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Rizal: The Morphing Hero
by David C. Roble, MD
Date: 12/23/2003

"Yes, me. My name is Jose Protacio Rizal Mercado y Alonso.
Profession: Martyr, and I hold the mouse.

I was lucky to be born very smart. When I was a child, I was impressed by a story about a moth that got extra crispy when it got attracted to and got too close to a flame. It was a glorious death - seeking for the light. Since then, on and off throughout my life, I have had this death wish. I have rehearsed this dying act a thousand times in my mind - a dying that shall be remembered by my countrymen as the best dying act by a Filipino of all time; not like the whimpering one by Father Burgos of 1872 Cavite mutiny fame. The Jesuit priests who taught me my Catholic religion reinforced this death wish by telling me about Jesus Christ, whose greatest triumph was his dignified death on cross.

I grew up in an atmosphere of suppression by the Friars of my time. They and the non-cleric Spaniards in the Philippines told me that I was inferior; and indeed I had this inferiority complex. But I compensated for it well.

Physically, I felt inferior at not more than 5 feet and two inches tall on my bare feet, fully grown, but I took care of that; I made Ibarra, the hero (and me) in my Noli novel taller than most. I grew up skinny and with a big head. The last picture of me standing before the Filipino firing squad showed this bit of disproportionality well because I was not wearing my favorite overcoat - like the one I usually wear in my photographs to balance out my physique. Weight lifting helped some, which I kept up as much as I could during my life. Intellectually I knew I was at least as good as them, but I also knew that I had to be better if I was going to show them that I was at least their equal. I became an obsessive-compulsive, with a rigidly structured life, because I had this goal always foremost in my mind. These then were my weapons for success: intelligence and an obsessive-compulsive personality.

I grew up with periods of depression. This was hinted at by my biographer Austin Coates, but picked up more extensively by the Spanish pediatrician and historian Jose Baron Fernandez. He attributed this to the many times my yaya scared me about aswangs. I guess this would make the majority of Filipinos depressed. Neither he, nor I as a physician, had any way of knowing during our respective times that this depression was really due to a periodic biochemical deficiency in the neurotransmitters in my brain, and was in essence a biochemical illness rather than a "mental" one. Had I been born a century later, I would not have to go through these periods. All I would need to do is simply pop my pill of Prozac or Zoloft, or whichever one a drug agent would provide me as samples in my clinic. But I can see an advantage to being depressive: this meshed quite well with my death wish, and dying by a depressed death-wisher at a proper time would be no sweat; it would be heaven sent. Now all I have to do is look for a good reason to die for.

I grew up in a big family, with nine girls and my only brother Paciano. My mother, an intelligent and educated woman, feared that my intelligence could easily get me garroted by the Friars; for the Friars the greatest threat to the way they lived was an intelligent, independent-thinking indio. Indio, that’s what they called us native Filipinos. So she tried to blunt this threat to them to protect me by teaching me the virtues of humility and self-effacement. For example, if someone said I was prescient in predicting the take- over of the Philippines by the United States, I would say I got lucky because I thought it would happen in a century instead of within three years, and besides, I was just appropriating my friend Professor Feodor Jagor's original idea; or if Leonora Rivera told me I had beautiful, romantic eyes, I would say 'you need an ophthalmologist'. My mother really made sure I would find it difficult to accept a compliment, instead of just saying thank you.

I liked to absorb things by observing people and surroundings, by reading a lot of books, and by listening more than talking. In fact I preferred to express myself in writing, which I was very good at, than by talking; besides I had a lisp (Karnow), and because I was not inherently strong, I did not have the lung capacity to be talking a lot. There was no one in my immediate family who was of the oratorical type to influence me. Consequently, I found being a doctor a good profession next to being a martyr. Medicine balanced out my inherent extreme sensitivity with its requirement for rigorous objectivity. I absorbed the medical materials in silence, and when I became a doctor, all I had to say when I was with patients was hmm...hmm, wrote a prescription, and the pharmacist or my nurse would explain how it was taken. If someone needed surgery, all I would need to say was 'surgery', and except for an occasional 'scalpel, hemostat, sponge and tie' request to the operating room nurse, I could operate efficiently in silence. Talking robs me of time for absorbing knowledge. When anyone talks, it is either to impart knowledge to others, or to expose one's ignorance either by asking (which is not necessarily bad), or giving untrue information. In either case, it is time taken away from absorbing knowledge. In fact, if, in addition to the reading, listening, observing, drawing, painting, sculpturing, annotating Morga, and writing prodigiously, I had to talk, I would have needed at least another two to three years of life before I would have reached my level of knowledge, opinion, and maturity to finally start writing the Noli. And if I spent more time talking instead of writing it, it would have pushed the Noli's timetable farther. This in turn would have pushed farther in time many of the other happenings around me by a few of years that I would have to be executed at Bagumbayan by, say, December 30, 1899. By then, the Spanish-American War of 1898 would be over, and the Philippines would have been sold to the United States by Spain for $20,000,000, and I would have most probably missed my destiny with martyrdom. Whew, I'm sure glad I do not talk much, otherwise I would not have been able to practice my primary profession. It would have been goodbye hero!

