic Elías. Chased by theGuardia Civil, Ibarra is presumed to have been shot dead. In the much darker Filibusterismo, the narrative picks up thirteen years later, when Ibarra’s naïve optimism is replaced by cynicism and an implacable desire for vengeance–strikingly similar to that detailed in Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, whichRizal had read as a schoolboy. Long thought to be dead, Ibarra disguises himself as Simoun, a confidant of the governor general and a fabulously wealthy jeweler who never takes off the dark blue glasses he wears in public. Embittered by the events chronicled in Noli, he plots a coup d’état, recruiting young men to his cause. The attempted coup fails, however, and Simoun kills himself. TheFili only intensified friar hatred directed at Rizal. His fate was sealed.
Rizal’s novels, along with his other writings–examples of the empire writing back–had laid the groundwork of nationalist consciousness. Manila was now much more cosmopolitan, an emerging regional hub for international trade–the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 had cut down travel time between Europe and the Philippines from three to four months to approximately six weeks–with the British and the Americans, among other foreigners, opening up offices in Manila. It is safe to assume that Rizalmet some of these English-speakers, with whom he could practice the language, one of the many he had acquired some fluency in, and which would come in handy when travelling to the United States and London. Not long after Noli came out, Rizal returned to Manila in the latter half of 1887. He had by then become something of a rock star, attracting crowds every time he ventured from home–incensing the friars.
Fortunately for Rizal, Governor General Emilio Terrero resisted the friars’ demand that Rizal be dealt with harshly and even provided him with a bodyguard, a certain Lt. José Taviel de Andrade–though the officer was there as much to keep an eye on Rizal as to protect him. He and Andrade quickly became friends:Rizal had a knack of charming even those prepared to dislike him. His family, however, worried that the friars, in their vindictiveness, would have him imprisoned or worse, convinced him to return to Europe after only six months. The friars were a far cry from those pioneers who had come in the late sixteenth century, better-educated hardy souls who truly believed in their evangelical mission and who sought to protect their converts from the abuses of the civil state, reflecting their contemporary Fray Bartolome de los Casas’s attempts to render colonial policy in Latin America more humane.
In contrast, these nineteenth-century friars may have taken vows of chastity and poverty and preached about the rewards of heaven for the virtuous, but they themselves were ardent devotees of earthly pleasures, and often took advantage of native women, which Rizal alludes to in characters such as Padre Damaso in the Noli and Padre Camorra in El Fili. (There is, they say, a bit of friar blood in every Filipino.) Immensely rich, owning huge tracts of land and acting every bit as feudal landlords, by the time Spanish rule ended in 1898, friars controlled 400,000 acres, one-fifteenth of the country’s cultivated land. Around Manila alone, they owned more than 110,000 acres. These men of the cloth had a history of doing away with individuals whom they saw as major threats to their wealth and power. In 1719, angered at then Governor General Fernando Bustamante’s efforts to cut them down to size, a mob of friars marched on his official residence, slew Bustamante’s guards, his son, and the governor himself.
There is no record of the killers ever being brought to account. In 1762, capitalizing on the British seizure of Manila, Diego Silang, a middle-class upstart Indio, and his followers succeeded in expelling the Spanish from Vigan, an important entrepot in the north, and confiscating the wealth of the church. Encouraged by his success, Silang–who declared Christ to be his Captain General, with him as second-in-command–wrote to the British to propose an alliance. The British, tongue firmly in cheek, responded by appointing him Sargente Mayor, Alcalde Mayor, and Captain in the War for his British Majesty. Alas, the alliance was not to be. A mestizo hit man by the name of Miguel Vicos, blessed by the local bishop, assassinated Silang. The rebellion, now headed by his widow, Gabriela, continued for another four months but she and other leaders were caught in late 1763 and hanged.
