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I asked my students what Rizal’s last three words were in his “Mi Ultimo Adios.” Many did not know that the correct answer was “morir es descansar” or “pamamahinga ang mamatay.” One guy stood up and boldly declared, “Sir, I think it is: ‘İhasta la vista, Amigo!’”
The kitchen Spanish the student knew, they did not learn from Spain or Latin America. They learned it from Hollywood. They complained, “Luma na kasi that poem, sir! More than a century old na.”
I said, “To be or not to be.”
They chorused, “That is the question!”
So we know a 400 year-old Shakespeare passage, but not a Rizal poem.
Watching National Artist Eddie Romero’s teleserye “Noli Me Tangere,” boys wolf-whistled and girls cried when Ibarra, played by Joel Torre, kissed the lips of Chinchin Gutierrez’s Maria Clara in their last scene at the asotea. “What’s wrong with that?” I asked.
Everybody chorused, “Maria Clara, no touch!”
They were shocked when I read to them the original, which says: “Maria Clara cogió la cabeza del joven entre sus manos, le besó repetidas veces en los labios, le abrazó, y despues, alejándole bruscamente de sí…”
National Artist Virgilio S. Almario faithfully translated the passage thus, “Kinabig ni Maria Clara ang ulo ng binata, ulit-ulit na hinagkan ang mga labi, niyapos, at pagkatapos, pabiglang itinulak.”
What was wrong with the teleserye was that it was Ibarra who gently kissed Maria Clara instead of her grabbing his head, kissing him repeatedly on the lips, embracing him and then brusquely pushing him away, as was described in the original novel. Here is a case of a modern 20th Century director, catering to a 19th Century-thinking audience, watching Rizal who appears to belong to the 21st Century.
How come our knowledge of Rizal is not informed by what he actually thought and wrote?
Lack of access to primary sources is most probably the reason why the past century’s generations, including my own, were misinformed about Rizal. Luckily for us, translations made by the Jose Rizal National Centennial Commission have now been made available to the general public by the National Historical Institute based on the collection published in Spanish by the National Library in the 1930s. There is no reason for us in the 21st Century to be as ignorant and gullible as in the past with regard to our national hero.
THE FILIPINO’S HERO
President Emilio Aguinaldo’s 1898 decree virtually made Rizal a national hero by declaring December 30 a day of national mourning, “in memory of the great Filipino patriots, Dr. Jose Rizal and other victims who succumbed during the past Spanish domination.”
During the American period, however, Rizal as national hero was co-opted by forces adverse to the idea of real independence for the Filipino nation. The same forces ascribed to Rizal ideas alien to our hero’s very own. What happened was exactly like what Rizal himself commented about Spanish misinterpretations of Filipino beliefs. He wrote to Ferdinand Blumentritt about the use of the word Catalonan for priestess, “I am afraid that in this case a mistake has become an accepted truth by dint of writers copying one another.”
And so it happened that in the mid-20th Century, Rizal was pictured as an ivory-tower intellectual, an ilustrado, who could not “shake off” his Spanish orientation and “wanted accommodation within the ruling system.”
His writing his novels in Spanish was made to mean he targeted as audience the Spaniards, whom he wanted to personally equal, more than his countrymen. It did not occur to them that we still did not have Pilipino as national language during Rizal’s time. Would his ideas have spread had he written in Tagalog to cater to a non-reading public? (I am sure that our people would be mature enough a hundred years from now not to believe the idea that my using English now means I only want to personally equal some ugly Americans.)
Rizal was made to appear opposing Philippine independence from Spain, even quoting from him as saying,
…under the present circumstances, we do not want separation from Spain. All that we ask is greater attention, better education, better government employees, one or two representatives and greater security for our persons and property. Spain could always win the appreciation of the Filipinos if she were only reasonable.
Although the above passage quoted verbatim Rizal’s letter to Ferdinand Blumentritt dated January 26, 1887, it does not truthfully reflect his own belief.
Blumentritt was an Austrian professor of geography at the Municipal Atheneum of Leitmeritz, Bohemia. Encarnación Alzona calls him a prolific writer whose “works [included] a Map of the Island of Mindanao, Breve Diccionario Etnográfico de Filipinas, numerous scientific papers, and magazine articles on Philippine questions, some of which appeared in the Filipino fortnightly La Solidaridad.”
