A Life for our Times

The Gardener’s offering on his 152nd Birthday

Inviting all to have more than superficial knowledge of this incredible man…


Education Jesuit and Dominican

There were three prep schools in Manila in the time of Rizal: two run by friars, the Colegio de Letran and the Seminario de San Jose, and one run by Jesuits, newly returned to the Philippines after long banishment. This was the Ateneo Municipal, funded by City Hall to prepare boys intending to go on to university studies. So, Ateneo was a public school run by priests.

One thing is sure: the Jesuit curriculum for the six-year course leading to the degree of bachelor  of arts was considerably tougher than the present equivalent for high school and college – Christian doctrine, Spanish, Latin, Greek, French, world geography and history, history of Spain and the Philippines, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, mineralogy, chemistry, physics, botany, zoology, poetry,  rhetoric, and philosophy. In all these subjects Rizal consistently got the grade of “excellent”. It gave him satisfaction to obtain the biggest share of scholastic honors and awards all throughout.

And the influence of the Jesuits on him cannot be underestimated: I had entered (the Ateneo) still a boy, with little knowledge of Spanish, with an intelligence only partly developed, and, almost without any refinement in my feelings, he wrote. Subjected to the Jesuit ratio studiorum, he experienced under tight and constant discipline, with every incentive of competition and reward, one of the world’s most thorough and gripping systems of indoctrination.

And yet, at the end of the course, Rizal was depressed, indifferent, brooding; two or three tears slid down my cheeks, tears paid in token of farewell to the times gone by, to a contentment that would not return, to a tranquility of spirit that was slipping out of my grasp, leaving me bereft. Evaluating the Ateneo years which I consider the happiest in my life, if happiness can be said to consist in the absence of disagreeable cares, Rizal found that his studies of poetry and rhetoric had elevated my feelings and that patriotic sentiments as well as an exquisite sensibility had developed greatly in me. 

After that, in 1888, I still remember [how] my mother told my father: Dont send him to Manila any longer; he knows enough; if he gets to know any more, they will cut off his head. My father did not reply but my brother took me to Manila despite my mother’s tears.”

Not sure what course to take, he enrolled both in the Ateneo for a course in land surveying, and in the Dominican University of Santo Tomas for a course in philosophy and letters, in part because his father had surprisingly wanted him to study metaphysics.

Rizal, frankly, was not so happy with the Dominicans. He missed the Jesuit discipline tempered with understanding and personal encouragement that had drawn out his innate talents at the Ateneo. He was outraged by professors at the UST that played favorites with Spaniards and treated their Filipino students with contempt, addressing them “like good friars” in the familiar tu and even in pidgin Spanish.

Meanwhile in Calamba: he was spending the summer holidays after his first year in medical school at the UST when, going along a street one dark night, he failed to doff his hat to a constabulary lieutenant. The latter promptly cut Rizal with a native whip across the back, threw him in jail despite his wound, and threatened him with deportation. He complained to the Governor General himself but they did not give me justice. His wound took two weeks to heal.

Also in 1888, Calamba was rocked by land troubles. The town’s principal families, headed by the Mercados, refused to pay the increased dues demanded by the Dominican hacienda. Their houses were ordered demolished. Rizal’s father Francisco abandoned his fine house in Calle Real and took his family to live in Manila. The house was unroofed by the Guardia Civil and left to the mercy of the elements.

Much earlier on, mother Teodora, no less, was cruelly put in jail. How did this happen? An uncle of mine, Don Jose Alberto, returned from Europe. His wife had committed grave breaches of her obligations both as a mother and as a wife during his absence, and he found his home deserted, his children abandoned. The poor man wearied himself seeking her whereabouts; when at last he found her he wanted to divorce her, but my mother managed to persuade him to take his wife back,  recounted Rizal.

Unfaithful wives, however, are apt to resent being rescued and a few days later (she) together with a lieutenant of the civil guard accused him of trying to poison her, and named my mother as his accomplice. For this reason my mother was arrested by a fanatical mayor, a menial of the friars called Don Antonio Vivencio del Rosario. She was roughly seized and marched off on foot some fifty kilometers to the jail in the provincial capital of Santa Cruz. In the end she secured an acquittal and was vindicated in the eyes of all – but after how long? – after two years and a half in jail.

