Category Archives: Readings in Rizal

Column: What would Rizal say (to Duterte)?

The 2nd In the Shadow of the Dragon forum, held at the auditorium of the De La Salle University Rufino Campus, in BGC.

Published on June 20, 2017.

At an Inquirer forum on Philippine independence and the rise of China, the young historian Leloy Claudio said something in passing which generated some Twitter attention. “If Rizal were alive today, he’d be ‘dilawan,’” Claudio said. He was referencing Rizal’s struggle for civil liberties as an indication that he would be, in today’s reductionist, polarized setting, not a Duterte supporter but an Aquino reformist—that is, a “Yellow.”

We mark Rizal’s 156th birthday at a time when the incumbent President is seeking to overhaul Philippine society itself; as Claudio’s remarks suggest, Rizal today seems more indispensable than ever. I think I know why: He reminds us what it means to be Filipino. Continue reading


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Imagining Independence

Rooting through my files yesterday, I found the presentation deck I prepared for the first of my two lectures at the Yuchengco Museum in 2011. I remember the thrill of the moment — it was among the first public lectures I gave after I had written my book on Jose Rizal’s influence on Southeast Asian nationalism — but I had all but forgotten the slides.

I started with a famous painting, zoomed in on a much less famous but illuminating illustration, and discussed three episodes tracing Rizal’s influence. (I included possibly the most celebrated example of all.)

I’ve attached a PDF version of the slides — all 48 of them!


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Column: Rizal as Catholic

Published on December 30, 2014.

The mature form of Rizal’s thinking on the Catholic religion can be found in his correspondence with a former Jesuit teacher. Written in his Dapitan exile between September 1892 and the middle of 1893, the five letters addressed to Fr. Pablo Pastells, SJ, are Rizal’s attempt to examine “what little has been left to me by the shipwreck of faith”—that last phrase an allusion to a remark from yet another Jesuit mentor.

What exactly was left? Not enough by the standards of his day; a surprisingly robust amount, by today’s measure. He was no longer a practicing Catholic, but remained very much a cultural one. (I believe this is why he ridiculed the notion, repeated by Pastells in one letter, that he had become a Protestant. Part of this cultural Catholicism was precisely the religion’s embrace of reason. To appropriate a quote from a third Jesuit writing two generations after Rizal: Catholicism “was a reasonable faith.”)

The following excerpts (from Dr. Robert Yoder’s excellent online resource, now maintained by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines) paint a vivid picture: Continue reading

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Column: ‘A Filipino Tolstoi’

Published on December 9, 2014.

I wish to pay tribute to the great F. Sionil Jose, who celebrated his 90th birthday in ceremonies at the Cultural Center of the Philippines last week, by offering this early American glimpse of the writer “Manong Frankie” reminds me of the most: Rizal himself.

It is an outline of Rizal’s life, published in the Boston Evening Transcript of March 25, 1899 (some six weeks after the Philippine-American War broke out). We can see that the Rizal narrative is already in recognizable shape, though some details are distorted by distance and lack of knowledge (the “Island of Dapitan,” Rizal banished twice, and so on). The account, written by Erving Winslow and published under the headline “A Filipino Tolstoi” (the Russian novelist-turned-crusader was still alive at the time), reads as follows:

A biography of a patriotic Filipino, which has recently been published by a member of the faculty of the [Austrian] University of Leitmeritz, may throw some light on the native character. The pamphlet is a life of Jose Rizal, Filipino patriot, and is dedicated to General Emilio Aguinaldo, who is characterized as “the liberator of his country, a chivalrous and brave warrior.” Continue reading

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Column: The OFW as a nationalist

Published on July 1, 2014.

In the eighth chapter of “Noli Me Tangere,” we see balikbayan Crisostomo Ibarra ride through “Manila’s busiest suburb” in a carriage. The drive turns into a trip down memory lane: “All the noise, movement, even the sun itself, a particular odor, the motley colors, awakened in his memory a world of sleeping remembrances.” (This and other passages from the novel are from the Soledad Locsin translation.)

