Column: Falling for the American trap

Second of two parts, published on June 22, 2010.

Of the many false choices that are splayed throughout “Veneration without Understanding” like so much faulty electrical wiring, the most charged, it seems to me, is Renato Constantino’s argument from Americanization. “Although Rizal was already a revered figure and became more so after his martyrdom, it cannot be denied that his pre-eminence among our heroes was partly the result of American sponsorship.” And again: “History cannot deny his patriotism … Still, we must accept the fact that his formal designation as our national hero, his elevation to his present eminence so far above all our other heroes was abetted and encouraged by the Americans.” And yet again: “His choice was a master stroke by the Americans.”

These passages imply that Rizal’s preeminence is ultimately undeserved. His heroism is beyond question, but his place among our heroes is less secure because of American colonial intervention. To quote Constantino: “Rizal will still occupy a good position in our national pantheon even if we discard hagiolatry and subject him to a more mature historical evaluation.”

I will take Constantino one step further, and say that each generation of Filipinos must reassign the “good positions” in the “national pantheon” to reflect current understanding. But this coming to terms must also reflect the views of our heroes’ contemporaries. In the case of Rizal, our understanding must also be based on the views of those who took part in the Revolution, “the one act,” Constantino writes, “which really synthesized our nationalist aspiration.”

And what did they think of Rizal? We can have our choice of testimonies from Katipuneros and revolutionists. Here is one from someone who was proudly both. Writing in 1899, the Katipunero known as Matatag (Antonio Guevara) recalled a day at the Luneta in January 1898, when the people were celebrating the phony peace of Biak-na-bato. “At that time, while seated on one of the granite benches along the promenade at the Luneta, I pointed out the spot where our distinguished countryman, the hero and unfortunate Dr. Jose Rizal, was executed by the firing squad. I told Pedro Guevara, Teodoro Arquiza, and others from the town of Magdalena, who were with me: ‘There, my friends, is the place where our hero fell, irrigating that soil with his precious blood in defense of our beloved fatherland. May his life serve as a model for us. Let us pray for his eternal rest, and let us beseech God to give us many doctors such as Sr. Jose Rizal whenever we find ourselves wanting, in order that we shall gain our coveted independence.’” (From the Corpuz translation)

To the revolutionary generation, Rizal’s preeminence was undisputed. To minimize that honor, because the new colonial masters reinvented Rizal in their image, as the bearer of benevolence, is in fact to accept the American view, that Rizal was a mere reformer.

There are other false choices in Constantino’s lecture; perhaps the most consequential is the old reform-versus-revolution debate. Constantino quotes from a very early letter (I think it is the 15th in a correspondence that runs to 211 extant letters) that Rizal wrote to his great friend Ferdinand Blumentritt allegedly proving Rizal’s “reformism.” The letter is dated Jan. 26, 1887. Constantino’s truncated quote, however, leaves out the most telling passages (which I have rendered in boldface):

I agree with you concerning the independence of the Philippines. Only, such an event will never happen. A peaceful struggle shall always be a dream, for Spain will never learn the lesson of her former South American colonies. Spain cannot learn what England and the United States have learned. But, under the present circumstances, we do not want separation from Spain. All that we ask is greater attention, better education, better government employees, one or two representatives and greater security for our persons and property. Spain could always win the appreciation of the Filipinos if she were only reasonable! But, Quos vult perdere Jupiter, prius dementat!”

That Latin allusion, so characteristic of Rizal, is usually translated thus: Those whom Jupiter wants destroyed, he first makes mad. In the context of Rizal’s word and work, he obviously means Spain. (Rizal scholar Floro Quibuyen, in “A Nation Aborted,” rightly reminds us that Constantino’s omission of the first “But” is also crucial.)

But Constantino did not only slight crucial passages; he slighted crucial letters. He does not show, for instance, that less than a month after Rizal wrote the Jupiter letter, he wrote to Blumentritt again, in these words: “The Filipinos had long wished for Hispanization and they were wrong in aspiring for it. It is Spain and not the Philippines who ought to wish for the assimilation of the country. Now we receive this lesson from the Spaniards [a rejection of a proposed reform] and we thank them for it.”

Five years after the Jupiter letter (to give another instance), Rizal wrote to Blumentritt, from Hong Kong, another explanation why he was bound to return to the Philippines: “Now I tell you: I have lost my hope in Spain. For that reason, I shall not write one more word for La Solidaridad. It seems to me it is in vain. All of us are voces clamantis in deserto dum omnes rapiunt. (Voices crying in the wilderness where all are lost.)”

Thus, Constantino’s attempt to show Rizal’s “reformism” is based on the false notion that a person’s views do not change or mature over time. In Rizal’s case, he had realized as early as 1887 that the real battleground was back home. In using the reformer-versus-revolutionary box to classify Rizal, therefore, Constantino failed to reckon with another and truer alternative: radical.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics, Readings in Rizal

2 responses to “Column: Falling for the American trap

  1. Pingback: On Constantino: A letter to the editor « Newsstand

  2. Pingback: Constantino on Rizal: More links « Newsstand

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