Photos courtesy of Philippine Center for Photojournalism
Jose Rizal literally surrounds us. His likeness or name can be found in every city, in every town. The ubiquity has in fact diminished the weight of the legacy behind it all. “Rizal” is everywhere as a street post, as the rusting, unhinged name for the main boulevard at best. And save for his monument in Luneta and a new one being unveiled in Calamba today, on the 150th anniversary of his birth, the national hero is there but forgettable most everywhere else as a cement and plaster figure, hand-painted or at least white washed, both the crafting and the painting so broadly stroked as to only marginally inspire better than a garden gnome.
An artist himself, a poet, a scientist, a doctor, a polyglot, and from what we’ve seen, a sharp and fastidious dresser (proving that Filipinos lose nothing and gain more respect as equals in the free and civilized world when they take the time to dress the part, and not just scream for it), Rizal, were he alive today, would recognize neither himself nor the country from how he dreamed about it all at the end of the 19th century.
In recent years, however, there has been a palpable charge among the Filipino youth he always held dear and crucial. There has been an organic and spontaneous reaffirmation of identity, a resurgent pride, to celebrate the flag and nation that Rizal once dreamed would define these islands. Suddenly these, too, are ubiquitous: the “three stars and the sun”, as Francis Magalona rapped; the Philippine archipelago; Rizal himself; and the blue, white, and red embraced as the colors of liberty and equality in these parts, as they have long been for the French and only later for the Americans.
Not by official edict or some token spending of pork barrel funds, but genuinely from a sudden wellspring of pride emanating from we know not where, has the iconography of all things Philippines suddenly become in vogue. The cynics would sooner credit Manny Pacquiao than any of the other heroes who nurtured a dangerous idea over hundreds of years for this recent nationalistic fervor bursting in a hundred brands of Proud-To-Be-Filipino garments. The cynics are like the children who can marvel at flowers yet have no capacity to ask where it comes from. The seeds for this spring were planted long ago, the grounds fertilized with blood over centuries.
Rizal fertilized it as well with ink and words, with admonitions that made sense to all of us even as school children. Among them: To move forward, look to where you came from.
We come from a pained and painful history. Over the centuries, the pain had been inflicted upon us, but it has also been self-inflicted. We come from struggle, which never ends. We have all known tyrants, regardless of which generation you or your ancestors are counted. But because of this common experience, we all also know how it is to see heroes walking and working among us. And we all have known the ecstasy of being victorious together – which is fragile and fleeting (that is, all three: the ecstasy, the victory, and the unity.)
Jose Rizal, the cynics will say on the 150th anniversary of his birth, will be disappointed were he alive to see the corruption, greed, and idiocy that leads the nation today. That is probably true. But the cynics are like the indios who could not fathom why an Ilustrado with a dangerous idea would actually dare to come back to the islands, much less wage a propaganda movement from within Manila, where he could die, when he already had the best of both worlds – the influence as well as the safety – writing from all the best cities of Europe.
Why indeed? Nearly a century after Rizal, another hero would leave the intellectual sanctuary of Harvard, and once again spell it out for the cynics: Because the nation worth living for is worth dying for.
Crucially, both Rizal and Ninoy made that decision to embrace the risk of death, not when anything had been achieved, not on some upswing in the collective sense of nation. They did not consider the powers that be, which were both corrupt and formidable and not likely to give way soon. Instead, they looked at the people, they who would inherit the dream, and felt confident. Knowing where we come from, this nation will move forward.
That Rizal would be disappointed in our leaders and our current state of democracy is beside the point. The point is that if a 150-year-old man could have that choice, Rizal would still choose to be Filipino, and to see us all in action today. Railing against corruption, challenging each other, cheering each other, defending the defenseless, knocking each other on the head, slapping our own foreheads, drawing on our faith, questioning the Catholic Church, volunteering, marching, building, holding up the truth that the youth and the women of the Philippines are among the most empowered on earth.
He would be proud to be Team Manila, to wear that shirt, any shirt, that speaks to the feistiness and vision and pride of flawed Filipinos all at once. Cynics we all must be, but because we have learned to go beyond cynicism, to spur and demand action, however not always in the same directions, Rizal would be proud. And because we are proud, Rizal is alive.