I did not like extemporaneous speeches either, something that came so easy for my friends Lopez Jaena and del Pilar. I did not feel secure doing speeches, and I had to prepare long and hard for when I had to address a gathering. The words would have to be perfect because I did not want imperfect words to haunt me. When we were planning a party for my friends Juan Luna and Felix Hidalgo at the Restaurant Inglis on June 1884 - this was the time they won the National Exhibition of Fine Arts contest in Madrid - I secretly prepared a Toast-Speech for them. Writing the material was easy, but the presentation had to be perfect. I practiced my delivery many, many times. When I was sure I could do it well, I then requested Pete Paterno if I could give the toast instead of him. He was kind enough to let me. I got through it all right - lisp and all. The press reports glowed, it reached the Philippines, and almost gave my mom a heart attack. She was so sure that the patriotic undertones of my speech would get the attention of the Friars. She was, of course, right.

But I had to start somewhere - getting the attention of the Friars, that is. You see, my brother Paciano and I had this pact - a simple one, of me going off to Spain to be educated; and eventually, by any and all means, squeal on the Friars. So off I went to Spain. Paciano was to stay in the Philippines, which he did, to take care of the family and earn money for my schooling and allowance. I was supposed to tell mother Spain, mainly by my writings, that the Friars in the Philippines were bad boys, bullying us natives. I was hoping to do it with the rest of the Filipinos who were there in Europe to get educated, like me. We made headways now and then, but in the end we really never got anywhere, so I decided to write the Noli. I figure, if I would not be getting the full cooperation of the guys in the task of squealing on the Friars, I would do it alone. Besides, I did things better alone - I was not really a team player at heart.

My friend Blumentritt, as usual, was right. He advised me to write a book, instead of writing for newspapers. He figured, and I agreed, that newspapers do not stick around long enough - and in the Philippines they often ended up used in the outhouse. And there is something about writing a book that is more aristocratic. 'He wrote a book' sounds more sophisticated than 'he had an article in a newspaper'. My colleagues del Pilar and Lopez Jaena were essentially writing about the same things that I was writing about - exposing the abuses of the friars, but my book got more attention because it was a book. So, in a way, it was the vehicle and not the message that made the difference.

I had a lot of difficulties surrounding the writing of my first novel. Firstly, I did not have enough money to publish it. Secondly, I was not sure what language, of the many I became proficient at, to write it in. If I wrote the novel in Spanish to tell Spain about the Friars being bad boys, Spain would just ask them if this was so - naturally they would just say 'no, who said so?'. Now, if I wrote the novel in Spanish to tell the Friars themselves that they were bad, they would just say 'we know that, so sue us'. If I wrote the novel in Spanish for the educated filipinos in the Philippines, they would just say 'so what's new? Am I in the novel?' If I wrote it in Spanish for my uneducated countrymen, they hardly knew Spanish, so I would have to write it in Tagalog, and Spain would not know what I was talking about. And what about the Visayans, the Ilongos, the Warays? ...oh heck. So I decided to write it in Spanish anyway, and Bahala Na!

Unfortunately Bahala Na was not enough. I should have thought this one through better, because when I ratted on the Friars, I hoped against probability that they would fall on their knees, shed tears, and say 'okay, okay, you got us. We will change; just give us a little time to make amends'. Instead they just started going after my dear family, and I almost died of guilt. But I could not let this happen - dying of guilt, because I was planning to die of martyrdom. This was my profession. So I decided to go back to the Philippines, to try to make up for what I had done to my family. When I told everyone I was coming home, everyone was against it. They told me it was dangerous, that the Friars would have me killed. Well, I did not really tell everyone - just my family and a few friends - but somehow these things have a way of getting around; and I was getting famous because of my Speech-Toast.

