Rizal as the great Malayan

- Boo Chanco -

The birthday of our national hero Jose P. Rizal had always been special to me on a more personal level. It is also the birthday of my late father, whose second name is Protacio, like Rizal and he is our family’s hero who had sacrificed a lot so we can all live wonderful lives. I thought it was uncanny that we celebrate Father’s day around this date too.

June 19 had always been a holiday during my growing up years until some wise guy decided to devalue Rizal and made it a holiday only in Calamba. It is good to know that P-Noy, who is justifiably choosy in declaring national holidays, found it appropriate to declare this year’s 150th birthday of Rizal a time for the entire nation to pause to get inspiration from and show recognition of the greatness of this man.

Some 15 years ago, in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of Rizal’s martyrdom at the Luneta, a special forum was held in Kuala Lumpur entitled Jose Rizal and the Asian Renaissance. It was an undertaking of the Malaysians working with the Ramos administration through the nationalist General Joe Almonte.

Anyway, the opening remarks to that Malaysian sponsored conference on Rizal delivered by then Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim showed Rizal had international appeal, someone whose greatness our neighbors would like to share with us. “The fact that this conference on Jose Rizal is being held in Kuala Lumpur,” Mr. Ibrahim said, “is testimony to the vast appeal of this man beyond the shores of his homeland.”

Mr. Ibrahim continued: “Certainly for us in Malaysia Jose Rizal is not merely a national hero of the Philippines. He was not only the first Malayan but also the first Asian to set the standards in the struggle to restore human dignity and self-respect to subjugated peoples the world over.

“With sustained intellectual vigour, he fought against the colonial masters of the day: a feat of immense courage and profound self-sacrifice which evoked the admiration of all those who later became conscious of their own indolence and humiliation under the yoke of colonialism. It has taken almost 100 years for us to give him due pride of place in the annals of Asian history by reinterpreting the true significance of the contributions of Rizal. It is indeed a tragedy that one of the greatest sons of Asia is also one of her least known outside his own native land.

“For us in the region, Jose Rizal was more than just a symbol of the fight against imperialism and oppression. He was the precursor to the great movement of the region, a phenomenon which we see now as the Asian Renaissance. He brought with him a burning idealism which we very much hope to see being rekindled today.

“In his approach to life itself, here was a man whose quest for excellence and perfection in all his pursuits is truly inspiring. The entire story of his life, however, pales before the fortitude and serenity with which he faced death. In that single poem which he wrote in the final hours of his life, Mi Ultimo Adios, is the expression of the nobility of his spirit, the true love for his fellow men and human dignity as well as his sublime and sincere faith in God.

“The conference is most timely because we are presently engaged in the discourse on the Asian Renaissance which is a subject that transcends the traditional compartments of economic, social or political issues and encompasses more significantly the cultural context, taking us as it were into the realm of ideas. And this is essentially what Rizal stood for, a multi-dimensional approach to the problems of mankind.

“Perhaps even more significant and relevant in the context of the world today is that Jose Rizal cannot be easily compartmentalized into either a symbol, representative of Asia, or, as some critics would have it, a mere Europhile. For Rizal drank deeply from the culture of the West. Having mastered the major languages of Europe, including its classical heritage of Greek and Latin, he became fully immersed in European science, culture and intellectual tradition.

“At the same time, he never lost touch with his Asian roots, having also mastered his own mother tongue, Tagalog, and other Eastern languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese and Malay. Rizal was thus the product, perhaps the very first, of the synthesis between the civilizations of the East and the West. In his person, he embodied the ideals of both. Thus, in this regard, he was a true homo universalis in more ways than the term suggested in the context of the European Renaissance.

 “True to the spirit of Rizal, for as he used to say ‘In my blood runs the wanderlust of the Malays,’ so must he be commemorated in other parts of the world, be it in Kuala Lumpur, London or Madrid. This is not a mere exercise in adulation, but a genuine effort to understand and appreciate his contributions, sacrifices and martyrdom, and to draw from them inspiration in our quest for a new awakening of Asia.”

Mr. Ibrahim’s short speech captures the essence of our celebration today. He spoke of what made Rizal someone all Malays can and should be proud of. More than that, Mr. Ibrahim showed why Rizal continues to be relevant to our lives today. Probably the first citizen of the world from our region, we can draw inspiration from Rizal’s life as we cope with the challenges of globalization.

Best of all, knowing that our nation produced a Jose P. Rizal who was able to accomplish so much in such a short life shows we are capable of greatness despite our worse insecurities. This is no insignificant thought in these times when things seem to be quite lost for our nation.

Rizal in his writings often revealed an uncanny ability to describe Philippine society a hundred years hence. For instance, the Lopez Museum website points out that in his historical essay, “Dentro de Cien Años and Sobre La Indolencia de los Filipinos,” Rizal observed that as a colony of Spain, “the Philippines is depopulated, impoverished and retarded, astounded by the metamorphosis with no confidence in her part, still without faith in her present and without any flattering hope in the future.”

Spain may be long gone as a colonizer but it seems things haven’t changed much. The Lopez Museum website went on to cite another quote from the same Rizal essay: “They [Filipinos] declined, degrading themselves in their own eyes. They became ashamed of what was their own and they began to admire and praise whatever foreign and incomprehensible; their spirit was damaged and it surrendered.”

Shades of damaged culture?

Rizal goes on in still another passage: “The country is poor, it is going through a great financial crisis, and everybody points with fingers to persons who cause the evil and yet no one dares to lay their hands on them.”

The Museum concludes that “these words are worth pondering today. Dr. José Rizal, chief apostle of liberty, freedom, and independence, has remained the greatest illustrious son of modern Philippines.”

Happy Birthday to Dr. Jose P. Rizal… from the generations of Filipinos who were in your thoughts over a hundred years ago today.

Lopez Museum

Incidentally, those who are interested to learn more about Rizal may want to visit the Lopez Museum at the Ortigas Center. It has one of the best Rizaliana collection-- his memorabilia (wallet, flute, binoculars, etc), his handwritten letters to his family, books he collected, first edition Noli and Fili, original Manansala pen-and-ink drawings depicting characters of Rizal’s novels, the 100 years stamp during his centennial.

The Lopez Group patriarch Don Eugenio Lopez was an avid Rizalista who traveled the world acquiring such Rizal memorabilia for sharing with the Filipino people. The librarians are also very helpful to serious scholars who want to access this rare collection.

Those who want to learn more may access the Museum’s website and specifically this link: http://www.lopez-museum.org/collections/collections_rizaliana.html

Who’s Rizal

Unfortunately, our schools have not been able to teach our young well enough about Rizal. The story is often told of a classroom scene where a teacher started her class by asking “Who is Jose Rizal?”

There was a period of long silence. Then a pupil reluctantly raised his hand and said, “Maam... baka ho sa ibang section siya.”

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is [email protected]. He is also on Twitter @boochanco

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