More than a century has passed since José Rizal’s life was cut short by a firing squad at the Bagumbayan field in Manila in 1896. Since then, Rizal has remained a strikingly iconic figure in Philippine history. His visage is recognizable among all Filipinos as it continues to represent to this day, an enlightened linguist and intellectual, a would-be reformist and reluctant revolutionary, a devoted son of the Filipino people, and the living embodiment of their nationalist consciousness.
When Rizal first began his crusade for Philippine autonomy under Spanish rule, it appeared that he was on pace to cross the threshold from benign dissenter to seditious agitator. More extreme revolutionary elements called him out for being too much of the first and not enough of the second. All Rizal wanted was to help Filipinos to comprehend and achieve their national oneness as a free people in a non-violent manner. He could no more prescribe the regrettable but compulsory shedding of blood than pursue a complete break with Mother Spain.
But Rizal was far too discerning and sensible not to know that Filipinos’ self-determination would have to come at a high human price. This was already a formidable proposition as it was, and then to accomplish it in the middle of soaring animosity between the Spanish colonizers—with four centuries of imperial hubris and domination to back them up—and their Filipino subjects was nothing short of an enormous consummation of Philippine revolutionary history. However reform or revolution was to be done, Rizal could not have been under any delusions as to what that supreme experience would have to cost the Filipino people.
Unable to temporize the revolutionary-minded who were champing at the bit to forcefully stage a revolution, Rizal, as a concession to their willfulness, settled on what were his preconditions for it: the importance of having an educated mass society that would apply that education in the service of proper self-government; stockpiling ample military resources; and the extension of an open request for support from the intellectual and wealthy segments of society. In Rizal’s view, if an armed revolution had to be done, then at least have it done in such a way that it would have the best chance of success.
As much as Rizal’s revolutionary credentials are ritualistically celebrated by mainstream Filipino society, there remain slivers of doubt about his right to be called a national hero. There is little assent to be produced in Rizal’s favor by looking at the historical facts of his half-hearted attitude towards revolution, his upper and cosmopolitan class standing, and the qualification that he was the kosher preference of the American colonial authorities over the supposedly more blue-collar revolutionary leader of the Katipunan, Andres Bonifacio.
But to question José Rizal’s gospel place in Philippine history is to strike a potent blow at our moral grasp of the socio-political presuppositions and practices of emancipation that arose with the rise of Filipino nationalism and with the setting of Spain’s imperial glory. Certainly his public advocacy of the benefits of education, greater rights for Filipinos, the end of exploitation and oppression in society, his call for his compatriots to hit upon the truth of their cultural, political, economic, and religious history, and his ultimate sacrifice for people and country, are more than enough to substantiate his supporters’ claim to national hero status.
A chief disagreement over that status consists in the increasingly-insistent petition that Andres Bonifacio should rightfully be the national hero of the Philippines and not Rizal. Thinking in the interest of national solidarity though, that one should be chosen over the other should seem narrow and even a little petty. There is on balance, room for both Bonifacio and Rizal on the lofty pedestal of national valor. What profoundly bothers me is that the Bonifacio camp is making their case by trying to depreciate Rizal’s historical centrality as they work to elevate Bonifacio’s.
In the popular imagination, the abyss between Filipinos today and their national heroes of yesterday is growing steadily wider. Filipinos rarely look nowadays for salvation in these extraordinary figures from the past. What they see instead—and this includes Rizal as well—are revered but extraneous relics. Hence, with the birthday of José Rizal coming up, what would be of the greatest benefit to Filipinos is to raise him as a national hero higher still.