This year, 2011, is a very auspicious year for us Filipinos. First, it is the 400th founding anniversary of Asia’s oldest institution of learning, the Pontifical and Royal University of Santo Tomás. Founded and still managed by the Dominican Fathers, it has produced countless pioneers from different fields who have all contributed to the making of our nation and the growth of the Catholic Church. Then, there is also the 1986 EDSA People Power, which celebrated its 25th year this February. The bloodless revolution that toppled a dictatorship became an inspiring moment for Filipinos and also other nations. Many commentators believe that it served as the template for the movements in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany and presently, Tunisia and Egypt. However, 2011 is also an important year because of one very important, if not, most meaningful celebration: the 150th birth anniversary of our national hero, Dr. José Protasio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda.
Personally, I believe that there is no better or ideal national hero than our beloved Pepe. That martyr and Renaissance man of Calamba, Laguna was born in 1861 to a Philippines full of potential but also crippled by corrupt government and an excessive religion. Born to a buena familia, Rizal would be fortunate enough to have a mother who could teach him basic Spanish and the Catechism, and also the access to the country’s leading schools, the Ateneo Municipal and the University of Santo Tomás. It was, however, in his days in the Ateneo that he began to discover and hone his numerous talents. From writing poems, to sculpting wooden statues, to learning the rudiments of Spanish, Latin, Greek and French and also history, rhetoric, mathematics and the sciences, Rizal’s years in the Ateneo were critical years of formation and encouragement that would lead him to higher studies in the Catholic University of the Philippines, UST.
He left UST, however, and pursued higher studies in Spain. His dreams of becoming a doctor, an ophthalmologist to be exact, were realized there in Europe. He was an apprentice to a famous physician in Paris and was also given the chance to pursue his licentiate. But it was also there in the Old World that we find our own José Rizal, the Rizal we know today as the writer, the polyglot, the master fencer, the propagandist, the playboy and of course, the hero. For many of us, his talents were simply amazing and reading through his biography, we are charmed by the adventures of a young Rizal in 19th century Europe. From there, he would be publishing his two most popular works, the Noli me Tangere and the El Filibusterismo, two books that have been said to have sparked the revolution (or at least interest in it). The same Rizal we know is a product of that Rizal in Europe.
In today’s globalized world, therefore, we realize that there are still many opportunities to produce future Rizals. Rizal, though educated and formed by European ideals, chose to return and it is this same decision that led him to become susceptible to government schemes and plans. The young of today, especially those from Filipino migrant families, have the same option to return to the Philippines. After enjoying the benefits of a first world education and upbringing, what can our young do for their native land? Even the rich of the Philippines, what can they do for our Fatherland with all their cultivated talent and bountiful resources? Rizal’s life and works give us the answer: give to the country.
Rizal is not an obsolete figure. He is the same figure of the traveling, studying and joyful youth of 2011 sans Facebook account and Blackberry phone. His relevance can be seen in how his writings, though over a century old, still make sense. For example, we still need to excel as a people and we still need to showcase to the rest of the world that Filipinos exist, and that we do not exist as slaves but as free, thinking, and loving people. That same message of his writings still needs to be realized or actualized today 2011. Our Rizal of 1861 is the same Rizal of 2011. His example is timeless, his call still to be heeded. The Rizal who wrote a la juventud filipina still speaks to us today, 150 years after.
In this day and age of the internet, of rapid exchange of ideas and the proliferation of material things, there is a strong temptation to simply take things in without wisdom, caution and discernment. The youth, in particular, can easily be enticed by the false promises of this world. Drugs, sex, immorality and materialism are being glorified by today’s standards and the values of commitment, faith, prudence and modesty are being degraded and even abhorred. Values once honored as absolute and universal are now being watered down, and people who try to express their religious beliefs are branded as “fundamentalists”.
2011 is Rizal’s 150th birthday and what the Filipino youths ought to do is to look not only at the life of Rizal but at the values he held and lived by. I personally believe that it was his set of values that defined him. It was not his body of works neither was it his speeches. This sesquicentennial of Rizal, it is our task to look for those same Rizalist values and ideals, lofty virtues that can lead one to living a heroic life. What were these values but love of country, perseverance for justice, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and unwavering courage. Aren’t these the same values we are looking for in our country these days? Aren’t these missing in today’s world of Facebook, consumption and relativism?
Some might argue that Rizal wasn’t perfect. That is true. He had his own share of intrigues and scandals and the litany of women associated with him does not sit well with many. But it is also because of these natural, not to mention, human weaknesses of Rizal that make him more appealing. He is human. He is not someone or something that possesses perfection, an unattainable hallmark for humans. We, therefore, can imitate his positive traits. We can say therefore that this hero is someone we can relate to. Rizal is someone we could associate ourselves with after all. Although we always approach the man as some god-like figure to whom we tremble and feel extremely distant from, we realize, after researching on his life as well as the values he held that Rizal was after all a human person, and not just any other human person but a Filipino at that!
Once we are able to associate ourselves with Rizal, which is an arduous task, we discover the relevance of his life and teachings. Finally, he becomes a model for us all by virtue of his shared experiences as a student and professional abroad, as a writer, as a doctor, as a partner, as a teacher, and finally, as a Filipino.
If there is one thing I think his sesquicentennial would try to tell us all, it is this: the José Rizal of 1859 is the same José Rizal of 2011. He is the same person, the same Malay, Hispanic and Filipino we want to and should emulate.
The Rizal of 2011 is ours to keep, ours to love, ours to incarnate.