The greatest Filipino who ever lived is not Manny Pacquiao who might be the most popular having beaten most of the top boxers in several divisions. He could be the Filipino who made the most money in one day (over US$20 million.) Nor is the greatest Pinoy Flash Elorde or Ninoy Aquino or Ramon Magsaysay or even Lapulapu.
The greatest Filipino has his picture in some Philippine stamps and paper money, has the greatest number of monuments in the Philippines in his honor, and has streets, towns, schools, sports arenas, a university, a province named after him. He is also the man most often quoted for his timeless thoughts, ideas and ideals. He is our National Hero, Jose Protasio Rizal Mercado y Alonzo, born June 19, 1861 in Calamba, Laguna and died December 30, 1896 in Manila. He lived thirty five years but what a lifetime of achievements and dedication to his country and his countrymen.
Some still believe that his rise to national stature and prominence was micro-managed by the Americans as they are wont to do wherever they stick their noses around the world as in Panama, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. Over a century ago, Gov. William H. Taft was supposed to have said to the three Filipino members of the Philippine Commission he chaired (Trinidad de Tavera, Benito Legarda, Jose Luzuriaga), “And now, gentlemen, you must have a national hero.” And these men, in dogged obedience, chose Rizal after considering among others, Marcelo del Pilar of La Solidaridad, Gen. Antonio Luna with victories over the Spaniards during the Revolution, Emilio Jacinto of Kalayaan and Andres Bonifacio – Father of the Philippine Revolution. This is far from the truth, but I can imagine Taft suggesting to the Commission that honoring some of the fallen Filipinos in the Revolution has an uplifting and unifying effect.
Rizal was great long before Taft came into the picture – a brilliant (sobre-saliente) student, a leader among the expatriates in Europe, a writer and novelist, a physician, a researcher. He led the Propaganda Campaign for reforms in the Philippines during the period 1882 to 1896.
His novel Noli me Tangere, published in 1887 in Berlin, Germany showed his nationalism and helped to establish the Filipino identity. The Noli in a way influenced the Revolution although Rizal consistently claimed no such purpose. He was basically a reformer. But his friend, Prof. Ferdinand Blumentritt said to him of the Noli, “Your work, as we German say, has been written with the blood of the heart… If you continue so, you will be to your people one of those great men who will exercise a deterministic influence over the progress of their spiritual life.”
Prof. Blumentritt also said, “Rizal was the greatest product of the Philippines and his coming to the world was like the appearance of a rare comet whose brilliance appear only every other century.”
Being the most intelligent and outspoken of the Filipinos made him a most dangerous man to the Spanish tyrants. It was therefore necessary and expedient for the oppressors to eliminate him and make him an example and a warning to those who might follow in his footsteps. After a brief mock trial, he was put to death by firing squad early in the morning of December 30, 1896 at Bagumbayan Field (Luneta) in Manila. Ironically, the squad was made up of Filipinos.
In the Noli, Crisostomo Ibarra (who personifies Jose Rizal) said, “I love my country, the Philippines, because to it I owe my life, my happiness and because every man must love his country.” Dr. Jose Rizal became our National Hero not only because of his genius, his multiple talents but because of his unquenchable love of the Philippines.
On December 20, 1898, almost two years after Rizal’s execution, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo issued the first official Proclamation making December 30 “Rizal Day”.
While waiting in prison for his mock trial and execution, Rizal wrote the poem “Mi último adiós” in Spanish. (It is believed that he had this poem written even before his imprisonment,) Probably the most famous translation of this 14-stanza poem was by Charles Derbyshire which begins with
Farewell, dear Fatherland, clime of the sun caress’d
Pearl of the Orient seas, our Eden lost!
Gladly now I go to give thee this faded life’s best,
And were it brighter, fresher, or more blest
Still would I give it thee, nor count the cost.
And concludes with
Farewell to you all, from my soul torn away,
Friends of my childhood in the home dispossessed!
Give thanks that I rest from the wearisome day!
Farewell to thee, too, sweet friend that lightened my way;
Beloved creatures all, farewell! In death there is rest!
This poem was recited by Congressman Henry A. Cooper on June 19, 1902 to standing ovation in his sponsorship of the Cooper Act which led eventually to the independence of the Philippines.