The memories are those of his life before he left to study in Europe—until he passes a familiar landmark. “The sight of the botanical garden drove away his gay reminiscences: the devil of comparisons placed him before the botanical gardens of Europe, in the countries where much effort and much gold are needed to make a leaf bloom or a bud open; and even more, to those of the colonies, rich and well-tended, and all open to the public. Ibarra removed his gaze, looked right, and there saw old Manila, still surrounded by its walls and moats, like an anemic young woman in a dress from her grandmother’s best times.”

The sight of the landmark prompts more remembering, then, but of an outsider’s life in the cities of Europe and (“even more”) of a traveler’s passage through colonies like Singapore. The expatriate had returned, and found his country wanting. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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Column: Villains and cowards: Rizal’s own 7-point summary

Published on December 31, 2013.

Tucked away in Jose Rizal’s longest letter in Tagalog is his own summary of the most important lessons he had learned, at the ripe age of 27. He was asked by Marcelo del Pilar in February 1889 to write a letter “a las muchachas de Malolos,” the valiant women who had the temerity to ask for the right to attend night school. Writing from London, Rizal composed a lengthy letter on equality and education, on reason and religion; he ended it with a statement of principles (“itong  pinaninindigang mga sabi”). Continue reading

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Column: What Aquino and Rizal had in common

A tale of two martyrs. Published on August 20, 2013.

They came home. They did not have to; the threats they faced to life or liberty were real and manifest, the work they could have done outside the country to continue to contribute to the freedom struggle useful and varied.

The advice they received was almost uniformly negative. “I am prepared for the worst, and have decided against the advice of my mother, my spiritual adviser, many of my tested friends and a few of my most valued political mentors,” Ninoy Aquino wrote in his arrival statement. He had planned to read it the day he returned to Manila 30 years ago; he did not get the chance.

Jose Rizal prepared two letters before leaving Hong Kong in June 1892, to return to the Philippines for the second time. They were to be opened in the event of his death; about three years after his execution, Apolinario Mabini became the first to make them public.

In the letter addressed “A los Filipinos,” Rizal wrote: “The step that I have taken or I am about to take is undoubtedly very perilous, and I need not say that I have pondered on it a great deal. I realize that everyone is opposed to it; but I realize also that hardly anybody knows what is going on in my heart.”

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Column: Rizal’s equal

To mark another Rizal birthday–his 152nd–I thought of training the spotlight on the other great leader of the Propaganda Movement. Published on June 18, 2013.

Marcelo del Pilar left behind dozens of letters—altogether a wonderful read for Filipinos interested in history. Many of his letters were written in Filipino, especially those he wrote to his wife and his daughters, but these also include important, indeed historical, letters to Jose Rizal.

I think Del Pilar was very much Rizal’s equal as a political writer; it is instructive to read La Solidaridad, for example, when their bylines or pen names appear in the same issue, sometimes even one after the other. Del Pilar was no novelist; perhaps he lacked what the eminent literary critic V. S. Pritchett called, in an entirely different context, the “vegetative temperament” necessary to write a novel. But Del Pilar had an instinct for politics (he never apologized, as Rizal did repeatedly, for sacrificing art or life or fill-in-the-blank “on the altar of politics”), and that instinct informed not only his analysis but also his pragmatic conduct in the circles and corridors of Madrid.
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Column: Rizal in the Catholic Encyclopedia

“Rizal, hidden in plain sight.” Published on June 4, 2013.

The first Catholic Encyclopedia was published about a hundred years ago; preserved inside this monumental work, like fossil in amber, is an unlikely and dated entry on Jose Rizal. Make that “carbon-dated.” The errors and emphases of this 1912 entry allow us a close, specific look at a particular era, when Catholic Americans in the Philippines had all but rationalized the national hero as one of their own.

