Saturday, June 19, 2010


From the Philippines Free Press, June 12, 2010.
Artwork by Danilo Dalena.

Thanks to Ricky S. Torre, associate editor of the Philippines Free Press, I rediscovered this old article of mine that I had almost forgotten I wrote. This first came out in the magazine’s issue of January 11, 1969, and Ricky thought of reprinting it in this year’s June 12 issue, in time for Jose Rizal’s 139th birth anniversary.


He’s alive and well and living in the minds and hearts of men!

By Jose F. Lacaba

THIS doesn’t seem to be the right time—it’s either too early or rather late, depending on how you look at it—to be writing about the Pride of the Malay Race, especially for a periodical that feeds on the topical. The proper time for pieces of this sort is either early June or late December, which is when they do appear, in horrifying profusion, in every single organ of the Philippines press, without exception; it’s a ritual gesture, the publication of these pieces, like putting out pictorials on flagellants during Holy Week, a ritual propitiation to the gods of the season, and more often than not a pointless exercise in homiletics.

Why, then, write on José Rizal at all, and at so late a date?

The lateness cannot be helped, and will have to be blamed on deadlines and human imperfection; had I known early last month what was to happen on December 30, 1968, the 72nd anniversary of the national hero’s death, I would have lost no time putting down the events on paper; but, alas, I have not my subject’s gift of prophecy, and must be content with dwelling on what’s past. At any rate, Rizal is a man for all seasons; let us not confine all talk of him to the day he was born and the day he was killed. That is the way of politicians.

As to why write on Rizal at all, that is the subject of this dissertation, which should properly be titled, as in grade school compositions, What Rizal Means To Me.

“Like most Filipinos,” Leon Ma. Guerrero writes in a preface to his biography of the hero, “I was told about Rizal as a child, and to me, like to most, he remained only a name.” So it was with me, with the difference that the name was mine, too; the first name, that is. I was named after my father, who is not alive to say if he was named after the hero. Anyway, there it was: José Rizal was my tocayo, and I was not too happy about it. Sometime in grade school, in a subject then (and I believe still) called “social studies,” we were told that one of the hero’s early nicknames was Uté. I remember it, even if I have not found the information corroborated by my meager readings, because for the rest of the school year it was to become the sobriquet by which I was teased and tormented by my classmates. They had been happy enough, until then, to play with the sound of my surname, which yielded such abominations as kalabaw and kabag; now even my first name became a joke. Uté: it had such a repulsive sound; with one letter added, it became a dirty word, and this must be the reason my classmates took such a delight in it. If Rizal remained a name to me, he was a name to be wary of, if not to hate.

The situation was not helped any by an unruly forelock that kept falling in a curl a few inches above my right eye, the exact shape and position of that famous forelock that captivated Josephine Bracken. In later years, before pounds of pomade and years of conditioning raised and flattened my less distinguished forelock, it would be called a Gilopez Kabayao curl, which I found even less flattering. But this was before that accomplished violinist gained fame, and there was this snaky, sneaky lock of hair, and everybody pointed to it as evidence that I was trying my best to look like Rizal. I don’t know why being compared with the Great Malayan annoyed me, but it did, terribly. Rizal was a traumatic experience. Small wonder that I grew indifferent, if not outwardly hostile, to anything that had to do with the man whose statue I would see every day in the town plaza beyond the school walls.

But there was no escaping Rizal. I think it was about the time I became Uté that I read his two novels, in Tagalog, for those were the only copies we had at home, abbreviated, expurgated versions for school use, with a set of questions at the end of each chapter to serve as “study aids.” I was to learn later, in high school, from our religion teacher, that it was forbidden for good Catholic boys to read the Noli and the Fili, they were “bad,” irreligious, and incalculably harmful to youthful morals; and having read the emasculated versions, and not knowing they were emasculated, I could not see why. I do not remember if the prohibition, as prohibitions are wont to do, enticed me to take a second look at the old moth-eaten paperback translations we had. Maybe not; the books stayed in the varnished aparador where they were kept with the Katon and the Pasión and Martir sa Golgota.

