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The Life and Legacy of José Rizal: National Hero of The Philippines

Greta Samuel © Culture Trip
Greta Samuel © Culture Trip
Dr. José Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, is not only admired for possessing intellectual brilliance but also for taking a stand and resisting the Spanish colonial government. While his death sparked a revolution to overthrow the tyranny, Rizal will always be remembered for his compassion towards the Filipino people and the country.

Humble beginnings

José Protasio Rizal Mercado Y Alonso Realonda was born on June 19, 1861 to Francisco Mercado and Teodora Alonzo in the town of Calamba in the province of Laguna. He had nine sisters and one brother. At the early age of three, the future political leader had already learned the English alphabet. And, by the age of five, José could already read and write.

Upon enrolling at the Ateneo Municipal de Manila (now referred to as Ateneo De Manila University), he dropped the last three names in his full name, after his brother’s advice – hence, being known as José Protasio Rizal. His performance in school was outstanding – winning various poetry contests, impressing his professors with his familiarity of Castilian and other foreign languages, and crafting literary essays that were critical of the Spanish historical accounts of pre-colonial Philippine societies.

A man with multiple professions

While he originally obtained a land surveyor and assessor’s degree in Ateneo, Rizal also took up a preparatory course on law at the University of Santo Tomas (UST). But when he learned that his mother was going blind, he decided to switch to medicine school in UST and later on specialized in ophthalmology. In May 1882, he decided to travel to Madrid in Spain, and earned his Licentiate in Medicine at the Universidad Central de Madrid.

Rizal Park, Manila, Philippines © walterericsy / Shutterstock

Apart from being known as an expert in the field of medicine, a poet, and an essayist, Rizal exhibited other amazing talents. He knew how to paint, sketch, and make sculptures. Because he lived in Europe for about 10 years, he also became a polyglot – conversant in 22 languages. Aside from poetry and creative writing, Rizal had varying degrees of expertise in architecture, sociology, anthropology, fencing, martial arts, and economics to name a few.

His novels awakened Philippine nationalism

Rizal had been very vocal against the Spanish government, but in a peaceful and progressive manner. For him, “the pen was mightier than the sword.” And through his writings, he exposed the corruption and wrongdoings of government officials as well as the Spanish friars.

While in Barcelona, Rizal contributed essays, poems, allegories, and editorials to the Spanish newspaper, La Solidaridad. Most of his writings, both in his essays and editorials, centered on individual rights and freedom, specifically for the Filipino people. As part of his reforms, he even called for the inclusion of the Philippines to become a province of Spain.

But, among his best works, two novels stood out from the rest – Noli Me Tángere (Touch Me Not) and El Filibusterismo (The Reign of the Greed).

In both novels, Rizal harshly criticized the Spanish colonial rule in the country and exposed the ills of Philippine society at the time. And because he wrote about the injustices and brutalities of the Spaniards in the country, the authorities banned Filipinos from reading the controversial books. Yet they were not able to ban it completely. As more Filipinos read the books, their eyes opened to the truth that they were suffering unspeakable abuses at the hands of the friars. These two novels by Rizal, now considered his literary masterpieces, are said to have indirectly sparked the Philippine Revolution.

Rizal’s unfateful days

Upon his return to the Philippines, Rizal formed a progressive organization called the La Liga Filipina. This civic movement advocated social reforms through legal means. Now Rizal was considered even more of a threat by the Spanish authorities (alongside his novels and essays), which ultimately led to his exile in Dapitan in northern Mindanao.

This however did not stop him from continuing his plans for reform. While in Dapitan, Rizal built a school, hospital, and water system. He also taught farming and worked on agricultural projects such as using abaca to make ropes.

Rizal Shrine in Dapitan City © Iamjepoi / Wikimedia Commons

In 1896, Rizal was granted leave by then Governor-General Blanco, after volunteering to travel to Cuba to serve as doctor to yellow fever victims. But at that time, the Katipunan had a full-blown revolution and Rizal was accused of being associated with the secret militant society. On his way to Cuba, he was arrested in Barcelona and sent back to Manila to stand for trial before the court martial. Rizal was charged with sedition, conspiracy, and rebellion – and therefore, sentenced to death by firing squad.

Days before his execution, Rizal bid farewell to his motherland and countrymen through one of his final letters, entitled Mi último adiós or My Last Farewell. Dr. José Rizal was executed on the morning of December 30, 1896, in what was then called Bagumbayan (now referred to as Luneta). Upon hearing the command to shoot him, he faced the squad and uttered in his final breath: “Consummatum est” (It is finished). According to historical accounts, only one bullet ended the life of the Filipino martyr and hero.

His legacy lives on

After his death, the Philippine Revolution continued until 1898. And with the assistance of the United States, the Philippines declared its independence from Spain on June 12, 1898. This was the time that the Philippine flag was waved at General Emilio Aguinaldo’s residence in Kawit, Cavite.

Monument in memory of Jose Rizal at Rizal Park © ARTYOORAN / Shutterstock

Today, Dr. Rizal’s brilliance, compassion, courage, and patriotism are greatly remembered and recognized by the Filipino people. His two novels are continuously being analyzed by students and professionals.

Colleges and universities in the Philippines even require their students to take a subject which centers around the life and works of Rizal. Every year, the Filipinos celebrate Rizal Day – December 30 each year – to commemorate his life and works. Filipinos look back at how his founding of La Liga Filipina and his two novels had an effect on the early beginnings of the Philippine Revolution. The people also recognize his advocacy to achieve liberty through peaceful means rather than violent revolution.

Jose P. Rizal Bridge in Seattle © Joe Mabel / Wikimedia Commons

In honor of Rizal, memorials and statues of the national hero can be found not only within the Philippines, but in selected cities around the world. A road in the Chanakyapuri area of New Delhi (India) and in Medan, Indonesia is named after him. The José Rizal Bridge and Rizal Park in the city of Seattle are also dedicated to the late hero.

Within the Philippines, there are streets, towns/cities, a university (Rizal University), and a province named after him. Three species have also been named after Rizal – the Draco rizali (a small lizard, known as a flying dragon), Apogania rizali (a very rare kind of beetle with five horns) and the Rhacophorus rizali (a peculiar frog species).

To commemorate what he did for the country, the Philippines built a memorial park for him – now referred to as Rizal Park, found in Manila. There lies a monument which contains a standing bronze sculpture of Rizal, an obelisk, and a stone base said to contain his remains. The monument stands near the place where he fell during his execution in Luneta.