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José Rizal

Aaron Abel Mallari
Publicado em 2022-01-06

Filipino Hero


What is my misfortune compared with that of many others? I know too well that there are better trees that provide better shade, but in the midst of the gloom that reigns in my country, I do not look for the shade, I prefer light.

(Rizal’s letter to Pastells, 11 November 1892)

The quote above captures José Rizal’s patriotic vision and brave outlook when he decided to return home from Europe in 1892 to continue the struggle for a better Philippines. Like a kite charting through a storm, he went back to his native soil and faced the waiting ruthlessness of the colonial masters he stood up against. Four years later, it was December 30 1896, when the man who would later be known as one of the greatest Filipinos would be executed. Young, at 35 years of age, Rizal met his demise by a firing squad. Labelled by the Spanish Colonial Government as an enemy for supposedly inspiring and inciting the first anti-colonial struggle in Asia, he is later hailed by Filipinos as a hero that dreamt of a brighter future for his nation and dared to shed light to its dire conditions under colonial rule. Utilizing his intellect, Rizal produced some of the early and important articulations of the Filipino nation through his novels, essays, and expositions. Throughout his life, he successfully showed the world, contrary to the colonial othering that suggested otherwise, that intelligence and greatness knew no race.


To better grasp the life and works of José Rizal, it is but proper to situate them within the context of their time. Rizal lived and made a mark in the long nineteenth century, a period when profound changes were felt not only in the Philippines, but also the world at large. Still under the Spanish colonial yoke, the Philippines was not insulated from the changing global affairs of the time. For Spain, the nineteenth century was a period of change as it saw itself at the losing end of the imperial competition with other emerging and strengthening European powers. Early in the 1800s, Spain struggled and lost its precious colonies in the Americas. Towards the tail end of the century, the empire had its political end with the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. On the other side of the globe, in the Pacific, the Philippines during the nineteenth century also underwent tremendous change. With the end of the Galleon Trade in 1815 as a repercussion of Mexico’s independence revolution, Manila was eventually opened to world commerce by the 1830s. The opening of the Suez Canal in the 1860s also allowed easier transit between the Philippines to Europe–transporting more goods, people, and ideas. The influx of foreign investors propelled the Philippine economy to new heights. Urbanization of cities accelerated, migrations to the centres multiplied. As the developing economy demanded a literate population, more universities and schools were established and an education decree prescribed education for all. Thus, when José Rizal was born in June 19 1861, the Philippines was already beginning to reap the benefits of this development. By the time he matured, however, two to three decades forward, the Spanish colonial empire despite valiant efforts was already nearing its twilight and the signs were clearly manifesting. The Catholic Church, major bedrock where Spanish colonial domination rested, was in turmoil as Filipino clergy with the heightened secularization movement demanded more vigorously their rightful claims to the parishes. With the developing economy, came the rise of a middle class eager to dismantle the archaic notions of racial superiority predicated on the purity of blood. It also did not help Spain that other European powers were flexing their muscles in Southeast Asia. The most formidable hurdle that Spain faced in the Philippines came in 1896 when the Katipunan led by Andres Bonifacio launched the Philippine Revolution.


So how do we locate Rizal within this dynamic century? Rizal grew up in a family of inquilinos, those who rented farmlands to manage them. He was born to Francisco Mercado and Teodora Alonso and grew up in Calamba, in the province of Laguna. Theirs was a relatively well-off family. He had one older brother and nine sisters. Growing up, biographers have consistently noted that Rizal had showcased intelligence: always inquisitive, eager to learn. His first teacher was his mother from whom he learnt the alphabet at the age of three. His formal schooling began in Manila when he enrolled at the Ateneo Municipal and then to the University of Santo Tomas (UST). It was in his transfer to Manila that he began to adopt the name Rizal, as advised by his older brother, Paciano. This decision was a move to protect the young José from the possible persecution that his surname might bring given that his brother had close ties with Father Jose Burgos, a priest and leader of the secularization movement and implicated in a mutiny in Cavite in 1872; eventually martyred and died by garrotte at the behest of the Spanish colonial authorities. At UST, he was taking courses in liberal arts when he learned that his mother was going blind which made him decide to take up medicine instead. At the young age of 21, he travelled to Spain to pursue his studies and he enrolled at the Universidad Central de Madrid (presently, Universidad Complutense de Madrid). It was during his time in Europe that Rizal’s legacies to the nation will begin to be laid out.


His sojourns in Europe allowed Rizal to hone his many intellectual proclivities from medicine and ophthalmology, to arts and letters, history and social sciences, to learning languages. Through his correspondences with other European scholars, Rizal debated and shared ideas, participating in the flow and production of knowledge across a range of disciplines. He attended and joined academic societies. He also developed friendships with fellow Filipinos and some would say, also earned a reputation for being a womanizer.


