About a month ago, we observed National Heroes Day, a day reserved for Filipinos who have consistently demonstrated in a very public way exemplary courage and dedication to save the lives of entire nations, communities, and complete strangers at the risk of their own lives and comfort. To this category belong our World War II veterans, Filipino soldiers who served elsewhere in the world in defense of international mandates and commitments, victims of state-sponsored and -instigated violence and murders in fighting for justice, and everyone else whose heroic deeds have been properly authenticated and validated. No fake medals, no fake heroes.
In a few days, we recall the execution on Dec. 30, 1896, by a foreign invader, of Jose Rizal, then 35 years old. Rizal is one hero whom we should remember especially on Nov. 30 because he is not only an instrument of commerce (his profile is on the one-peso coin), but also an example of a Filipino (even if technically he was not a Filipino citizen because we declared our independence from Spain on June 12, 1898 in Kawit, Cavite), who opted to serve society in various ways.
Rizal was a reminder to the Spaniards that their subjects were willing to wage war not just in deadly combat in the battlefield but also in the battle for people’s hearts and minds both in the islands and elsewhere in the world, especially in Europe and the Americas, through his writings and travels abroad. The Andres Bonifacios, the General Lunas and Del Pilars, and a host of other fighters were all but too willing to shed their blood for Philippine independence and freedom in the battlefield. The Spaniards were only too aware that the independence fervor had risen to dangerous heights.
Rizal’s talent was not in planning and executing strategy in the battlefield in the hills and mountains of the archipelago. His charism was in pricking the consciences of both the Spaniards and their subjects (some of whom had become steadfastly loyal to and collaborated with “mother” Spain) through his writings and novels.
What made Rizal’s writings more powerful and threatening to the Spaniards was that he was totally credible because of his intellect, his education (compared with the majority of the ignorant subjects and so-called “great unwashed”), well-rounded personality, and his various professional credentials. Rizal was a novelist, an ophthalmologist, a painter, and even a sportsman, a fencer, and a charming person.
In short, he was no ordinary subject; he was a different specimen. And if he were allowed to continue traveling all over the world and writing his nasty novels about Spanish oppression and injustice, he and the warriors in the fields would make a lethal combination.
It makes sense to conclude that Rizal knew that his talent was not in the battlefield but elsewhere. We have been told that Rizal believed it was not yet ripe to fight for complete independence, but to get to that ideal point in peaceful phases, starting with representation in mainland Spain’s governance structure. To that extent, as is usually the case in any revolution, there were fundamental differences of opinion, strategy, and timing among leaders of the upheaval. This happened to be one of them: the fighters and the proletariat had one approach while the intellectuals and propagandists had another.
Regardless of these differences, Rizal still opted to join the struggle from within the islands and not from some far foreign land where he could be safe. He could have just chosen to remain comfortably quiet and pursue his various interests and relationships and earn good money by leveraging his many talents. Yet he decided to take the risk, bear some of the burden, confront the issues right in the islands, and suffer the consequences of having to do much more because he had been given much more.
As schoolchildren, we learned about the great sacrifices of heroes like Bonifacio, Rizal, and even our modern-day hero, Ninoy Aquino. These lessons were most likely chronological narratives about these heroes’ lives, their mid-lives, and their deaths. We were probably made to memorize dates and names of persons who had much to do with these heroes, but perhaps we did not benefit from a synthesis of the heroes’ lives and their real roles in society at the time of their lives and deaths. We probably did not benefit from the deeper insights of teachers (who may have been trained to emphasize the facts of the heroes’ lives) and definitely, we were too young then to produce our own syntheses and insights.
It is somewhat tragic that we did not have too many insights on Rizal, a selfless well-rounded, talented, thinking person who was a threat to Spanish rule simply because he was not supposed to be a well-rounded, talented, and thinking subject.
Philip Ella Juico teaches in the Doctor of Business Administration program of the Ramon V. Del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University. He was Secretary of Agrarian Reform during the administration of President Corazon C. Aquino.