José Rizal as a modern-day inspiration

Honoring the novelist, physician, subversive, philologist, linguist, and hero

At a glance

  •  As the Spanish guardia civil raised their rifles and were given the order to shoot, Rizal turned around to face his executioners, not wanting to be shot in the back like a traitor.

By Teresita Cruz del Rosario

It is the turbulent years of the early ’70s in the Philippines, over a hundred years since the execution of Dr. José Rizal. I sit in a class on Philippine History as an undergrad. We read his two novels—Noli Me Tangere (The Social Cancer) and El Filibusterismo (The Subversive).  We view a few films to complement our readings.

A BRILLIANT LAD Dr. José Rizal was known for his calls for change under the Spanish regime

The final act of defiance
The most vivid image in print and on film was his early morning execution on Dec. 30, 1896. As the Spanish guardia civil raised their rifles and were given the order to shoot, Rizal turned around to face his executioners, not wanting to be shot in the back like a traitor. At the moment of his death, he faces the morning sun—a singular final act of defiance against the Spanish colonialists.

The same defiance portrayed in his Mi Ultimo Adios (Last Farewell) was a kind of love letter to the Filipinos, still then colonial subjects of Spain. The letter is framed in the Intramuros, the historic walled city the Spaniards built in the center of the metropolis, a symbolic reminder of the endurance of Spanish colonialism and Rizal’s struggle against it. More than a century later, Rizal’s writings live in the imagination of most Filipinos.
At the end of the semester, when we completed our excursus into both his novels, I became a student activist. It was perfect timing.

CONSSUMATUM EST Rizal's execution took place in Bagumbayan, which is now recognized as Rizal Park or Luneta Park

The early ’70s was a period of disquietude in the Philippines as in many other countries in the world. Campuses were in ferment. The country was plagued with a multitude of social and economic problems. There was much agitation from many sectors of Philippine society for reform and social transformation.

Rizal’s novels lived in our midst. He would have recognized the same problems minus the Spanish colonizers, the same debates and arguments on the character of Philippine society in the 21st century, the causes of the country’s malaise, and the methods for change. As I write this in 2023, our conversation with Rizal continues.

On his 162nd birth anniversary, I remember him as the inspiration behind my writing. I honor him for the courage of his political beliefs. I celebrate him as a talented Filipino, the rare gift of a writer whose novels caused his death but spurred an anti-colonial revolution and the birth of the first republic in Asia. Indeed, a life well-lived.

Professor Farid Alatas, an ardent follower of the sociological ideas in Rizal’s novels, reminds us that literature is both social history and critique. None truer than in Rizal’s two novels.

The setting is the late 19th century, at the twilight of Spanish colonialism in the Philippines, when agitation and unrest were rife in the colony. Rizal captured the anti-colonial mood most vividly, both of which would inspire the founding of the secret revolutionary society, the Katipunan, whose founder, Andres Bonifacio, laid the groundwork for independence and separation from Spain. Two years after the execution of Rizal in December 1896, the Philippine Revolution broke out, lasting nearly two years. And thus was born the first-ever republic in Asia, which was cut short by the intervention of the US, embroiled as it was in its own war with Spain.

Against this historical background that framed Rizal’s novels was his own biography, his experiences as a well-educated and well-traveled Spanish-mestizo, a creole, a doctor, a polymath, a writer, a propagandist, a philologist, a linguist, finally, a hero. All these elements of self that have come to be known as José Rizal, the national hero, are contained in the two novels—the Noli and the Fili—as Filipinos refer to them, for which he is best known.

A MODERN RETELLING Barbie Forteza stars as Klay, a nursing student who is transported into José Rizal's novels after reading Noli Me Tángere, in GMA's Maria Clara at Ibarra

The sociological imagination of José Rizal
The eminent American sociologist C. Wright Mills proposed that social analysis must be imbued with a certain “quality of mind” to incorporate the three coordinates of human life, namely, biography, history, and structure. For Mills, the starting point of sociology is an individual’s “private troubles,” especially those that are nothing but social entrapments. The sociological imagination, Mills argued, frees the trapped individual and allows him/her to “understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of various individuals.” The sociological imagination transforms these personal troubles into involvement with public issues.

