The Greatest Filipino
When I was in grade school or possibly first year high school just after the end of World War II, I recall reciting before the class Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” My teacher was so pleased with my performance, she gave me a broad smile and commended me for the fine work I had done.
At that time, I really did not know why we had to memorize Lincoln’s Civil War speech. In the first place, I had only the faintest idea who Lincoln was. Gettysburg was somewhere on another planet and I couldn’t figure out why we were devoting so much time and effort to the subject.
Some people say that one of the blessings of US colonial rule was the establishment of a public school system aimed at bringing about education not just for the elite but for all our people. But at times, blessings can also be burdens, systems can also be forms of enslavement.
While we were being brainwashed with all kinds of historical data concerning our colonial masters, we did not learn much about our own people, about many events that shaped the future of our country, about the men and women who fought and sacrificed their lives for our freedom and dignity.
This year marks the 150th birth anniversary of Dr. Jose Rizal.
For those of you who know most everything about Rizal, you won’t find anything new in this piece. But for those who, like myself, know so little about our national hero, you might wish to linger a while as we go through some of the lesser known aspects of his life and times. I am deeply indebted to National Artist for Literature, F. Sionil Jose, for his generous gift of a book on Rizal by Austin Coates, “Rizal: Filipino Nationalist and Patriot.” My notes are from this book.
Jose Rizal was born on June 19, 1861 in Calamba, Laguna, the seventh child and second son of Francisco Mercado and Teodora Alonzo. Some of us may be wondering why the surname Rizal instead of Mercado. The explanation is that Francisco Mercado wanted to change his surname from Mercado which meant “marketplace” to Rizal meaning “the green of renewal.” But the Spanish authorities who in 1850 made the use of surnames compulsory refused the request for change. Gradually, however, the name stuck, especially as a security measure, considering that the Mercados were suspect in the eyes of the government in connection with the Cavite Mutiny.
Francisco Mercado was a prosperous sugar planter, a man of few words with a reasonably good education, while Teodora Alonzo was one of the best educated Filipinas of her day having been sent to the College of Sta. Rosa in Manila. She spoke excellent Spanish and was a mathematician. Perhaps because she was more cultivated than many of the Spaniards in Calamba she was a target of envy that would result in her arrest twice by the authorities with indications that the instigators were assisted by Spanish friars. To humiliate her, she was made to walk to the prison in Sta. Cruz, capital of the province, a distance of some 20 kilometers. Teodora’s arrest and brutal treatment would have a profound and lasting effect and influence on the future directions of her son.
While on the surface a civil government existed, the Philippines of Rizal’s time was essentially a “frailocracy,” a government of friars. The Augustinians, Dominicans and Franciscans controlled the religious and educational life of the country. The Spanish friar in each parish was responsible for taxes, public works, issuance of cedulas and other government activities normally shouldered by civil authorities. On every issue, throughout the country, the friars were consulted and in the end were the final arbiters. Today, 150 years after, we still have some friars in our midst, ghosts of the past, who go about as though they control our existence and can dictate how we should live our lives.
At age 11, Rizal was sent to Manila to study at the Ateneo Municipal. Ateneo was run by priests, Jesuit fathers, not by friars (an important difference). He became the outstanding student of the day exhibiting qualities of leadership leading to his being chosen as chairman or spokesperson by his peers. He read extensively, particularly history, and was endowed with a retentive memory that was just short of phenomenal.
From the Ateneo, he moved to the University of Sto. Tomas. Here he bested peninsular Spaniards in a literary contest in Spanish commemorating the centenary of Cervantes. When his name was announced and the audience saw the winner was an indio, “the applause dwindled to be replaced with laughter and catcalls.”
Fast forward to October 1896. Rizal was placed under arrest while on board a ship headed for Europe. He was returned to Manila and in November was imprisoned at Fort Santiago. With him in his cell were a bible and a copy of Thomas a Kempis’ “On the Imitation of Christ.” After a brief trial, he was sentenced to be executed by firing squad at 7 in the morning of Dec. 30.
A day before his execution, women members of the family were allowed to visit him. The first to enter was his mother Teodora Alonzo. As she drew near to embrace her son, guards held them apart. She had only a few minutes with him. He asked her to request the authorities for his body for burial.
His last and final farewell, with words unspoken, was to his mother:
To my very dear Mother,
Sra. Da. Teodora Alonzo,
At 6 in the morning of 30 December, 1896
His bible was left to his mother while the Kempis book was for Josephine Bracken with the inscription “To my dear and unhappy wife, Josephine. December 30, 1896. Jose Rizal.” In an alcohol burner was hidden his “Ultimo Adios.”
The place of execution was the Luneta. Rizal was asked if he wished to kneel. He preferred to die standing and refused a blindfold. A Spanish surgeon in attendance asked if he might feel his pulse. Rizal gave his wrist and the surgeon murmured, “your pulse is very good.”
Ironically the firing squad was consisted of Filipino soldiers. Behind them stood a row of Spanish soldiers. At 7:03, the end came for the greatest Filipino who ever lived.
Austin Coates writes in his conclusion: “Jose Rizal lived and died for what he loved—his country and his people. Few people have ever had a leader who so entirely gave himself to them as he did, and who asked so little for himself. His death is so fine an ending that it excites no wish that he should have died another way.”
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