That friars wielded power beyond their parishes is evident in testimony given at hearings held by the Philippine Commission in 1900, when U.S. colonial occupation was a little more than a year old. Under the Spanish the friar was school inspector, president of the health board, the urban taxation board, and the board of statistics. He was the go-to person when questions of a person’s civil status arose. A layman testified that the local authorities “took no step, obeyed no superior orders and did not perform the duties of their office without previous advice, permission, or knowledge of the friar curate, since the protection of the latter sufficed at times to defy the anger of the governor of the province and paralyze or evade the action of justice.” The friar was, in short, in the historian Reynaldo Ileto’s estimation, some kind of a god-king in a state that was essentially theocratic. Rizal returned to Europe, via the Pacific, in early 1888. He chose the longer, roundabout route, rather than via the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal, as he wished to visit Japan and the United States.
He stayed six weeks in Japan learning Nihongo in the company of Usui Seiko, whom he called O Sei San and with whom he was having an affair. In his diary, he apostrophizes her: “Sayonara, sayonara! You will never come to know that I have thought of you again, or that your image lives in my memory. … When will the sweet hours I spent with you return?” In San Francisco, he boarded the train to New York City, staying for three days. He found the Hudson River and its landscape “beautiful” and comparable to “the best in Europe.” He was impressed by the energy and zeal of Americans but was quick to note the racism directed at “Orientals.” In an essay “Filipinas dentro Cien Años” (“The Philippines a Hundred Years from Now”), he foresaw how, were the Philippines to throw off the Spanish yoke, other foreign powers such as Germany and Japan would be tempted to take over, though the most direct threat would come from the United States, with its keen interest in the Pacific.
The most interesting minor character in El Fili, written after his trip to the U.S., is an American–there isn’t one in Noli –a Mr. Leeds, conjuror and ventriloquist dressed in black with a booth at a city fair. He possesses a disembodied head that acts as an oracle. Secretly arranged with Simoun, when Mr. Leeds gets an audience that includes Padre Salvi, the friar who had set up Ibarra, the head “speaks” and relates events in ancient Egypt eerily similar to those that lead to Ibarra’s downfall. Salvi faints, stricken by guilt. Simoun has, through Leeds, set the play wherein be catches the conscience of the friar. After sailing to London, Rizal lodged in rooms within walking distance of the British Museum, where he painstakingly copied Antonio de Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas (History of the Philippine Islands), written in 1609. Morga was then the Lieutenant Governor of the Philippines, and his account of colonial life, the first by one who was non-religious, was quite comprehensive. Rizalannotated his copy, not only to modify Morga’s observations but, more importantly, to show that the Philippines had had a long history that predated the Spaniards. It was printed in Paris in 1890.
He then set to completing El Filibusterismo, published in Ghent, in 1891. From London on to Paris, where, with several other ilustrados, be attended a Buffalo Bill Wild West show at the Paris Exposition in 1889. Impressed by the dignity and athleticism of the Native Americans, the ilustrados started calling themselves Los Indios Bravos,or Brave Indians, turning a label meant to put them in their place into a badge they wore proudly. Once back in Spain, Rizal became a leading light of the Propaganda Movement–funded by the Manila-based Comité de Propaganda. Other leading lights were Marcelo H. Del Pilar and Graciano Lopez Jaena, both of whom had written and published satires on friar behavior in the Philippines and found themselves the objects of friar ire, prompting an intense and sudden curiosity on their part about life in Spain. Del Pilar had penned a parody of the Ten Commandments–his First Commandment was “Worship the Friar Above All Else”–while Lopez Jaena caricatured friar corpulence and avarice.
The Propagandists published La Solidaridad (Solidarity), a fortnightly, from 1889 to 1895, which advocated various reforms such as the integration of the Philippines as a province of Spain, representation in the Cortes, the Filipinization of the clergy, and equality of Filipinos and Spaniards before the law. Deciding that the struggle for reforms was best carried on in the islands, telling a friend that “the doctor must go to the patient,”Rizal set sail for home in October of 1891–by then, El Fili had come out and been distributed clandestinely in Manila–with a lay-over of several months in Hong Kong. There, among Filipino expatriates, he could better read the situation in Manila. His parents and some of his siblings came to stay with him, Rizal supporting them through his practice as an ophthalmologist.
