Every Rizal Day and in my talks throughout the year, I am asked about why José Rizal is still relevant— that's a relief because I am tired of trivializing the hero.
Kidding aside, although one can be irritated by the lingering questions, I am happy that they are actually being asked: what is the importance of remembering his holiday? Should he be a national hero if he was actually fighting for Hispanization and not for a separate Nation? Did he really have a concept of the Filipino Nation?
The late Jesuit historian Fr. John Schumacher, S.J. argued in his works that the Propaganda Movement was pro-Hispanization, and he saw that as the first step for eventual and gradual separation, which could only lead to building our own nation.
Floro Quibuyen always told me that the key to understanding Rizal's own dream of us, the Filipino Nation, is to look at the short-lived society he founded in July 1892--The La Liga Filipina. It aimed to build a nation of Filipinos who were: “nagkakaisa (magkapisan), nagdadamayan, nagmamalasakit, nag-aaral, nagpapaunlad, at nagpapatupad ng pagbabago.” These concepts should be as relevant today as they were in Rizal’s time. I propose celebrating Rizal Day by humbly drawing 9 lessons from the way he lived his life that would still be relevant to today’s Filipinos:
1. BE PROGRESSIVE. My partner in the Facebook live show Dulowtard History Live, Prof. Van Ybiernas, argued that what Rizal and the propagandists did against the Spaniard was, in a sense, trolling. Trolling is used by the weak to irritate the powerful. In fact they were so trolled by Rizal's Padre Damaso, Salvi and Doña Victorina that they eventually killed him. Others can call this activism, or just being plain progressive. Tell people the ills of society so progress can be achieved. But take note that Rizal exposed the ills of society and attacked those that make it worse, but did not antagonize fellow Filipinos, even if he was also telling them where they’d gone wrong.
2. THINK CRITICALLY. Rizal and the Propagandists were called Ilustrados not just for being educated but because they are believers of the Enlightenment Philosophy. They did not just accept things as they are, they began questioning the inequality in the status quo. They did not wait for miracles to happen but advocated scientific and reasonable approaches in solving problems. In short: use your coconut. Fanaticism and blind faith can be the unbecoming of a Nation.
3. EDUCATE YOURSELF. To be honest, Rizal was not democratic in his politics although he is a liberal by philosophy. To become a worthy citizen of the Nation, he believed, one should be educated. But what was Rizal's kind of education? Quibuyen talked about Rizal's progressive education when he taught in Dapitan, a non-traditional approach which is not based on a canned standard curriculum but is anchored on developing the strengths of each student.
4. DEVELOP YOUR TALENTS. Why were the propagandists multi-talented? Rizal was considered a "renaissance man" just like Leonardo da Vinci because he was able to do things both in the sciences and the humanities, but he was not the only one. General Antonio Luna was a pharmacist and a chemist, Juan Luna was a sailor and a painter, and so on. One must understand that during the time of our ancestors, many Spaniards thought lowly of Filipinos. The propagandists, by being multi-talented, were actually proving a point about Filipinos being their own people, their own Nation. By the product of their talents, they were able to make the people feel united in their achievements and their progressive and educated thoughts. Juan Luna showed the colonizers that we are outstanding through the Spoliarium. Rizal demonstrated in his writings, especially the Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, our common misfortune under colonialism. There was no such town as San Diego, but being nowhere, it was everywhere. Padre Salvi, Sisa, Doña Victorina and others are reflections of realities of Philippine life under colonialism. These novels and portrayals of Philippine society showed us that realizing our common problems should unite us as a Nation.
5. MAKE A DIFFERENCE. It is not enough to be educated ourselves and to develop our talents. Rizal proved in Dapitan that if one decides to, an individual can change the lives of other people. Quibuyen wrote that aside from "progressive education" Rizal's other legacy for the 21st century should be "social entrepreneurship." When the Spaniards exiled Rizal to Dapitan, the goal was to discourage him in doing his thing by bringing him to the "edge of the earth". But even if he was only one person, a "one man NGO," he tried to change the lives of the people by instilling to the people of that sleepy town a sense of industry and pride in work. He taught them the latest technologies in agriculture, fishing, and even collected them into a cooperative. When he won the lottery, he bought land so he could be productive. Rizal had money in the process, but he did not forget to make a difference as well to people's lives that when he left after four years, people were actually crying because Rizal significantly changed the way they looked at their world.