And now I must make a somewhat embarrassed confession: in high school I took part in an oratorical contest on Rizal, and won it. It was sponsored by the Knights of Rizal—that was the first time I learned such an organization existed—and was, if I remember right, supposed to be a nationwide tilt. But first, there was an elimination contest to determine who would represent the province of Rizal in the semifinals. I was picked, by the principal, to represent our school. An English teacher was assigned to write the speech; for some reason or other, he chose, from the list of topics suggested by the Knights, the formidable subject of “Rizal and Economic Nationalism.” What solemn pseudo-profundities I mouthed then I am glad I have forgotten, but I was well coached in public speaking, or so the judges must have thought, because they gave me the prize and sent me off as the province of Rizal’s representative to the semifinals in San Pablo City, where, to the disappointment of my mentors and to my immense relief, I merely placed second, making me ineligible to vie for the top prize, a university scholarship or something.

The point of this little tale is that, though no authority on Rizal, economics, or nationalism, and in fact thinking of myself as an antagonist of sorts of the hero whose name I bore, I could invoke his name and his words with a clear conscience, and well enough to impress the judges. This is the way Rizal is invoked to this day in millions of speeches and articles, unthinkingly, as a mere occasion for rhetoric. I must have made an effort, in memorizing my speech, to understand what I was saying; but, onstage, all that mattered was the elegant enunciation, the emphatic gestures, the studied pauses. More than once I lost track of my text; then I would walk slowly to one corner of the stage, or stare with supreme insolence at the hushed audience, while I desperately racked my brains for what came next. When the words finally came, they exploded in the silence with a strength and a force worthy of Cicero. Thus was Rizal won.

I like to think that my blithe disregard for the matter of my speech was an unconscious projection of my lack of respect for the national hero. The secret iconoclast, that was me. I even wrote little verses, in Tagalog, in which I professed to find some contemptible motives behind certain well-publicized acts of Rizal. Like that story about the slipper that fell into the lake. What made us all so sure he didn’t deliberately drop it, and then throw in its partner on some noble pretext, so his parents would buy him a new pair? Things like that—in meter and rhyme. Remember it was a high-school kid, fed up with all the adulatory anecdotes, doing these take-offs in verse. I even had something on his real reason for marrying Josephine—and you can imagine my surprise on learning, much much later, that what I suspected in my boyhood nastiness about Joe and his dear Miss J was true after all!

My quarrel with Rizal was not to end in high school; it only diminished in intensity, for which I have the university to thank. Though it prided itself on being the hero’s alma mater, it was not insistent about its honors, as far as I can remember. My first year in college was the year of the Rizal centennial; there was an exhibition, precisely of what I cannot recall, except that the prize exhibit was the statue of the Sacred Heart Rizal had carved as a student. It made no impression on me. That was the year I was discovering modern art, and so, of course, Rizal was hopelessly corny. And then Rizal was a one-unit course in senior year; I am told his Life and Works are worth three units now, but in my day one unit was all they were good for, and this single unit I didn’t even get. I didn’t write the term paper on Rizal which was practically the only requirement for the course. The result was a grade of “incomplete,” which, unless the grading system has been radically revised, must have with the lapse of time become a shameful 5.

I have gone into this disgraceful history of My Life with the Father of the Country because it is, I think, in many ways, typical. I was not alone of my generation to consider Rizal irrelevant: he was nothing more than the monument on every town plaza of the archipelago. He could even be a pest. Familiarity breeds contempt, and it was easy for adolescents to denigrate the man in whose name our elders exhorted us to nobility and patriotism. It can be irritating to be perpetually referred to as “the fair hope of the fatherland.”

