Reflection on Rizal Day: Raising generation of heroes

Published December 30, 2021, 12:05 AM

by Manila Bulletin


Jose Rizal was born with a head too large for his body that his mother, Teodora Alonso, could have died giving birth to him. In Rizal in Saga, a biography that has been reissued early this month just in time for Rizal Day, his biographer, National Artist Nick Joaquin, wrote of Doña Teodora’s ordeal as a long day of sweating and straining, “a long, hard agonizing that could have cost her life.”

Rizal was born between 7 p.m. and midnight on June 19, 1861. That big head of his, though considered in Philippine folklore as a sign of genius, posed a real problem for his family. “…be very careful with this son of yours, especially with his head,” said Fr. Rufino Collantes, who baptized Rizal three days later. “It could mean that he is to be a great man someday.”

The prophecy, as it turned out, was fulfilled, but it was the people in his life, more than the stars conniving, that made it happen. The greatness that Fr. Collantes predicted first manifested itself when Rizal was two years old. Watching his mother tutor his sister Maria, then four years old, he later surprised his family by mastering the Spanish alphabet on his own. He did teach himself to read by matching the sound of each letter to the words the letters formed in a spelling book, but it was at his mother’s knee that he was primed for a lifetime of learning. “Without her, what would have been my education and my fate?” Rizal said.

To his father, Francisco Mercado, Rizal owed as much, though like his mother he was a disciplinarian, punishing him for every sign of haughtiness, intellectual or otherwise, and keeping his feet on the ground while allowing him to reach for the sky. On the day of his martyrdom, Rizal wrote of his father, “I remember my whole childhood of his affection and love,” the highlights of which included father gifting son with a pony named Alipato and taking him on an unforgettable pilgrimage to Antipolo on a casco.

There was also his only brother in their brood of 11 children, Paciano Mercado, who was said to be the complete opposite of Rizal — the older of the brothers was tall, daring, resolute, and confident while the younger was short, timid, sometimes indecisive, and self-doubting. Together, they were formidable, feeding off each other.

Other than his parents and Paciano, three uncles, his mother’s brothers, were among Rizal’s greatest influences, growing up in Calamba. By his Tio Jose, Rizal’s passion for books and writing was kindled to a flame. His Tio Gregorio honed his skills in painting, carving, sculpture, and other artistic pursuits. His Tio Manuel, meanwhile, saw that Rizal’s physical shortcomings — his lack of height and his overall frailty — were his Achilles’ heel and so decreed that his nephew spend some time away from books and art for a couple of hours of swimming, jogging, and horseback riding each day.

As we remember Jose Rizal today, the 125th anniversary of his martyrdom, more than revisiting the circumstances of his death, we must remind ourselves of our crucial role as stewards of the next generation, keeping in mind what Rizal said of the youth as the hope of the future of our nation.

Are we raising a new generation of heroes?