How tall was Rizal?

- Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - July 1, 2012 - 12:00am

This seemingly simple question, following the 150th birth anniversary of the Philippine hero, arose when my daughter came home from school the other day. She informed me that her teachers claimed José Rizal was only 4’6”. This would make the national hero about one inch taller than Peter Dinklage, who plays Tyrion Lannister (“The Imp”) on Game of Thrones. (Dinklage is 4’5” according to Astrotheme.com, an “important database of celebrity heights.”)

On the other hand, this would make the father of Philippine literature shorter than Dr. Ruth Westheimer, noted sex therapist, who is 4’7”.

This just did not seem right to me. I have a hard time believing Rizal was only four-foot-six. Of course, it’s the brain that really matters here, not the length, and the fact that Rizal’s historical stature exceeds that of many less-vertically-challenged men of his era, and ours.

So how could I get an accurate answer to this question? Naturally, I turned to the Internet.

It turns out there’s not a whole lot of hard data on Rizal’s height out there. Most statues in public places throughout the world honoring the patriot who spoke 23 languages are taller than average human size, which is 5’8”, so they’re not much help. Some depict Rizal as a veritable giant, in contemplative mid-stride, like the one in a Chicago park I visited or another one that I saw (bedecked with leis) in Honolulu. These are clearly not based on actual measurement.

However, according to wikianswers.com, the statue of Rizal erected in Fort Santiago is said to be an exact replica of the hero’s actual “height in clothing” and it stands 4’11”.

This figure came up again and again; but a variety of other heights were also mentioned.

Even Filipino historian/writer Ambeth Ocampo has weighed in on the height question. In a paper titled “Rizal Re-Discovered,” Ocampo reported his height to be 5’2”. But here’s what Ocampo reported for a recent Spot.ph feature titled “10 Things You Never Knew About Jose Rizal”:

Contrary to popular opinion, Andres Bonifacio, the leader of Katipunan, was not at all brawny, says Ocampo. The paper fan vendor was, in fact, a bit scrawny. Ironically, scholarly Rizal, who wanted to compensate for his 5’3” stature (contested, others claim he was 4’11” based on his clothing), turned to weightlifting to amp up his physique. His waist, measuring 25”-26”, had a 12-inch difference from his 37-inch chest. Cement barbells were discovered in his Dapitan home (trust our genius national hero to be resourceful in a time of exile).

So Rizal may indeed have been shorter than 5’2”. But he was apparently very buff.

As you can see, estimates of Rizal’s height tend to fall between 4’11” and 5’2”. Was there a more scientific methodology out there that could settle this once and for all?

Lacking any, I tried Facebook. A random sampling of opinion on the matter came up with these theories:

• “When I studied Rizal in college, most books said he was 4’11”.”

• “I know he’s 4’11” to 5’.”

• “In school we were taught he was 4’11”.”

• “I know he was short, but not that short… I Googled it now, anywhere from 4’11” to 5’4”.”

That last one was from STAR columnist Pepper Teehankee. Now, is Pepper suggesting that Rizal varied in height from day to day, like some kind of shape-shifter? No, I think he was merely reflecting the lack of consensus out there about Rizal’s height, and allowing for a range. In fact, more than one person I queried looked off into the distance when I asked the question, their eyes growing misty as they tried to visualize the Philippine hero in their mind’s eye, or whatever.

This may seem like a silly matter, nailing down Rizal’s height. But it also says something about how we picture our national heroes: if we imagine him as taller than five feet, the figure of a globetrotting scholar and patriot fits our height-guided preconceptions; go much smaller than five feet, and you’re heading toward Lilliputian size. Then again, many world leaders, not to mention despots, were tiny in scale. It’s not called a “Napoleon complex” for nothing.

On the other hand, if Filipinos can’t agree on simple stuff like Rizal’s height, how can you expect them to agree on more complex matters, like whether Rizal or Bonifacio was the nation’s “true” revolutionary hero?

I did notice that the answer to my Facebook query quickly settled down to 4’11” as the responses piled up, either because people remember that number from school lessons, or they simply were echoing what other people had answered previously.

Others I asked tended to judge the man’s size by his clothing. One pseudo-scientific method involved looking at the national hero’s wardrobe while visiting his home in Dapitan on a tour, as one officemate did. She concluded, by eyeballing his pants and jacket, that the items would not fit her; and since she is five feet tall, she estimates Rizal would have been 4’8” to 4’10”.

Guess that settles it. Not!

Sigh. Where’s C.S.I. when you need it?

Another opinion came from historian and in-law Elmer A. Ordonez, who replied via e-mail: “Just a personal opinion, but Rizal was probably somewhere in between, like 5’. There’s a photo of Rizal, Juan Luna and another ilustrado in fencing suits. With this we may be able to gauge their relative heights. People were shorter in those days.” I’ve included that photo here, but it only leads me to another bedeviling query: How tall was Juan Luna?

There is perhaps another explanation. The nuns who are teaching my daughter Grade 5 history — the ones who claim he was 4’6” — tend, on average, to be on the diminutive side themselves. Maybe they’re just projecting a smaller Rizal into the history books.

I’m also reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s answer to an American journalist who asked how tall a president should be. The beanpole US president (who was 6’4” and apparently hunted vampires in his spare time) is said to have replied, “Tall enough for his legs to reach the floor.”

Ultimately, that’s probably the best answer to the Rizal height question. How tall was Jose Rizal? Tall enough.

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