It was my generation, the generation that came of age in the early part of this decade, that was most profoundly affected, whether consciously or not, by the intellectual movement in the ’50s to downgrade Rizal in favor of Bonifacio. Did it start in the ’50s? I do not know my history; what I know is that it was in college that I began to be aware of the myth that Rizal is an American-made hero, chosen by a colonial master as a safer symbol than the revolutionary likes of Bonifacio and Aguinaldo. Where or how I picked up this theory I cannot tell; it was in the air, and it seeped into my generation’s consciousness by osmosis, secretly coloring our outlook and shaping prejudices. In the age of Marx and the proletariat, Bonifacio the Great Plebeian, the man from the masses, was the supreme hero.

In the mid ’60s, Bonifacio, too, got demythologized: he was a failure, said the icon smashers, he had won none of his battles, and he virtually invited liquidation by his high-handedness in Cavite. And that was that. It was no time for heroes. But no, this time it was Aguinaldo’s turn to be resurrected and saved from oblivion. June 12 became Independence Day, and after a little initial skepticism we gloried in the change; many of my contemporaries began writing poems and short stories, for their school organs, about The Revolution, The Republic, The General—always spelled with those respectful capital letters. As an earlier generation had been obsessed with recreating Rizal in their existential image, so, enamored with the romance of The Revolution, we took The General into our hearts, the young Emilio, dashing in his rayadillo, on horseback, and doing his best to make life difficult for the hated Yankee. It all fitted in with the new nationalism of a generation too young to remember MacArthur’s “I Shall Return,” but old enough to be painfully aware of parity and military bases. Aguinaldo, as much as Claro M. Recto, was the hero of the moment.

But now, it seems, Rizal is back with a vengeance.

I may just be imagining this; perhaps Rizal never really left the national consciousness, and only my willful blindness prevented me from realizing the fact. What I see as a sudden interest in Rizal could be just my sudden interest in the subject, my discovery of Rizal. All along, I thought he was as dead as the Spanish regime in the Philippines. Now it turns out, and permit me to announce my modest discovery: Rizal is alive and well and living in the minds and hearts of men!

I made the discovery last Rizal Day, December 30, 1968.

It all began when I was given this assignment, to cover the Rizal Day celebration. The National Historical Commission had lined up a series of lectures, one in the morning in Calamba, by Austin Coates, another in the afternoon in Fort Santiago, by Leon Ma. Guerrero, and a third that same afternoon in Dapitan, by Armando J. Malay. In the evening, in Fort Santiago, the Philippine Educational Theater Association was to present a dramatization of “Elias and Salome,” the chapter that had to be deleted from the original edition of the Noli. I didn’t have to go to Calamba, really, because Coates had written a biography of the hero—Rizal: Philippine Nationalist and Martyr (Oxford University Press)—and all I had to do was read that; but out of sheer curiosity, and because I had never been to Calamba, I decided to go there. If it was at all possible to go to Dapitan and be in Fort Santiago at the same time, I would have gone to Dapitan, too.

The Calamba lecture was at nine, and at 5:30 a.m., by a supreme effort of the will, since I had gone to bed at two a.m., I was up and raring to go. Did I expect any earth-shaking revelation in the town where the hero was born? There was none. Mr. Coates, son of the well-known composer Eric Coates, and a genial, voluble Englishman whom the Historical Commission had somehow knighted (he was “Sir Austin” in the invitations), spoke on the Ultimo Adios. It was a brief talk, scholarly without being stuffy, about how a fairly accurate biography of Rizal could be deduced from the lines of the poem. The small-town folk and the scattering of Manila visitors who had come to listen may have been expecting the usual platitudes as they sat there under the heat of the sun, in the yard of the reconstructed Rizal house; how they received the talk, which seemed more suited for a classroom or a gathering of scholars, is uncertain, but they must surely have been impressed by Mr. Coates, who did not have a prepared speech, but spoke with the facility of one born to the language.

