Published on

It's All History by Jon Malek

Reckoning with Memory – Part 2

by Jon Malek

In July, I wrote about the place of Ferdinand Magellan in the collective memory of the Philippines as the first of three articles on reckoning with memory. Today, I write about the memory of José Rizal, who was born on 19 June 1861. Very few Filipinos have not heard the name, partly because it is so visible. Major parks are named after him, such as Rizal Park in Metro Manila where the larger-than-life statue of Lapu-Lapu is found. One may even find a Dr. José Rizal Park or Dr. José Rizal Way in Winnipeg, representative of the large Filipino community in the city. School children in the Philippines learn of his life, and many continue to study his poetry and literature. The Knights of Rizal is a global brotherhood dedicated to spreading the teachings of Rizal, and there is even a religious movement convinced of the divinity of Rizal. The legacy and memory of the man is as complex as Rizal was himself. Often referred in collective memory as being a revolutionary, his stance was in fact more reformist.

A gifted human whose brilliance began to flare in the dawn of anti-colonial movements across Asia, Rizal was part of a broader campaign in the Philippines that would become the first successful independence movement in the region. While Rizal himself did not advocate for the Spanish to leave the Philippines, he developed a sophisticated and articulate rhetoric of nationalism. He believed that the Philippines was not yet ready for a Spanish withdrawal because of the miseducation Filipinos had received from the Spanish friars who directed the colony’s schools. Rizal was also the first to refer to the Philippines as the “Homeland” in his poetry. From his youth, Rizal’s writings caught the ire of the Dominican mendicant order. One of his early poems, Education Adds Lustre to Motherland, emphasized the role that education played in awakening the potential of the Philippine nation to rise and stand up for itself. But this poem was controversial because the “Motherland” referred to the Philippines, not Spain, as Filipino school children had been taught for generations. This subtle literary move was in fact emblematic of something quite significant – the realization that one’s home and one’s heritage were all they needed. Other Asian states would go through the same realization such as India and Japan. What Rizal awakened, and what was revolutionary about him, was a renewed awareness and pride in the heritage and past of the Philippines.

Rizal’s world

Rizal was himself a product of the historical moment into which he was born. Economic reforms in the Spanish colony of the Philippines in the late 18th century led to increased wealth in some Filipinos, leading to a class known as the ilustrado. These were an agrarian elite, whose wealth and influence came from land holdings. Colonial prohibitions on cash cropping – growing crops that were high profit – and mining were abandoned, and Manila was opened to foreign shipping, creating new opportunities for wealth and investment. Free trade policies in 1834 led to the growth of an entrepreneurial class of Filipinos who had increasing contact with American and European traders. These economic reforms had two effects upon Philippine nationalist sentiment. The first was an exposure of many wealthy Filipinos to Western ideas that the Spanish, and in particular the religious orders, had not introduced to them, such as notions of liberty and political freedom. The second was that more and more ilustrado families sent their children abroad to study, where they experienced these new ideas and models of civil society that prized individual freedom and independence. Between 1855 to 1872, a more liberal policy of education offered free schooling to all Filipinos, leading to more institutions of higher learning, debating societies, libraries, newspapers, and periodicals. By the time this was stamped out in 1872, the growth of an educated and liberal ilustrado class was already in place and calling for reforms to the Spanish colony.

Rizal was one of these ilustrado who had a more liberal education. He was a polyglot, fluent in over six languages, and trained in over twenty. He was also a polymath, excelling in both the sciences and arts. He became an ophthalmologist, painter, sculptor, poet, novelist, and journalist. He was a prolific writer, and often corresponded with other intellectuals across Asia and Europe. He was born in a town dominated by Dominican friars, and very quickly came to see that his fellow Filipinos had become economically oppressed by the Catholic religious orders. Rizal used his skill with the written word to criticize the role of the friars in Philippine society, with one of his most scathing attacks coming in his novel, Noli Me Tangere. Rizal studied in universities in Manila, Spain, and Germany. One of the shocking realizations that Rizal had in Europe was that Spain had come to hold a relatively low place in the European community of nations. But he was also struck by the high degree of individual freedoms that Europeans possessed, and which Filipinos distinctly lacked. Furthermore, the self-confidence and self-esteem of Rizal and his compatriots grew as they succeeded and prospered in their studies alongside their Western counterparts.

