pop goes the world: rizal – hero or zero?

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 23 June 2011, Thursday

Rizal: Hero or Zero?

Rizal – hero or zero?

The hotly-debated question as to whether or not Jose Rizal is worthy of the title “hero” raged anew with the celebration of the sesquicentennial of his birth last Sunday, June 19.

Born in 1861 to an affluent land-owning family in Calamba, Laguna, Rizal grew up in comparative comfort, obtained a good education at the Ateneo, Letran, and University of Santo Tomas, and developed his skills in science and the arts.

But he was not ignorant of hardship. His mother was imprisoned twice for various trumped-up offenses, the prailes in their area having cast avaricious eyes on their property. His brother Paciano was linked to native priests later charged with subversion; for this reason Jose had to use their other family name of “Rizal” rather than the one everyone else used, “Mercado”.

After his studies in the Philippines, he went abroad and obtained a medical degree and took further studies at the universities of Madrid, Paris, and Heidelberg. He came back to the Philippines, made his living as an ophthalmologist (some sources say he was the only one in South-East Asia at the time), wrote inflammatory works, and ran afoul of the Spanish colonial government.

All this background is well-known to most Filipinos – after all, being the designated “national hero”, the particulars of his life have been dinned to us from elementary school onwards. His fables of the lost slipper, tortoise and monkey, and the moths and the lamp serve as object lessons for young people, as well as cultivate the example of an observant, obedient, and prudent boy.

Hearing these stories as a child, I was first impressed, then later sickened by what I thought was abject prudery on the part of a young child. What a goody-goody, I thought. Then, in high school, we were forced to read his novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, which I found dreary and annoying because there wasn’t a happy ending to the Ibarra-and -Maria Clara love story.

It wasn’t until I learned more about this remarkable man when I was older that I realized just how much of the narrative about Jose Rizal that is imparted to young people is actually constructed and carefully selected to position him as a role model. He had fun, sowed his wild oats, and generally behaved as an ordinary red-blooded male, with the difference that he had greater things on his mind.

Some have criticized the choice of Rizal to bear the mantle of “national hero”. It was all hype created by the Americans, they say, therefore a decision tinged with a colonial agenda. Elevating to hero status a short, soft-spoken writer over the warriors Bonifacio, Aguinaldo, and others of their ilk was their way of keeping the brown Filipino monkeys in subliminal subjugation.

Critics add that Rizal wrote in Spanish, the language of the colonial oppressor.

Yet the upshot of the decades of Rizal in the top hero’s seat has resulted in his image being iconic to all Filipinos. His statues dot the lawns of school campuses and national parks nationwide. The silhouette of his face, outfitted with aviator-style shades, emblazons t-shirts and tote bags that are so popular, merchandisers can’t keep them in stock. Whether or not he deserves to be national hero, or whether another personality deserves the honor more, is a moot point. For now, he fulfills that role, like it or not.

But it that so bad? Filipinos aged 40 and older, who had to take the mandatory 3 units of the Rizal course and 12 units of Spanish in college, gained a better appreciation of how Rizal’s mind worked. He was a peaceful revolutionary, who sparked a people’s fight for independence with thoughts and ideas rather than bullets and knives.

His weapon of choice was a fountain pen and a bottle of ink. From these flew concepts so potent that the Spanish colonial government was more frightened of him than of the gun-toting revolucionarios. It was Rizal whom they wished to neutralize. They tried threats, they tried exile, but in the end they knew the only way they could still his patriotic heart was to put a bullet through it.

At a certain point we can decide for ourselves whether or not Rizal was a hero. As a writer, I choose to admire him, accepting his human frailties that all of us possess in some form or another.

Jose Rizal was a poet, artist, scholar, physician, swordsman, journalist, traveler, reformist, son, brother, lover, friend.

He was a writer whose many essays and two novels – Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo – shook an oppressive foreign colonial regime, woke a people’s sense of nationalism, and led to the establishment of a country. His beliefs never wavered and he remained steadfast, even as he was imprisoned and sentenced to death for those beliefs.

He was a fighter who took up a pen instead of gun or sword to win our country’s freedom with thoughts and ideas rather than force.

He was a martyr, shot by firing squad in a grassy field.

His 150th birthday was also Father’s Day, yet we cannot wish him that. He was not a father. He didn’t have time.

For all that he was, he is my hero.

* *  * * *

In other news, activist-poet Axel Pinpin recently told me about his upcoming writing project. Well known for his poetry in Filipino and “spoken word” performances reminiscent of Gil Scott Heron (find them on Youtube), Axel has ventured into the short story form and creative non-fiction to which he brings his own brand of wry humor, a search light that he manages to shine into the darkest corners of life experiences.

It’s a rare talent that deserves a wider audience, and he’s asked me to lend a hand with translation of his short stories. It’s a great honor to be asked to work with an artist of his skill; he could have had his pick from his wide circle of literary friends. I look forward to the chance to work with him.

Artistic collaborations are unpredictable; like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you’ll never know what you’re going to get, and that’s exciting. *** (Email: jennyo@live.com, Blog: http://jennyo.net, Facebook: Gogirl Cafe, Twitter: @jennyortuoste)

Rizal self-sketch here. Rizal in Luna’s Paris studio here. Axel Pinpin portrait here.

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1 Comment on pop goes the world: rizal – hero or zero?

  1. Enrique
    30 December 2011 at 7:10 pm (3112 days ago)

    Rizal escribió en español porque el español era la lengua común de todos los filipinos.

    Los más grandes escritores y poetas filipinos escribían en español.

    La independencia, el himno y los escritos revolucionarios se escribieron en español, la lengua que unía a todos los filipinos.

    Los opresores fueron los EEUU, que esclavizó a los filipinos y les robó su identidad nacional, además de masacrar y exterminar todo el pasado hispánico de Filipinas

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