Jose Rizal is said to have first expressed his sense of nation, and of the Philippines as a nation separate from Spain, as a young student in Manila. Proof of this, it is said, can be found in two of his writings. In his poem “To the Philippine Youth”, which he wrote in 1879, when he was 18 years old (and which won a prize from the literary group), Rizal speaks of the Filipino youth as the “Fair hope of my Motherland”, and of the “Indian land” whose “son” is offered “a shining crown”, by the “Spaniard… with wise and merciful hand”. Still in this poem, Rizal considered Spain as a loving and concerned mother to her daughter Filipinas.
In his memoirs as a student, later published as Reminiscences, he spoke of the time spent in his sophomore year at the Ateneo as being essentially the same as his first year, except that this year, he felt within himself the stirrings of “patriotic sentiments” and of an “exquisite sensibility”. He might have been only referring to the sense that the Philippines, was a colony of Spain, and as such, the Philippines was a part of Spain. If this were the case, his patriotism was therefore directed toward Spain for being the Philippines’ mother country. Seen in another light, these words may have evidenced Rizal’s moment of epiphany, his own portent of a future time when he would awake to the tragedies that were the lot of his fellow indios, the rightful heirs of the Filipinas their motherland.
Some cite Rizal’s verse-play “Beside the Pasig” (written in 1880, when was 19), as his allegory of the Filipinos’ bondage under Spain; however, the play’s protagonists are a young boy named Leonido, who defends the Christians, and Satan, who speaks against Spain for bringing Christianity to the Philippines.
As fate had it, Rizal ultimately awoke to the real state of the Philippines under the hands, not of a loving Mother Spain, but of an exploitative despot represented by the colonial government in Manila and the friars who held great influence over the government. His awakening may have come by way of his own experiences at the university, his family’s experience at the hands of the religious group that owned their farmland; and perhaps, from the stories about the reformist movement and the sacrifice of the three priests, collectively known as Gomburza, of ten years before. This last most likely were from his older brother Paciano, who had been close to Fr. Jose Burgos, and had been an outspoken critic of abuses during his years in college at the Colegio de San Jose.
Rizal saw the many injustices suffered by his fellow Filipinos: they depended on the religious corporations or on big landowners, for land to till, or for their living; people were afraid of airing their grievances or of talking or protesting against the friars or the government, in short, there was no real freedom of the press or speech. Most Filipinos lacked the privilege of education, and its resultant benefits, or if they did have education, this was the obscurantist kind generally propagated by the colonialist policy, which not only kept Filipinos in the dark about their rights, but worse, had molded them into an abject, submissive people ignorant or worse, ashamed of their own proud heritage, a heritage that existed even before the arrival of the Spaniards. Finally, Rizal realized that the Philippines had not been consistently represented in the Spanish parliament. For Rizal, this was the root of the absence of justice in the country, or of their being deprived of basic rights.
His essay “Love of Country” which he wrote in June 1882 (but appeared in the newspaper Diariong Tagalog Manila in August), when he was already in Spain, and he was 21 years old. In it he talks of “love of country” which “is never effaced once it has penetrated the heart, because it carries with it a divine stamp..;” that it is “the most powerful force behind the most sublime actions” and for that reason, love of country “of all loves…is the greatest, the most heroic and the most disinterested”. He speaks of the Motherland for whom “some have sacrificed their youth, their pleasures…others their blood; all have died bequeathing to their Motherland…Liberty and glory.”
It can be inferred from his words that at this point Rizal’s sense of nation was now fully-formed and complete, and perhaps not by happenstance, its expression coincides with his departure from his country. While there is still no outright and open criticism of the friars, or the colonial government, or even of Spain for he may have only been being careful, Rizal by this time had become a nationalist and had gone abroad for the cause of his countrymen. This is confirmed by a line from a letter written to him by his friend Vicente Gella, in the same month he wrote “Love of Country”, (June 1882):
“If the absence of a son from the bosom of his esteemed family is sad, no less will be that of a friend who, being very dear to all of us …his friends and comrades, now is away from us seeking the welfare that we all desire. Had it not been for that, the separation would have been more painful for the distance that separates us. May God help you for the good that you do to your fellow countrymen.”
Another letter written by his friend Jose M. Cecilio, dated August 28, 1882, also corroborates this:
“I’m very glad that you will go to Madrid where you can do many things in favor of this country jointly with the other Filipinos..so long as they will not give us freedom of the press, abuses, arbitrariness, and injustices will prevail more than in other parts of the world.”
Ultimately, it does not matter when or even how Rizal’s politicization came, or why he went abroad: to complete his medical studies there; or, to expand his opportunities for establishing himself as a writer; or to embark on a career as an activist-writer who would use his pen to secure long-needed reforms in the social and political fabric of his country. And because the space for agitating for changes in the country was getting smaller by the day, it was time for him to leave. Under his leadership, together with the other Filipino youth, the Reform- or Propaganda movement– as it became known, flourished and triumphed. It triumphed not in the sense that it attained its main goals of obtaining parliamentary representation for the Filipinos, and freedom of the press, for these did not come to pass, but in the after- effects of its campaign, despite its apparent failure: other youths followed in their footsteps and took the next step- to begin the campaign for separation and independence. This was carried out by Bonifacio and the Katipunan, which launched the Revolution that, in turn, led to the birth of the Filipino nation.
And so Rizal became a crusader for his country’s freedom. He decided that love of country should supplant all other considerations, even that of his family or his own, or even of the woman he loved. From his correspondence with friends and family, he remained constant to his Muse and his cause: the Motherland and her freedom.
When he had completed his education, and his formation as a son deserving of the Motherland, Rizal felt it was time to return to her. Friends and family stopped him from returning, but he was determined to do so, for he believed that the true arena for the fight was his country itself, not some foreign land. In a letter dated October 1891, Rizal wrote,
“If our countrymen are counting on us here in Europe, they are very much mistaken…The battlefield is the Philippines: There is where we should meet…there we will help one another, there together we will suffer or triumph perhaps. The majority of our compatriots in Europe are afraid, they flee from the fire, and they are brave only so long as they are in a peaceful country! The Philippines should not count on them; she should depend on her own strength.”
Rizal returned to the land of his birth knowing that its liberty cannot be “obtained…without pain or merit… nor is it granted gratis et amore.”9 He was prepared to return despite the risk of death, as he had written in June 1892 days before his arrival in Manila: “I offer my life gladly… Let those who deny us patriotism see that we know how to die for our duty and convictions…What does it matter to die, if one dies for what one loves, for the Native Land?” Rizal returned and offered up his life for his nation’s freedom four years later. Would that the nation born out of the ashes of his sacrifice continue to look up to him and live up to the legacy he left behind.
By Ma. Cielito Reyno, 2012 for the National Historical Commission of the Philippines
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