Each of LA’s ethnic groups has its cultural hero. Mexican Angelinos have Benito Juarez. Cubans have Jose Marti. The Chinese can point with pride to the Tiananmen Square martyrs. And, as Off-Ramp literary commentator Marc Haefele tells us, LA’s quarter-million Filipinos – in fact the largest Asian group in the city proper – have Dr. Jose Rizal. His sweeping chronicle of Philippine society just before the dawn of independence was so scathingly accurate that not only was it suppressed, but the author died for its truth.
It’s confusing, the Philippines: a Spanish-named place with Spanish-named people but with a mostly Pacific Asian language and culture -- and a sometimes bloody history deeply entangled with America’s … a history some would rather forget.
Enter Dr. Jose Rizal, a brilliant scholar, poet, writer and eye surgeon, whose astounding books and whose 1896 death by a Spanish firing squad kicked off his country’s wars of national liberation. His book, “Noli mi Tangere,” is the most acclaimed Filipino novel of all time. It’s an action novel set in a marvelous lost and fantastic land, and the story of a rich young man who returns there to claim his bride and birthright and reluctantly declares himself a revolutionary.
It is also a dialogue on colonialism’s innate cruelty, racism and pillage. In an era where our president is castigated for alleged anti-colonial attitudes, Rizal brings us back to the fundamental evils of the exploitation of poor nations by rich nations. One of his characters says, “Here, one must bow one’s head or lose it … The people do not complain because they have no voice; do not move because they are lethargic, and you say they do not suffer only because you have not seen their hearts bleed … When the light of day shows the monster of the shadows, the terrible reaction will come.” Such statements doomed their author.
Rizal himself was nobody’s revolutionary. Of middle-class Malay, Chinese, and Spanish ancestry, he went for his higher education to Spain and then Germany, where he wrote his incendiary novel, banned in Spain and its possessions. Like Hamlet, he was deeply conflicted. He personally wanted an impossible dream, for his beloved homeland to become a Spanish province, neither independent nor a colony. When he returned to Manila, he was sentenced to death by a colonial kangaroo court. The night before he died, he wrote his farewell to his land:
“Dear Philippines, to my last goodbye, oh listen, here I leave all: my parents, loves of mine, I'll go where there are no slaves, tyrants or hangmen. Where faith does not kill and where God alone does reign.”
Now he’s more important as a national hero than ever. When Filipino WW II veterans in Los Angeles and San Francisco recently demanded their long- promised veterans’ benefits, they cited Rizal as their perennial national ideal. They said, “We dare not stay silent in the midst of injustice. Dr. Rizal was outrageous against injustice. To honor Jose Rizal in today’s time is to honor the men and women — living or dead Filipino veterans -- who demand recognition, compensation, benefits and above all honor and dignity.”