Probably at the urging of his family who wanted him to stay away from Manila–they were convinced, rightly so, that harm would come to him–he conceived the utopian idea of establishing a settlers’ colony in Sandakan, in what was once British North Borneo, the Malaysian state of Sabah today. It would be a sanctuary for himself and his family, as well as the people of Calamba, his hometown, who had in 1887 been dispossessed of their lands by the Dominicans, in retaliation for a suit that Rizal’s family, at his urging, had filed against them, questioning the increase in rents and the imposition of other fees. The state unsurprisingly ruled in favor of the friars–an experience Rizal would fictionalize in El Fili . Though the British offered Rizal 5,000 acres of land, rent-free for three years, the financial costs involved were huge.
Besides, the proposed settlement would be just 250 miles from the Sultanate of Sulu in the southern Philippines, nominally under Spanish rule but whose mostly Muslim population viewed the Spanish as interlopers and infidels. To the Spanish, therefore, the putative colony would have meant a base for rebellion, protected by the British lion. This doomed, as I once wrote, “Rizal’s endeavor to have the country come to him rather than he to the country.” He left Hong Kong and set foot in Manila on June 26, 1892, his family having preceded him. That same day, he met with Governor General Eulogio Despujol, who received him four more times over eleven days–a fact unsettling to the friars. Despujol had his reasons. Primarily, he wished to stress his office’s independence from the clerics when it came to state matters. Shortly after his arrival, Rizal formed La Liga Filipina, or the Philippine League, reiterating the Propaganda Movement’s peaceful advocacy of reformist goals. The League had grounds for hope: Puerto Rico already had some form of elections.
As for Cuba, Anderson points out that similar reforms had already been instituted, where political parties “had been legalized (within definite limits) and … a various and lively press had developed. If all this was possible in Cuba, why not also in the Philippines?” There was nothing radical in La Liga’s aims, and yet the friars pounced, charging that the League really intended to provoke a public uprising. They also claimed that anti-clerical pamphlets had been found in Rizal’s baggage, two weeks after he had been cleared to land. (In fact, these were planted, having been churned out by a press belonging to the Augustinians.) This time, Despujol had Rizal arrested and exiled to the coastal town and Jesuit mission of Dapitan, on the northwestern coast of Mindanao, the second-biggest island in the country. He would spend four years there that in retrospect were four quite peaceful, almost idyllic years.
Leon Maria Guerrero, his Filipino biographer, notes that Rizal, in a letter to a friend, remarks with evident relief that there were no friars in Dapitan, just the Jesuit parish priest. There, he founded a school for boys and an eye clinic, where he treated town residents for free. Aside from helping set up a water system, he constructed a still-extant earthen relief map of Mindanao in the courtyard of the town church. It was in Dapitan where he met the young Josephine Bracken, an Irish-Chinese mestiza who had accompanied her nearly blind stepfather from Hong Kong, so the latter could be operated on by Rizal, whose fame as an ophthalmologist had spread beyond national boundaries. Bracken would be his lover for the rest of his life.
He refers to her, and his family and friends, in the concluding couplet of “Mi Ultimo Adios” (“My Last Farewell”), penned on the eve of his execution and a masterpiece of nineteenth-century Spanish verse: “Adios, mi dulce extranjera, mi amiga, mi alegria / Adios, queridos seres, morir es descansar” (“Adieu, my sweet stranger, my friend, my happiness /Adieu, my darlings, to die is to rest” [my translation]). In the meantime, an ardent admirer of Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, a working-class firebrand and a member of La Liga, upon its effective dissolution, had formed a secret revolutionary society, the Kataastaasan Kagalagalangan Katipunan ng Mga Anak ng Bayan (KKK, or the Highest, Most Revered Society of the Nation’s Sons and Daughters), referred to simply as Katipunan. The Katipuneros were mostly from the proletariat, their aim independence from Spain by force of arms. Many, if not most, had been inspired by Noli and El Fili. Bonifacio sent an emissary, a certain Dr. Pio Valenzuela, to Dapitan, to ask Rizal what he thought of an armed uprising, hoping, of course, that the great man would approve.
