By Raïssa Robles
I realized only recently that Rizal was not just a subject in school but remains politically relevant today.
For instance, the poem he secretly stuffed inside a small lamp condoled with victims of political killings and torture.
I am proud to say that my great grand-uncle was Maximo Viola, the man who financed Rizal’s first novel Noli me Tangere. Rizal gave my maternal grandmother, Petronila Gallego-Lamson, a small wooden sewing kit. She was my grand-uncle’s favorite niece since he had no daughter, only sons, according to my uncle Manuel “Manoling” Gallego Jr.
I dedicate this piece to today’s youth and Rizal:
Why I Write
And what this has to do with Rizal and Marcos
By Raissa Robles
I’ve been writing since I was a kid.
Writing all sorts of stuff.
I’ve written about Sharon and Gabby, earthquakes and volcanoes, pearls and fashion, and even an adventure tale.
But increasingly, I do not know why I feel compelled to write about a puke-inducing period in our history — the Marcos dictatorship. I never was a student activist. I never was a communist. I only joined a street rally once at university to know how it felt like.
I was what you would now call a nerd, drawn to intellectual perambulations on the structure of a novel, on the number of angels that can fit on a pinhead or how the Theory of Relativity reshaped Christianity.
How did I move from poetry to politics?
The transition happened subtly when a good friend, Cris Reyes, showed me the actual papers of a dead and long reviled Philippine President. I saw with my own eyes that there was a continuum in our life as a nation. I saw how we Filipinos have long been ruled by a clique of men and women who saw politics as just a game and a way of making their personal fortunes. I saw how we Filipinos were blind to this and how we thought, and still think, we cannot do anything about it.
So why must I keep writing on the Marcoses.
I stumbled on the answer last month when I visited the Rizal Shrine at Fort Santiago.
And I saw what Jose Rizal had once written, which the shrine curators had placed on the wall. Here it is below:
Ferdinand Marcos is unfinished business. Marcos set the gold standard for corruption and continued deception for our present and all future politicians.
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is also unfinished business. She is the spawn who thinks, that like Marcos, she to can get away with it. Just give it time and plenty of money. She was handed the presidency as a gift and an honor and chose to despoil it.
We have a lot of unfinished business. That is why as a nation we cannot move forward and progress economically.
We are like a woman who was raped in childhood but has forgotten she was raped by the very man who stays by her side as her “generous benefactor”. I’m not against politicians. Don’t get me wrong. I have encountered politicians who really have the nation’s future at heart but are oftentimes driven to do wrong for political expediency. I have met politicians who are thoroughly evil but quite charming outside. And politicians who really mean well but are inept in the political game. Perhaps, in this manner, I analyse politics in the way I used to examine poetry.
Oftentimes as a political reporter I get caught up in analyzing the itty-bitty bits of the political game – like who is in bed with whom or how will a certain issue play out.
My recent trip to Fort Santiago wrenched me to a larger perspective when I stared at the cell where Jose Rizal spent his last night. The curators did a wonderful depiction of it. See below:
It shows the aloneness of a man about to die. About to seek infinity.
And yet he has reached out across a century by cramming in tiny handwriting his message to us in poetry. I did not realize how small that piece of paper he wrote on was – somewhat larger than a deck of cards. And how readable his handwriting was.
I felt sad when I read again –
Mis sueños cuando apenas muchacho adolescente,
Mis sueños cuando joven ya lleno de vigor,
Fueron el verte un dia, Joya del Mar de Oriente,
Secos los negros ojos, alta la tersa frente,
Sin ceño, sin arrugas, sin manchas de rubor.
(My dreams, when I was a young boy,
My dreams, when the hopes of youth beat high,
Were to see your lovely face, oh gem of the Orient Sea
From gloom and grief, from care and sorrow free;
No blush on your brow, no tear in your eye)
One particular stanza felt to me like a haunting description of the Marcos holocaust:
Ora por todos cuantos murieron sin ventura,
Por cuantos padecieron tormentos sin igual;
Por nuestras pobres madres que gimen su amargura,
Por huerfanos y viudas, por presos en tortura,
Y ora por ti que veas tu redencion final.
(Pray for all those who have died without gladness,
For all those who have suffered beyond measure;
For our poor mothers who wept so bitterly
For orphans and widows, for prisoners of torture
And for your own final redemption )
I was struck by the bareness of the Shrine. The curators took a minimalist approach to depicting his last night. In one vast room, the only ornament was a shiny wooden floor on which a narrative of Rizal’s last night is etched.
I felt happy to see children skipping about among the words describing the final moments of Lolo Jose:
There was also a delicate marble carving by Rizal of a woman with a torch, perched on a skull. I forget what she stood for but I thought she symbolized Freedom. How hard it is to hold up the torch of freedom. And how deadly oftentimes.
It was really the first time that it hit me – Rizal was a real person.
And I got to wondering why he is a hero even to Indonesians and Malaysians. Why is he so admired? He never fought a Battle at Besang Pass like someone claimed he did. He never shot a man in cold blood and then boasted about it.
What makes a hero a hero?
A man can be a villain early on and then die a hero. Or vice versa.
In Marcos’ case, I believe what he did in the last phase of his life erased the good of his earlier years. This leader killed and robbed his own people blind.
Rizal never led a country but his ideas helped set up a nation. Compared to Marcos, Rizal was smart but in a different way. I don’t think Rizal ever had the six-pack abs that Marcos constantly bragged about.
In his Ultimo Adios, Rizal never thought he would long be remembered. In fact, he wrote about being forgotten:
Y cuando ya mi tumba de todos olvidada
No tenga cruz ni piedra que marquen su lugar,
Deja que la are el hombre, la esparza con la azada,
Y mis cenizas antes que vuelvan á la nada,
El polvo de tu alfombra que vayan á formar.
(And when my grave is all but forgotten
With neither cross nor stone to mark its place
Let any man plow through it, and scatter with spade
My ashes, before these turn to nothingness
And become but dust carpeting the earth.)
In contrast to Rizal, Marcos was obsessed about being remembered forever as a hero. I learned recently from a Marcos loyalist that his dying wish was to be interred at Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes Cemetery).
It was in their dying that showed the hero from the heel.
Marcos died in bed, probably surrounded by family and aides. He left no last uplifting words for the nation to absorb. He probably just gasped to his family while still lucid that they must get back all that money the widow Corazon had seized.
In contrast, it was Rizal’s death that unwittingly helped ignite revolutions, not just here but elsewhere in Asia.
It was Rizal’s words reverberating across time that continue to inspire us. It was that small gesture of his at the moment of dying, willing his body to turn and face the hail of bullets and the light.
On the morning of his execution, Rizal was done with grieving. He had agonized before in his huge cell when he wrote:
Mi Patria idolatrada, dolor de mis dolores,
Querida Filipinas, oye el postrer adios.
Ahi te dejo todo, mis padres, mis amores.
Voy donde no hay esclavos, verdugos ni opresores,
Donde la fé no mata, donde el que reyna es Dios.
My country most adored, despair of my despair,
Beloved Filipinas, hear now my final farewell.
I leave you all: my parents and my beloved
For I go where no slaves are, no executioners nor oppressors,
Where faith does not kill, where God reigns on high.
Now what in God’s name are you and I doing about his precious legacy?