Rizal, however, was only one among many talented young Filipinos in Europe during this time. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, many rich families in the Philippines enjoyed the luxury of sending their children to Europe to receive higher education in the prestigious universities of the old world. As these young men convened in Europe, they were exposed to the ideas that fuelled European academia and social life. These young Filipino men eventually regarded themselves as ilustrados, enlightened ones. Realizing the stark difference of the conditions in Europe with that of the Philippines, these ilustrados soon forged an alliance to campaign for reforms in their homeland. Together with other key figures in this Propaganda Movement (like Graciano Lopez Jaena, Marcelo H. Del Pilar, Juan and Antonio Luna), Rizal launched a sustained campaign for reforms in the Philippines. They sought reforms such as: (1) for the Philippines to be made a province of Spain which will eventually accord Filipinos and Spaniards equal rights before the law; (2) representation of the Philippines in the Spanish cortes; (3) secularization of parishes. Harnessing their intellectual arsenal and erudition, the ilustrados primarily chose the pen as their weapon–writing propaganda materials, critical essays, expositions, novels, and delivering speeches. Their major audience was the Spaniards, particularly the liberals. They appealed to the metropole to enact changes in the colony. Their writings figured to be scathing critiques of the conditions in the Philippines, earning the ire of many Spanish authorities.


Among the early works of Rizal as an intellectual in Europe was his annotation of Antonio de Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas wherein he critically engaged and refuted many racialized claims about the Filipino. In this masterful display of historical competence, Rizal contextualized and nuanced the Sucesos and gave a counter-reading of a colonial prejudice. This annotation and other important essays of Rizal were published in the Propaganda Movement’s flagship newspaper, La Solidaridad. Another is his essay titled “Sobre la Indolencia de los Filipinos” (On the Indolence of the Filipino) wherein he interrogated the Spanish prejudice toward the Filipino being indolent. Rizal’s indictment of the prejudice flows to a commentary on Spanish colonial policy in the Philippines as he remarked that the Filipino “indolence” was a product of a multitude of factors one major being the disincentive of working for the Spaniards who milked the colonized dry. Another important essay of Rizal was his “Filipinas Dentro de Cien Años” (The Philippines a Century Hence) where he once again, called on Spain to enact reforms in the Philippines and warned the colonizer that should such changes failed to come to the colony, a revolution is likely to happen. In this essay, he also cautioned the Filipinos of the possible outcome of a break from Spain. Rizal mentioned almost prophetically the possibility of another colonial power taking over from the Spaniards. He even went as far as hypothesizing the possible new colonizer and after assessing the imperial dynamics of the time, hinted that it would most likely be the rising new superpower in the North American continent, i.e. the United States.

But Rizal’s best-known literary works are his two novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. In these novels, Rizal poignantly captured the realities of colonial Philippines. In the Noli published in 1887, Rizal exposed the dire conditions of Philippine colonial society, revealing the exploitative system under the Spaniards. A direct recipient of condemnation was the corrupt clergy. On its pages, we know of the protagonist, Crisostomo Ibarra and his intent on establishing a school in order to help his community. Reflective of Rizal’s vision of providing enlightenment to his fellow Filipinos, the novel not only provided a diagnosis of colonial conditions, but it also made an argument for the true luminescent power of education and how manipulative forces of the oppressive system continued to shield colonial society from it. As the story of the Noli continues, we see Crisostomo Ibarra, frustrated due to the challenges he faced and the loss of his beloved Maria Clara, eventually transforms himself to Simoun and has a radical shift in perspective. Simoun becomes the center of El Filibusterismo, published in 1891, where Rizal in his continuation of the story considered the possibilities of a revolution and its potential outcomes. In the Fili, Rizal’s inner reflections and debates with himself were reflected as he tiptoed around the idea of a revolution. The darker novel warned that a revolution ignited out of selfish interests is bound to be a disaster and should be avoided. These two novels, in many ways, made Rizal famous and infamous. To the Filipinos, especially his fellow ilustrados, these novels were major contributions to the cause. To the Spaniards, especially the clergy, these were clearly insulting and should be ground for arrest and persecution.


