José Rizal was born a very small child on this day 160 years ago.
His father, Francisco Mercado, was a successful farmer while his mother, Teodora Alonso-Realonda, a gobernadorcillio’s daughter, had a flour mill, a drug store, and a general store to her name. Rizal’s parents were among the richest in a Calamba hacienda, where their big adobe house in the town center, the first in Calamba, according to the National Historical Commission, was also “the first house to have a piano, the first to have stables and carriages, the first to have a library.”
His mother taught Rizal to take interest in the world. She was his first teacher. On her lap, he learned the alphabet at age three. “My mother is not a woman of ordinary culture. She knows literature and speaks Spanish better than I do. She even corrected my poems and gave me wise advice when I was studying rhetoric. She is a mathematician and has read many books,” he said of his mother. Later on, as his mother developed an advanced stage of cataracts, she also inspired Rizal to become an ophthalmologist in search of a cure for her blindness.
Through his mother, Rizal, at an early age, saw the dark side of Spanish colonial rule. When he was 11, she was arrested for attempted murder. Accused of conspiring with her half-brother to poison his wife, she was made to walk 50 kilometers under the sun, from Calamba, through many other towns in Laguna, to Santa Cruz, where she was sentenced to two years in prison without trial.
The incident had repercussions immediate and long-term. If not for the intercession of a nephew of the martyr priest Father José Burgos who, along with Fathers Mariano Gomez and Jacinto Zamora, was executed four months earlier, Rizal would not have made it to Ateneo Municipal de Manila in Intramuros, where he was initially rejected because of his mother’s murder charges and also because he was found too small for his age.
At 11 in the year 1872, the year of his mother’s arrest and the year he entered high school, the Philippine hero, on the behest of his brother Paciano, also changed his name to Rizal as his brother Paciano, so closely linked with the martyred priest Fr. Burgos, a former housemate, was wanted by the colonial authorities. At Ateneo, Rizal harnessed his high aptitude in art, science, mathematics, philosophy, languages, geography, and history and graduated with distinction four years later. He would spend the rest of his life in constant study while also pursuing freedom, justice, racial equality, and dignity in behalf of his country and countrymen until his execution for the crime of rebellion at Bagumbayan in 1896.
Today, although the National Commission on Culture and the Arts maintains that “no law, executive order, or proclamation has been enacted or issued officially proclaiming any Filipino historical figure as a national hero,” José Rizal is widely regarded as the greatest of Philippine heroes.
He was born small. National hero or not, he is now a giant in the Filipino’s eyes