The encyclopedia was a milestone in Catholic apologetics; it remains a favorite of many. The first edition in particular, published in 16 volumes (including index) between 1905 and 1914, has its online fans; two versions of this landmark reference available online are worth noting. The New Advent is a lovingly crowdsourced version started by Kevin Knight; the Original Catholic Encyclopedia is a massive scan done by the valiant apologists at Catholic Answers.

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Column: “All the honorable men of the world”

Published on December 18, 2012.

To respond to certain queries about Rizal occasioned by a paper I read at the Philippine PEN Congress the other week, allow me to run excerpts from another paper I read at a much earlier seminar—one hosted by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore last year to mark the launch of “Revolutionary Spirit.” Over and above his exile’s experience, which made him feel “alone and abandoned,” Rizal also knew what it meant to live inside a living community of equals, a band of brothers as it were. I believe this other experience informed Rizal’s concept of an intellectual tradition:

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Column: “When we find ourselves alone and abandoned”

What was Rizal’s concept of “intellectual tradition?” The Philippine chapter of PEN asked; I proposed one possible answer. Published on December 11, 2012.

I WAS delighted to take part in last week’s Philippine PEN Congress, at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). The year’s theme was on the role of the writer as public intellectual; the panel I served on, the first in the two-day conference, was tasked with drawing the context of a Philippine intellectual tradition. “You can discuss perhaps your work on Jose Rizal,” read the invitation from National Artist Bien Lumbera and film critic and fellow Inquirer editor Lito Zulueta, chair and secretary of Philippine PEN—and so I did.

I focused on a letter Rizal sent the priest Vicente Garcia, one of the first to defend the “Noli,” because it seemed to me to best sum up his ideas about just such a tradition. After I located the letter in the context of Rizal’s correspondence (using the Alzona translation), I proceeded to make my case, as follows:

It took Rizal more than two years after first hearing of Garcia’s gallant defense, and some 10 months after the “little treatise” was published in La Solidaridad, before he found the occasion to write the priest himself. He was working on the “Fili” in unhappy Madrid, and at the same time preparing to return home via a doctor’s detour through Hong Kong. I do not know if he ever received Garcia’s reply; I would like to think he did and the reply is simply no longer extant, because his letter of Jan. 7, 1891 was—in a word—a cry for help. It was not so much to thank Garcia, “but to seek light for the uncertain need of the future.”
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Column: Who put the bolo in Bonifacio’s hand?

Bonifacio in the imagination. Column No. 225, published on December 4, 2012.

Rizal carefully chose the last image his countrymen would see of him; he went to his execution dressed like a European, complete with derby hat—as if to say that he was a citizen of that free republic that knew no boundaries, and thus an equal of the Spaniards who had ordered his death. Bonifacio was not as lucky.

Nobody knows how Bonifacio looked or what he wore when he was killed by members of the revolutionary army he had founded, mere months after launching the revolution. We “see” him today mainly as the sculptor Ramon Martinez immortalized him: his 1911 Balintawak monument portrays a stylized Bonifacio in white camisa and rolled-up red pants, with a bolo in his raised right hand and the Katipunan flag in his left.

If Bonifacio had had a choice, what image would he have chosen?
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Column: Forward, attack, lunge!

A modified lecture, with poem included. Published on August 2, 2011.

To accompany his own Indonesian translation of “Ultimo Adios,” which appeared in the Dec. 30, 1944 issue of Asia Raya, Rosihan Anwar wrote “Jose Rizal,” a short poem of 21 lines. My dictionary-enabled, Google-translated modified free version of the poem reads as follows:

The rifle explodes, a single bullet

Penetrates the body; the man falls!

So too fall noble ideals;

independence, its spirit flickering,

As the man closes his eyes.

The man’s body lies on the earth’s lap

That precious man

Broken, shattered into dust

But the spirit which the man showed

Is incarnate in the fragrant bloom.

Years pass and now and then

Air rustles across the man’s grave

O, poet, hero of the nation.