I was not really afraid of coming home because I had a secret. As a matter of fact I had more than one secret; I had two. One, I had a death wish. And two, I was a Freemason. So if I got killed, then I get to practice my primary profession. Hopefully, it would take the heat off my family. On the other hand, my freemason fraternity brothers would afford me some protection. Many of the people who write about me just zip through this aspect of my life and just say that it is a secret society. Yes, there are aspects about it that are secret - the rites and ceremonies, but on the whole this fraternity aims to make truth seekers and charitable persons out of our members. Freemasons do not advertise their goodness, and to the best of our abilities we always extend help to our frat members; this is a very important code we follow. We also believe in God, and Catholics can be freemasons without giving up their religion. Contrast this with what the church did to me when I became a freemason. They kicked me out, and in my last days the friars so badly wanted me to denounce my fraternity. But my frat brothers were always there for me. Austin Coates picked up on the fact that my last meal was spent with my officer frat brothers in Fort Santiago. They would not set me free because they could not, but they sure were lenient to me during my stay there.

My frat brothers, when I got home to the Philippines, were there to blunt the dangers directed at me by the friars. Freemason Governor General Terrero extended me protection, and even gave me a bodyguard. Terrero himself advised me to leave the country when he was getting too much heat from the friars for coddling me. This fraternity gave the Filipinos their first whiff of ideas threatening to the friars, such as liberty, equality, fraternity and independence." (Fajardo: Masonry and the Philippine Revolution).

This fraternity was one of the exhilarating things that I got into when I went to Spain and other parts of Europe. The other was the freedom to think freely and say something stupid without fear of the locals breathing down my neck or punishing me. This was the kind of atmosphere I wished for my native land, and worked for. I just wanted the Filipinos to have the same rights as the rest of the citizens of Spain. I did not want to be separate from Spain. I figure that building up a poor country from the ground up independently would take more than a century, but by being a state of Spain, on equal footing with the rest of her states, it would catapult the Philippines rapidly through the twentieth century economically and culturally. But I guess Spain found the Philippines too unimportant, and besides frequent changes in the Spanish government between liberals and conservatives did not make for a consistent policy and attention to the least of her colonies - us indios. Cuba and Puerto Rico were closer to her national consciousness - especially Cuba. She was Spain's national pride - a gift from God for driving the Moslems out of Spain back in time. Oops, I should be careful not to get too carried away with historical events around my life. Though important in its effect on my personality, too much can detract from who I am.

So I went home, gained some concessions for my family's safety from the local administration of Terrero, felt the heat from the Friars, and finally, after just a few months, left again via the United States, got to Europe, annotated Morga in England, and wrote my other novel, the Fili. Same results: it stirred up the Friars like hornets. But I just could not stay in one place - I guess I get too restless. I tried to get a contingent of my fellow Calambans over to North Borneo as overseas workers for a North Borneo company, but was not successful. Good thing, because looking back it was more of an escapist mentality that made me consider the move. I then moved to Hong Kong, practiced ophthalmology a bit, earned some money, got together with some of my family, but my death wish got the best of me. I had to go back to the Philippines. And so I did - to Dapitan. Four years of my life there - four long years to test my soul. Worse than the death that I envisioned - this was a slow death. I got deported there because the friars finally got the upper hand and wanted me snuffed out. On trumped up charges, Governor General Despujol compromised and sent me there on exile. Towards the end of my stay there, the loneliness finally took its toll on my principles. A bit earlier on I had this ongoing correspondence with Father Pastells over theological matters. We were actually like two ships destined to just pass each other. He was interested in saving my soul from what he thought was my slide away from the Catholic Religion of my younger days, but I was merely interested in the didactic of a theological interchange to show him that I knew my theology - a bit arrogant of me, I must admit. But I finally got tired of it and abruptly ended the interchange.

