Tatler Philippines revisits the life of the "Pride of the Malayan Race" and discover his humanity

This feature story was originally titled as The Real Rizal, and was published in the December 2006 issue of Tatler Philippines.

Besides being the national hero of the Philippines, Jose Rizal was also known through time as the First Filipino, Pride of the Malayan Race, the Greatest Malayan, among others. Many considered him a genius, a master of all trades, a patriot, a model brother and an ideal son. Active efforts to promote Rizalist culture and values are being made by the government as well as Rizalist groups to encourage good moral character, personal discipline and civic consciousness. In fact, Republic Act 1425, the Rizal law, requires schools, universities and colleges, both private and public, to include in their curricula the study of Rizal’s life and works, particularly his two novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, to instil into students the ideals of freedom and nationalism.

Perhaps because of these efforts to elevate him as a paradigm of a great Filipino, Rizal may have become too difficult to emulate and his brand of nationalism left simply to be read in the pages of history books. This distance from an image of a real person may even have made the other hero, Andres Bonifacio, more attractive, more endearing to the ordinary Filipino.

What an unfair assessment of Rizal! For while he truly was a great man, there was also a more human, more real side to this genius.


Rizal was born on June 19, 1861, in Calamba, Laguna, to Francisco Mercado and Teodora Alonso. The seventh of 11 children, he grew up to be a sickly and frail boy, which was probably why he engaged in the various sports at that time to improve his physique.

Typical of Filipino families even at present, his mother was his first teacher until he was sent to a nearby town, Biñan, to study under Maestro Justiniano Aquino Cruz. Like his peers, and perhaps contrary to the general perception that he was always a well-behaved boy, the young Pepe, as he was also called, engaged in brawls with his classmates. One brawl ended with Rizal being hit in the butt with the teacher’s bamboo stick.

For college he went to the Ateneo, where he was one of the high achievers– but not the valedictorian of his class, as most teachers of a Rizal course today usually overstate. The truth is, he was only one of nine in a class of 12 who got sobresaliente, the highest grade.

While at the Ateneo, the teenage Pepe busied himself with his studies, extra-curricular activities including sports like chess and fencing, making friends and wooing young girls of his age. He sometimes failed in his pursuits but it was all part of growing up.

For his further education, Rizal enrolled at the University of Santo Tomás, where he at first took Philosophy and Letters and then shifted to Medicine – just a normal young man with many interests and talents but still in search of a direction in life.

At the UST however, he failed to stand out in his class. Biographers, interpreting Rizal’s words in the chapter “The Physics Class” of the El Filibusterismo as his own personal experience, concluded that the hero blamed the Dominican friars’ old-fashioned ways of teaching, as he was used to the more liberal Jesuit priests of the Ateneo. In that chapter, the character of Placido Penitente protested that the physics students were not even allowed to hold the microscope. Penitente also personified Rizal’s frustration over the indifference of his classmates who did not support him in his protest. Such frustration and a growing awareness of the unjust social conditions suffered by Filipinos from the colonisers drove Rizal to pursue his studies abroad.

At the Universidad Central de Madrid, he continued his course in Philosophy as well as in Medicine. Rizal wanted to specialise in ophthalmology, primarily due to the failing condition of his mother’s eyes. According to biographer Austin Coates, Rizal tried his best to excel in his various subjects at the university, especially in languages like Greek and Hebrew, and in literature. Through hard work and perseverance, he received both his Licentiate in Philosophy and Licentiate in Medicine in 1884. While abroad, Rizal involved himself with the Circulo Hispano-Filipino. Most of the members of this elite association were peninsulares (Spaniards born in Spain) and mestizos (mixed race), and a spattering of indios (Filipinos born in the Philippines) like Rizal and Tomas Arejola. He also participated in the Propaganda Movement, which sought to gain freedom for the Philippines, together with other eminent ilustrados, or learned men, like the satirical writer Graciano Lopez Jaena, the political analyst Marcelo del Pilar, the painter Juan Luna, the historian Mariano Ponce and others.

Following his academic triumph, Rizal went to Paris to specialise in ophthalmology and travelled to various parts of Europe, where he met prominent figures who also influenced his thoughts and the course of his actions. This is seen in his two novels, which were published at this time with the financial help of Maximo Viola (for the Noli Me Tangere) and Valentin Ventura (for the El Filibustrismo), rich friends of Rizal who were also studying abroad.

Spanish friars in the Philippines naturally took offence. They banned the books, believing they were provocative enough to incite rebellion; and ordered those caught reading them to immediately be imprisoned.


