It was President Emilio Aguinaldo of the First Philippine Republic who, on December 20, 1898, issued a decree designating December 30 of every year as a day of national mourning in honor of Jose Rizal and others who had died in the Philippine Revolution against Spain.
That First Republic, unfortunately, did not last, as the Americans, then fighting a world-wide war against Spain, came to the Philippines where Admiral George Dewey defeated the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in 1898, even as Aguinaldo fought Spanish ground forces around the country.
Spain subsequently signed a peace treaty with the Americans under which it yielded the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, ignoring General Aguinaldo’s Philippine Revolution which was beginning to win victories over the Spanish forces. The Philippine-American War followed but it ended when Aguinaldo was captured by American troops in Palanan, Isabela, in 1901.
Rizal came to be known as the Philippine national hero although no legislation was ever passed making it official. Bonifacio had led the Philippine Revolution but held Rizal in such high esteem that he named him honorary president of the Katipunan. In 1921, the Taft Commission of the new American rulers recognized the District of Morong into the Province of Rizal, an indication of their high regard for Jose Rizal.
There are today at least 118 Rizal monuments in the Philippines, along with monuments in Spain, Germany, China, the United States, Mexico, Peru, Czech Republic, and Singapore. The Rizal monument at the Luneta in Manila was built through an act approved by the US Philippine Commission by authority of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901 and unveiled on December 30, 1913. Rizal’s remains are interred inside.
In 1994, President Fidel V. Ramos formed the National Heroes Committee to study, evaluate, and recommend who are to be the country’s national heroes. In 1995, the committee recommended nine – Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Emilio Aguinaldo, Apolinario Mabini, Marcelo H del Pilar, Muhammad Dipatuan Kudarat, Juan Luna, Melchora Aquino, and Gabriela Silang. No action was ever taken on the recommendation, however, out of concern that debates would revolve around controversies over some of the concerned national figures.
To this day, no one has been officially recognized as a Philippine national hero. But Jose Rizal is generally considered and accepted as the greatest of the country’s heroes. In life, he voiced the ideals and aspirations of the Filipino nation, notably in his two novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. In death, he was martyred at Bagumbayan, executed by a firing squad, at a spot about a hundred meters north-northwest of his monument today.
This is the Rizal we honor today. With or without official legislative recognition, he is truly the greatest of our nation’s heroes.
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