This evening, I speak with my 16-year-old nephew over a dinner of ampalaya, fried baboy and kanin. He’s preparing for his exams in high school and has been reviewing the classic novels of Jose Rizal: Noli Me Tangare and El Filibusterismo. We work through the characters and I’m pleased to see that he’s retained many of the complex story lines that run through the novels, which were released in 1886 (Noli) and 1891 (Fili) and whose sharp and brilliant criticisms of colonial abuse and church corruption eventually led to Rizal’s execution.
When I was traveling through the Philippines in 2008 and reporting on Rizal’s legacy, some students seemed bored at the mention of Rizal and recalled his life’s watermarks with a monotone recitation – born in 1861, exiled to Mindanao, executed in 1896 – so it’s inspiring to hear his life and work live on with the youth.
Last week, just a couple days before December 30th and the anniversary of his execution by the Spanish, I drove by Calamba, his hometown on the way to the western edge of Batangas. In honor of Rizal and his struggle for independence – on the national, individual, and cultural levels – I’m including here a few excerpts of his work; for the best reminder of his relevance today comes from his own words.
From Noli: The central character, Ibarra, visits Old Tasio and finds him writing in “hieroglyphics” – it’s a language that refuses to use the Roman alphabet and insists on preserving an indigenous form. Old Tasio explains:
“Because I’m not writing for this generation, I’m writing for the ages. If they could read these, I would burn my books, my life’s work. On the other hand, the generation that can decipher these characters will be an educated generation. It will understand me and say, ‘In the nights of our grandparents, not everyone was asleep.'”
“These thoughts fly around the space between the sahig, where humble mats lie, and the palupu, where a child sways in a pendant hammock. His breathing is easy and calm. Every so often he swallows his saliva and whimpers. He dreams of eating, his stomach is empty: the bits his older brothers have given him have not been enough. (From the chapter, “Sisa”).
And I must include a selection from Rizal’s final poem, Mi Ultimo Adios, written in the days before his execution, as he was imprisoned in Fort Santiago, Manila. He smuggled the single page from his cell and his words went on to help ignite the revolution:
My dreams when a lad, when scarcely adolescent:
my dreams when a young man, now with vigour inflamed;
were to behold you one day – Jewel of eastern waters! –
griefless the dusky eyes: lofty the upright brow:
unclouded, unfurrowed, unblemished, and unashamed!
And, finally, an excerpt from a letter Rizal wrote that was published in La Solidaridad in February 1890. At the time, Rizal’s Noli Me Tangare had come under harsh criticism and was banned in the Philippines. Rizal was responding to specific criticisms of Vicente Barrentes, who held high positions in the Philippine colonial government, and who said that Rizal’s work came from a “twisted” spirit.
“My spirit is ‘twisted’ because I have been reared among injustices and abuses, because since a child I have seen many suffer stupidly and because I too have suffered. My ‘twisted spirit’ is the product of that constant vision of moral ideals succumbing before the powerful reality of abuses, arbitrariness, hypocrisis, farces, violence and other vile passions. And twisted like my spirit is that of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who have not yet left their miserable homes, who do not speak any other language but their own, and if they would write or express their thoughts, they would leave my Noli me tangare very puny indeed and with their volumes there would be enough to raise pyramids for the corpses of all the tyrants…”
Mubuhay si Dr. Rizal!