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Rizal on anti-Asian hate

I don’t advise anyone to make a trip to America,” Rizal wrote to his family in April 1888, the day after he saw the San Francisco Bay for the first time. Unlike hundreds of others after him who left their hearts in San Francisco, Rizal’s opinion seems harsh and needs some explanation. First impressions colored Rizal’s short trip to America, and it is unfortunate that it happened at the hands of US customs and immigration.

“Here they are crazy about quarantine,” Rizal wrote, “they have strict customs inspection, imposing tax after tax on anything…enormous, enormous.” What dutiable items did Rizal bring in that were taxed exorbitantly? I don’t know, but the real reason for his irritation was being quarantined for a week because of smallpox. A California-based newspaper columnist once wrote that Rizal entered the US illegally, using an alias—Rizal rather than Mercado. He grew up on outdated textbook history that stated Jose used Rizal rather than Mercado in school so he wouldn’t be linked with his elder brother. Paciano Mercado stopped schooling fearing persecution from his close association with the ill-fated Fr. Jose Burgos, executed by garrote in 1872. Rizal’s school records, both in the Ateneo Municipal and the University of Santo Tomas, show that he used both surnames Rizal and Mercado, sometimes interchangeably. Furthermore, if the family worried about Rizal being connected to Burgos, why did they seek the help of Burgos’ nephew to smoothen an impediment to his admission in Ateneo?

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Rizal was quarantined on board the SS Belgic and it was feared they carried smallpox on board. The real reason for quarantine, according to Rizal, were 642 Hong Kong Chinese on board that were not welcome in the US. He blamed a government seeking re-election trying to win votes by appearing tough on Chinese immigrants. Rizal was upset because there was no report of smallpox in Hong Kong, and nobody on board was sick upon arrival. Rizal reported that everything seemed arbitrary: customs employees ate on board the ship, silk cargo was off-loaded without fumigation, while passengers were not allowed to disembark.

A week later, Rizal checked in at the Palace Hotel for two days. A historical marker on the building commemorates Rizal’s stay, with a kilometric kiss-ass text that nobody reads. It is longer than Rizal’s sparse impressions of the city in his diary: shops are closed on Sundays, Stanford is a rich man, Market Street is the best, [they have] Chinatown. Filipinos who visit Palace Hotel are amazed that Rizal traveled in style. But he was not luxurious at all, very frugal with money knowing the financial setback his education and foreign travels made on his family.

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While the Rizals were well to do, sometimes harvest was late resulting in a delay in Rizal’s allowance. Rizal once advised Paciano to send money through HSBC, a detail that made Rizal the poster boy for HSBC Philippines in 1996. Fact-check revealed that while Rizal did favor HSBC, Paciano thought otherwise and replied that Standard Chartered had better exchange rates. With no online banking in Rizal’s day, the family literally resorted to “pera padala” by asking Filipino stewards on ships bound for Europe to carry Rizal’s allowance in cash. They also sent: jaleyang bayabas, bagoong, bijon or miki noodles, and “juchiqueng itlog ng banac” probably preserved fish roe.

That Rizal always traveled First Class is surprising to most people. He did so to avoid racial discrimination. As a colored or “Oriental” in a white man’s setting, Rizal was treated better in First Class than Budget Economy. When Rizal was freed from quarantine he wrote: “…only First Class passengers were allowed to land; those of the 2nd and 3rd classes — Japanese and Chinese — remained for an indefinite period. It is said that in that way they got rid of about 300 Chinese, letting them gradually die on board. I don’t know if it is true.” In the movie “Titanic,” only First Class passengers had life vests and guaranteed space in a life boat; everyone else was left to themselves in a shipwreck situation.

Rizal’s 1888 visit becomes relevant today with the rise of anti-Asian hate in the US that stems from the pandemic and a ridiculous US president who called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” Rizal noted “ignorant Americans” confused other Asians with Chinese and disliked them too.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, anti-Asian hate, Jose Rizal, Looking Back, Philippine history
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