(Letter written on December 31, 1989)
Why Rizal Is the National Hero
by Ambeth R. Ocampo
In an interview with Asuncion Lopez Bantug, Narcisa Rizal’s granddaughter, I was told that the young Jose Rizal was very conscious about his looks because he had a big head and a frail body and was small for his age. He was fascinated by stories of higantes and “great men” in history. Today, Rizal scholars who put this data in the context of psychoanalysis hypothesize that Rizal’s intellectual “gifts” were merely ways of making up for physical frailty. Psychohistory has yet to shake the foundations of Philippine historiography.
In a previous column, I discussed the psychic in Rizal and how many of his dreams proved prophetic. Rizal himself admitted that “my dreams have always guided my actions.” Aside from the fact that psychohistory or even psychic research is frowned upon by many of our academic historians, I believe the main reason we refuse to see Rizal as a prophet is because viewing Rizal from this perspective will undoubtedly make him a “conscious hero” and thus diminish his stature.
What do I mean by “conscious hero?” It is clear from Rizal’s letters , diaries, and writings that he had planned his entire life down to the last detail. He did not leave anything to chance, not even the choreography of his death. So he willfully became a hero.
Another Rizal story that pops out of my notes today deals with a time when Rizal’s sisters found him in his bahay kubo behind the Calamba house, molding a clay statue of Napoleon (who was small and short like him). When teased about it, he is supposed to have said, “All right, guys, say what you want today because in the furutre, people will make monumentos for me!”
I wonder what his sisters felt when they saw the Rizal monument rise on the Luneta, or when they officiated at the unveiling ceremonies of other monuments to their brother that began to mushroom all over the archipelago? Jose Rizal had the last laugh.
Rizal could have lived beyond December 30, 1896, if he had simply stayed out of the Philippines and its politics. If he remained in Hong Kong, then he would just be another forgotten expatriate Filipino doctor. Rizal, however, was different. You could say that he had a death wish and this, for me, makes a “conscious hero” doubly brave, because unlike military heroes whose job description contains “death in battle,” Rizal was a quiet, peaceful man who willfully and calmly walked to his death for his convictions. Before his execution, his pulse rate was reputedly normal. How many people do you know who would die for their convictions if they could avoid it?
In June 1892 Rizal left two sealed letters with a Portuguese friend “to be opened and published after my death.” In these letters Rizal explained to his family and his countrymen that he was returning to the Philippines to show by example that Filipinos knew how to die for principles.
More important, Rizal addressed his countrymen, mostly “natives” or indios like you and me, as “Filipinos” at a time when the terms was reserved for Spaniards born in the Philippines.
Guided by the belief from childhood that he would not reach the age of 30, Rizal decided to return home against all odds. He probably thought he would be executed in 1892; he miscalculated and died in 1896 at the age of 35.
This is the letter he wanted us to read, a letter that will illustrate to anti-Rizal advocates why Rizal is our national hero [all italics mine]:
The step that I have taken, or am about to take, is undoubtedly very risky, and it is unnecessary to say that I have pondered on it a great deal. I know that everyone is opposed to it but I realize also that no one knows what goes on in my heart. I can not live knowing that many are suffering unjust persecution because of me; I can not live seeing my brothers [hermanos] and their large families persecuted like criminals. I prefer to face death and gladly give my life to free so many innocent persons from this unjust persecution.
I know that, at present, the future of my country gravitates in part around me; that with my death, many would rejoice, and that, consequently, many are longing for my end. But what am I to do? I have duties of consequence above all else; I have moral obligations toward the families who suffer, toward my aged parents whose sighs pierce my heart; I know that I alone, even my death, can make them happy by returning them to their country and the tranquilities of their home. My parents are all that I have, but my country has many sons still who can take it to advantage.
Moreover, I wish to show those who deny us patriotism that we know how to die for our duty and for our convictions. What matters death if one dies for what one loves, for one’s country and for those whom he loves?
If I know that I were the only pillar of Philippine politics and if I were convinced that my countrymen were going to make use of my services, perhaps I would hesitate to take this step, but there are still others who can take my place, who can take my place to advantage. Furthermore, there are those who find me superfluous and in no need of my services, thus they reduce me to inaction.
I have always loved my poor country and I am sure that I shall love her until my last moment. Perhaps some people will be unjust to me; well, my future, my life, my joys, everything, I have sacrificed for love of her. Whatever my fate will be, I shall die blessing my country and wishing her the dawn of her redemption.
Picture: (From left to right) Juan Luna, Jose Rizal, and Valentin Ventura fencing outside Luna’s studio in Paris, circa 1889 (In Excelsis: the Mission of Jose Rizal: Humanist and Philippine National Hero, by Felice Prudente Sta. Maria.Studio 5 Designs, Inc., 1996.)
Source: Ambeth R. Ocampo. Rizal Without the Overcoat. Anvil Publishing Inc., reprinted as an expanded edition in 2000. (10-12)