I tried to fight off my depression by doing a lot for the community. The people there loved me for it. But eventually this doing for others to do something for me got old, and I had to get out of Dapitan - even if I had to sacrifice some of my principles a bit. Jose Marti, my counterpart out there in Cuba, was rallying his countrymen to fight for their independence from Spain. He was also an intellectual, a poet, and a patriot. He wrote prodigiously for Cuban independence from Spain. He eventually became Cuba's national hero after he died in an ambush in Cuba a year before I got shot. I hated the idea, in principle, of helping to thwart his country's struggle for independence, but I was rotting inside from the effect of my isolation in Dapitan. So I volunteered to join his enemies by volunteering my service as a physician to the Spanish Military. It was not for want of patients to take care of because Dapitan had enough sick people to occupy my attention every day. I was just rotting inside.

Some of my family members would visit me to cheer me up, because they knew I could not survive in that quiet torture of intellectual isolation. But that was not enough; and some of their visits inadvertently brought added depression by unwelcome news, like a brother-in-law's unfortunate state, or the death of Leonora Rivera - she who always owned a piece of my heart. I even welcomed a would-be assassin sent by the friars; he never got around to finishing me off, but not for lack of opportunity. I slept through his presence in my house, and because I had gotten so depressed he would have done me a favor by killing me. But he had a change of heart, I guess, because I lived to suffer more days in Dapitan.

It was toward the latter half of my Dapitan days when I experienced first hand what the cliché 'I'd rather be lucky than smart' meant. Into my life fate sent Josephine Bracken. Oh lucky me. We wanted to get married, but the Catholic Church set up too high a price to perform the ceremony. They wanted me to undo what I had done most of my life leading up to this moment - to retract what I had worked for. I guess I could have gotten married in a Protestant church or in some other minor religion, but in spite of what the clergy said of me, I was still a Catholic. So we lived as husband and wife without church sanction. When Josephine left for a short while to bring her dad halfway back to Hong Kong, I again got lonely and depressed; but she came back. Eventually the inevitable happened - we got careless and she got pregnant (ask Austin Coates). Now, if there was anything I detested about the Friars, next to their persecution of my family, it was their indiscriminate copulation with the Filipino women, in the guise of religious authority, to irresponsibly reproduce without regard for the illegitimate mestizos they created. I know this because I lived with some of these hybrids in my student days in the dormitories outside of Intramuros. That Maria Clara of my Noli was the illegitimate daughter of Padre Damaso was no coincidence. The Vatican roulette of birth control just does not do enough to population control; it just does not cut it. Being a physician, I should have known better.

I just could not live with the thought of having an illegitimate child, a son, with an uncertain future; with my own future quite murky. Nor could I live with the idea that I might not be around to fulfill my parental responsibility since my death wish had been quite strong in those later Dapitan days. I finally did what I felt I had to do, with the knowledge as a physician I possessed - I aborted the further development of my genetic code. Quietly, on that dark night, I buried a piece of my soul in some unmarked earth somewhere in Dapitan (see Austin Coates).

This then is what Dapitan meant to me: the lowest point in my life. The threshold to my principles had finally been breached.

And so on to Bagumbayan I went, with the help of the Friars and the Spanish authorities.

The revolution had already started in the Tagalog regions in my absence, but I was blamed for it. I did not mind dying, but I minded dying for something I did not do. It was all a matter of principle - or what was left of it. I had to tell everyone: LISTEN - for the record, kill me, but kill me for the facts. Do not kill me for the revolution which I had no part of and which I condemn.

But my protestations for the sake of truth-in-execution were not good enough. Nothing was to be good enough. The authorities' mind was set - I was to be shot - for any reason.

December 29, 1896. I had twenty-four hours to live, twenty fours hours to accomplish so many things. I needed to marry Josephine. I needed to confess my sins, and avoid wandering about in purgatory saying hi here to Andy Cunanan, and hi there to Richard Speck. I needed to say goodbye to my family, and everybody else important to me. I needed to write my Ultimo Adios.

Unfortunately, I could not confess my sins and marry Josephine unless I hammered out a document with the Catholic Church, which eventually was called my retraction. This I accomplished with the Jesuit priests who kept me company and awake most of my last twenty-four hours. This agreed on document - and I will explain each line so there is no misunderstanding what I meant, and I will rearrange the sequence of the sentences so that the declarations will be separate from the retractions - said:

I declare myself a Catholic, and in this Religion, in which I was born and educated, I wish to live and die.

I believe and profess everything she teaches, and I submit to all she orders

The first two lines are declarations and beliefs that any practicing Catholic can declare. Inability to carry out each and every intention does not nullify one’s Catholicism since no one is perfect. This declaration was necessary to convince the authorities that I had not become a Protestant or an Agnostic. Since I had become neither, the declarations were nothing new, so I agreed to it.