José Rizal indeed had an important role in the Propaganda Movement not only because of his intelligence, but also because of his courage and leadership. By 1892, Rizal made up his mind that the place of the struggle is in the Philippines. He decided to leave Europe and go back to his homeland. In spite of warnings and the disapproval of his family out of fear of his certain arrest, Rizal pushed on and went back home. Among his immediate activities in the Philippines was his establishment of the La Liga Filipina in July of 1892. A civic organization, the Liga primarily aimed to unite the archipelago into one organization, advocate social justice, promotion of education, and to study the application of reforms. The fears of his family came true when the Spaniards arrested Rizal, only days after his establishment of the Liga, citing among the reasons for which are his publication of anti-friar and anti-Catholic works. Rizal was then sent to exile in Dapitan, in the province of Zamboanga in Mindanao. During his exile, Rizal did not wallow in despair, but instead used his time to effect change in his immediate community. In a way, in his time in Dapitan, we see how Rizal transformed his ideas to practice. There, he started a school that taught the people; he established a clinic to treat the sick; and he even helped in constructing an effective irrigation and water supply system. During his exile, he would also meet in 1895, Josephine Bracken who would be his wife. Josephine accompanied his adoptive father who sought medical attention for his eyes (Rizal was one of the very few trained in ophthalmology in Southeast Asia during this time). Although Rizal’s family did not approve of Josephine, they married and lived together in Dapitan.


By 1896, Rizal volunteered as a doctor to serve the Spaniards in the ongoing Cuban independence revolution. He already left the Philippines but was arrested on board and eventually detained in Spain and sent back to the Philippines. The reality of a Philippine Revolution was starkly realized by 1896 when the Katipunan had started to gear for the launch of the struggle. Established in 1892 after the failure of the Liga, the Katipunan sought to end colonialism via armed revolution. By 1896, the Spaniards’ suspicion of the existence of this secret society was confirmed and they found reason to implicate Rizal. The Spaniards were not entirely baseless since the Katipuneros looked up to Rizal and would even invoke his heroism during their meetings. Although he had nothing to do with the Katipunan, Rizal was sent back to Manila and was tried for sedition. He was found guilty and was eventually shot on December 30.


The afterlife of Rizal in Philippine society and academia is not without controversy. Many scholars have debated about his legacy and about certain aspects of his life and works. One major controversy was the charge that Rizal was an American sponsored hero venerated by Filipinos without understanding. As an “elite,” Rizal was undermined and painted to be a logical choice for the Americans given that he was an advocate of reform and not of revolution like Andres Bonifacio. Another debate was about whether he retracted his criticisms of the colonial rule before he was executed. Decades after his death, the Philippine congress passed the Rizal Bill that mandated the teaching of his life and works (notably his novels) to Filipino students. The passage of this landmark legislation was achieved after much struggle and debate with conservatives, especially the Catholic Church.


In spite of the controversies and intellectual debates spurred by Rizal’s life and works, there is no possibility of denying his invaluable contribution to the Filipino nation. The very debates that his life and works inspired and inspires are clear testaments to the crystallization of his legacy and impact. After his martyrdom, Rizal had transformed into a text, a symbol that can serve as a gateway to knowing and appreciating Filipino heroism in the watershed years of the late 1890s Philippines.


Jose Rizal was a man of letters, a man of science, and a man of reason. His works may have been only a part of the many works created by the ilustrados, but one thing that set Rizal remarkable was his courage and decision to go back to the Philippines in spite of the imminent threat to his freedom and safety. He had dedicated most of his adult life to seek change and have a better Philippines. Although he did not live to see the triumph of the Philippines against colonialism, he certainly helped in laying the groundwork for its fruition. And today, just as his statues stand proud not only in the Philippines but also in many other cities of the world; his life and works had shown that Filipinos are capable of being teachers of the world.


Aaron Abel Mallari teaches at the Department of History, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines Diliman where he also obtained his BA in History (cum laude), and MA in History. His research interests include social history; crime and punishment in historical and sociological perspectives; history of science, technology and medicine, and Southeast Asian studies. (atmallari@up.edu.ph)



  • Coates, Austin. Rizal: Philippine Nationalist and Martyr. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • Rizal, José. Correspondences with Fellow Reformists. Manila: National Historical Institute: 2011.
  • Rizal, José. El Filibusterismo. Translated by Maria Soledad Locsin. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007.
  • Rizal, José. “Filipinas Dentro De Cien Años,” La Solidaridad Sept 30, Oct. 31, December 15, 1899; Ferbruay 15, 1890.
  • Rizal, José. Letters between Rizal and Family Members. Manila: National Historical Institute, 2011.
  • Rizal, José. “Sobre la indolencia de los Filipinos,” La Solidaridad July 15 and 31, August 1 and 31, September 1, 1890.
  • Rizal, José. Noli me Tangere. Translated by Maria Soledad Locsin. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

Como citar

Mallari, Aaron Abel (2019), "José Rizal", Mestras e Mestres do Mundo: Coragem e Sabedoria. Consultado a 24.07.24, em https://epistemologiasdosul.ces.uc.pt/mestrxs/?id=27696&pag=23918&id_lingua=1&entry=36614. ISBN: 978-989-8847-08-9