Rizal was looked upon as the leader of the Filipinos in Europe; but the Spanish clerics in the Philippines did not consider him a more dangerous political agitator as they did Marcelo del Pilar, another member of the Circulo. The two could have struck a potent partnership in the Propaganda Movement but due to a petty misunderstanding, this did not happen, as recounted by Antonio Valeriano in his book Marcelo H del Pilar: Ang Kanyang Buhay, Diwa, at Panulat published in 1984.

On December 31, 1890, a party was organised by the Filipinos in Spain to celebrate New Year. In the revelry the Filipinos decided to elect the foremost leader of the movement. Only Rizal and del Pilar were nominated. The rule was for the winner to garner two-thirds of the total votes. Rizal won most of the votes, but not enough for two-thirds of the total. Another count was made, and another. After the second recount, Rizal walked out of the party, saying, “Now I know I have only 19 friends in the place.” 

After his departure, he was unanimously elected; but because he had already left, del Pilar was chosen instead as the leader of the Filipinos.

Later, del Pilar implored Rizal not to abandon La Solidaridad, the official organ of the Propaganda Movement, for which he wrote. Del Pilar’s efforts were futile. Rizal stuck to his decision of never writing again for the newspaper, justifying his resignation by asking the paper to just give his writing fee to budding writers. But in a letter to del Pilar, Rizal bared his hurt, lamenting that the “scratches from a friend are more painful than the wounds inflicted by the enemy.”

That one year later he was still smarting from the “loss” can be gleaned in the letter Rizal wrote to Jose Maria Basa, a Filipino exile in Hong Kong who became a rich businessman, on January 21, 1891. Rizal told Basa that there was a plot against him and that del Pilar was an unwitting accomplice.

The rift worsened when an article entitled “The Illusionist,” written by Eduardo de Lete, was published in La Solidaridad on April 15, 1892. Rizal believed that Lete’s article was alluding to him and that it did not get printed without del Pilar’s approval. So hurt was he that he wrote to Ponce of the Circulo, “I am deeply hurt by del Pilar’s permission to print that article.” Lete’s article, however, was about the folly of a revolution without the means of achieving success and not about Rizal.


The Philippine Revolution of 1896 to 1901 is seen by many historians as a period when the Filipino people were most united, most involved and most spirited to fight for a common cause—freedom. As to the actual involvement of Rizal in the Revolution, however, they disagree, with the issue remaining, to date, controversial, disputed and unresolved.

Historians do not deny that Rizal played a major part in the country’s struggle for reforms and independence. His writings, particularly the Noli Me Tangere and the El Filibusterismo, were viewed as the guiding force for other patriots to rally behind the country’s cause. But some of them do not credit the hero with the leadership of the Revolution, even playing down his actual role in the fight for freedom.

One of these historians is the professor, Renato Constantino. In his Rizal Day lecture in 1969 entitled “Veneration Without Understanding,” Constantino said that Rizal was not a leader, but a leading opponent, of the Revolution. Constantino’s proof was the hero’s own manifesto dated December 15, 1896. Here, Rizal declared that when the plan of the Revolution came to his knowledge, he opposed its absolute impossibility and stated his utmost willingness to offer anything he could to stifle it. Rizal thought of it as absurd, and abhorred its alleged criminal methods.

In this manifesto Rizal also declared the necessity of education in the achievement of liberties. Most important, he believed that reforms to be fruitful must come from “above” and that those that come from “below” are shaky, irregular and insecure. By “above” Rizal meant the educated Filipinos and by “below,” the masses.

Rizal’s hesitation about the Revolution was, however, muddled by the accounts of Dr Pio Valenzuela regarding his mission to seek the hero’s opinion and approval in launching an armed rebellion against the Spanish administration. The mission, ordered by Andres Bonifacio, sent Valenzuela to Dapitan, where Rizal was in exile after he got into trouble with the Spaniards for writing his two novels.

In September 1896 Valenzuela testified before a military court that Rizal was resolutely opposed to the idea of a premature armed rebellion and disparaged it. In October 1896 Valenzuela again made the same account but changed the portion about foul language, saying it was Bonifacio, not Rizal, who used foul words.

And yet, two decades later, Valenzuela reversed his story again by saying that Rizal was not actually against the Revolution but merely advised the Katipuneros (members of the revolutionary movement called Katipunan) to wait for the right time, secure the needed weapons and get the support of the rich and scholarly class. Valenzuela recounted that his 1896 statements were embellished due to duress and torture and that in his desire “not to implicate” or “to save” Rizal, testified that the latter was opposed to the Revolution.

Valenzuela’s contradicting statements put historians into a great confusion regarding Rizal’s stand on the Revolution, making him both a hero and an anti-hero. In his lecture, he pointed out that even without Rizal, the nationalistic movement would still advance with another leader because it was not Rizal who shaped the turn of events but otherwise. The historical forces untied by social developments may have impelled and motivated Rizal to rise up and articulate the people’s sentiments through his writings, but the Revolution ensued although Rizal disagreed with it. Finally, Constantino argued that to better understand the hero, we should also take note of his weaknesses and profit from them.