He visited her twice in prison. Without telling my father, I went to visit my mother alone and gave her news of my progress in school. How I enjoyed surprising her! But afterwards we embraced each other and both of us wept: we had not seen each other for more than a year. I still remember with melancholy pleasure the mute scene between us. Oh, how cruel are human beings with their fellow human beings!

The rise of the Mercados had been sensational, within a generation, to the topmost rank of Calamba society, though they were newcomers to Calamba. Their fall was equally stunning.

The land made them rich but, “legally” (i.e., according to the law of the powerful), they did not own it. After expending all their effort and imagination to develop the land, another was getting ready to find ways to eject them.

But, perhaps, in a more profound sense, history has to be read properly: like all families with a destiny, the Mercados seemed, from the start, marked out for greatness – and disaster; for glory – and doom. The fate of the family as a whole has been overshadowed by the fate of its greatest son but it remains true that Rizal’s martyrdom would merely be part of family tragedy, one that had already started when he put his fatal pen to paper.

Education and adventures in Europe 


The brothers secret pact: Paciano leveled with Rizal. Behind the gloom at home was an alien hacienda that had tormented the Mercado parents and would now crucify the sons. Already forced to be a college dropout, Paciano was now being forced to become an outcast – from the hacienda and from Calamba. And who knew what scourge or scaffold awaited younger brother Rizal? Paciano would have to convince the shocked Jose that he could not stay on at Santo Tomas nor could he remain in the Philippines. Needless to say, the persuading took some time but finally it was agreed: both their family and their country needed their services; neither could be jilted.

The double obligation would now be split between the brothers, one to serve the family and the other to serve the country. One would have to stay behind, at home, while the other goes abroad, abandoning home. So Rizal left for abroad after Paciano had arranged the financing and everything else. The secret pact was disclosed to only one other person, sister Narcisa, in the need to have a “third party” carry on should Paciano forcibly vanish from the scene.

And quite a significant provision in the pact: only one of them should marry, so that the other one at least will remain a free agent of both obligations. Paciano was already in place at home, and could be “domestic”. Rizal was in place as student, activist and writer and must be ready to settle down to a revolutionary fate, to an unsettled life– he would have to be the one to adventure in pursuance of the pact’s objectives.


The pacts objectives were: as formulated by Paciano, to avenge the killing of Zamora, Gomez and Burgos; to avenge the arrest and jailing of mother Teodora; to avenge the mistreatment of father Francisco by the hacienda; to avenge the hounding of Paciano, who had to drop out of campus and city; to avenge the current and future sufferings of Rizal, who would surely be as grimly hunted, at home and abroad; and, quite seriously, if unrealistically, to avenge the agony of a nation trampled on by both Church and State. These Mercado brothers had minds of steel, no doubt, but equally indubitably they were gifted with hearts of flame.

Their objectives were to be rushed: by exposing the corruption of the colonial government in the Philippines; by exposing the corruption of the colonial church in the Philippines; by exposing the corruption of the colonial army in the Philippines; by exposing the evils of the Kastila and, above all, expressing the abilities of the Indio.

Rizal in Madrid

Shortly after Rizal reached Europe, Paciano wrote to remind his brother that the objective of his trip abroad was not to perfect his medical career but something else. Replied Rizal: A year more in Madrid and perhaps I shall realize your wish. Your wish only underscores Paciano’s crucial role behind the revolutionary propaganda movement. Indeed, now it is quite clear that in that movement Paciano was the absent partner, the silent leader, the invisible wheel; the world only saw Jose Rizal.

Abroad, Rizal flew: he fared well in the various academies of Europe where the medium of instruction was Spanish, French, Latin or German – or a combination of some of these. He could correspond in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, English, German and Dutch. He made translations from Arabic, Swedish, Russian, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Japanese, Latin and Sanskrit. And, of course, he continued to have knowledge of Malay, Chavacano, Cebuano, Ilocano and Subanon besides his native Tagalog. “So, still they gazed, and still the wonder grew, that such a head could carry all he knew.”

