‘The major biographies of José Rizal’
CROSSROADS TOWARD PHILIPPINE ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL PROGRESS - Gerardo P. Sicat (The Philippine Star) - January 1, 2020 - 12:00am

A brief, without-the-frills, comprehensive biography of our national hero could read as follows:

“The hero’s life.” Jose Rizal was born on June 19, 1860 and died by firing squad at the Luneta in Manila on December 30, 1896, at the young age of 35 years.

Born to a well-to-do Filipino family, Rizal was a child wonder turned into a prodigious talent under Jesuit tutelage at the Ateneo.

He studied for the professions (medicine, also arts) in Spain and further remained in Europe where he helped the cause of political reforms for his country by writing influential historical and political tracts.

He is the most well-traveled Filipino hero. He lived or passed through with studious observation in Spain, France, Germany, England, and Belgium, traveled to Europe in general (Austria, Italy, today’s Czechoslovakia, Hungary). His travel routes also took him  to Japan, the United States, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Egypt (through the Suez Canal).

He wrote two powerful novels, Noli Me Tangere (in 1887) and El Filibusterismo (in 1891). These books depicted life and conditions in Rizal’s contemporary times and revealed not only Spain’s misgovernment but also the cruelties of both colonial administrators and friars.

His other writings, including his poetry, invoked love of country – of its youth and its women, of parents, of scenes of life in important places of abode, and of national aspirations.

He lived in Europe during two episodes of his life (from 1882-1887, and later, from 1889-1891), returning home twice. On his second return to the Philippines in 1892, the Spanish governor-general exiled him to Dapitan, in Mindanao, where he lived in relative loneliness for four years.

In 1896, he was permitted to leave this exile in exchange for voluntary medical service to Cuba. Instead, events culminated differently. He was imprisoned in his ship in Manila Bay for weeks while awaiting transport, and when finally allowed to leave for Europe, he was put under military arrest while in transit. He was accused of involvement in the revolutionary commotions that unraveled in the country with the discovery of the Katipunan’s secret society in August of that year. He was ordered to be shipped back from Barcelona to the Philippines to face trial for sedition, was convicted by a kangaroo military court and ordered to face immediate execution on December 30.

Spain unwittingly created a martyr and hero for all time for all Filipinos.

“Rizal documented much of his own life.” Many biographies of Rizal have been written.

But Rizal’s extensive writings became the basis for many of these biographies. During most stages of his life, Rizal wrote diaries, travel journals, letters to friends and to family. His published short writings in newspapers, periodicals, magazines, and memorials were extensive, and these were unearthed and collected systematically. And then of course, there were his major political and historical writings.

Most important, the American colonial government and the succeeding Philippine Commonwealth and Republic helped to collect and preserve these writings to form a vast documentation of his life.

“The best, short biographical sketch of Rizal.” In my opinion, the best short biography of Jose Rizal I have read was written by Encarnacion Alzona. This was included in the Reminiscenses and Travels of Jose Rizal, published by the National Historical Institute (1977).

“Spanish biographies of Rizal.” Wenceslao E. Retana’s Vida y Escritos del Dr. Jose Rizal (1907) was the first comprehensive biography of Rizal. Retana knew Rizal personally, was initially critical of him as a journalist but became a great admirer, notably after his martyrdom.

Retana selected excerpts of Rizal’s writings and memoirs and used these extensively in the biography. Retana tried to explain and atone, and, perhaps to exonerate from serious blame Spain’s misjudgment of Rizal. To my knowledge this biography has never been translated into English.

In 1980, Jose Baron Fernandez’s Jose Rizal: Filipino Doctor and Patriot was published in Manila. This was ably translated into English by Lilia H. Laurel and was sponsored in publication by Tomas Morato.

This biography is a more modern rendition of the Spanish viewpoint on Rizal, historically and personally more detached from Retana’s claim to familiarity and much more sober in judgment. [Unfortunately, the publisher, Tomas Morato, a politician turned the event for his own self-promotion and was poorly prepared in print.]

“American biographies of Rizal.” Austin Craig’s influential Lineage and Labors of Jose Rizal (1913, Philippine Education Company) opened the American biographies of Rizal. Craig was an early historian professor at the newly established University of the Philippines when he researched on Rizal.

Craig’s main contribution was a fuller documentation of Rizal’s family lineage and of the multifarious achievements of the hero’s many talents. He also critically appraised the work of Retana and found it wanting, too biased and soft on Spain’s view of Rizal. His assessments of Rizal’s political views were however essentially broadsides, favorable to the influence of American liberal ideas of democracy and justice. Rizal admired America’s many leaders but was fed mainly by the influence of European ideas of enlightenment.

Craig’s was updated in several editions and evolving titles. It was definitely the reference of choice of later biographies by Americans.

Two noteworthy American biographies written during the American colonial period were mainly intended to propagate the life and ideas of Rizal, based on the common wisdom about the hero and also on extant, accumulated information, plus memoirs of Rizal’s still living contemporaries.

Charles Russell and E.B. Rodriguez wrote The Hero of the Filipinos, (1923, New York, Century Company) mainly for an American audience. Rodriguez of the National Library provided the documentation.

Frank C. Laubach’s Rizal: Man and Martyr (1936, Community Publishers, Inc.) was an effort to provide an update of Rizal from the works of earlier writers. Laubach was a religious missionary who had grown to admire Rizal.

Bernard Reines’ A People’s Hero: Rizal of the Philippines (1971, New York, Praeger Publishers, Inc.), the briefest among these biographies, was part of the publisher’s “Pathfinder” series, a virtual pantheon of heroes that included Aristotle, Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Mohammed, and Sigmund Freud.

To be continued: Rizal Biographies by Filipino writers

My email is: gpsicat@gmail.com. For archives of previous Crossroads essays, go to: http://www.philstar.com/authors/1336383/gerardo-p-sicat. Visit this site for more information, feedback and commentary: http://econ.upd.edu.ph/gpsicat/

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