Of all the legends that have sprung around the towering figure of Dr. Jose Rizal, the most awkward and unpleasant to contemplate is the story that spread and persisted for a time that it was the Americans who invented tomorrow’s day of veneration of the memory of Jose Rizal, as a tool for their colonial project.
This tale has spread and persisted for over a century, sometimes spurred by American historiography and journalism, and sometimes by nationalist-leftist scholars who accuse Rizal of being a counter-revolutionary for not supporting the Philippine Revolution of 1896, and find other heroes like Bonifacio as more worthy of veneration.
The tale has marched across time in spite of evidence to the contrary.
In his fine book, A Nation Aborted: Rizal, American hegemony and Philippine Nationalism (Ateneo University Press, 2008), Floro C. Quibuyen discusses at length the fruits of his research on the issue.
First Philippine Republic started Rizal Day
His first entry is reassuring:
“Rizal Day was actually started not by the Americans but by the Filipinos. The first commemoration was held on 30 December 1898, when General Aguinaldo, on behalf of the revolutionary government at Malolos, Bulacan, officially declared that day as a national day of mourning in solemn observance of the second anniversary of Rizal’s execution.
“On that day, all pueblos under the control of the revolutionary forces commemorated Rizal’s death anniversary.”
Quibuyen cited the example of Antonio Guevarra, a revolutionary officer who was sent on a mission to Lucban, Quezon, and who found the town in mourning for Rizal, with a flag at half mast at each house.
The 1898-1899 issues of the revolutionary newspapers, La Independencia and El Heraldo de la Revolucion are replete with descriptions of the commemoration of Rizal’s death in various towns.
The whole population of the town of Batangas is reported as having gathered, in tearful wailing, before a portrait of Rizal that made the townfolk recall “the desert of sorrow traversed by the Christ of our pueblos.”
Quibuyen comments: “It was a stroke of genius on the part of the American regime to have seized the symbol of Rizal to further their own colonial agenda.
“But during the early years of the new regime, the American appropriation of Rizal was resisted.”
Rizal Day marked in the Visayas
Quibuyen cites the work of an Englishwoman to show how veneration of Rizal had spread as far as the Visayas. The lady is Mrs. Campbell Dauncey, who wrote an account of her visit to the archipelago, an Englishwoman in the Philippines. She stayed on for nine months and travelled the islands. Her account is notable because it covered the political situation in the Philippines during the first four years of American colonial rule. She claimed to have written her account “faithfully and impartially, on the ground that she held no brief for the Americans or the Filipinos.”
In a letter dated Dec. 31, 1904, she wrote an interesting account of Rizal Day in the town of Iloilo. In this brief epistle, she strikes at the heart of the political problem then facing the American regime.
“I think you may be amused to hear about a Filipino fiesta, which took place yesterday, called Rizal Day – the anniversary of the death of the national hero, a Filipino of the name of Doctor Rizal. He was the William Tell of the Philippines, except that his existence was a reality, not a myth, for he died only eight years ago.”
Further on, she reported:
“I have met people who were present at the execution of Rizal, and they tell me that the crowds were vast, and relate how Rizal faced a line of soldiers bravely and was shot. Rizal had a nice, clever face of a refined Filipino type, if one can trust the portraits on the Conant bank notes, and the Filipinos simply adore his memory.”
It’s striking from this account that Philippine bank notes carried the portrait of Rizal barely two years after the Revolution was declared over, and the American civil government installed.
Dauncey made one final comment on Rizal Day when she said that Filipinos would seize on the anniversary “to give relief to some of their patriotic emotions.”
Americans give Filipinos a hero
The evidence of American appropriation of Rizal as a colonial symbol was explicitly narrated by another lady visitor to the islands, the American journalist Katherine Mayo. She wrote an account of the Philippine situation in book entitled like a mystery thriller: The Isle of Fear: The Truth About the Philippines. She sought to portray her admiration for American colonial policy and practices.
In one footnote, Mayo provided a striking explanation of the rationale for Rizal Day:
“A holiday invented by Mr. Taft during his governor-generalship, as an effort to create public spirit among the Christian Filipinos. Mr. Taft’s idea was that if a national hero could be given them, a much-needed ideal might, in time, grow up around that name. No Filipino was thus known to the people. Mr. Taft, in consultation with the best available advice, decided therefore, to pick out Jose Rizal, executed by Spain in 1896 for sedition, and, by a deliberate publicity campaign, artificially to create him the Filipino hero. This was accordingly done.”
Who were the Filipinos who were consulted by Taft?
Rey Ileto, in his book, Pasyon and Revolution, reports that an unexpectedly vast number of people attended the Rizal Day parade in Manila on December 30, 1909, probably because it was an election year, when politicos tried to lay claim to the spirit of 1896.
“In various public plazas that day, a few speeches were more explicit: Imitate Rizal; don’t be afraid to spill your blood. Rizal Day 1910 was equally rousing. In 1911, the traditional parade even saw the participation of units of Artemio Ricarte’s secret army, the largest contingent display in the banner of the Pampanga organization Anak Pawis (sons of Sweat; toilers).
The struggle over Rizal’s icon between the Filipinos and the Americans would persist throughout America’s half-century in the Philippines.
We in our day should not doubt that we have won at least this tug of war.