Anticipating Gandhi, Rizal strongly disapproved of violence, stating that he would disavow any revolution, as it would cause the deaths of thousands of innocent people. In his unpublished “Manifesto to Certain Filipinos,” he characterized such an uprising as “disastrous” and “worse than absurd.” Bonifacio was furious over this refusal but such was Rizal’s stature that nevertheless the Katipunan used his name as one of their passwords–which the authorities would later cite as proof of Rizal’s involvement in the revolution that began in late August of 1896, the first in Asia against a Western colonial power. Prior to that August, in 1895, under the leadership of José Marti, the Cubans had started their own revolution–the excuse for the United States (remember the Maine? ) to leap into the fray, ostensibly to aid the Cubans but in reality to jumpstart their beginnings as a colonial power by taking advantage of Spain’s doddering status as an empire.
Rizal volunteered to serve as a doctor with the Spanish forces attempting to quell the Cuban revolution, to show his loyalty to Mother Spain, most likely on the advice of Dr. Ferdinand Blumentritt, an Austrian and Filipinist whom he had befriended and grown close to while living in Europe. Besides, Rizal the altruist was also someone who needed a bigger stage. His proposal was accepted the next year, 1896. He set sail for Barcelona on September 3rd, barely a week after the revolution had broken out, still viewed by the authorities as of little consequence. Once it became clear that this was in fact not just of great consequence, but also radically different from previous uprisings that were regional rather than national in scope, Rizal was ordered arrested once he landed in Barcelona. He was held at Montjuich Prison overnight, then sent back to Manila the next day. Imprisoned at Fort Santiago in early November, he was subjected to a mock trial for his alleged role in the revolution.
Even though he had a lawyer, Luis Taviel de Andrade, the brother of the military officer assigned to him in 1887, who managed to mount a credible defense–nothing linked Rizal directly to the revolution except the use of his name as a password–the verdict was, as we say in Manila, lutong Macao (literally, Macao cooking), i.e., the fix was in. Judged guilty of treason, on December 30, 1896, his elbows bound behind his back, he was marched to the Luneta, a public park facing Manila Bay and just outside the thick hoary walls of Intramuros, the fortified citadel the Spanish erected in 1572 and designated as the capital of Las Islas Filipinas. He was to be executed by a firing squad made up of his countrymen, Spanish riflemen at their backs, ready to shoot should the natives hesitate to pull their triggers. Just before the command to fire was given, Rizal uttered the words the crucified Christ did before he gave up the ghost:Consummatum est. (It is finished.) Struck by the fusillade, Rizal somehow managed to twist his body around and fall facing the sky.
The Spanish who had jeered him as he walked to his death now cheered at the sight of the fallen man. It is said, however, that the few Indios present broke through the cordon and rushed to dip their handkerchiefs in Rizal’s blood–as though this were the blood of a martyr. Learning of his death, the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno characterized Rizal as “the Tagalog Christ.” If the Spanish thought that his death would bank the fires of the revolution, they were wrong. Rizal’s martyrdom only intensified the ultimately successful fight for independence from Spain, but one that was betrayed in 1899 by a United States government intent on taking on, after the title of Rudyard Kipling’s fervent colonialist poem, “The White Man’s Burden” (the poem’s subtitle is “The United States and the Philippine Islands”). Kipling’s view of Filipinos as “new caught sullen peoples / half devil and half child” was in keeping with the racist ideologies of the time.
Less poetic was President William McKinley’s justification for annexing the Philippines: “… there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them,” forgetting conveniently that the islands had been a bastion of Roman Catholicism for more than three hundred years. Thus began the policy of Benevolent Assimilation, by which Little Brown Brother could become a symbol of Via Americana’s transformative powers. The 1899 Philippine-American War was longer and more brutal than the brief Spanish-American War, the hostilities lasting for at least a decade, with more than 4,000 American lives lost and anywhere from a quarter million to a million Filipino, mostly civilian, casualties. The war set a familiar pattern for U.S. intervention and later conflicts, in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
There was widespread opposition to the war of annexation in the United States, with the Boston-based Anti-Imperialist League in the forefront. William James and the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie were among its well-known stalwarts, but its most celebrated member was Mark Twain. Twain initially supported U.S. intervention but once it became clear that his government had imperialist designs on the islands, he became one of its most outspoken critics. In his classic essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” he wrote, “The Person Sitting in Darkness is almost sure to say: ‘There is something curious about this–curious and unaccountable. There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.'” Twain also deplored the use of the water cure (the precursor of waterboarding), where a prisoner was force-fed water until he was bloated, then pummeled and jumped on, forcing the water to be expelled through his orifices, sometimes causing death.