6. RESPECT WOMEN. Some consider Rizal a misogynist, because he portrayed almost all his women characters in his novels as weak, including the main female protagonist, Maria Clara. But we should look at the novels not just as a rebuke to the colonial system, but also as a wake-up call to Filipinos. It was his way of showing Filipino women their situation at that time and that they should act. One should read his congratulatory letter to the women of Malolos who agitated to be taught the Spanish language. He basically pointed out the role of women, especially mothers, in raising patriotic kids who will eventually work for their country. Crucial to these is the education of women, because the blind cannot lead the blind. Historian Luis Dery summarized in his own words the message of Rizal's letter: "If you want to kill a Nation, you have to make the women stupid." He knew this for a fact—he himself was first educated by his mother, and he was brought up in a home with nine surviving female siblings, some of them eventually joined Andres Bonifacio's Katipunan.
7. KNOW YOUR HISTORY. With his novels, he showed us that we have a common misfortune, but in writing the history of the Filipinos in our own perspective, he was trying to show us that we can be one in our identity. Zeus Salazar said that the contribution of Rizal and the propagandists to our being a nation was the tripartite narrative of history. Before that, the Spaniards used to tell us the bipartite view of history which were: (1) before Spain came, there was darkness and (2) the Spaniards brought the marvelous Christian civilization to us. This kind of narrative taught the people that all good things can only come from foreigners and that they were our only hope. In his annotations to a historical work by Dr. Antonio de Morga, Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas (Events in the Philippine Islands), and through his historical essays such as "On the indolence of the Filipinos" and "The Philippines Within a Century" Rizal was able to show us the tripartite view: (1) before the Spaniards came, we were free, prosperous and were trading with our neighbors, (2) Spain enslaved us, brought darkness, and we lost our freedom and identity, (3) the society can change and we can bring back our liberties if we work for them. Rizal was able to show us that we have our own identity and culture. He wrote about our maritime culture or our extensive trading with our past. Rizal once wrote, "…perhaps the people will revive their maritime and commercial activities. … And free once more, like the bird that leaves his cage, like the flower that returns to the open air, they will discover their good old qualities which they are losing little by little and again become lovers of peace, gay, lively, smiling, hospitable, and fearless.” You cannot love someone you don't know. If we want to love our country, we have to learn about its past to better understand it.
8. THINK AHEAD. Rizal wrote in one of his early plays, "I enter the future bringing with me my past." Rizal tells us that history is not the only thing that is important to know, rather, its lessons should guide us in giving us foresight, to help us think ahead. He demonstrated this in his essay "The Philippines within a century." He opened it with these lines, "To foretell the destiny of a Nation, it is necessary to open the book that tells of its past." Rizal was able to predict that if Spain will not give us reforms, there would be a violent revolution. But knowing international studies, he also built the case that if we gain our own freedom, America will be interested in occupying us. Which happened in a matter of years. Pablo Trillana, an ardent Rizalist, always reminded us that prescience is also important. Trying to think ahead, makes us proactive in creating a better future.
9. BE A NATION-BUILDER. There will never be a perfect kind of unity for Filipinos. All of us will have different political persuasions, creeds and even cultural identities. But highlighting only these differences and using these to further divide us through a rhetoric of hate and disinformation can only lead to the failure of Nationhood. Rizal and our heroes showed us to fight the ills of society, but not fight with each other, Filipinos against Filipinos. Rizal demonstrated to us that that we can use our talents, our thoughts and our simple efforts to foster a healthy unity and to make us understand each other more. In the time of social media, we actually need to heed this lesson more than ever.
Rizal was not perfect and did not have all the answers to all our problems. That is not the reason why he is great. He is great because he used his humanity and gifts to develop himself and united us to imagine a Nation. There can only be one Rizal, but he and our other heroes like Andres Bonifacio already showed us who we are as Filipinos and what we can be.
30 November 2018, Barbara’s Restaurant, Intramuros, Manila