Europe’s Finest Gift to the Philippines

With one of the two ambassadors I met in Europe, Su Excelencia, Señora Doña Ana Ines de Sequera Ugarte at the Philippine Embassy (Madrid,Spain)

This was an essay I wrote more than a year ago, around May 28 2009 to be exact. It was my entry to the “Rizal na, Europa pa” Nationwide Essay Writing Contest. The contest was sponsored by the European Commission to the Philippines, the Czech Presidency of the European Union, the different European Cultural Institutes such as the Instituto Cervantes de Manila, Alliance Française de Manille, Goethe Institut and others, KLM-AirFrance as well as the Order of the Knights of Rizal. It was in 18 June 2009 when I was proclaimed the winner of that contest. The grand prize was a trip through Europe and to this day, I am utterly thankful to all the people who supported me, the people who hosted me in Europe, the new friends I met there and the Filipinos who took care of me and my companions, who were the winners of the Euro Quiz Bee.

In the middle of the night of the year 1861, a mestizo baby boy was born to the couple Doña Teodora Alonso and Don Francisco Mercado. No one could have ever imagined that from a town called Calamba, in the province of Laguna, a renaissance man emerged. Indeed, who among those around the baby knew from that moment that this certain mestizo would become a well-travelled doctor, artist, writer, historian, poet, master-fencer and eventually, a country’s national hero? José Rizal was born in one of Spain’s last remaining colonies, which was plagued by frequent rebellions and insurrections while at the same time faced with an obscure future due to the prevailing backward and oppressive rule of the Religious Orders, and a civil government entangled with the battle between Liberalism and Conservatism. In 1872, a bloody mutiny in Cavite took place, which led to the eventual execution of three secular Filipino priests, an event that, according to Patricio Abinales and Donna Amoroso’s book, State and Societies in the Philippines, rocked the entire country and sent shivers down the Liberals’ spines (Abinales and Amoroso 104). Truly, all seemed bleak for this far off tropical colony of Spain and the birth of another mestizo can simply be ignored and forgotten. Yet history, and Europe, will prove this otherwise.

When the young José Rizal entered the Ateneo Municipal in the cuidad murada, Intramuros, it was obvious that he was to have his first interactions with Europe and her sons. Run by Spanish Jesuits, the Ateneo was a Catholic school that offered subjects that gave young gifted Spaniards and Filipinos a chance to explore the world of Virgil and Cicero, learn the language and stories of Caesar, Don Quixote and Oedipus and discover other subjects that were undoubtedly European in taste and orientation. To say that Rizal did not learn Spanish, Latin, French, and Greek in Europe is true; he was still a young adolescent here in Asia, specifically in the Philippines, when he started reading, writing and speaking in these European tongues. To his great benefit, this access to these languages was also a means for the young José to be exposed to the immense wealth books and lessons in Spanish could offer. But his interaction with Europe was not only through her books and institutions but more importantly, it was actually through her sons, the Jesuit Fathers and Brothers, that he made first contact with that great continent found so far away. With the erudition, guidance and paternal care these Jesuits showed young José, the future propagandist of the Philippines saw in these men the love and concern of Mother Spain he had always hoped for. These priests were, for him, shining beacons of what Europe then could truly best offer: an intelligent and rational but God-centered outlook in life. For these men to come to the Philippines and teach young boys like him Mathematics, Rhetoric, History, Geography, Latin, Spanish, French, Greek and more, an indelible mark was impressed upon him. Europe is a haven — a source of great ideas and more importantly, of enlightened and compassionate men!

Yet, reality in the Philippines proved otherwise. Civil and Church oppression was evident that even his family, which already belonged to the principalia class, was subject to the humiliation and dispossessions Filipinos then had to endure, as León Maria Guerrero relayed in his book, The First Filipino (Guerrero 230). Countless Philippine history books and Rizal biographies would always make mention how the young José witnessed how his own mother had a taste of the wickedness of the colonial system, being wrongly accused and thus incarcerated her for around two years. As recorded in Patricio Abinales and Donna Amoroso’s book, State and Society, in the late 1800s, Religious Corporations lead by peninsular priests were also habitually raising the rents on of their huge haciendas, making the inquilinos as well as the kasamas feel the economic brunt (Abinales and Amoroso 104).

