When historians become hero-worshippers

Jose Rizal: Life, Works and Writings of a Genius,Writer, Scientist and National Hero. All-Nations Publishing, 1999. Gregorio Zaide and Sonia Zaide

The nation celebrates this year the sesquicentennial or the 150th birth anniversary of National Hero Jose Rizal who was born on June 19, 1861.  In ways relevant to them, different groups have observed the occasion. Universities have held conferences. Television networks have produced documentaries and public service ads. Local governments have staged festivities, most of them on June, the hero’s birth month.

Except for a visit to the Fort Santiago on the eve of Independence Day, my own “celebration” has been held within the confines of the library. Like a true-blue bookworm that I am, I’ve been reading books on Rizal, ranging from biographies to the official statement of the Catholic Church in the Philippines on Rizal’s retraction. It has been more like contemplation than celebration.

I started with the college textbook Jose Rizal: Life, Works, and Writings of a Genius, Writer, Scientist, and National Hero, (All-Nations Publishing Co., Inc., 1999) written by father and daughter Gregorio Zaide and Sonia Zaide. This is the probably the most widely used college textbook on Rizal’s life. I myself used this as my main reference for my Rizal’s Life and Works class last year, as many of my classmates did.  The book includes the full text of Rizal’s most popular poems, synopses of his novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, Rizal’s essays The Indolence of the Filipinos, The Philippine a Century Hence, and Letter to the Women of Malolos.

This biography succeeds in what a Rizal biography in the Philippines today should do: to impress the reader with Rizal’s illustrious life. But the other thing about this book that has caught my attention is the authors’ tone. The book is replete with lavish descriptions of the periods of emotional highs and lows in Rizal’s 35 years, as well as indictments of his enemies, as if the Zaides were personal witnesses to these moments and acquaintances to these historical personages. All these, and their bleeding-heart commentaries on special topics like Rizal’s genius and his retraction, scream fanaticism.

Rizal’s genius

On page 18, the Zaides ask why, of all the children born that night, only Jose Rizal “rose to fame and greatness”. The secret of Rizal’s genius, the Zaides argue, lies in “favourable influences”, which can be grouped into three: hereditary influences, environmental influences, and aid of Divine Providence.

For the hereditary influences, this is what the Zaides has to say: “According to biological science, there are inherent qualities which a person inherits from his ancestors and parents. From his Malayan ancestors, Rizal, evidently inherited his love for freedom, his innate desire to travel, and his indomitable courage. From his Chinese ancestors, he derived his serious nature, frugality, patience and love for children. From his Spanish ancestors, he got his elegance of bearing, sensitivity to insult, and gallantry to ladies. From his father he inherited a profound sense of self-respect, the love for work, and the habit of independent thinking. And from his mother, he inherited his religious nature, the spirit of self-sacrifice, and the passion for arts and literature” (Zaide and Zaide, 1999).

The environmental influence includes: the natural environment of Rizal’s birth town Calamba in Laguna that stimulated his artistry; the religiosity of the Mercado family “fortified his religious nature;” family members who are achievers themselves, such as his India-educated Uncle Alberto, who encouraged the love for the arts, the athletic Uncle Manuel, inspired him to take up physical exercise to strengthen his body, and the book-loving Uncle Gregorio, who instilled in him the value of reading” (Zaide and Zaide, 1999).

The injustices inflicted upon his family and other Filipinos by the Spanish colonial government, such as the imprisonment of his mother and the execution of Gomburza awakened the political dissident in him (Zaide and Zaide, 1999).

These two major types of influences would have been futile without the aid of divine providence, the Zaides claim. In the Zaides’ words:  “Rizal was providentially destined to be the pride and glory of his nation. God had endowed him with the versatile gifts of a genius, the vibrant spirit of a nationalist, and the valiant heart to sacrifice for a noble cause” (Zaide and Zaide, 1999).

Of the three, what I find particularly unsettling is the authors’ description of hereditary influences. Heredity, from the point of view of biology, is limited on physical features, such as skin color, hair color, shape of body parts, body size; certain diseases, among others. It does not include moral character and social interaction skills, which are the purview of psychology.

Also, a positive character trait is not limited on a particular ethnic group, which the Zaides seem to have forgotten when they assigned specific ideals to each of the three ethnic groups. Take for instance, the love for freedom, which the Zaides say Rizal got from his Malay ancestors.  The need for freedom, or the need to protect oneself from harm, cuts across cultures. Any people, when their freedom is threatened, will someday rebel against their oppressors. In a speech he delivered before the Filipino community in Madrid in honor of Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo who had won in the National Exposition of Fine Arts, Rizal said, “ … Genius knows no country, genius sprouts everywhere, genius is like light, air, the patrimony of everybody, cosmopolitan like space, like life, like God.” This can apply to moral character as well.