The Coates lecture was a salutary departure from the usual run of Rizal Day addresses, and it mattered little if it got across or not. The amazing thing, to me, was that there were so many people at the Rizal shrine, who were not there under compulsion. I had not realized Rizal was still so popular. When we arrived, there was this small group of men, women, and children, peasants by the look of them, in front of the wreath-surrounded marker, singing what sounded like a long Tagalog epic or dirge about Rizal and what he had done for his country; it sounded like a secular Pasión, and some of the old women, as they sang, were weeping! I couldn’t believe it. Somebody said they were members of the Iglesia Watawat ng Lahi, a sect that worships Rizal as a second Messiah, but the Watawat bishop we would meet later would deny it. A municipal official hushed up the singers when it was time for the program to begin; the leader of the group then laid down their own floral offering, calachuchi stuck to a banana-stalk cross, accompanied by a card that said: Alay sa Sagrada Familia ni Gat Jose Rizal.”

In the Rizal house, we were to see other women kneeling outside the room where, according to a bronze sign, Rizal was born. They were weeping, too. A strange sight, but stranger still was the community formed by the members of the Watahat ng Lahi. After his talk, Coates led the way to Lecheria Hill, where lived the bulk of the Watawat brethren. Atop the hill was a statue of Rizal, a dynamic Rizal, facing west and moving purposefully forward; and a few meters away from the monument was the wooden chapel consecrated to the martyred hero. Portraits of Burgos and Bonifacio flanked the main altar, over which there was a huge painting, obviously by a folk artist, of Rizal being crowned by angels under a triangle from which stared an open eye, the eye of the Lord. “This is historically accurate, you know,” said Coates, pointing to the pictures of Burgos and Bonifacio. “The precursor who inspired Rizal, and the follower inspired by Rizal.”

The visitors from the city had a brief chat with the sect’s head bishop, Luis F. Fabregar, who handed out calling cards. National Library Director Serafin Quiason, who came for the talk and tagged along to Lecheria Hill, requested for any written records the Watawat might have, for the National Library’s files. But there was not much time for a longer conversation with the bishop. Soon we were all on our way back to Manila.

At 4:30 p.m., I was in Fort Santiago for the Guerrero lecture, “Rizal and the Faustian Generation.” Again, the surprising thing was the attendance. Who would have imagined that a talk on Rizal would command an SRO audience? There was an even bigger crowd outside the enclosure where the talk was held. A crush of sightseers packed the building that housed the cell where the hero spent the last night of his life. Even if they had come only to promenade in a beautiful park, they could not help but be exposed to history, they could not help but learn about Rizal.

Part of the crowd that came for the lecture may have been lured there by the renown of the speaker, a celebrity in his own right, especially since Bangkok. If they expected to be bowled over by the eloquence that put the Malaysians to rout, they must have been sorely disappointed. The Guerrero who spoke on the Faustian generation kept mumbling, and lowering his voice to the point of unintelligibility at climactic moments.

Guerrero began his address with a summary of a play that he said he had sometimes thought of writing “in my more mischievous moments.” The play would be called “Rizal Runs for President”—a hilarious, but ultimately tragic, account of how the hero would fare in local politics. “What,” Guerrero asked at the end of his political fable, “is the point of this frivolous fantastication? Am I suggesting that not even the honors and storied glories of Rizal could survive the hazards and rigors of a Philippine election? Or am I perhaps trying to say that Rizal is no longer relevant to this day and age, that he has nothing to say to us?”

What, in the first place, had Rizal to say to his day and age? “Endure, work, and wait for the hand of God.”

“One wonders,” said Guerrero, “how acceptable this message is to a generation that I would describe as Faustian, Faustian partly in the sense that it has sold its soul and thrust aside spiritual values in the race for riches and success, but Faustian also in its other sense of a discontent with the human condition, a restless search for a meaningful life, its anomie.

“Rizal can hardly be a hero to a generation that will not suffer gladly, will not work for nothing, and only half believes in divine intervention or even interest in human affairs. It must have some significance that young Filipino intellectuals seldom, to my knowledge at least, quote Rizal or look upon him as an exemplar.”

