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Rizal, the construct and Rizal, historically

In elementary school, at least in our days, we were taught to revere Rizal, not that reverencing his memory is wrong, but, in the light of what his biographers and present-day historians tell us, much of the lore that engendered this memory was hardly anything more than that—lore.  We were taught about a Rizal who loved his country so that in the struggle for liberation from the hated colonizer, he courageously marched to his death after having lived a life worthy of any reasonable person’s emulation.

Workers rush to spruce up the statue
of national hero Jose Rizal in time for
today’s commemoration of his
martyrdom. SONNY ESPIRITU
But we were never told of the Rizal who would have been prosecuted in our time for a violation of the laws protecting women from violence.  We were never told of Rizal’s trepidation, almost despondency, at the time of execution, and of the attempts he made to go back on what he had written if only to be spared the penalty of death.  While we were told what an astounding grasp he had of languages, we were not given examples of the awkward English he also wrote.  And while I have access to Rizal’s works in their original Spanish, I wanted to ask native Castilian speakers what they thought of Rizal’s Spanish: More fair, rather than elegant, was the assessment I got.

Not that our teachers intended to deceive us about Rizal.  Probably they did not know any better. And while there are some who take issue with the way the likes of Ambeth Ocampo write history, I admire Ambeth when he writes about Rizal for one reason, among others: Without probably intending to do so, by his delving into details (that others will deride as ‘trivia’) he actually deconstructs the Rizal that decades fashioned as an embodiment and a projection of our ideals (probably now lost) as a people.

In fact, some debates over Rizal are actually proxy debates.  One favorite topic is whether or not he retracted.  Some insist he did; others are adamant that he did not.  And this debate has passionately raged because it is actually a proxy struggle between those who would have a more secular society and those who cling to the ideal of a Philippines with a Catholic soul.  Then the other debate surrounds Rizal’s political position: Did he advocate revolution against Spain or did he merely want reforms, but still under the aegis of “Madre Espana”?  Like many an interminable debate on Sacred Scripture, one will find as many passages in Rizal’s writings in favor of one position as those in favor of its opposite.  But the debate is actually a proxy debate between those who think that Philippine history was polluted by the Spanish presence and those who, like Nick Joaquin (rightly, to my mind) believe that history is the story we tell about ourselves, of which the Spanish epoch is inevitably a part, and that the ‘true’ Filipino, if this characterization makes any sense at all, is he who stands within this narrative.

It is Rizal Day once more, and each speaker, each local TV channel, each Rizal Day host will proffer his own construct of Rizal, anywhere along the spectrum that ranges from an almost deified Rizal to a Rizal laden with his own share of human frailty, so far distant from the statues we see in almost Rizal Park throughout the country, dignified in overcoat, striking a Napoleonic pose, right hand over his breast, sometimes with books proclaiming his intelligence beside him --- even if available records at the University of Santo Tomas clearly show that Rizal never got the degree ‘Medicinae et Chirurgiae Doctor’.  Insofar as we are made aware of our own aspirations as a people whenever we extol the virtues of Rizal, these constructs are useful -- as long as they remain anchored somehow in the Rizal, the man of flesh and blood, courage and fear, nobility and shady ambition!

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