Rizal and reform

Until his execution in 1896, José Rizal remained a moderate, never calling for rebellion or the expulsion of the Spanish. Instead, he advocated for policies of gradual reform and a removal of power from the religious orders. He felt the Philippines was not yet ready to govern itself, although his writings indicated that he believed they could be, through programs of education. Rizal insisted he was not a revolutionary, stating “We are not revolutionaries; we desire no blood, we have no hatred.” Despite his pleas for moderation and reform, and the belief that he was merely calling attention to unjust deeds, the colonial government banned his writings at the insistence of the religious orders, which ultimately brought more attention to his works. After threats were made to his family, Rizal was forced to flee the Philippines for exile in Europe. During this period, he became bitter and disillusioned with the reform movement, and during this time he wrote El Filibusterismo in 1891 in which his main character advocated for violence and complete freedom of the Filipino people. Despite this, he still did not feel that the people were ready for independence.

When Rizal returned to the Philippines in 1892, he was arrested and deported to a remote region in the south of the Philippines, far from the colonial centre of Manila. The removal of Rizal, a moderate at heart and active resister of revolution, from politics in Manila led to the rise of a militant organization known as the Katipunan, a secret association of commoners, not dominated by the ilustrado. While Rizal and the ilustrado were not revolutionary – possibly due to the fact they themselves benefitted from Spanish colonial society – the commoners that made up the Katipunan were in favour of violent struggle against the Spanish. As farmers, they suffered the worst under Spanish rule. Despite Rizal’s continual anger towards the movement, he was made an honorary president of the group in an attempt to gain wider support, but it was a move that would end in Rizal’s death. When the Katipunan began an armed rebellion in August 1896, Rizal was arrested and charged with sedition. On December 30, 1896, he was executed in Manila, pithing the walls of the old city of Intramuros. The shock and reaction of the Filipino people to Rizal’s execution, as well as the leadership of the Katipunan movement, left no doubt to many that they were in fact prepared for independence from Spain. Ironically, Rizal was responsible for much of this. His writings and poetry instilled a sense of pride in Philippine culture, identified the evils of Spanish colonial society, and gave a vision for the future, and his composure upon his death made him a national martyr to many.

Rizal and national memory

Rizal has been held up as one of the ultimate heroes of Philippine independence and nationalism. Until his death, though, he remained a moderate, disavowing any support for armed rebellion: “Holding these ideas, I cannot do less than condemn …this uprising [the Katipunan] as absurd, savage, and plotted behind my back…  I abhor its criminal methods and disclaim all part in it…” (December 15, 1896). Despite the fact that he verbally attacked the Katipunan, he helped foster the movement by articulating a vision for the Philippines. More important, he reminded the Philippines of what to be proud: a glorious heritage and tradition, a value on education, and a role model to admire. Rizal was articulate, intelligent, and steadfast in the face of death. His final poem, Mi Ultimo Adios is a gut-wrenching poem written the night before his execution. To reformists and revolutionaries alike, both in the Philippines and across Asia, Rizal presented a model of dignity. One of the evil effects of colonialism is the belief that colonized people are inherently inferior to their colonizers. This was a belief taught by the Spanish friars, who ridiculed Filipinos and told them they had to abandon their ways for that of the Spanish. Many came to accept this ridicule over the centuries, but Rizal reminded his compatriots that Filipinos and their motherland, the Philippines, were honourable and dignified. This is perhaps why Rizal remains so widely celebrated as a national hero today.

Rizal, though, is another example of collective memory. While Rizal is a household name to many of Filipino descent, his life is not a well-known story. When I lecture on the life of Rizal in my History of Asia course, there is always a little surprise that he was not actively fighting for an independent Philippines, and in fact advocated that the Spanish needed to stay (at least for the time being). In many ways, the memory of Rizal is like that of Lapu-Lapu, whose youthful figure guarding Rizal Park is nothing like the datu who faced Magellan’s men in 1521. The needs of generations of Filipinos have constructed the historical figure of Rizal. While that figure does not always reflect reality, this is the nature of collective memory and is part of a reckoning with memory. Each generation will re-evaluate and reinterpret the historical memories and narratives that are passed down to them. This is not because younger generations wish to erase the past, but because each generation has fundamental questions and needs of their history that must be answered. This reckoning that each generation has (or should have) is a result of the truth that history is as much, if not more, both an interpretation and inscription of meaning to the past, as it is a banal collection of people, dates, and events. When society as whole realizes this, the real value of history and its study will be found.

Jon Malek received his PhD from Western University and currently teaches history at the University of Manitoba. He is working on a book manuscript on the history of the Winnipeg Filipino community.