JERSEY CITY, NJ – As New Jersey began its phased re-opening after three-months of shelter-at-home orders due to COVID-19 pandemic, the Knights of Rizal-New Jersey (KOR-NJ) and its auxiliary, the Ladies for Rizal-New Jersey (LFR-NJ), came out in unity to commemorate the 159th birth of the Philippines’ national hero, Dr. Jose P. Rizal.
They assembled, observing New Jersey safety protocols at the Rizal Plaza in Jersey City to hold a rare annual event on a crisp, sunny Friday morning on June 19 amid the pandemic and on the very birth date of a hero without the usual fanfare. Simply put, it was an act of love, emulation, and national pride.
Usually, such celebration is held at a much formal setting at the Kalayaan Hall of the Philippine Center in New York City, where all members of KOR from the tri-state area come in full force in their traditional KOR outfit. Sometimes, new members are also “knighted” and presented to members following “induction” ceremonies.
Rizal Plaza, which is at the corner of Columbus Drive – a major thoroughfare – and Brunswick St. in Jersey City, was neatly cleared of debris, weeds and overgrown grass a day before the event. It became a welcoming sight in the neighborhood and to those who joined in the celebration. Their presence, led by the City of Jersey City Councilman-at-large Rolando Lavarro, Jr., himself a member of the fraternal organization, and Francis D. Sison, deputy supreme pursuivant, the highest ranking official in the U.S. representing the Philippine-based Knights of Rizal Supreme Council.
KOR-NJ has been hosting this annual commemoration since the unveiling of the park with Rizal’s statue on October 24, 2000. During its 6th Rizal Regional Assembly in 2016, a new statue replaced the old which was also unveiled at the plaza.
“We were unsure if we would be able to host our celebration this year,” said Jose Mayo, KOR-NJ chapter commander. “Days before the event we rallied together to beautify the park. We wanted to show that even during these uncertain times, the Filipino community remains thriving, alive and well.”
Mayo, named after Rizal’s, who was to celebrate his birthday the following day, is the son of former Jersey City deputy mayor, Linda Mayo. She secured the site in 1997 at a time when Filipino Americans’ presence and political involvement in the city was just beginning. In 1996, two years after the founding of the KOR chapter on August 14, 1994, Linda formed its auxiliary called Ladies for Rizal in support of their counterpart. Linda is its president-emeritus and is now headed by Lumen Castaneda, a retired teacher.
Speaking before members, after the usual flag raising and wreath laying ceremonies, Lavarro delivered the keynote speech. He reminded everyone of Juneteenth, an historical event — June 19, 1865 — that marked the day when the last enslaved people in Texas were freed and ended slavery in the U.S.
“It’s fitting and likely not coincidental that Filipino Americans celebrate the birth of the Philippines’ national hero, Jose Rizal, who was born four years earlier on the same date and would give ultimately his life in martyrdom for freedom.”
Ferdinand Suba, the KOR regional commander of KOR-USA Eastern Region, was unable to attend but sent his special message. He said that the celebration of Rizal’s birth anniversary is a reminder of his heroism especially in this trying time when everyone has been affected by COVID-19 pandemic.
“Dr. Rizal was and is still is a role model to global Filipinos because of his exemplary character and sacrifices made for his country and fellowmen,” Suba said. “His sterling leadership was exemplified when he made a difference in the lives of the people of Dapitan while exiled in that part of the Philippines through his selfless service to the community.”
Added Suba: “Today, we honor the health care workers who are frontliners like Dr. Rizal, a physician. They are the modern heroes who continue to fight this coronavirus pandemic. Just like Dr. Rizal, these men and women continue to make a difference in the lives of people around the world.”
Sison, who closed the program, thanked all volunteers that helped to beautify the park overnight to make the event possible. “Today we celebrate the birth of the Philippines’ national hero, Dr. Jose P. Rizal,” Sison said. “During this pandemic outbreak, I am proud to announce the KOR NJ-Chapter is the first and only chapter in the United States to host an outdoor commemoration. It is for love of country that we are gathered here today. Let us continue to emulate the example of Rizal’s life work.”
In closing, Sison quoted Rizal: “It is a useless life that is not consecrated to a great ideal. It is like a stone wasted on the field without becoming a part of any edifice.”
Mayo thanked PACCAL Inc. and Grace/Carol Salvador for providing the tables, chairs, and food. He also reminded everyone to stay safe and observe social distancing and mask wearing in public.
Among others, guests that came include Donald Frain, area commander; Mariano Aquino, KOR-NY chapter commander, and his wife, Aprille, president of KOR-LFR-NY; Rene Ballenas, Metropolitan chapter commander; Lumen Castaneda, president, KOR-NJ-LFR; and Armand Porto, Gali Munar, and Ed Toloza, members of KOR-NJ council of elders.