It was by compulsion of law that I first encountered [Jose] Rizal almost half a century ago. The year was 1965 and I was in my senior year in a Catholic university. Republic Act 1425 made the reading of Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo in their unexpurgated versions a graduation requirement. The purpose of the law was to rededicate the youth to “the ideals of freedom and nationalism for which our heroes lived and died…. to develop moral character, personal discipline, civic conscience, and to teach the duties of citizenship.”
I was aware, like many of my classmates, that this law had a difficult birth nine years before as the combined forces of the Catholic hierarchy, its supporters in both Houses of Congress and various church-affiliated organizations exerted every contraceptive effort to ensure its miscarriage. This religious opposition was met with grim determination by the partisans of Senators Recto and Laurel, the bill’s sponsors, numbering in their ranks the liberal and secular segments of Philippine society united under the banner of nationalism. At the very center of the conflict, loomed the figure of Rizal, a subversive in the 1890’s in the eyes of the white-skinned clergy. He remained a subversive 60 years after he met his destiny at Bagumbayan in the eyes of a hierarchy whose skin color has now changed from white to brown. No change was apparent in the contents of their crania.
And so the time came for me to meet Rizal. I expected that like other subjects in the curriculum, there would be regular classes with lectures, seminars, term papers, written and oral exams. There were none of those. We were simply told to read the two novels and at an appointed time, we were to show proof that we have done the assigned tasks before an instructor who graduated from college just a few years ahead of us. It was, in short, an auto-didactic endeavor. The implementation of the Rizal law by this Catholic institution was minimal, if not grudging. Strange, I thought, that this would take place in a school where Rizal was a prized alumnus. After all, the school was none other than the Ateneo de Manila University
Nonetheless, the set-up was fine by me, being lazy by nature. I read both novels in my leisure hours, went before the instructor who asked a few questions to ascertain that I read them in full and not the summaries, and got a grade I can’t remember what. To make a long story short — I passed the course. And that, as they say, was that.
But not quite. More than thirty five years later, I chanced upon the 1990 publication by the National Historical Institute of Rizal’s El Filibusterismo in the original Spanish. I had long wanted to renew my acquaintance with Rizal in the language he wrote and now I had the chance. At that time, my Spanish which I acquired from the 24 unit requirement (another Recto-sponsored law) during my college years had deteriorated to the tourist level, possibly, even lower. And so, off to the Instituto Cervantes I went. After three semesters, (at nivel nueve, I think) I felt confident enough to meet Rizal — with a large Spanish-English dictionary by my side.
I was pushing 60 when I tackled Rizal in Spanish. I was a changed man from the care-free student who simply wanted to get by. I wanted to acquire a degree of fluency in a language I had largely forgotten and re-enter the mind of Rizal with whatever wisdom and maturity I had acquired during the years. In my first reading of Rizal in the 60’s, I learned largely from the controversies over the Recto-Laurel bill that Philippine society has to move towards an enlightened, secular understanding of the world that Rizal embodied in his writings, as in his correspondence with Pastells, if the nation is to achieve intellectual independence. The Church and its dogmas have been attacked across the ages in language more vitriolic than Rizal’s. But, as the Filipino has Rizal deep in his heart, his denunciations of obscurantism will carry more weight than the words of Luther, Calvin, or Manalo. This, the hierarchy understood in the mid-fifties when it mounted its opposition. It stood in great fear of Rizal in his anti-catholic persona which had to be sanitized by way of a retraction that is still embedded in controversy.
Harsh as his words were in his treatment of the friars and the church, he was no less harsh in his depiction of his own countrymen. The final chapter of El Filibusterismo is a ringing indictment of the Filipino character. In the person of the Filipino secular priest, Padre Florentino, as he ministered to the dying Simoun, Rizal wrote, “Nuestro mal lo debemos á nosotros mismos, no echemos la culpa á nadie.” (The mess we’re in is our own doing. Let’s not pass the blame on others.) It stems from “our lack of faith, our vices, the little regard we have of dignity and civic virtues, our tolerance of graft, making us its accomplice as at times, we even applaud it. It is fitting that we suffer the consequences, all the way to the next generation.” Unless we assert our rights and cease the supine acceptance of abuses, unless we rid ourselves of slavishness before the powerful, Rizal asked, “A qué la independencia si los esclavos de hoy serán los tiranos de ma?ana?” (Of what use is independence if the slaves of today become the tyrants of tomorrow?) “Tal amo, tal esclavo. Tal gobierno, tal país.” (As the master is, so is the slave. Like government, like country.)
The final chapter of Fili painted an unflattering picture of ourselves. Had the pen been wielded by a hand other than Rizal’s, the onion-skinned among us would most certainly raise a howl of protest and indignation. It is indicative of the failure of our society that the evil that encompassed the society of Rizal’s days is still very much around. Not much has changed. But what caused me to marvel is that despite the character, or more properly, the lack thereof of the Filipino then, Rizal made the supreme sacrifice of his life. Obviously, he saw value in the Filipino then. Long before Ninoy Aquino, he believed that the Filipino is worth dying for.
This, then, is the greatest lesson that I learned from Rizal. And, for that matter, from Ninoy.
Our two heroes are the sacrificial victims of tyranny. I hope they are the last. I am not counting on it, the way the country is moving.