Because of his role in shaping his country’s destiny, José Rizal is often described as the “First Filipino” and/or “The Great Malayan.” Rizal has since served as an inspiration to countless nationalists, intellectuals, and artists, not just in the Philippines but in countries such as Indonesia where, for instance, the characters in the great Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer’sBuru Quartet are aware of Rizal and the 1896 Revolution. Many, however, qualify their admiration for him by citing the belief that Rizal’s iconic stature was partly due to the need of the U.S. colonizers, who had just defeated a fledgling Philippine government, for a hero in whom nationalist aspirations could lodge, without any cry to arms. They point to Andres Bonifacio, who did ignite the 1896 Revolution and whom the Americans ignored.
It is true that Rizal’s pacifist stance suited American purposes, but General Emilio Aguinaldo, president of the revolutionary government prior to the U.S. takeover, had, already in 1898, proclaimed a day of commemoration for Rizal. And, Guerrero points out, “Filipinos had chosen Rizal even before he died, and his final martyrdom was only the confirmation of a spiritual dominion that even theKatipunan acknowledged by rising in his name.” In short, Yankee endorsement simply publicized his acceptance by the Filipino public. It was never the cause. Rizal’s popularity grew to be such that Artemio Ricarte, a general in the Philippine revolutionary army, once proposed renaming the country after him, so that Filipinos would henceforth be known as Rizalinos. Ricarte was living in exile in Japan, a devoted anti-colonialist who refused to pledge allegiance to the United States that had emerged triumphant after the 1899 Philippine-American War.
According to Nick Joaquin’s excellent A Question of Heroes, Ricarte proposed the establishment of the Rizaline Republic, which, “when established, would ‘recompense’ all those who had joined the ‘Liberating Army’ to ‘overthrow quickly and by whatever means the present foreign government.’ Cried Ricarte to his people: ‘I shall not consent that you remain under a foreign government and, fully decided, I shall cross the seas to seek you.'” The proposed change, had it taken place, would have made it even more difficult to learn about the man behind the legend. As it is, the distance between the outsized stature (and statues) of the man and the man himself is formidable. As the historian Ambeth Ocampo states, we need to see him “without his overcoat” so he can regain his humanity, warts and all. There are many, however, who refuse to do so.
A two-hour drive south of Manila lies Banahaw, a mountain considered sacred by a great number of people. At 7,000 feet, the rugged mountain attracts New Agers, who swear to UFO sightings there and claim to commune with diwatas, or magical spirits; the Maoist New People’s Army guerrillas; and homegrown religious sects, for whom Rizal is a revered figure, a saint, even a demigod. Sects such as Tres Personas, Solo Dios (Three Persons, One God) and Ciudad Mistica del Dios (the Mystical City of God) regard the mountain as their New Jerusalem, far from Sodom-and-Gomorrah Manila. To them, Rizal symbolizes an indigenous identity grounded in a nationalism inseparable from genuine spirituality. Having spent time with these sects, what I find particularly striking about them is the fact that they are female-headed, linking them to a precolonial matriarchy and specifically to the babaylan(loosely translated as shaman), the traditional spiritual center cum healer, usually a woman, though there was the occasional cross-dressing male babaylan.
Banahaw has long had a history as a refuge, a hideout, from colonial restrictions. It was where, chafing under Spanish repression and getting back on their horses, remontados (a Spanish word meaning those who remount) moved to. There the church and civil state had little claim. They would no longer be “abajo de las campanas” (“under the bells,” referring to the policy of resettling Indios in Spanish-designated towns). In 1839 the mountain served as a base for an Indio, Apolinario de la Cruz (Apolinario of the Cross), who believed he had a calling to serve God, but being an Indio, had been rejected by the friar orders. Not to be denied, Apolinario set up his own religious group, the Cofradia de San José, or Confraternity of St. Joséph, which attracted quite a following, worrying both the religious and secular authorities who suspected that the fraternity was a cover-up for malcontents. De la Cruz was hailed as the “King of the Tagalogs,” echoing the reference to Jesus as the King of the Jews. He refused membership to anyone but full-blooded natives–a clear dig at the Spanish and the creoles.
