“‘And now, gentlemen, you must have a national hero.’ In these fateful words, addressed by then Civil Governor W. H. Taft to the Filipino members of the civil commission, Pardo de Tavera, Legarda, and Luzuriaga, lay the genesis of Rizal Day…..” writes Constantino in a section of Veneration Without Understanding subtitled An American Sponsored Hero. He is wrong.
The genesis of Rizal Day was December 31, 1898 when Emilio Aguinaldo declared a national day of mourning for Rizal. It was repeated exactly a year later with commemorative broadsheets distributed in Rizal’s honour. Taft became the civil Governor of the Philippines on July 4 1901 by which time Rizal Day was already well established, in fact if not in name.
A depressing number of young Filipinos today read ‘American-sponsored hero’ as ‘American-invented hero’, the latter is nonsense. Constantino concedes that Rizal was already a revered figure and more so after his death. “There is no question that Rizal had the qualities of greatness. History cannot deny his patriotism. He was a martyr to oppression, obscurantism and bigotry. His dramatic death captured the imagination of our people”, he writes.
Rizal was more than that. His patriotism was a self-less life-giving love of country that few can match. A cosmopolitan man if immense nobility and dignity yet still tainted by humanity. Just 5’ 1” tall, he had overcome personal short-comings and physical weakness to become an intellectual and thinker respected in Europe, a poet and artist of talent, and a smart resourceful amateur engineer, as his contributions to Dapitan show. His educational records show he was not a natural genius, he literally created himself. Any Filipino could have been, and could still be, Jose Rizal. He was, intentionally, an archetype of what the Filipino can be.
Herein lays a core fault in Constantino’s analysis. He sees Rizal solely in relation to the revolution, or revolutions, he does not consider that Rizal is a hero for all ages, revolution or not. He was perceived as a hero before the revolution and remained so afterwards. Whether or not the Americans colonized the Philippines he’d still have been just as great a hero.
Constantino surrounds his thesis that Rizal was a posthumous ‘Amboy’ with significant qualifiers: “It cannot be denied that his pre-eminence among our heroes was partly the result of American sponsorship… we must accept the fact that his formal designation as our national hero, his elevation to his present eminence so far above all our other heroes was abetted and encouraged by the Americans.” If Rizal’s elevation was only partly the result of ‘American sponsorship’ then it must be conceded that it was also partly, if not mostly, the result of the will of the Filipino people themselves.
The reference to the formal designation clearly does not refer to Aguinaldo’s 1898 order but to the acts promulgated by the American Philippine Commission which renamed Morong province as Rizal, opened a public subscription for a monument and set aside an annual day of observance, the latter, of course, had already been done by Aguinaldo. Why the emphasis on formal? Because it is a weasel word without which Constantino’s thesis falls apart. Rizal was already the de facto national hero, chosen by the Filipinos, the acts of the Philippine Commission merely recognition of the prevailing sentiment.
To parse his argument and avoid taking reponsibility, Constantino relies upon a foreigner, American historian Theodore Friend: ‘Taft “with other American colonial officials and some conservative Filipinos, chose him (Rizal) as a model hero over other contestants – Aguinaldo too militant, Bonifacio too radical, Mabini unregenerate.”
This, as older generation Britons might say, is just so much tosh. National heroes almost always have one significant thing in common: they’re dead. Aguinaldo was very much alive until the 1960s, and, in fact no longer militant. He was still under house arrest in Manila. Mabini, at that time, was also still alive. What about Bonifacio? Courageous though he was, incompetent commanders aren’t usually nominated a country’s national hero, and his willingness to split the revolutionary forces in a temper tantrum at Tejeros makes him somewhat questionable.
But there are other considerations: The Americans conceded that Bonifacio wa a hero, his first monument was erected under an American puppet government in 1917 and his name was inscribed along with others on a brass plaque mounted in Malacanang in the 1920s (A plaque he shares, by the way, with President William McKinley!), but would Bonifacio be acceptable to Cavitenos, who believe he threatened the revolution and whose provincial son, Aguinaldo, killed Bonifacio? Would Aguinaldo be acceptable to Manilenos, since he’d killed Bonifacio, or Nueva Ecijans, who blame Aguinaldo for Luna death? Rizal’s name was known to virtually every Filipino, Mabini’s wasn’t.
The simple fact is that the Americans had no other choice but to accept the Filipino choice of Rizal because no-one else was such an undisputed, uncontroversial choice as national hero. Constantino himself concedes: “The honors bestowed on Rizal were naturally appreciated by the Filipinos who were proud of him.”
Constantino then accepts, without question, another foreigner’s concept of Rizal, that of former Governor-General Forbes: “Rizal never advocated independence, nor did he advocate armed resistance to the government. He urged reform from within by publicity, by public education, and appeal to the public conscience”. The emphasis is supplied by Constantino, not Forbes. Had Forbes written: “Rizal never advocated independence without liberty, nor did he advocate armed resistance to the government unless liberty was the outcome..” he’d have shown far greater understanding of Rizal’s thinking.
Certainly the Americans did revise Rizal into a pacifist reformer, of that there is no question, but that is not Rizal’s fault. It is this American-created myth that Contantino wishes us to judge Rizal by.
With irony, Constantino writes: “it is now time for us to view Rizal with more rationality and with more historicity… Rizal will still occupy a good position in our national pantheon even if we discard hagiolatry and subject him to a more mature historical evaluation… A proper understanding of our history is very important to us because it will serve to demonstrate how our present has been distorted by a faulty knowledge of our past… That is why a critical evaluation of Rizal cannot but lead to a revision of our understanding of history and of the role of the individual in history.”
All of which sounds fine but how can we view Rizal with ‘more rationality and with more historicity… and subject him to more mature historical evaluation’ if we are denied the tools of accuracy and objectivity, tools which Constantino says must be denied the Filipino? True, objectivity is a challenge, an ideal which can rarely be quite reached yet we find truth not in discarding it but in trying to achieve it.
Note that Constantino refers to “A proper (my emphasis) understanding of our history” because “it will serve to demonstrate how our present has been distorted by a faulty knowledge of our past…” Not an accurate understanding of history, not a full understanding, but the understanding that Constantino would wish us to have by suppressing data and creating “a faulty knowledge of our past”.
Where I do concur with Constantino is that Rizal is treated as some sort of superhero and should not be. It was not a superhero who inspired the revolution, whose reputation inspired others to shed blood for their nation, it was a man. Painting Rizal with a broad hagiographic brush not only creates as false an image of Rizal and his thinking as Constatino does in his article but, as far worse, creates a barrier between us and him, a barrier between what we are and what we can be.
To Be Continued