Column: Rizal: ‘Ynsic’ or proto-‘Kano’

Published on June 17, 2014.

The Rizal biographer Austin Craig was justifiably proud of the research he conducted into the hero’s Chinese roots. But his reading of Rizal as a proto-American was willfully speculative, deliberately ideological.

The ideology was American benevolence, and to this project the American writer enlisted Rizal as America’s Forerunner. (The phrase is the title of the first chapter of “Lineage, Life and Labors of Jose Rizal, Philippine Patriot,” which Craig published in 1913.) The primary premise was civic in purpose: Rizal was the ideal of a tutelary democracy because “he inculcated that self-respect which, by leading to self-restraint and self-control, makes self-government possible.” Craig’s secondary premises, however, were stitched out of the thinnest air.

He asserts, based on nothing, that “the book which had the greatest influence upon the young man’s career” was a Spanish translation of [Feodor] Jagor’s “Travels in the Philippines.” In fact, Rizal had read the book, among many others; he had met Jagor in Berlin, among other renowned men of science; and he had made plans to translate Jagor’s book into Tagalog, among other (unfinished) projects. Why did Craig privilege it as the formative influence? Because it “suggested that it was the fate of the North American republic to develop and bring to their highest prosperity the lands which Spain had conquered and Christianized with sword and cross.”

After an extensive quotation of Jagor’s “prophecy,” Craig then writes the following paragraph which must qualify for the most ridiculous passage in the annals of biography. “This prophecy of Jagor’s made a deep impression upon Rizal and seems to furnish the explanation of his life work. Henceforth it was his ambition to arouse his countrymen to prepare themselves for a freer state. He dedicated himself to the work which Doctor Jagor had indicated as necessary. It seems beyond question that Doctor Rizal, as early as 1876, believed that America would sometime come to the Philippines, and wished to prepare his countrymen for the changed conditions that would then have to be met. Many later incidents in his later life confirm this view: his eagerness to buy expensive books on the United States, such as his early purchase in Barcelona of two different ‘Lives of the Presidents of the United States;’ his study of the country in his travel across it from San Francisco to New York; the reference in ‘The Philippines in a Hundred Years’; and the studies of the English Revolution and other Anglo-Saxon influences which culminated in the foundation of the United States of America.”

Ah. The calculated condescension of that “freer state.” The ingenious dishonesty in “the work which Doctor Jagor had indicated as necessary.” The brazen foisting of a lie, in “as early as 1876.” The absurd pettiness of “many later incidents.” All held together (pardon the pun) at the “seems.”

In fact, Rizal’s struggle was the freedom of equals, not a merely freer state. The formative year was 1872, and the formative influences were the three priests executed and especially the men (his brother Paciano among them) scattered in the aftermath. Rizal had the habit of buying as many books as he could afford, most of which had nothing to do with the United States. He did research on other subjects, such as the Dutch colonial experience. Not least, his “study” of the United States (mere observations written down while crossing the country in 1888) was unflattering.

To Mariano Ponce, a new friend, he wrote: “Undoubtedly America is a great country, but it still has many defects. There is no real civil liberty.” In tone, Rizal’s view of the United States reminds me of his view of Spain (Marcelo del Pilar’s too): It was inferior to the French, the English and especially the German nations, and hardly worth emulating.

* * *

A few extant letters from Rizal’s correspondence reveal an interesting pattern. Sometime in the mid-1880s, the students making up the Philippine colony in Madrid took up the habit of referring to themselves as “Ynsic,” or Chinese.

To be sure, only three letters from Ceferino de Leon and one from Graciano Lopez Jaena actually use the word or its variant, but (this is speculation, in all candor) it is not inconceivable that the four letters are the only traces left of a much larger, more active conversation.

A January 1886 letter from De Leon is characteristic:  “Nag papacumusta sa yong lahat ang mga Ynsic …. Ang mga sulat mo ay malaqui ang tua ng mga Ynsic.”

I wonder what this meant. Perhaps the students, unaccustomed to being treated as minority, reached out for the newest, most convenient category of outcast, and found “Ynsic.”

* * *

In my college years, I tried to go to Mass as often as I could. In practice, this meant barely making it to the Wednesday noon Masses at the chapel in what was then called the Science building, which were often said by Fr. Thomas Steinbugler, SJ. He was, I think, the university treasurer at the time. I went often enough that I began to notice a wonderful habit of his: In that act of humility that the congregation is invited to make before receiving communion—which begins with the priest saying, “Happy are those who are called to his supper,” and the congregation responds with “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you … ” (updated in the English version in 2011 to follow scripture more closely)—he had added a phrase of his own. “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, to share in your service and suffering, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

I cannot recall ever speaking with Father Steinbugler, except perhaps for the occasional hello along the school’s corridors. But he made a subtle but lasting impact on this wayward student; I have made his phrase part of my communion prayer all these many years. Sadly, he died a week ago today, aged 84.

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