Now the man rises again

Incarnate in the body of the nation

In the breast of every youth,

I hear the man’s voice

Loud, powerful, mighty,

Inviting the nation to continue the struggle:

“Philippines, forward, attack, lunge!!!” Continue reading

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Column: Bitching about GMA

Published on July 26, 2011.

A YOUNG person relatively fresh out of college posted something on Facebook yesterday, several hours before President Aquino addressed the 2nd joint session of the 15th Congress. Her status update struck me, because it seemed emblematic—of much of what is wrong in our political culture. Continue reading

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Column: The 10 most important letters Rizal wrote

The third Rizal column, published on June 28, 2011.

I thought it might be an interesting experiment: In the country’s most important correspondence, which letters are the most historic? Several years ago, I came to realize that the best way to introduce a new reader or a new student to Rizal is through his letters. The Rizal correspondence runs to several hundreds, and almost literally there is something in it for everyone. But if one had time only to read the 10 most consequential, what would the short list look like?

It would probably not include some of the more personally interesting letters, such as Rizal telling his sisters that inviting their friends to resettle in Dapitan, where he had just been deported, was “a delicious idea”—in English. Or the letter, in German this time, where he explains to his great friend Ferdinand Blumentritt how to use his new invention, a “sulpak” or cigar lighter. Instead, a short list would probably include those letters that explain Rizal best: how he came to write his subversive novels, how he came to part ways with Marcelo del Pilar, how he came to find himself, for the third time, on board a ship bound for Spain. Continue reading

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Column: Criticizing Rizal

The second of three Rizal columns written in June 2011. Published on June 21, 2011.

The idea that Rizal was prickly, sensitive to slights and quick to take offense, was a criticism he himself heard again and again. On Oct. 9, 1891, for instance, while preparing to leave for Hong Kong (and eventually to return to the Philippines), he declined his great friend Ferdinand Blumentritt’s suggestion that he resume writing for La Solidaridad. “I have suggested many projects; they engaged in a secret war against me. When I tried to make the Filipinos work, they called me ‘idol,’ they said that I was a despot, etc. …. They said that Rizal is a very difficult person; well, Rizal clears out.” Continue reading

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Column: ‘Ualang dao ga sino’

In June 2011, celebrations to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Jose Rizal reached a crescendo. I was not immune to the power of that patriotic music; all three of my columns that month dealt with the national hero. The first of the three columns was published on June 14, 2011.

Call it a theory of refraction. Even when Spanish clerics or officials criticized Rizal, their criticism was often formed (refracted) by certain assumptions about the most famous man in the Philippines, assumptions both hidden and visible which we can use today to paint a vivid portrait of Rizal in the last 10 years of his life.

After the “Noli” reached the Philippines in 1887, for instance, many Spaniards and not a few Indios were scandalized. We can get a sense of the scope of the scandal when the Augustinian friar Jose Rodriguez published a series of pamphlets the following year. Originally written in Spanish, the eight pamphlets were translated into Tagalog posthaste; the most famous of them carried the title-and-subtitle “Caingat Cayo! Sa manga masasamang librot, casulatan”—which we can render as “Beware! Of evil books and writings.” Continue reading

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Column: Our Kabayan problem

A revolving-door problem, and then a sideways kind of announcement.  Published on May 31, 2011.

Noli de Castro was vice president for six years and a senator for three. Last November 8, some four months after leaving government service, he reassumed his role as principal anchor of the flagship ABS-CBN newscast, “TV Patrol.”

I have no objection to the so-called revolving door in journalism, the practice where journalists join government service for a time and then return to the profession. Done right, done with circumspection and utmost professionalism, both sides of the door can profit. I think, for example, of Salvador P. Lopez, journalist-turned-diplomat-turned-journalist. Government service benefited from his insight and erudition, his facility with words and his capacity for work. When he returned to newspapering (he wrote regularly for the Inquirer in its early years), his writing was deepened by his experience in government and diplomacy.

