Jose Rizal, The Student And His Activism

by Ina Alleco R. Silverio

If novelist, poet and national hero Jose Rizal was alive today, would he be joining the protests against human rights violations and the continuing deterioration of the Filipino people’s economic well-being?

Chances are, yes.

Last week, University of the Philippines professors Judy Taguiwalo and Sarah Raymundo posited that when Rizal was 23 and studying in Madrid, Spain, the young doctor saw nothing amiss about joining protests. Arkibong Bayan editor Mon Ramirez was a also quick to post a website wherein Rizal’s letters were archived.

In one his letters dated the year 1884 Rizal wrote his parents and siblings about a protest championing academic freedom. He mentioned a Dr. Miguel Morayta, professor of history at the Universidad Central who delivered an address on the subject at the opening of the academic year. Rizal reported in his letter to Calamba that the bishops excommunicated Morayta for the speech, but there were also calls from students who wanted the same bishops excommunicated themselves.

“Then the liberal students held an imposing demonstration against the excommunication and as the liberals formed the immense majority, the demonstration was big. As they went through the streets there were shouts of “Long live!” and “Down!” That was enough to make the police chase the students, some of whom were wounded and others were taken prisoner,” Rizal wrote.

There is no doubt that Rizal would have made a very good journalist, having written faithfully and well about the student demonstrations that ensued in the following days in Madrid.

“The students were greatly enraged and students of medicine, law, philosophy and letters and others joined together. It was then that the police committed the barbarous outrage without equal in the history of the country. They attacked the University with sabers and revolvers in their hands, 200 of them, upon order of the governor, the rector notwithstanding.

Many were wounded, blood was spilled on the stairways and corridors of the University, they laid their hands on the rector, seized the secretary, insulted the professors, wounded the children, [and] there was shooting. I was then at the University, but I was in class. When I came out, the thing had already taken another turn. . . This occurred on 20 November at 12 noon,” he said.

“Objective” writer, active participant

Rizal did not say that he himself was a direct participant in the rallies, but through his eyewitness account one can glean that he was by no means an “objective” or indifferent bystander.

“After more or less tumultuous scenes, we were allowed to go out one by one between two rows of soldiers. The University was closed and in the afternoon all the streets were already guarded by a multitude of policemen and civil guards; there were at least seven or eight on every street corner. On that day there were also several encounters at the College of Medicine, many were wounded, and four or five were in very serious condition, one professor was held as a prisoner.

Madrid at night was silent and deserted. There was fear of an uprising. The jails were filled with students and the infirmaries with the wounded. The whole city was indignant,” he went on in his missive.

Rizal, like a good writer and reporter did not miss taking note of the developments in the protests and those who were for and against them. He noted that a popular and well-liked rector who supported Morayta named Francisco de la Pisa Pajares “protested energetically and resigned.” The minister of development, or the Ministro de Formento as a corrective provocation, appointed in his place a certain Creus who was, Rizal declared was “ a very unpopular man, disliked by everybody.”

“The following day when the new rector went to assume office, tempers were highly irritated, and blood could still be seen. It was agreed not to return to classes until we were given satisfaction and the rector removed,” Rizal went on to write.

At a certain time during the protests and the students were demanding Creus’ ouster, violence broke out and many of the protestors were attacked presumably by the Spanish police forces. Many students were wounded and arrested. Rizal was unable to keep himself out of his narrative as he mentioned that he and a companion were nearly arrested, but they managed to escape even as two other Filipinos were jailed.

By November 22, 1884, the protests in the University were at full-swing and so were the attacks of the police upon the orders of the university administration. Rizal continued to participate in the demonstrations despite the threats that he might be arrested. He donned three different disguises because he felt that the police were already suspicious of him. The protests escalated and as he reported, “more than 80 civil guards occupied the University up and down; in the auditorium were their guns and bugles.” Soldiers roamed the university grounds.

The students, the young Rizal among them, vowed not to return to attend classes out of disgust and anger at the university official who, as Rizal declared, “asserted himself by force, threat, and treat people without dignity.” He noted how students swore to persist in their actions until the former rector was reinstated and his successor Creus was removed.

Rizal’s gift of description and sharp commentary is evident when he scoffed at how the man Creus was “the shame of the physicians” and how the man’s own colleagues were trying to expel him from the academy “for his lack of dignity and delicacy in accepting a position that another had left with much dignity.” He went on to describe how Creus , in his attempts to escape the hissing and the insults of the students, entered and left the University through a false door in the garden.

In this very letter, it’s clear that the young Rizal took more than a passing interest in the political and social developments in his adopted country. He read many newspapers and took note of the tone and tenor of the articles and whether or not they shared or went against the protests. He did not fail to mention details that encouraged the protestors such as how a rich banker offered money for the bail fund of the arrested students; and how one of the parents gave his own money for a lawsuit in support of the former rector.

“I had the good luck of not having received a single cane blow nor being taken as prisoner nor detained, and although in my double roles as a student of medicine and of philosophy and letters, I had to see many friends and find out what was happening. Whether or not it was a coincidence, the fact that wounded old men, women, children, military men, and foreigners were there, while I didn’t even have to run.”

He was 23 when he wrote this letter, and if all the accounts, narratives and whole dissertations of Rizal’s childhood and upbringing are anything to go by, it’s clear that Rizal saw that though he was then only a student, he was already a citizen and an organic member of society. As such, he felt he had a duty that he should not stand by as the tide of social change raged and roared around him.

“Here is the reason why I say that studying at Madrid disillusions me. It can no longer be an honor to anyone to come from this institution, dishonored, outraged, debased, oppressed, and tyrannized. Knowledge ought to be free and the professor as well. I shall not get my medical degree so long as Creus is the rector. I don’t want my most glorious diploma to be signed by a man detested by all, thrown out of the Academy of Medicine and Surgery, a man without delicacy, without dignity, though very learned. Should he sign it I would tear it up. If he remains in power, perforce I shall have to give up the Doctorate of Philosophy and Letters, for it is not possible for me to remain at the University,” he said.

As the world already knows, Rizal wrote more letters after this and more. His essays and two novels “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” are highly-regarded as among the best social and political commentaries ever written. His commitment to the cause of freedom and national liberation for the Filipino people and the establishment of an independent country continued until he was shot by firing squad as a traitor to “Mother Spain” in Luneta on December 30, 1896. For all the varying views on how he practiced and lived his patriotism, there is, however, one thing certain about the man: he believed that to fight in defense of justice and against all forms of injustice was a duty. (

You may also like

Leave a Comment