As with most young men the world over in whatever time and place, their private troubles inevitably begin with affairs of the heart. Rizal was no exception. He was in love with his cousin, Leonor Rivera, whom he met when she was 13 years old, and he was 19. Rizal, a well-educated member of the ilustrado class, would return from Europe in 1887. Considered the most brilliant nationalist intellectual during the latter part of the colonial period, Rizal had completed his first novel, Noli Me Tangere. In it, he referred to the problems of Filipinos with the Spanish friars. The critical tone of the novels resonated throughout the colony, and his name became widely known. The book infuriated the Spanish authorities. At the behest of the liberal governor-general Carlos Maria de la Torre, who could not protect him from the ire of the influential and powerful friars, Rizal departed for Europe in 1888.  He could not see Leonor before his departure because her parents forbade him due to his controversial reputation as a filibustero (subversive).

After an 11-year courtship, Rizal and Leonor finally parted ways. Leonor’s mother convinced her to marry Henry Kipping, an English railway engineer who helped build the Manila-Dagupan Railway system in 1890. Rizal wrote her a farewell poem, sad and poignant, one of many writings that would seal Rizal’s reputation as a gifted writer.

From this vantage position, Crisostomo Ibarra, the fictional lead character in the Noli, mirrored Rizal.  At the same time, the novel casts light on the injustices that the locals suffered at the hands of the colonial authorities, particularly the Spanish friars who are the anti-heroes in this novel. What began as a dinner party and an occasion to see his fiancée named Maria Clara, whom he hadn’t seen in seven years while Ibarra was in Europe, became a setting for the more significant themes of injustice and the struggle for political and social change in the Philippines.

The sequel, El Filibusterismo, is a parody against the friars, who became more embittered and acrimonious. The harsher anti-clerical tone of the second novel was written when Rizal’s personal world darkened.  Rizal’s family was evicted from their Calamba estate when they lost the legal case against them levied by the Dominican friars.

The Fili’s protagonist is Simoun, also returning from travels in Europe as a jeweler. He is Ibarra resurrected, and his ideas about reform evolved from assimilation to independence from Spain. But he was never fully resolved to accept violent revolution, realizing the futility of an armed struggle that stood no chance against the armed colonial authorities. At the end of the novel, as the plot of bombing a dinner party at Capitan Tinong’s house fails, Simoun flees to the home of Padre Florentino, where he dies from self-poisoning.

The sociological imagination in historical fiction
Referring to Millsian sociology on the intersection between biography, history, and structure, I contend that the characters and situations in Rizal’s novels are occasions to examine the structure of Philippine colonial society. The scholar Barbara Celarent argued that the characters deliver the “ideology of their class or their type that are simply voices for particular social positions.” The opportunistic Chinese merchant, the assiduous student leader, the liberal friar, the social-climbing termagant, and the detached philosopher—all of them are articulations of the historically- and structurally-positioned critique of Philippine society that coalesced around Rizal’s two novels.

Further, the ideas about reform and social change were set within a particular historical moment in Spain, the diffusion of liberal ideas about progress, faith in science, an anti-monastic/anti-monarchical sentiment, and political preferences for republicanism. According to the Philippine scholar Lisandro Claudio, Rizal’s ideas were drawn from the novels of the French Enlightenment, those of Voltaire, Dumas, and Hugo. They linked him to European liberalism and republicanism. These ideational currents intersected with Rizal’s personal life and found their way into his writings.

Rizal’s story-telling craft would have appealed to Mills. His novels were, beyond doubt, exemplary of Mills’ sociological imagination. Both the Noli and the Fili speak about themes that are every bit biographical but situated historically and structurally. Rizal’s sociological imagination is a gift to social scientists who need not struggle between academic rigor, political/moral engagement, intellectual autonomy, and public sociology.
Rizal Day is celebrated in the Philippines on Dec. 30, the day of his execution. I thought it fitting to commemorate his recent birthday, June 19, when the Philippines and the Asian continent were privileged to have been gifted with the life of José Rizal. I daresay that Asia would have been a less noble place without him.
Editor’s Note: This essay’s longer and more academic version will be published as a chapter in the Handbook of Global South Literature by UK Routledge in late 2023.