Friday, June 17, 2005

Rizal Remembered

In the Philippine calendar of holidays, there's nothing particularly significant about June 19. The day will pass like any other, without cause for sorrow or celebration. Not too many people will remember that June 19 is the birth anniversary of Dr. Jose Rizal, our national hero.

I have been wrestling with Rizal for not a few years now. What, I wondered, was so significant about what he had done? He did not lead the revolution like Andres Bonifacio. He did not declare independence as did Emilio Aguinaldo. Though he was a doctor, he was really best known as a novelist, and to be brutally frank about it, I did not think his novels to be very good. After college, Rizal was conveniently forgotten for more practical things.

My opinions changed when, in one of my unplanned wanderings, I ended up in Calamba, Laguna. I took a jeepney to the town proper, got off and walked a bit, rounded a corner, and voila! I was standing in front of the carefully preserved house of his birth. I toured the house (admission was free, by the way) and the garden, trying to get in touch with a bit of history. On the way out, I bought Leon Ma. Guerrero's excellent book, "The First Filipino: A Biography of Jose Rizal."

Ambassador Guerrero's book undid what two years and one semester of Rizal courses in high school and college had done. Unlike the brilliant, noble, and immaculate hero portrayed by well-meaning teachers, the Rizal in this biography was tinged throughout with Rizal's humanity: ambitious and hopeful, mildly arrogant and somewhat hot-tempered, struggling on despite family tragedies, treacherous 'friends', and failed relationships. This was the portrait of a genius in all his flawed glory.

Rizal's significance was, first and foremost, as a visionary and propagandist. His vision was of a common Filipino people with political freedoms and recognition; his weapon, as journalist and novelist, was his pen, sharper than any sword. Although he did not openly call out for revolution, he was certainly its light and inspiration. And for that they killed him.

I sometimes wonder what Rizal would be if he were transplanted to the present and thrust into the milieu that is Philippine politics today. Disappointed? Perhaps. Discouraged? Probably not. He was a writer at heart, and in all likelihood, he would take up his pen and carry on the fight once more.

Just think of all the possibilities he would have with today's modern media at his disposal. Someone rightfully said that Rizal was the first Filipino blogger. He was certainly a prolific writer, both in publication and in private correspondence. In the 1880s his message was hampered by the limitations of the print medium. Today, who knows?

The following passage is not Rizal's, but Graciano Lopez Jaena's. See how far we've come since Rizal's time:

One or two days before the election, the principalia and the outgoing mayor have a meeting to agree on the designation of candidates on election day... [The parish priest] presents his candidate, and like it or not, he imposes him on the principalia with the supremacy that he takes for law, so that they may vote for him on the set date.

...From all this it may be deduced: that the candidate almost always elected; the fictitious nature of elections made on the basis of suffrage limited to the principalia and the local headsmen...

The political power of friars and parish priests has been long broken, of course. Sadly, only to be replaced by a new theocracy. These are the self-anointed who utter, "The Lord chose me..." and then proceed to impose their will on the people based on the fictitious nature of elections. After all, it's axiomatic that God helps those who help themselves, right?

So Rizal would feel right at home in these modern times. Right down to the sedition charges they would certainly file against him.

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