Revisiting Dr. Jose P. Rizal

by Fernando Perfas

The actual site where Jose Rizal was executed | Photo by Julan Shirwod Nueva, inset via Wikimedia Commons

The Philippine national hero died on December 30th, 1896. Convicted of three charges of rebellion, sedition, and conspiracy after a Spanish kangaroo trial, he was sentenced to die by firing squad. He paid with his life for his love of country and freedom. He was thirty-five. He did not flinch when he faced the bullet at the Bagumbayan Field in Manila (now Rizal Park) on that December morning.

Dr. Jose P. Rizal was a man of letters and great talents and was highly respected by the inteligencia at home and in Europe. He traveled extensively and spoke several languages. He was a scientist, physician, poet, and novelist, among other titles. He wrote two novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, which depicted the oppressive Spanish rule of the Philippines. In one of the novels, he predicted his death even before being charged with inciting rebellion by the Spanish colonial government based on his writings. Rizal wrote a moving poem, Mi Ultimo Adios (My Last Farewell), for his motherland in his prison cell the day before his death; and married his last love and wife, the Irish woman, Josephine Bracken, in the last hours of his life in prison.

A man of great moderation and self-discipline, Rizal lived a colorful and valiant life. He was of small physical stature but appeared bigger than life. He loved women, and they, in turn, were attracted to him. Ironically, he had a tragic love life.

“Rizal remained true to his vision and steadfast in his quest for the liberation of his country through persuasion. Later, through tacit approval of uprisings as a last resort to dismantling the three-century yoke of Spanish oppression of Filipinos.”

He spent time in Spain with some of his intellectual compatriots to advance the interest of the Philippines in the Spanish mainland. Rizal remained true to his vision and steadfast in his quest for the liberation of his country through persuasion. Later, through tacit approval of uprisings as a last resort to dismantling the three-century yoke of Spanish oppression of Filipinos. He had the opportunity to escape from the grip of his captor and avoid death. However, he chose to face death.

I have spent a good amount of time reading and writing, trying to unravel the Filipino consciousness without much success. Filipinos operate on several layers of consciousness, as the famous Filipino Jesuit psychologist, Fr. Jaime C. Bulatao, proposed. We are a people whose psyche suffered from the lasting effects of centuries of oppression and subservience so that we have a convoluted view of ourselves and the world. Our forebears handed down these patterns of coping from one generation to the next. No different from how parents of traumatized children transmitted to their offspring their coping mechanism from traumatic experiences.

“We are a people whose psyche suffered from the lasting effects of centuries of oppression and subservience so that we have a convoluted view of ourselves and the world. Our forebears handed down these patterns of coping from one generation to the next.”

We are a people of contradictions and, perhaps, a confused sense of priority. We can be idealistic in one way and corrupt in another. We can be very loyal and yet fail to grasp its larger meaning when it most counts. This is the legacy of the dark history of colonization starting from Spain, the U.S., and briefly under the Japanese.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, I suspected that Rizal’s decision to face death was a profound solution to his dilemma. After three centuries of Spanish subjugation, when most Filipinos were kept ignorant and under threats of death for any learning efforts, Rizal had doubts about the prospects of strong Philippine nationhood. The Spanish policy of illiteracy was so successful that most Filipinos never learned to speak Spanish and remained far removed from the mainstream culture of the time. Spain’s colonial conquest involved “divide and conquer,” and the strategic mix of conquest by the Cross and the Sword, which resulted in the complete moral, psychological, and material subjugation of Filipinos. Rizal realized that the harm done was irreversible, and he was desperate to find an end to the tyranny.

“By acquiring a deeper understanding of Rizal, we may generate a real sense of Filipino pride. Rizal was a universal man whose story needs retelling in a new light and in a heroic way.”

Somehow, he had the insight that the Philippines had little chance of building a vigorous nation once it was liberated as a country. There was no solid foundation for self-governance that the new nation could build on. The colonial government was repressive and corrupt. There was little national infrastructure, and the Filipinos were highly divided. Perhaps, in his bitterness and final act of defiance, he faced the ultimate challenge by his oppressor in the hope of rising beyond the violence committed against his country and people. Spain ruled the Filipinos with fear of death, and by facing death itself, Rizal rose above his oppressor.

Most Rizal scholars will find my interpretation controversial, but it is the only one that makes sense. If Filipinos could learn to appreciate the symbolic meaning of Rizal’s death and how he bravely faced death to transcend the evils of oppression, we, as a people, may learn to die from our past and shed the dark shadows of the past that still haunt us.

By acquiring a deeper understanding of Rizal, we may generate a real sense of Filipino pride. Rizal was a universal man whose story needs retelling in a new light and in a heroic way.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR  Dr. Fernando B. Perfas is an addiction specialist who has written several books and articles on the subject. He currently provides training and consulting services to various government and non-government drug treatment agencies regarding drug treatment and prevention approaches. He can be reached at fbperfas@gmail.com.

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