The authorities sent troops to suppress what was now viewed as an insurgent movement. Though initially successful in repelling the attacks, De la Cruz and his followers were defeated. At the age of twenty-seven, the would-be friar and his aide, called Purgatorio, were executed, along with about 200 confraternity members. De la Cruz was beheaded, his head stuck on a pole and placed by the roadside for all to see. This barbaric act only reinforced the image of de la Cruz as a martyr, yet another example of the failed proto-revolutionary. Spanish Philippines being a theocratic state, any move to Filipinize the clergy was quashed. In 1872, the workers at a Cavite arsenal across the bay from Intramuros mutinied to protest the abolition of their exemption from tribute and corvée. The mini-revolt was quickly suppressed, but the mutiny was seen as a golden opportunity to get rid of Indio secular priests who had championed the Filipinization of the clergy, the incipient demand of de la Cruz, and one that implied both a burgeoning sense of nationalism and a diminution of friar power.
The friars never forgot that it was a mestizo priest who helped spark the Mexican war of independence. Those thought to hold liberal, therefore subversive, views were rounded up, including three priests seen, according to John Schumacher, as “leaders in the campaign for the secularization of the parishes,” causing both the civil authorities and the friars to grow “more suspicious than ever of Filipino priests and of Filipino ilustrados as well.” The three were Mariano Gomez, Jacinto Zamora, and José Burgos. A curate at the prestigious Manila Cathedral and the mestizo son of a Spanish military officer, Burgos was the most well-known proponent of Filipinizing the clergy. He was an intellectual and doctor of canon law and theology– and a fencer and boxer, to boot.
Two decades before Rizal, Burgos criticized the friars for their worldly riches and huge landed estates and for deliberately keeping the Indios in a state of ignorance, by refusing, in spite of an 1863 royal decree, to teach them Spanish. The friars, Burgos wrote, were “sand in the cog wheels of the country’s civilization.” The priests were garroted at the Luneta, the same greensward where Rizal would be shot in 1896. The last to be killed, Burgos shouted that he was innocent. A friar replied, “So was Jesus.” Burgos was thirty-five years old, as Rizal would be at his death. Paciano Mercado, José’s older brother and a protégé of Burgos, had witnessed the grisly garroting. Fearing arrest, the twenty-one-year-old Paciano returned to Calamba, their hometown, and his account of the horrific event made an indelible impression on the eleven-year-old José. The young José, when sent to enroll at the Ateneo de Manila, used the surname “Rizal” rather than the patronymic Mercado, to forestall any suspicions toward anyone with that surname. For Rizal and his generation, the fate of the three priests provided both inspiration and a cautionary tale. It is to these three priests that Rizal dedicated El Filibusterismo.
Looking back, Rizal would write, referring to himself in the third person, “Without 1872, Rizal would have been a Jesuit and instead of writing the Noli Me Tangere , would instead have written something entirely different.” The Rizal Monument is the focal point of the Manila park that is named in his honor, and isn’t far from the spot where he was shot. The monument is also ground zero for measuring distances throughout the archipelago’s more than 7,000 islands. Statues and plaques honoring the man can be found in other countries as well, including Canada, the U.S., Spain, Germany, Peru, Mexico, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia. My wife and I have come across testimonials to him serendipitously. In Barcelona’s El Barrio Chino, the working-class neighborhood that flanks the Ramblas, we saw a plaque outside an Art Noveau hotel, stating that JoséRizal had lodged there.
