December marks the 119th anniversary of the execution of Jose Rizal, our national hero. Biographers regard him as the greatest Malayan who ever lived, matching the stature of Tagore and Gandhi.
A genius, Rizal had an awesome array of talents. He was a novelist whose Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo incited his countrymen to revolt although he himself was against rebellion. Further, he was a poet, a playwright and a painter-sculptor. As a doctor of medicine—regarded “a wonder doctor”—he restored his mother’s eyesight by surgically removing her cataracts and devotedly treated patients flocking to him here and abroad.
Rizal learned several European and Asian languages. On one of his journeys to Europe, he happened to be on board the ship with English, American, Spanish, French, German and Dutch passengers. While he conversed with each of them, he ended as the group’s translator-interpreter, turning the conversation, incredibly, into a general exchange of observations, ideas and impressions.
A brilliant speaker, Rizal gained scores of admirers and adherents both in Europe and the Philippines, fired as he was by his single, unwavering obsession: to serve country and people. Nothing whatsoever could deter him from it. Thus, with his striking, persuasive and engrossing fight for reforms from Spain, he gained the sympathy of certain Spanish officials and mentors, the latter from Ateneo College and the Santo Tomas University where he had studied.
But his tremendous, unrelenting efforts were hampered by the Filipinos themselves, afflicted as they were with “individualism”. Herewith, Rizal’s English biographer Austin Coates describes the malady. Although the description refers to students, it applies to Filipinos as a whole.
“In Rizal’s first year in Madrid there had been in existence a Circulo Hispano-Filipino which had a small magazine to which Rizal contributed. Neither the Circulo nor the magazine lasted long. The Circulo suffered from a besetting problem of which Rizal became conscious—misplaced individualism, which made each member of an organization feel secretly aggrieved if he was not selected president of it, each member thus stubbornly wishing to go his own way, the whole disintegrating into discontented factions scheming against each other. This particular characteristic among his own people, the difficulty they had in combining forces in any endeavor, due to excessive individualism, provides in fact a problem, which was to dog him throughout his potential years. It was a constant worry, and he never quite learned how to deal with it.”
Exacerbating Rizal’s constant worry was his instinctive feeling that he would die at an early age. When he was a young boy, his mother Doña Teodora recounted to him the story of the moth flying towards the candle whose flame would burn it and cause its premature death. Rizal likened himself to the moth. How unerring was his prescience!
While Rizal was imprisoned in Fort Santiago, his guards strictly prohibited him from writing. This led him to memorize every line of his long, classic Mi Ultimo Adios. And on the eve of his execution, while his guards were asleep, he stealthily wrote it. On the afternoon prior to his execution, he told his sisters in English (so the guards would not understand him), “There is something in the lamp.” He had hidden the poem in it.
Shortly before he walked to the Luneta to face the firing squad, a doctor who wondered about his calmness and composure, asked to check his pulse. It was normal. Rizal requested his executioners to aim their rifles at his body, not his head, refusing to crumble with his face to the ground, like a traitor. And so as he felled by bullets, Rizal—with supreme, superhuman effort—turned around and repeating Christ’s own final words, “Consumatum est!”, died facing the sky.
Presumably, we Filipinos are conversant with Rizal’s life and martyrdom, with his unwavering patriotism and nationalism, with the sterling principles for which he stood and mightily fought. Yet, we are not hewing closely to them. Otherwise, our country would not be at a virtual standstill, its progress at snail’s pace.
Congressmen, senators and other government officials and politicians would not be endlessly shifting loyalties, abandoning their original party. Funds for infrastructure, for roads and bridges, for schools and hospitals would not be diverted to private pockets for the purchase of dwellings here and abroad. Conscionably, public officials and their wives would not go on pleasure trips, sending their children to Ivy League colleges and luxuriating abroad on taxpayers’ money. Outreach centers could be built, housing budgets and calamity funds could be used for what they are intended.
Why do unqualified, uneducated officials, then wives, daughters, sons and in-laws run for public office? Is it because they see politics as personal financial gain, as a guaranteed source of family wealth? How different this is from Rizal’s tenets! How individualism continues to afflict Filipinos!
Should the tragic lack of honesty, integrity and rectitude characterizing our general conduct lead to the inevitable conclusion that we are merely paying lip service to Rizal, our national hero, through the lavish praise we ironically heap on him?