It is hard to escape Rizal when you travel to the Philippines. He stares at you from the one peso coins; there are statues of him across Manila; you hear some and more about the Rizal province if you are in Manila.
While I had always been aware of the Rizal undercurrent, it wasn’t until I heard about Rizalists that my interest in him was sufficiently piqued.
Rizalists are people of the Rizal cult, those who believe that Rizal is a divine figure who is still alive and will come back one day to deliver them poverty. When I heard about the cult, I wondered how exactly large this man was? What did he do to claim such a place in the hearts of Filipinos?
May be it was about time I learnt the answer because the answe came looking for me. A completely unplanned trip to Intramurros and Fort Santiago last weekend brought me face to face with the legacy and history that was Jose Rizal. (I had visited Fort Santiago 4 years ago, but was too absorbed by the Spanish influence on Philippines and didn’t take adequate notice of Rizal’s connection with the place)
Jose Rizal was one of the most notable Filipinos. An intellectual, well travelled, a doctor (ophthalmologist), author, painter, sculptor – the list goes on. This was a man who was conversant in 22 languages! Wikipedia describes him as a polymath and a polyglot (and helped add two new words to my vocabulary).
What made this muli-faceted multi-talented man an icon was his novel Noli Me Tangere. This book, banned by the Spanish in the Philippines, described the corruption and abuse of the colonial government in Philppines and on a broader scale created the Filipino identity and triggered nationalism among the natives.
The Spanish rulers were definitely conscious of the influence of the book because not only did they ban the book, but they also exiled Rizal to the province of Dapitan.
By the time Rizal tried to leave Philippines to go assist the victims of yellow fever in Cuba, the militant uprising by the Katipunan had become a full blown revolution. Rizal was arrested en route to Cuba in Spain, brought to Fort Santiago, convicted and executed for his influence on the revolution. He was just 35 years old.
My curiosity had been satiated. The aura of Jose Rizal can be attributed to he dying a martyr, at such an young age, for influencing the minds of millions without ever lifting a gun, for reviving the Filipino identity which had slipped into oblivion after centuries of Spanish occupation, for always being a nationalist irrespective of the circumstances he was in (he built a school and hospital when he was in exile in Dapitan) and for dreaming big for his country and his people.
It is a pity he died young. If he had lived longer, the world would have known him better in the same lines as Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King. Reading thigh the details of his arrest and execution, it just seemed so that his life had been unfairly cut short rather abruptly before he had a chance to live and breathe in a free Philippines.