For a very big portion of his short lifespan – from the age of 21 when he first left for Europe to the age of 35 when he bravely faced his martyrdom he was always on the go, touching base with all Filipinos to build them up as a people reflecting back to them their dignity, the nature of the current challenges and their responsibilities.  What cities did he not visit and learn from and did some educating and organizing, and encouraging the formation of circulos Filipinos and eventually La Liga Filipina? We name it and immediately know that, yes – he was there: Singapore, Galle and Colombo, Naples, Marseilles, Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, Strasbourg, Heidelberg, Wilhemsfeld, Leipzig, Cologne, Frankfurt, Dresden, Berlin, Leitmeritz, Munich, Stuttgart, Basel, Geneva, Rome, Turin, Milan, Venice, Florence, Saigon, Hong Kong, Yokohama, Tokyo, San Francisco, Reno, Denver, Salt Lake City, Chicago, New York, London – the world.

He made himself into a poet, a polymath, an amateur architect, artist, educator, economist, ethnologist, scientific farmer, historian, inventor, journalist, mythologist, internationalist, naturalist, novelist, ophthalmologist, physician, propagandist, sculptor, martial artist, and sociologist. He established beyond doubt that the Indio had those abilities any member of the human race could wonder at. The Indio exists. And there were other “Indios Bravos” – del Pilar, Luna, Paterno, Lopez Jaena, Hidalgo, Lete, Llorente, Sancianco, Figueroa, Villanueva, Zaragoza, et al., et al. He surely was not alone.

One day the world took note: Juan Luna had won the first gold medal (out of three) in the 1884 Madrid Exposition, and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo a silver medal (out of fifteen awarded). Luna had worked for eight months on a gigantic canvas depicting bloody carcasses of slave gladiators being dragged away from the arena where they had entertained their Roman oppressors with their lives – the Spoliarium. 

Spolarium by Juan Luna

Rizal was a painter himself, yet there never seems to have been even a touch of jealousy in his relation with Luna. Perhaps Rizal was too generous to acknowledge even the possibility of rivalry between them, and Juan Luna too self-confident to even envision it.

Las Virgenes Cristianas Expuestas Al Populacho by Felix Ressureccion Hidalgo

In toasting Luna at the dinner organized for him in Madrid, Rizal spoke for the first time of “dos pueblos – different from each other but heretofore united, two peoples that sea and space separate in vain. While placing in a would-be affectionate mother-daughter context the relationship between Spain and the Philippines, Rizal’s appreciation of Luna’s achievement became a first salvo demanding reformation of that relationship – or so the toast could be understood.

The patriarchal age is coming to an end in the Philippines; the illustrious deeds of the sons [of the country] are no longer accomplished in its boundaries; the Oriental chrysalis is breaking out of its sheath; brilliant colors and rosy streaks herald the dawn of a long dayand that race, plunged in lethargy during the night of its history while the sun illuminated other continents, awakes anew, shaken by the electric convulsion produced by contact with Western peoples, and demands light, life, the civilization that was once its heritage from time, thus confirming the eternal laws of constant evolution, periodic change and progress. [Cheers]

These art works of Luna and Hidalgo, said Rizal with breathtaking boldness, embody the essence of our social, moral and political life: humanity in severe ordeal, humanity unredeemed, reason and idealism in open struggle with prejudice, fanaticism and injusticeJust as a mother teaches her child to speak so as to understand his joys, his needs, his sorrows, so also Spain, as a mother, teaches her language to the Philippines, despite the opposition of those who are so short-sighted and small-minded that, making sure of the present, they cannot foresee the future and will not weigh the consequences soured nurses, corrupt and corrupting, who habitually choke every legitimate sentiment and, perverting the hearts of  the people, sow in them the seeds of discord whose fruit, a very wolfs bane, a very death, will be gathered by future generations…”

Pointedly he asked: What can a red and yellow rag do [Spanish flag], or guns and cannons, where love and affection do not spring, where there is no meeting of the minds, no agreement on principles, no harmony of opinion? [Prolonged applause] He continued, I ask you then to drink a toast to our painters, Luna and Hidalgo, exclusive and legitimate glories of two peoples! A toast for the youth of the Philippines, sacred hope of my country, that they may follow such excellent examples!… A toast, finally, for the happiness of those fathers and mothers who, deprived of the affection of their sons, follow their courses with moist eyes and beating hearts from that distant land, across the seas and space, sacrificing on the altar of the common good the sweet comforts which are so few in the twilight of life, solitary and prized winter flowers blooming on the brink of the grave. [Prolonged applause and cheers for the speaker.]

He had openly challenged the regime in the Philippines. Many said that after this toast to Luna, Rizal was dead meat. His mother got sick, out of fear for Rizal’s safety. Paciano wrote to warn him not to go back to the Philippines.