Rizal started corresponding with Blumentritt in 1886 when he heard that the Austrian scholar was studying Tagalog. Rizal wrote him a letter in German and sent him a copy of Rufino Baltazar Hernandez book, Aritmetica, written in Tagalog and Spanish. Their intellectual exchanges lasted for ten years. Rizal’s last letter to his friend was from his prison cell in Fort Santiago dated December 29, 1896.
Even as he translated into Tagalog works of Friedrich von Schiller and Hans Christian Andersen, Rizal also translated Blumentritt’s articles about the Philippines. He reasons,
“It seems to me important that the Filipinos should know that foreigners take more interest in the study of their country than they themselves do.”
He admired and bought a book by a certain Humboldt, which Alzona believes to probably be The Languages of the Malayo-Polynesian Family where the author asserts Tagalog to be the “richest and most perfect language among them, considering it the prototype of that linguistic family.”
But Rizal had little regard to Spaniards who study the Philippines to even think of becoming like them. As far as their scholarship was concerned, his comment was, “One must be very careful in reading Tagalog words written by Spaniards. At home, we give no value, absolutely none, to the Tagalog of the Spaniards.”
ILUSTRADO BUT NOT ELITIST
Rizal was an ilustrado elite, an enlightened intellectual. But he was never elitist. He always had the common people and the whole nation at heart. He transcended his class and embraced the whole nation. In return, the whole nation embraced him. That is why we call him a national hero. On the one hand, to be national is to breach class distinctions. On the other hand, to be enlightened is to embrace the less privileged masses and lead them to a better world.
A Filipino priest-scholar, Father Vicente Garcia, defended Noli Me Tangere from its detractors. Rizal did not know him personally. But he wrote him a letter to be able to exchange views with him on how the patriotic movement could redeem our people who have long been oppressed.
Rizal asked his fellow ilustrado, What shall you say to God who has hated tyranny and has made human intellect free when He asks you,
“What have you done for the unfortunate and the oppressed? In what have you employed your extraordinary intelligence and your enlightenment? Why have you not followed the impulses of your heart which has shuddered at seeing everywhere injustice, ignorance, abjectness, and sufferings?”
For Rizal, however, the instinctive feeling for the masses must be tempered by the thought for the nation and must not remain as purely individual acts of heroism. In the same letter to Fr. Vicente, he wrote:
The smallness of the advancement that the Filipino have made in three centuries of Hispanism is all due, in my opinion, to the fact that our talented men have died without bequeathing to us nothing more than the fame of their name. We have had very great intellects.
He enumerated names of illustrious Filipinos from earlier times to the present. He continued,
Nevertheless, all that these men have studied, learned and discovered will die with them and end in them, and [we] shall go back to recommence the study of life. There is then individual progress or improvement in the Philippines, but there is no national, general progress. Here you have the individual as the only one who improves and not the species.
In order to contribute to the imagination of the nation, he urged the scholar to write about their own experiences and the products of their studies and analysis, to write about the concrete conditions of the Filipino. It is then that the succeeding generations could add to the knowledge of our past. He said,
Leave us in writing your thoughts and the fruits of your long experience so that condensed in a book, we may not have to study again what you have already studied and that we may increase the heritage that we receive from you either expanding it or adding to it our own harvest.
Let’s go back to the discussion about Blumentritt and class accommodation with Spain. In the beginning, the Austrian scholar believed that Spanish colonialism contributed to the development of the Philippines. Rizal had to explain to him,
“I admit that the friars have done much good, or at least they wanted to do so. But allow me to remark that they are very well recompensed for their services, firstly, because they receive worldly riches and afterwards heavenly ones also; and because in truth they exchanged heavenly riches for the lands of our forefathers, however much earthly life… [ellipsis in the original] may not be exactly Christian life…”
So, what did Rizal write to Blumentritt about Philippine independence? Below is the whole paragraph from where the mid-20th Century passage was lifted:
I agree with you concerning the independence of the Philippines. Only, such an event will never happen. A peaceful struggle shall always be a dream, for Spain will never learn the lesson of her former South American colonies. Spain cannot learn what England and the United States have learned. But under the present circumstances, we do not want separation from Spain.