Rizal’s weakness, in Constantino’s view, lay in his failure to fully understand his people. He failed to empathise with the true sentiments of the people in launching the armed rebellion that made him repudiate it, perhaps due to his belief that violence should not prevail and that reforms must come from above. Following this thought, Rizal in a way unconsciously underestimated the capacity of those from below to compel changes and reforms.

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Above The Jose Rizal monument at Luneta


In the study of Rizal, certain inconsistencies have been brought forth. One is about the hero’s famed quality of thrift.

After he published Noli Me Tangere, Rizal travelled to various places in Europe with his friend Maximo Viola. Historical accounts talk of the hero allotting ample amount of money for lottery tickets, for expensive studio photographs (that is why he is very much documented), for theatres, balls and, most of all, books. The book collection of Rizal perhaps costs a fortune because Josephine Bracken once sued the Rizal family in an attempt to get the collection, claiming she had rights over her “husband’s” estate.

So was he really a thrifty man? Many students conclude that he was just forced to be tight with money because of the delay in the arrival of his allowance from the Philippines.

Then there was the matter of his portrayal as an ever faithful, ever loyal and romantic lover.

It is a general impression that he was, in reality, the person behind the character of Crisostomo Ibarra in his two novels. The story goes that because of his everlasting love for Maria Clara, Ibarra disguised himself so he could get inside the convent which she had entered when she was told that Ibarra had died. In real life, it was said that the woman Rizal almost married was Leonor Rivera, his fiancée with whom he corresponded for six years while he was abroad. Unfortunately, the marriage did not push through, due to circumstances beyond the lovers’ control. But was Rizal a faithful lover?

In his book The First Filipino, Professor Leon Maria Guerrero discussed the presence of “the other Leonor” in the confidential letters between Rizal and a friend named Jose M Cecilio. The letters revealed that Rizal was engaged to two women both named “Leonor.” Meanwhile, Professor Ambeth Ocampo in his book Rizal Without the Overcoat wrote that in 1884 a classmate of Rizal named Ceferino de Leon tried to pursue Leonor Rivera but held off on learning that she was the hero’s fiancée. Later, de Leon met and fancied a lady named Leonor Valenzuela, who told him, however, that she was already engaged to Rizal. In the Rizal-Cecilio correspondence, Rivera was always referred to as the “little land lady” since her father, Don Antonio Rivera, managed a boarding house in Intramuros; Valenzuela, on the other hand, was labelled “winsome Orang.”

Such anecdotes prove that Rizal, just like Ibarra, was no doubt a romantic; but with regard to faithfulness, Rizal seems suspect.

And then there was the question of his skill as a doctor. During his first homecoming, Rizal built a clinic in Calamba, where he treated his townmates. It was also common knowledge that he treated the failing eyesight of his mother upon his return. In his short stint in Hong Kong, he was also able to create a good reputation as an ophthalmologist that allowed him to establish a satisfactory clientele.

When he was exiled in Dapitan in 1892, Rizal won in the lottery and bought for himself hectares of an estate identified as Talisay. There he built a school and a clinic. Since Dapitan was a remote island, and since Rizal was a Europe-trained ophthalmologist, villagers trusted him to cure even diseases not related to his specialisation.

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In his book, however, Ocampo wrote that when Valenzuela came to Dapitan on June 21, 1896, to talk to Rizal about the Revolution, he arrived with a companion named Raymundo who was blind. Rizal examined the eyes of Raymundo and declared that they were beyond cure. Nevertheless, he prescribed 3 grams of potassium iodide in 100 grams of distilled water, one spoonful of it to be taken every morning. Ocampo, in trying to determine the correctness of the prescription, consulted an eye-ear-nose-throat specialist who disclosed that the prescription was a diuretic.

Could this be a case of medical malpractice or did Rizal think that the patient’s blindness had something to do with a urinary problem?


Sometimes in our eagerness to find heroes, we tend to put them so high on a pedestal that one day we wake up to find out they are too far to reach. In Rizal’s case, there was so much about him that really elevated him to the level of an extraordinary man. He was a writer, a poet; he was a scientist, an opthalmologist; a philosopher, a lover. His exploits are what makes for interesting anecdotes and heroic tales.

The unfortunate result of this is a risk toward alienation. With Rizal in fact, many had fallen into this danger, with some who have even daubed him with divinity, shooting him off to high heavens as a demigod. In the end, Rizal has become too good to the common people as well as their ideals. 

It is fortunate, though, that we have retained the capacity to go back in history and restudy Rizal. By remembering his human side, we bring our national hero back to our midst and begin to share with him once more the ideals of freedom for which he laid down his life.