Any people, when their freedom is threatened, will someday rebel against their oppressors

The hereditary influences which Rizal purportedly got from his father and mother deserves scrutiny themselves. That he should get the values of self-respect, independent thinking and love for work from his father Francisco, while religiosity and self-sacrifice from his mother Teodora reflects gender roles during the Spanish era. Gender is socially determined, not biologically as what the Zaides claim these so-called hereditary influences are.

Citing the aid of divine providence is another cause of concern. A history book should make claims of fact that must be supported by reliable historical documents. When historians claim that the Spanish colonial government unjustly ruled the Philippines, there are hundreds of documents to prove that, from laws issued by the Spanish themselves to newspaper articles, from personal letters to literary works. These documents the historians of the future can examine to verify past historians’ claims. What documents then can anyone use to prove the aid of divine providence as the most important influence on Rizal’s genius?

So, what have been boggling the minds of psychologists for a century the Zaides have solved in one-and-a-half textbook pages.

The problem is, the Zaides ventured into a field in which they are no authorities, resulting in a simplistic and moralistic analysis of a complex and academic topic.

The problem is, the Zaides ventured into a field in which they are no authorities, resulting in a simplistic and moralistic analysis of a complex and academic topic.

Rizal’s retraction

The issue of Rizal’s retraction has divided concerned people into retractionists and anti-retractionists.  Retractionists, led by the Catholic Church in the Philippines, claim that Rizal retracted or withdrew his anti-church views the night before his execution in Bagumbayan.  The retraction statement purportedly signed by Jose Rizal and the burial certificate should support this claim. Anti-retractionists, led by Filipino Masons, repute this idea, saying that these documents are forged.

The root of this debate is Father Vicente Balaguer’s sworn statement in Madrid in 1907, which details how he came to convince Rizal to retract his ant-church ideas in the hero’s cell on the eve of his execution. Father Balaguer was the sole witness to this event. And he has long since died.

“This debate on between two hostile groups of Rizalist is futile and irrelevant,” say the Zaides (1999) on page 266. “Futile in the sense that no amount of evidence can convince the Masonic Rizalists that Rizal retracted and the Catholic Rizalists that Rizal did not retract… It is likewise irrelevant because it does not matter at all to the greatness of Rizal. Whether he retracted or not, the fact remains that he was the greatest Filipino hero. This also applies to the other controversy as to whether Rizal married Josephine Bracken before his execution or not.” (Zaide and Zaide, 1999)

So, what should historians do now? Drop the issue? After all, Jose Rizal has been the National Hero of the Philippines, so why bother?

The Zaides’ pronouncement on the issue is disturbing in many respects.  First, it trivializes the work of historians. Historians do not plod through ancient documents, risk contracting allergy from book dust, and travel around the world in search of the right document or person to create heroes. At the very least, historians’ diligent scrutiny of facts is meant to make sense of the past, so people can learn from it, and with those lessons gleaned, chart their future.

Also, saying that Jose Rizal is the greatest Filipino hero belittles the efforts of other revolutionaries. Rizal did not single-handedly brought freedom to the Filipino people. Freedom is a project which started with Lapu-Lapu in the 16th century, continued with the various revolts through the centuries, revolts big and small, successful and failed, all over the archipelago. It continues today with the Filipinos who fight for their rights in the face of oppression. So, no hero is greater or less great than the other. Each hero is great in his or her own right.

So, no hero is greater or less great than the other. Each hero is great in his or her own right.

The debate between retractionists and anti-retractionists is simply an offshoot of the larger inquiry into this aspect of Rizal’s life. As long as inquiry continues, debates will always be present. Silence on this issue would mean the inquiry has stopped, which should not happen at all.

I am not sure what practical purpose would settling the Rizal retraction issue serve. Perhaps Rizal himself can provide some clues. During his stay in London from 1888-1889, Rizal annotated Antonio Morga’s account of his travels in the Philippines which had been published in Mexico in 1609.  Had Rizal not spent ten months in the British Museum poring over accounts of Spanish explorers in the Philippines during the 16th century,  Filipinos then would have been ignorant of the civilization that existed in the Philippine islands long before the colonizers came. This work by Rizal debunked the idea propagated by the Spanish to justify their colonization: that Filipinos belong to an inferior race, one step above animals, until the Spanish civilized them.

It is very hard not to fall in love with Jose Rizal. In a time when Filipinos were made to believe that they are inferior and deserves to be ruled over by a more intelligent, foreign power, there was Rizal, standing at par with the best thinkers of the world.

But this admiration should not go unchecked and cloud judgment. Academics, more than anyone else, should keep this in mind, because they are supposedly guardians of knowledge, ensuring knowledge flows among people in its true and complete form.

Heroes fall in and out of people’s favor, celebrated then forgotten. After all, they are merely creations of these people. What should endure is the critical view of history.

Work Cited

Zaide, Gregorio, and Sonia Zaide. (1999). Jose Rizal: Life, Works, and Writings of a Genius, Writer, Scientist, and National Hero. Quezon City: All-Nations Publishing Co., Inc.