Was Rizal an American-sponsored hero?

Notebook Jun 14, 2019 at 2:54 pm

HG_Notebook_color-picMore than a week ago, on June 4, an audience of a few dozen mostly Filipino Canadians were awed in a presentation of historical facts, anecdotes and trivia and archival images of Philippine national hero Dr. Jose Rizal and places he travelled to, by prominent historian Dr. Ambeth Ocampo.

The topic was “Rizal: The Hero as Traveller”. The venue was the the Vivian and David Campbell Conference Facility in the sublime grounds of University of Toronto, on Devonshire Place.

It was a fascinating look-back at the time from when Rizal was young man to his martyrdom by execution in 1896 by order of the Spanish colonial authorities.

Mr. Ocampo has an encyclopedic mind when it comes to Rizal, his life, his childhood, his travels, his love life, his colleagues and family, the places he travelled to and almost anything that has to do with the national hero. It is said, or he might have said in the lecture, that he has read everything there is to read about Rizal.

And the audience enjoyed the lecture that lasted way more than an hour of stories, insights, quotations, jokes, intriguing questions, accompanied by images of the young Rizal, his drawings, memorabilia, his colleagues in the Propaganda Movement, etc. It was pure pleasure immersing in the era where the hero and other Filipino heroes lived and died in. It was an experience perhaps that only an Ambeth Ocampo, with his Rizal expertise, can provide to an audience.

The first question from the audience, however, was a surprise or a revelation after sitting in a long lecture: Why was Rizal killed?

A surprise because everyone was supposed to know the answer to that and the reason why he’s the national hero of the Philippines. To be fair, this was asked by a lady who didn’t look like a Filipino and therefore might have been oblivious of the reason for Rizal’s martyrdom. Yet, the lecture could not have missed that but for some reason here’s an obvious Rizal fan virtually wondering why, in the first place, are we talking about this man from history and all that has anything to do with him.

It could have been that the most important part of Rizal’s contribution to the birth of a nation was lost in the avalanche of fact and fiction, myth and trivia, and all the fun of relishing in the fact that the hero was after all, human: Did he ever smile in a picture? Was it possible he impregnated a German woman in a one-night stand who gave birth to Adolf Hitler? Did he sit in the same chair where Karl Marx sat and partly wrote Das Kapital in the British Museum in London? Who was the woman Rizal loved most?


8 photos: HG

Another question from the audience, however, deserves more space and discussion:

Was the choice of Rizal as the Philippine national hero made by the Filipino people or was it the Americans who made him so?

To which Ocampo replied: You cannot legislate heroism. Rizal was already a hero before the Americans came to the Philippines. Wherever you ask Filipinos, Rizal is their hero. In short, it’s a kind of consensus that shouldn’t be questioned. No elaboration was offered.

Then it came as a realization to some in the audience that there’s no law declaring Rizal the country’s national hero.

There is, in fact, research done on this issue of American involvement in selecting Rizal as the Philippine national hero, putting him in the league of George Washington of the United States, Mahatma Ghandi of India, Jose Marti of Cuba, Sun Yan Sen and Mao Zedong of China, etc.

In the interest of historical research, I am quoting from Renato Constantino’s book, Dissent and Counter-Consciousness (1970):

(Start of quotation)

An American-Sponsored Hero

We have magnified Rizal’s role to such an
extent that we have lost our sense of proportion
and relegated to a subordinate position our other
great men and the historic events in
which they took part. Although Rizal was already
a revered figure and became more so after his
martyrdom, it cannot be denied that his pre-
eminence among our heroes was partly the result
of American sponsorship. This sponsorship took
two forms: on one hand, that of encouraging a
Rizal cult, on the other, that of minimizing the
importance of other heroes or even of vilifying
them. There is no question that Rizal had the
qualities of greatness. History cannot deny his
patriotism. He was a martyr to oppression,
obscurantism and bigotry. His dramatic death
captured the imagination of our people. Still, we
must accept the fact that his formal designation
as our national hero, his elevation to his present
eminence so far above all our other heroes was
abetted and encouraged by the Americans.

Ambeth Ocampo

Ambeth Ocampo

It was Governor William Howard Taft who
in 1901 suggested that the Philippine
Commission that the Filipinos be given a national
hero. The Free Press of December 28, 1946
gives this account of a meeting of the Philippine

‘And now, gentlemen, you must have a
national hero.’ In these fateful words,
addressed by then Civil Governor W. H. Taft to
the Filipino members of the civil commission,
Pardo de Tavera, Legarda, and Luzuriaga, lay
the genesis of Rizal Day…..

‘In the subsequent discussion in which
the rival merits of the revolutionary heroes
were considered, the final choice-now
universally acclaimed as a wise one-was Rizal.
And so was history made.’

IMG_8628-aTheodore Friend in his book, Between
Two Empires, says that Taft “with other
American colonial officials and some conservative
Filipinos, chose him (Rizal) as a model hero over
other contestants – Aguinaldo too militant,
Bonifacio too radical, Mabini unregenerate.”
This decision to sponsor Rizal was implemented
with the passage of the following Acts of the
Philippine Commission: (1) Act No. 137 which
organized the politico-military district of Morong
and named it the province of Rizal “in honor of
the most illustrious Filipino and the most
illustrious Tagalog the islands had ever known, “
(2) Act No.243 which authorized a public
subscription for the erection of a monument in
honor of Rizal at the Luneta, and (3) Act No. 346
[p.128] which set aside the anniversary of his
death as a day of observance.