But simply because Rizal “shrank from the proclamation of independence and the recourse to arms, because he was an intellectual elitist, skeptical of the instinctive wisdom of the common people, because he was silent on social justice,” was no reason to discard Rizal as a national hero. “The relevance of heroes to other generations should not, after all, be assessed on the basis of what they said or did in some specific and unrepeatable historical situation,” said Guerrero. And “the value, the usability, the relevance of heroes is to be found in a quintessential elan, quite separate from the dross of historical circumstance, a capacity to inspire in quite a different crisis, what succeeding generations have discovered again and again in the compassion and inflexible resolution of Gandhi and Lincoln, the broad vision of Bolivar, Nelson’s dash and Wellington’s imperturbability, the loyalty of the forty ronin [a ronin is an outcast samurai; the reference must be to something in Japanese history], the faith of Isabella and Philip, the moral courage of José Rizal.”

In “his uncertainties, his disconformity and discontent, his anger,” Guerrero concluded, “Rizal is for the young.” He would never have become President. “But he is as durable a hero as we are ever likely to get.”

And so I thought, too, after December 30, 1968. My curiosity now thoroughly piqued, I began the education in Rizal that I had never had. I read the Noli and the Fili, this time in Guerrero’s English translation, and found them fascinating, entrancing, funny, exciting, powerful. I went on to a recently released book, Rizal: Contrary Essays, edited by Petronilo Bn. Daroy and Dolores S. Feria, which is fitfully interesting but on the whole a disappointment. It begins with Unamuno’s perceptive essay on Rizal as the Tagalog Hamlet and ends with a perfectly abstruse piece on “Rizal and the Human Condition” by Epifanio San Juan Jr. Feria contributes a stimulating study of the parallelism in the writings of Rizal and Mark Twain; S.P. Lopez and Carmen Guerrero Nakpil are represented by two essays that sparked the Maria Clara controversy in the 1930s; and Recto’s well-known essay on “Rizal the Realist and Bonifacio the Idealist,” which I had more than once heard of before, gets reprinted (it was originally written in Tagalog, according to the introduction, and I cannot believe this English translation is Recto’s, it is so wretched).

My reading jag extended to two of the more recent biographies of the hero: Guerrero’s The First Filipino and Coates’s Rizal: Philippine Nationalist and Martyr. Both are extremely readable and percipient, but I prefer Guerrero’s. Coates’s is hagiography: his Rizal is almost too perfect to be true; but since his book is for an international audience that must be informed of the existence of an extraordinary, but relatively unknown, Asian, he may be forgiven his enthusiasm. Guerrero’s Rizal seems to me more human, and a Filipino may be forgiven for preferring a biography that places the hero more solidly in the context of Philippine history.

The Coates biography, incidentally, is sure to revive one of the more persistent controversies on Rizal, and this is the question of whether or not he retracted the night before his execution. Coates’s position may not please either side in the controversy. He holds that there was no retraction, and supports his theory with some shrewd deductions. In the course of his argument, he accuses the Jesuits of perpetrating, and perpetuating, a fraud, which is how he brands Balaguer’s account of Rizal’s last hours. What the anti-retractionists may not find to their liking is Coates’s contention that, though Rizal may not have retracted, he remained a deeply religious man to the hour of his death. In fact, Coates uses this as an argument against retraction: “in terms of true religion it would be difficult to say precisely what he had to retract.”

Guerrero’s position is that the inflexibility of Rizal’s views cannot be used as an argument against retraction: “The rationalist will not be convinced by the arguments that failed to convince Rizal. But no one can assert that Rizal could not have humbled himself or that he would not have cancelled with a stroke of the pen the convictions of his scholarship until he himself stands on the brink of eternity, and, beating the feeble wings of human reason, wonders if they will carry him safely across.”

The question of Rizal’s retraction is one of the things about his life in which I have little interest, so I leave the disputations to those with the stomach for it. Discovering Rizal was troublesome enough for me.


First published in the Philippines Free Press, January 11, 1969. Reprinted in the Philippines Free Press, June 12, 2010.