Recovering Rizal
HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - December 30, 2019 - 12:00am

It was my grandfather who introduced me to Jose Rizal when I was maybe six or seven years old. By then, I had learned to read and write. I knew that Baac, that is what we called him, could also write, but not as well as my mother who had finished grade seven and who spoke English very well. 

I remember some of the words in Spanish that my grandfather sometimes uttered when he was vexed: carajo, sin verguenza, urbanidad, palabra de honor. I never got to know their meaning until much much later.

My grandfather was in the revolution of 1896 but he did not tell us much about what he did during that revolution. In the wooden chest in his house was a long bolo with a leather sheath which he brought out only on Rizal Day,  tied to his waist.

I know that the revolutionaries had rayadillo uniforms, but my grandfather said he had no uniform except what he wore everyday in the village. 

What amazed me about my grandfather were his feet. Like all the elderly farmers in our village, he could never wear shoes because his toes were splayed “like ginger” from a lifetime of working barefoot in the fields.

On Rizal Day, about a dozen men of my grandfather’s age from the barrios of Gesset, Palakipak and Cabalaongan gathered in his yard. There, they prepared the float for the Rizal Day parade. It was a bullcart pulled by the healthiest looking water buffalo in the village. The bullcart sides were decked with yellowing tobacco leaves. The wheels of the cart as well as the horns of the water buffalo were wrapped in red paper, we call papel de hapon. In the middle of the cart was propped the traditional Ilocano chair and on it sat the prettiest girl in our village dressed in the traditional saya and blouse. By her side stood our handsomest young farmer with red pants, white camisa de chino and blue scarf, his right hand raised with an unsheathed bolo.

By five in the afternoon, my grandfather and his fellow survivors of the revolution brought the cart to join the parade around the town. I eagerly followed them.

Somewhere along the route, the float was joined by similar floats and school children. By sunset the parade ended at the town plaza where the monument of Rizal stood. There we, the town mayor, school teachers and us, listened to stirring speeches extolling Rizal and what he meant for all of us.

I was ten years old when my teacher, Soledad Oriel, gifted me with Rizal’s novels; they were the first novels in English that I read. They moved me so much, remembering my discovery of Rizal in those books,  I sometimes wonder if I ever would have become a writer if I did not read him at the early age.

 Alas, Rizal has now become irrelevant to most Filipino youths today although his monument is everywhere. But his influence?  I have been following our literature in English from the 1940s to this very day, and I also read so much of what was written after the Americans introduced English to us. I think it is only Nick Joaquin and I who have truly been influenced by him.

Nick and I did not necessarily agree on many cultural subjects, but for both of us, Rizal was our greatest writer ever. I was curious about the quality of Rizal’s fiction in the original Spanish; In the 1960s, the Mexican scholar, Rafael Bernal, was stationed in Manila. He confirmed that Rizal’s Spanish novels were, indeed, in the finest tradition of that period.

Klaus Zeller, former German Ambassador, read Rizal thoroughly, and concluded that Rizal was very profound much like the German intellectuals of his time whom he met; it was, after all in Germany where Rizal matured intellectually and where he published the Noli.

Among the controversies in his life, which up to now continue to be discussed, is his retraction of masonry which the Jesuits accepted as fact. They have the retraction to buttress their position.

The historian, Ambeth Ocampo, agrees with the Jesuits, and I sometimes tend to believe that Rizal did write that retraction if only to save his life. But the English writer, Austin Coates, who wrote the best biography of Rizal says, there was no such retraction, that the document was a forgery. He said it was contrary to Rizal’s character. 

At the St. Louis Exposition in America at the turn of the 20th Century, The Americans brought Igorots in their G-strings, and other ethnics to show the Americans the “savage” Filipinos and justify their “objective” to civilize us. In reality, the Filipino leaders who opposed them were far more educated than their highest officials. Rizal and the ilustrados were tutored in the finest European tradition. They knew Greek and Latin and were steeped on western philosophy, culture and the sciences that were then developing.

It was inevitable that Rizal was thoroughly hispanized together with all the ilustrados of his generation. They absorbed within their very core the Western tradition embodied in their Christian faith. Rizal knew that the Spaniards did not come upon a savage and illiterate people.

He probed deep into history, into cultural anthropology. His knowledge of linguistics was a tool for his research and it led him to discovery. In conversations with European academics, he learned much about this Filipino past. Perhaps he felt a little bit uneasy with his mastery of Spanish and several other languages that he decided to write a novel in his native Tagalog only to find out he had become inadequate in his own language. I suppose that early, too, he realized he cannot express the profundity of his thinking in his mother tongue.

By his example, Rizal illustrated that love of country is in the heart and not in the language with which that love was expressed.

He also knew that writing was never enough. He was a doctor, a teacher, and with his very life, he was a revolutionary.

In celebrating Rizal Day, I hope that we Filipinos will truly recover Rizal from the mundane and meaningless position to which we have relegated his memory. He represents the best, the bravest and the most brilliant in us.

What is so important about Rizal is that his writings and ideas about a free and sovereign Filipino nation are still our greatest need and aspiration today.

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