How then could one see the role of Europe? What does Europe have to do with the plight of all the indios, sangleys, mestizo sangleys and criollos in these islands? José Rizal is the answer to these questions for it is in his heart and mind that a union of European ideas and cultures will find meaning. Life in a primary school like the Ateneo was not enough for Rizal to truly access and comprehend the numerous ideas and cultures spread out throughout Europe. Lest it be forgotten that the Ateneo Municipal was still a Catholic and Spanish institution cautious of what materials its students may read.

Fortunately, his eventual stay in Europe and further study there opened and broadened his mind, seeing European countries as examples the Philippines should try to emulate. It is not an exaggeration to say that Rizal might have felt jealous of the Europeans who were able to freely discover the wonders of science and mention words such as “reason” and “progress” without being flogged by the local parish priest. Thus as he set foot in the great continent he indulged in some academic and not-so academic pursuits like a young man so thirsty of knowledge. He joined the Circulo Hispano Filipino, wrote his masterpieces Noli Me Tangere, and El Filibusterismo, and forged long-lasting friendships with some European men and women. While in the great continent, he was elected as member of the Geographical Society as well as the Anthropological Society, and other scholarly groups too (Guerrero 139). His mind was broadened in the said great continent, he enriched himself with new ideas, and tasted [and inculturated] different cultures, thus expanded his world view.

The great European countries of Spain, France, Germany, England, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and Italy have left indelible marks in Rizal’s life.

Yet to simply paint a picture of a Rizal frolicking through Europe’s countries and burning his family’s money is misleading and irresponsible. As he went from one country to another, he had a purpose for each transfer. For one, he was looking for the cheapest printing press which could publish his first controversial novel, Noli me Tangere. With limited budget, he had to sacrifice his own time just to look for that cheap printing press. Secondly, still in the realm of his goal of learning new ideas, travelling through Europe enabled him to learn new and useful languages and one of these is German. His facility in the language enabled him to read more scholarly materials and forge new relationships. Germany also left in him a deep impression, always recounting German loyalty and honesty (Guerrero 142).

Among these new acquaintances mentioned above, a Czech stands out most as Rizal’s most favorite: Ferdinand Blumentritt. A school master from Leitzmeritz, Blumentritt’s somewhat peculiar interest for Spain’s colony in Southeast Asia, the Philippines, caught the attention of José Rizal because it brought him hope and encouragement, that indeed, beyond the Iberian Peninsula, there are other Europeans, other people out there, who knew something about the Philippines. It is indeed impressive for any proud Filipino that a Czech is so interested and adept in Philippine History. The emotional and sensitive Rizal was utterly touched the moment he heard in Heidelberg that “a professor Blumentritt was studying Tagalog and had already published some works on the language” (Guerrero 135). Truly, Rizal had every reason to find in this man an advocate, confidante and friend. From simple exchanges of letters, the fascinating correspondence grew into a lasting friendship and even to some extent, brotherly love. A companion through the hard and expensive life in Europe, Blumentritt was Rizal’s virtual elder brother and mentor. However, it was not only Blumentritt who imparted knowledge to Rizal; Rizal would also extend a helping hand to Blumentritt by translating manuscripts, and at the same time, opening Blumetritt’s eyes to a Philippines beyond ethnographies, maps and dialects. It was a relationship that showed how two foreigners can grow in love of their respective countries by seeing and showing the best in others. In fact, it was in this friendship that Europe found a place in José Rizal’s heart because for him, Blumentritt was what Europe best offered him.

After his first and last meeting with Ferdinand Blumentritt, Rizal was already embarking to leave Europe for Calamba. His stay in that continent was no bed of roses; the cost of living was higher (even today) and his own family, being in turmoil over land disputes, had difficulty sending him his allowance (Guerrero 143). Not to mention, Rizal was not only in Europe to enjoy his allowance on writing letters to foreign friends and attending parties hosted by different groups; he was also there to study and eventually, campaign for reforms. His travels exposed him to the different cultures and practices in Europe, both good and bad. And through these he was also able to formulate ideas as to what reforms are needed in his home country, an example of which is a free press.