We would have booked a room, but alas, the place was full. In Madrid we happened to choose a hostel not far from Plaza Mayor that turned out to have been a meeting place for Rizal and his fellow ilustrados , with a plaque indicating this. And in Montreal, walking from the metro to the Jewish museum, we noticed a statue in a park that bore a familiar resemblance. Going up to it, we confirmed that it was indeed a statue of José Rizal, paid for by the local community of Filipinos. Had Rizal stayed on in Europe he might have lived to a ripe old age, and never wound up in the pantheon of Filipino heroes. But his novels alone guarantee his place not just in Philippine but also in world literature. Harold Augenbraum, Rizal’s American translator, opines that Rizal “wrote two of the most influential works of colonial or postcolonial fiction in the history of Spanish language literature.”
Anderson characterizes El Fili as “a kind of global novel,” the “first incendiary anticolonial novel written by a colonial subject outside of Europe,” an assessment that must necessarily be applied as well to Noli . Both novels have been translated not just into English but also into all the archipelago’s major regional languages as well as languages as diverse as Chinese, German, French, Russian, and Japanese. Rizal’s characters live on in Filipinos’ popular imagination, and have come to represent certain types, the way Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom came to be synonymous with servile behavior, or Cervantes’s Don Quixote with hopelessly idealistic aspirations. The proper Maria Clara, for instance, represents the traditional demure Filipina beauty, while Sisa, a mother deranged by grief over the loss of her two sons, is often cast in plays and performances as a symbol of the oppressed motherland. Tasio the philosopher is simply the village wise man writ larger.
Elías and Ibarra have become the reference points people use when making a case either for armed revolution (Elías) or peaceful reform (Ibarra). Padre Damaso, the boorish Franciscan lecher, is a label applied to any priest thought to be licentious, particularly relevant at a time of sordid revelations concerning sexual abuse within church ranks. It is in his comic depictions of both the Spanish and the Filipino, and of various Catholic practices and beliefs, that I find these novels to be truly remarkable. Above all they are brilliant satires. His portrait of the wealthy, shrewish native Doña Victorina, for example, who looks down on her fellow natives, is hilarious and perfectly encapsulates the many Doña Victorinas, female and male, one meets in any postcolonial society. She views her marriage to a Spaniard, even one as hapless and indigent as Tiburcio de Espadaña, who makes a living as a fake doctor, as proof of her elevated social status. Imagining she is pregnant, she tells her friends, “Next month I and de Espadaña will go to the Peninsula.
I don’t want our child to be born here and called a revolutionary.” She added a “de” to her husband’s name. The “de” didn’t cost anything and gave a certain something to the name. When she signed it, she put Victorina de los Reyes de de Espadaña. This “de” was a mania. Neither the man who engraved her cards nor her husband could get the idea out of her head. The author pokes fun at the practice of accumulating indulgences, a kind of spiritual savings account meant to lessen any time spent in Purgatory–a belief that Martin Luther refused to endorse, and a major reason for his break with the Vatican. In one scene, members of a lay religious sorority discuss the proper way to say the required prayers. One woman asks: “Well, I want to know how to recite them: three Our Fathers in a row, the three Ave Marias in a row, and then three Gloria Patti in a row, or three times one Our Father, one Ave Maria, and one Gloria Patti?” “Well, it’s like this: Our Father three times …”
“Excuse me, Sister Sipa,” Rufa interrupted. “You have to do it the other way. You don’t mix males and females. The Our Fathers are male, the Ave Marias females, and the Gloria are children.” Scenes like this Manilamade the Spanish friars then, and the Philippine church today, insist that Rizal retracted his anti-Catholic views on the eve of his execution, when three Jesuits visited him precisely for that purpose. The evidence is suspect. When his family asked to see the retraction that he was alleged to have signed, no document was produced, though it turned up in 1939, apparently having been misplaced in the Archbishop of Manila’s archives. Its authenticity has been questioned. And just as Ibarra’s father was denied a proper Christian burial, so too was Rizal, whose corpse was dumped into an unmarked grave, an eerie example of life imitating art. The debate over the alleged retraction continues, and will probably never be resolved– an indication that, as is true of great works of literature, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo continue to provoke, infuriate, and delight. Francia, Luis H.
(MLA 7th Edition)
Francia, Luis H. “Jose Rizal: A Man for All Generations.” The Antioch Review Winter 2014: 44+. Academic OneFile. Web. 14 Nov. 2014. Document URL