I retract with all my heart everything in my words, writings, publications and conduct that has been contrary to my condition as a son of the Church"

Nothing in my words, writings, and publications has been contrary to my condition as a son of the Church. My words, writings, and publications never condemned the Church. It only exposed the truth of the abuses of the Friars and a plea for reforms of equality for my countrymen. This part of the retraction therefore is a retraction of something that did not exist.

As far as Josephine and my unborn son were concerned, those were not retractable situations, only regrettable ones, and therefore did not apply in the context of this part of this retraction statement.

I abominate Freemasonry as the enemy that it is of the Church and as a Society prohibited by the same Church.

"I abominate Freemasonry", period, is different from "I abominate Freemasonry as the enemy that it is…", etc. The Freemasonry that the Church thinks it is and is her enemy is not the same as the Freemasonry that it really is. The Church thinks it is some kind of Satanic cult that is anti-Catholic, when in reality it is a fraternity whose aim is to make better men out of men. The Freemasonry that I agreed to abominate, then, is the Freemasonry that exists only in the mind, if you will, of the Church. It is then a theoretical abomination which I have no qualms abominating.

The Diocesan Prelate, as the highest Ecclesiastical Authority, may publicize this, my spontaneous statement, in reparation for the scandal that my acts may have caused, so that God and men may forgive me.

The line starts with a declaration of fact: that in the organizational structure of the local church the Diocesan Prelate is the highest Ecclesiastical Authority. Since this is a statement of fact, there is nothing controversial about this point.

Publicizing this document with its two innocuous declaration lines, a non-retraction retraction, an abomination of a non-existent abomination as payment for damages, so I would receive God and men's forgiveness, is a no-brainer. I accepted this part wholeheartedly.

So I gladly signed this non-retraction 'retraction' on December 29, 1896, after which I got married, got to confess my sins, achieved forgiveness and peace, said my goodbye to my Motherland, and in the last stanza of my Ultimo Adios, said goodbye to my unborn son, my parents, my siblings who were the last remaining 'pieces of my soul'; and of course, Josie.

There is something very unique about this profession of martyr. You only get to practice it once. The years of planning come to one single focal moment, and on that moment hinges the verdict of history. You either die in glory and become a hero, or you flub it and become just another body. My obsessive-compulsive nature came into good use: I dressed, as always, impeccably. My timely confession was a great help: I had no look of guilt about me. My fellow physician came through for me: he gave me a good pulse reading to give me an air of peace and calm. And as luck would have it, I was to be executed by musketry, thus making it very likely that I would fall down to the ground facing up to the blue skies over Bagumbayan - easily interpretable by my onlookers and admirers as an act of extreme will.

A couple of years before, Spain had ordered a couple of hundred of the new 7mm Mauser smokeless powder rifle for use in the Philippines. The Mauser Company called it, good guess, the Spanish Mauser model 93. This new rifle had greater penetrating power, but being of a smaller caliber had less knock-down power than the older muskets - sort of like the difference between being impaled on a sword as against being hit splat by a moving train. So this is where my luck came in: they did not use the new 7 mm Mausers on me. They used the older muskets. All I had to do then was ask my Filipino executioners to shoot me to the left of my spine where they believed my heart to be. Because of the knocking power of the older model, the force of the projectiles twisted me to the right along the long axis of my spine, thus I ended with my face up. As I had alluded to in the past, there are times where I prefer to be lucky than smart.

And so I finally get a chance to say what I have been waiting for all my life to say - just like Jesus Christ: Consumatum Est! It is finished."

Notes by the Author (September 3, 1999)

Initially, I thought Rizal should vacate Luneta until I knew enough of him to decide on his hero status. Should Dr. Jose Rizal be a Philippine national hero? Yes, definitely - among the many. He accomplished in just 35 years what everyone else would have accomplished at twice that number of years - if at all. Is he still relevant to today's Philippines? Yes, certain aspects of him - like his single-mindedness of purpose, his discipline, his love of country, his desire for the Philippines to progress economically and culturally in the speediest of ways; like his views in the control of procreation and responsible population growth consistent with what each family can responsibly support. I say, put him back up on his old pedestal at Luneta.

DCRoble, M.D.
Copyright September 1999

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