But De Castro, simply “Kabayan” (Countryman) to millions of Filipinos, reminds me that there are dangers to the revolving door; for one thing, it can give media’s audience an attack of vertigo. Continue reading

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Column: Do all opinions matter?

The Inquirer feedback loop just got fat–or it did, about 15 months ago, some time before this column was published on May 24, 2011.

IN RESPONSE to Monday’s editorial on the designation of Mar Roxas as President Benigno Aquino III’s chief of staff, an online reader wrote, in an angry burst of colloquial Filipino: He hasn’t even started yet, and here you are already taking a shot at him! (I can no longer find the comment online, hence the paraphrase.) Continue reading

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Column: The last of the Daily Me?

Written some three months before I got to meet the peerless Josh Benton. Published on May 17, 2011.

I first noticed it a few months ago, when I read Joshua Benton’s “Eight Trends for Journalism in 2011,” a presentation by the young director of the Nieman Journalism Lab before the Canadian Journalism Foundation in January. In the last paragraph of a longish discussion about the seventh trend (“New front pages”), Benton took time to praise the BBC’s iPad app.

“And I think one of the brilliant elements of it is that when you launch the app, it doesn’t present you with a menu of options. It doesn’t say, ‘Here are 17 options, choose one.’ It’s not a choose-your-own-adventure. It immediately tells you, ‘This is where your adventure should start.’ It puts you in a story right away. You don’t [have to do] any action, you’re immediately pushed in. And then it becomes, ‘How do you navigate from story to story?’ Instead of going to a story, hitting the back button, going to look over the other menu of options, then going back again. The metaphor that exists on a lot of iPad apps in the news world is swiping from story to story. Which is a very similar experience to what you traditionally had in newspapers—seeing stories and being able to dive in right there.” Continue reading

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Column: How the Osama raid, and Mosley, was spun

A White House official’s rational exuberance–and its implications for understanding the Pacquiao-Mosley fight. Published on May 10, 2011.

Buyer beware—that’s the thought bubble that pops up in my head these days when I come across the name of John Brennan, US President Barack Obama’s advisor on counter-terrorism. By my reckoning, the most egregious errors in the first White House account of the daring raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden were attributable to Brennan. The assertion, for instance, that Bin Laden used his wife as a human shield. Continue reading

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Column: Obama on Osama: What he didn’t say

Published on May 3, 2011.

IT DIDN’T seem possible, even as recently as only the other day, that there will ever be an unambiguous victory in the wars of the Age of Terrorism—and yet there the crowds were outside the White House and in Times Square in New York City, at past midnight, celebrating like it was V-E or V-J Day.

The late-night televised announcement by US President Barack Obama (just before noon, Manila time) that a special US military operation had killed al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden in a firefight in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was electric news all around the world, and generated spontaneous crowds in some US cities. The wars on terrorism will never be as uncomplicated, at least in public perception, as World War II (the “Good War” to those who fought it in countries other than their own). But for a couple of hours, the Age of Terrorism lost some of its ambiguities, and joyful crowds (the one in front of the White House had swollen to thousands of Americans before the revelers headed home) exulted. Continue reading

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Column: Willie’s lawyer: ‘I will not be bullied into silence’

Published on April 26, 2011.

WILLIE REVILLAME’s counsel, Leonard de Vera, wrote an immediate response to last week’s column, to explain the two-year Supreme Court-ordered suspension mentioned in it. I am happy to print his reply in full; my comments follow. Continue reading

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Column: Willie, and patterns of sin

In which I criticize a noted lawyer’s scorched-earth approach to litigation; I was able to include his detailed answer, which he sent in the middle of Holy Week, in the succeeding column. Published on April 19, 2011.

AN “UNETHICAL lawyer,” now “relishing his return to the limelight,” in the process “betraying principles he fought for in the Estrada impeachment”—if I were to describe Leonard de Vera, Willie Revillame’s counsel, in these terms, he would feel offended, and rightly so. Continue reading

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