This early example of American “aid” is
summarized by Governor W. Cameron Forbes
who wrote in his book, The Philippine Islands:

It is eminently proper that Rizal should
have become the acknowledged national hero of
the Philippine people. The American
administration has lent every assistance to
this recognition, setting aside the anniversary
of his death to be a day of observance, placing
his picture on the postage stamp most
commonly used in the islands, and on the
currency …. And throughout the islands the
public schools teach the young Filipinos to revere
his memory as the greatest of Filipino patriots.
(Underscoring supplied)

The reason for the enthusiastic American
attitude becomes clear in the following appraisal
of Rizal by Forbes: Rizal never advocated
independence, nor did he advocate armed
resistance to the government. He urged reform
from within by publicity, by public education,
and appeal to the public conscience.
(Underscoring supplied)

Taft’s appreciation for Rizal has much the same
basis, as evidenced by his calling Rizal “the
greatest Filipino, a physician, a novelist and a
poet (who) because of his struggle for a
betterment of conditions under Spanish rule
was unjustly convicted and shot…. “

The public image that the Americans desired for
a Filipino national hero was quite
clear. They favored a hero who would not run
against the grain of American colonial policy. We
must take these acts of the Americans in
furtherance of a Rizal cult in the light of their
initial policies which required the passage of the
Sedition Law prohibiting the display of the Filipino
flag. The heroes who advocated independence
were therefore ignored. For to have encouraged a
movement to revere Bonifacio or Mabini would
not have been consistent with American colonial

Several factors contributed to Rizal’s
acceptability to the Americans as the
official hero of the Filipinos. In the first place, he
was safely dead by the time the American began
their aggression. No embarrassing anti-American
quotations could ever be attributed to him.
Moreover, Rizal’s dramatic martyrdom had
already made him the symbol of Spanish
oppression. To focus attention on him would
serve not only to concentrate Filipino hatred
against the erstwhile oppressors, it would also
blunt their feelings of animosity toward the new
conquerors against whom there was still
organized resistance at that time. His choice was
a master stroke by the Americans. The honors
bestowed on Rizal were naturally appreciated by
the Filipinos who were proud of him.

At the same time, the attention lavished
on Rizal relegated other heroes to the
background-heroes whose revolutionary example
and anti-American pronouncements might have
stiffened Filipino resistance to the new
conquerors. The Americans especially
emphasized the fact that Rizal was a reformer,
not a separatist. He could therefore not be
invoked on the question of Philippine
independence. He could not be a rallying point in
the resistance against the invaders.

It must also be remembered that the Filipino
members of the Philippine Commission
were conservative ilustrados. The Americans
regarded Rizal as belonging to this class. This
was, therefore, one more point in his favor. Rizal
belonged to the right social class — the class that
they were cultivating and building up for

It may be argued that, faced with the
humiliation of a second colonization, we as a
people felt the need for a super-hero to bolster
the national ego and we therefore allowed
ourselves to be propagandized in favor of one
acceptable to the colonizer. Be that as it may,
certainly it is now time for us to view Rizal with
more rationality and with more historicity. This
need not alarm anyone but the blind worshipper.
Rizal will still occupy a good position in our
national pantheon even if we discard hagiolatry
and subject him to a more mature historical

A proper understanding of our history is
very important to us because it will serve to
demonstrate how our present has been distorted
by a faulty knowledge of our past. By unraveling
the past we become confronted with the present
already as future. Such a re-evaluation
may result in a downgrading of some heroes and
even a discarding of others. It cannot spare even
Rizal. The exposure of his weaknesses and
limitations will also mean our liberation, for he
has, to a certain extent become part of the
superstructure that supports present
consciousness. That is why a critical evaluation of
Rizal cannot but lead to a revision of our
understanding of history and of the role of the
individual in history.

Orthodox historians have presented
history as a succession of exploits of eminent
personalities, leading many of us to regard
history as the product of gifted individuals. This
tendency is strongly noticeable in those who have
tried of late to manufacture new heroes through
press releases, by the creation of foundations, or
by the proclamation of centennial celebrations.
Though such tactics may succeed for a limited
period, they cannot insure immortality where
there exists no solid basis for it. In the case of
Rizal, while he was favored by colonial support
and became good copy for propagandists, he had
the qualifications to assume immortality. It must
be admitted however, that the study of his life
and works has developed into a cult distorting
the role and the place of Rizal in our history.

(End of quotation)

For the complete copy of “Dissent and Counter-consciousness,” go to http://fc-wjnet.com and at the section “Betrayal of the Revolution – 1897 November” click on [Download PDF] after “Dissent and Counterconsciousness” by Renato Constantino.

Dr. Ambeth Ocampo with Philippine Consulate General staff and part of audience at UofT lecture on Rizal and His Travels, June 4.  See related story on page 18.    (Photo: JC Bonifacio)

Dr. Ambeth Ocampo with Philippine Consulate General staff and part of audience at UofT lecture on Rizal and His Travels, June 4. See related story on page 18. (Photo: JC Bonifacio)