To write a Spoliarium: Luna painted one; Rizal, for his part, would now undertake to write it, to create in literature what the Spoliarium accomplished in painting! What Hugo had done for ‘les miserables’, what Zola, Daudet and Dickens had done for the wretched of England and France, what “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” did in the United States, he would now do for his countrymen – write a novel to lay bare their slavery and suffering.

Each man sees any painting his own way but what is written down clearly cannot be misunderstood. Rizal’s novel would not be ambiguous, and he would be repaid with banishment and death, not with Luna’s silver palette and Hidalgo’s silver medal.

With the sincerity and impartiality of which a man is capable in looking over his past, Rizal was to say later in review, I have turned my eyes to the fresh years of my youth and I have asked myself if at anytime resentment moved the pen that wrote Noli Me Tangere, and my memory has answered nono festering wounds, no thorns that dug deeper and deeper, [only] a clear-sighted look at the realities of my native countryI not only pictured past but guessed the future, for even now I see what I called a novel come true so exactly that I can say that I am present at the enactment of my own work and taking part in it. 

His first homecoming: Shortly after the publication of his novel, Rizal did return to the Philippines but his return of the native did not end as tragically as did [the character of his novel] Ibarra’s. He thought now that despite his dreams, presentiments and forebodings, he had proved to be a false prophet. What he predicted as happening to Ibarra had, after all, not happened at all.

But he was not a false prophet. The fates were merely playing with him, giving him a false sense of security by delaying his destruction.

His second homecoming: Was it hubris, then, that impelled him to challenge the fates by returning a second time to the Philippines, despite the open propaganda and organizational activities that he must have known he was now hated for by the ruling group in the colony?  There surely was no lack of people warning him that his books alone would lead to his prosecution as the inciter of revolution and, eventually, to a military trial and execution. Modern scholars and critics have recently remarked that his Noli Me Tangere, published in Berlin in 1887 (when he was twenty-six) and El Filibusterismo, out in Ghent in 1891 (he was then thirty), were almost too astonishing, in their technical narrative mastery, and in the complex development of characters and linguistic richness. And they were among the very first novels ever written by any Southeast Asian. In fact some have argued they were written by an Oriental European, Jose Rizal.

By returning a second time, Rizal had it coming to him in that sense: he had been granted a respite and a warning. He chose to push his luck. And he was doomed by the very frame-up he invented for his novel: being involved, innocently, in an insurrection.

Invincible homesickness: but ask any one who has ever been in exile and he or she will tell you. They become too homesick to think of the consequences of return. In Heidelberg Rizal confided to his journal: In two days I shall perhaps leave this cheerful city and go anew to distant lands in search of I know not what. Always roving and wandering alone, leaving friendships when they had scarcely been made, parting, nevermore to meet again, from so many people I cherished, going from city to city, from country to country, trusting only to luckAh, now I sigh for my distant country, I remember home and my thoughts turn to rest.

On arriving in Manila in the first return he called on many people he needed to see. Before long he felt he had to accept that people were avoiding him. In Calamba: they take me for a German spy, a Protestant, a mason, a wizard, a soul halfway to damnation, etc. I prefer to stay at home. But, nonetheless, the “German doctor”, the “friend of Bismarck” inevitably became the center of the struggle between the townspeople of Calamba and the Dominican friars. The disastrous fall in the price of sugar added economic reasons to the political and the legal and, undoubtedly with the encouragement of Rizal, the lessees sustained their denial of their landlords’ ownership by refusing to pay the customary rentals – to grim consequences of forcible evictions and endless litigation.

Later, from Hong Kong Rizal wrote an anguished letter to his family: I am following your sorrowful Calvary step by stepPatience, a little patience. Courage! But, of course, deep in his heart, he must have despaired. His advocacy for the rights of his town mates and his family had only enabled him to encompass their ruin. Perhaps, he was really saying, “less patience, more courage!” Did he really know?

[To Be Continued]


Nick Joaquin, Rizal in Saga (Philippine National Centennial Commission), Manila1996.

Leon Ma. Guerrero, The First Filipino (Guerrero Publishing with Anvil) Manila, 1998.

Fr. Jose Arcilla, SJ, Unknown Aspects of the Philippine Revolution (St Paul’s Philippines) Manila 2006


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