Rizal and his convictions were hence, a product of his European experience. Readers of history should then see that along with Rizal’s return to the Philippines was the arrival of his European-inspired thoughts. Europe has indeed helped in forming the Philippines’ foremost nationalist and hero. From her shores, the First Filipino will return to his country renewed with vigor, strengthened by the French ideas of liberte, fraternite and egalite, hopeful that his sojourn in Europe made him a better Filipino. Such was the optimism and encouragement Rizal got from Europe and her sons, most especially, Ferdinand Blumentritt. Influenced by the French Revolution’s ideas, impressed by German ingenuity, Rizal was so hopeful that one day, the Philippines would be considered one of Spain’s provinces. Truly, Europe was in his heart but his heart was still for the Philippines.

By now, it has already been established that through his travels to Europe, the ordinary mestizo from Calamba proved himself to be unlike all the other rich Filipinos in Europe studying or living there when he decided to return to the Philippines. The man who came there to study and get his license in Medicine came back with a purpose. Europe instilled in José Rizal different ideas, new languages and courage by showing him a free world. Truly, there is no perfect place in this world yet Europe was still a far cry from the deplorable political and social conditions of the Philippines. In other words, it was Europe, and not only Spain, which inspired Rizal to work for his own country, to write and talk about it. Initially, the reform movement was only concentrated in the Iberian Peninsula but by discovering and befriending other Europeans like Ferdinand Blumentritt, Rizal saw an opportunity to show the world how much reform was needed in the Philippines.

How then are Rizal’s travels in Europe and his eventual espousal of European ideas such as Equality and Liberalism are significant in today’s globalized world? These travels and ideas of José Rizal actually still find meaning in today’s world, most importantly, to the youth of the Philippines. Europe taught him values and ideas that are based on humans’ faculty to think, philosophies that put premium on man’s ability to think and achieve self-actualization. Rizal called for Equality so that Filipinos may not actually separate from Mother Spain but actually be assimilated into Spanish society, holding the same rights and following the same laws. However, even today when the country is already independent from the colonialists, Rizal’s call for Equality is still relevant. Equality is still very much needed in the realm of Gender Equality for example. Women in the Philippines are still subject to a very patriarchal society that practices double standard against women. To this day, Filipinos have to contend with fellow Filipinos who judge them by merely looking at them from head to foot. Even in local media, fair skinned Filipinos are preferred over those who have dark complexions. The ideas brought by Rizal from Europe are still very much needed in this generation.

Loyal to her tradition, Europe is still today, a nucleus of scientific research, philosophical studies, aesthetic and experimental pursuits. Her cities are full of budding artists, photographers and film buffs. Now, more than ever, travelling through countries is made far easier than during the time of Rizal, and as such, more learning experiences can be expected by the young of today who go to that great continent. If Rizal was able to do all of those things mentioned above without the help of credit cards, online money transfers and the Internet, how much more the young of today?

By excelling in his studies and showcasing what a Filipino could do in Europe, Rizal showed the world, including Filipinos, that Europe is a place that can harness the best of one’s abilities. Likewise, any young Filipino driven to bring honor to the Philippines can still find Europe as a place where one’s talents and abilities can be honed, enriched, and used to its full potential. Rizal has already left this world but Europe is still there, waiting for young people to discover her and as a result, discover themselves. Europe is waiting and with the European Union making it easier for young people to travel, time should not be wasted.

Works Cited

Guerrero, León Ma., The First Filipino. Philippines: Guerrero Publishing, 1998.

Abinales, Patricio, and Donna Amoroso. State and Society in the Philippines. 2005.

Pasig: Anvil Publishing, 2007.

About hechoayer

Things made yesterday still influence us until today. Things made today will influence us tomorrow. Things of the essence such as faith, culture, food, music and values should never disappear nor eroded by the times. Instead, these must be recorded, lived and shared. Something made yesterday - hecho ayer - can be tomorrow's saving grace. Never ignore the past.
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