All that we ask is greater attention, better education, better government employees, one or two representatives, and greater security for our persons and property. Spain could always win the appreciation of the Filipinos if she were only reasonable! But, Quos vult perdere Jupiter, prius dementat! [Those whom Jupiter wishes to destroy, he first makes mad.]
It is sad to say that the mid-20th Century quotation was a misquotation. In his writings, Rizal consistently upheld his view on Philippine independence. In fact, he was one of the first Asians who propagandized against foreign rule. In his serialized article entitled “Filipinas dentro de cien años,” he wrote in the pages of the fortnightly La Solidaridad as early as 1890 the following:
History does not record in its annals any lasting domination exercised by a people over another, of different races, of diverse usages and customs, and of opposite and divergent ideals.
One of the two had to give in and succumb; either the foreigner was driven out, like what happened in the case of the Carthaginians, the Arabs and the French in Spain, or else the indigenous population had to give way and perish, as was the case with the inhabitants of the New World, of Australia, New Zealand, etc.
To underscore his point, he used metaphors from both the social and natural sciences about the impossibility of a colonialism that lasted. And he used strong words, too.
The existence of a foreign body within another endowed with strength and activity is contrary to all natural and moral laws. Science teaches us that it is either assimilated, destroys the organism, is eliminated, or becomes encysted.
He indicated, if indirectly, that there can be no assimilation, where the rulers “enter the spirit of their people… to make each forget that they belong to different races… [where] both peoples… [are] welded into one social mass, politically homogeneous. “
Neither can Rizal imagine that as an “organism,” the Filipino nation could ever be exterminated. He declared in an earlier issue of La Solidaridad,
Neither is it possible to exterminate gradually the inhabitants. The Filipinos, like all the Malays, do not succumb before the foreigner, like the Australians, the Polynesians and the Indians of the New World.
Notwithstanding the many wars the Filipinos have had to carry on, in spite of epidemics that have periodically visited them, their number has trebled… The Filipino embraces civilization and lives and is adaptable to every contact with all peoples and to the atmosphere of all climes.
Continuing his metaphor against the presence of a foreign body within another, Rizal believed that to be enclosed in a cyst-like fortress means death to the foreign ruler. And this was what actually happened to the Spaniards in Intramuros towards the last days of the victorious Philippine Revolution in 1898. Rizal said eight years earlier, “Encystment of a conquering people is impossible for it signifies complete isolation, absolute inertia, debility on the conquering element. Encystment thus means the tomb of the foreign invader.”
So what is naturally and morally left for us as a nation? Rizal states,
“The Philippines would have to declare itself, some fatal and inevitable day, independent.”
Upon independence, Rizal dreamt that
“very likely the Philippines will defend with fierce courage the liberty secured at the price of so much blood and sacrifice. With the new men that will spring from her soil and with the recollection of their past, they will perhaps strive to enter freely upon the wide road to progress, and all will labor together to strengthen their fatherland, both internally and externally, with the same enthusiasm with which a youth falls again to tilling the soil of his ancestors so long wasted and abandoned through the neglect of those who kept it from him.
Then the mines will be made to give up their gold for relieving distress, iron for weapons, copper, lead, coal, etc. Perhaps the country will revive the maritime and mercantile life for which the islanders are fitted by nature, ability and instincts, and once more free, like the bird that leaves its cage, like the flower that opens to the air, will recover the old virtues that are gradually dying out and will again become addicted to peace, cheerful, happy, joyous, hospitable, and fearless.”
Studying Rizal and diligently reading his works in the 21st Century is not to slay our fathers of the 20th Century. Rather, it is our way to “increase the heritage that we receive from [the past generations] either expanding it or adding to it our own harvest.” Unsullied by ideological encumbrances, we are able to see how Rizal’s writings still serve as our national guide and compass, especially in this era of globalization when nations have to summon all their strength in order to peacefully compete in the world arena and find their corner of the sky.