When Star Teacher first asked me to write about Rizal, I wanted to say no.
After all, I wrote, there are all these great scholars and historians who know more about Rizal than I do. In fact, they have made it their life’s work to study Rizal and some of them have gone even farther than that—they have shared what they have learned with a great number of Filipinos. But Star Star Teacher insisted and persisted and now here I am, trying to organize the many reasons why I look up to someone my friends and I like to call Lolo Pepe. In this essay, I will share a few of these reasons.
One thing I do like about Rizal is that he is bigger than the subject “Rizal” that is taught in school. I am not at all ashamed to say that I hated the subject as much as I now idolize the man. In fact, much of what I learned, I learned after my student days and I learned them from friends who enjoyed the life Rizal had led.
Well, Rizal the man was not dry and boring. The novels he wrote are both funny and unsettling, especially when they are not reduced to a dry collection of details to be memorized for the next quiz.
The truth is, Rizal was always looking forward, always looking beyond the classroom, always looking to the future, and yes, always searching for adventure! Rizal was that type of fellow who was interested in everything— and his was not just a passing interest. He was a hands-on type of fellow who believed that learning about the world obviously, logically, and unavoidably, continued outside the classroom.
This is why those teachers who became his friends, loved him to the end. Even Padre Faura, the great Jesuit scientist, astronomer and weatherman after whom a street in Manila is named, became very depressed after he watched one of his favorite students executed in Luneta, one sad day in December 1896. Some like to speculate that it was this depression that led to Padre Faura’s death some time after Rizal’s. At any rate, the teacher and his former student shared a love for science when science was doing great things for the world.
Many people like to imagine Rizal’s time in an overly sentimental, overly archaic way. They like to focus on carretellas and lacy gowns with petticoats, on ancient ornately carved furniture and brown images of the old Intramuros. What they don’t realize is that by 1889, moving pictures were being synchronized with phonographs. The Kodak box camera was selling for $25 and could take 100 pictures per roll of film. (In 1900, the first Brownie camera would sell for $1.) People were reading National Geographic and The Wall Street Journal. In the States, coin- operated pay phones were available. Long distance calls had been possible since 1884. And the first jukeboxes allowed guests to get intoxicated to the accompaniment of pre- recorded music in bars.
In fact, Rizal even wrote a satirical essay poking fun (as usual) at the dishonest and corrupt monks of the Catholic Church at the time, while they were having a long distance chat by telephone. The title of the essay is “Por telefono.” (In Spanish, one does not have to capitalize most of the words in a title.)
Rizal was interested in life. He enjoyed it to the fullest! He constantly thought or wrote about the future and the role his own people would play in it. Sometimes, I am tempted to think of Rizal as a geek, as a science fiction buff (remember his essay “Filipinas de cien años / The Philippines a Century Hence?”) because of his interest in science and his unending thirst to learn more.
Unlike a geek, however, he was not content to stay in his room and write or draw (although he did these too and wrote hundreds of letters to many of his friends and girlfriends from all over the world). Like many regular tao, he enjoyed eating out with friends, going to the beach, and traveling to see the world. Like many regular tao too, at least according to one of his biographers, Wenceslao Retana, he loved to take part in national lotteries, what we call the Lotto today.
One day, in September 1892, during his exile in Dapitan, Mindanao, he was lucky enough to win a share of the second prize in the Manila lottery. The prize was P20,000, a princely sum at the time. He won a third of the share since two other people (one from the nearby town of Dipolog), chose the winning number as well (9736). With his P6,200, he gave P2,000 to his father and P200 to a friend in Hong Kong. The rest he used to buy and develop agricultural land nearby as well as to make improvements in the community where he would live some of the last happy years of his life. (See http://dapitan.com/rizalsadapitaninsert.htm for an interesting summary of his stay there.)
Still in Dapitan, Rizal offered his medical expertise to help the people there. Since he had earlier learned surveying and engineering in school (very geeky interests!), he was able to use this knowledge to create what an American engineer considered a very well-thought- out and well-made aqueduct that brought fresh mountain stream water directly to Dapitan. He even helped dry out the nearby marshes to lessen the danger of malaria.
And this brings me to one more reason why I admire Rizal. He was always interested, yes. He looked to the future, yes. He never stopped learning, yes. He could never stay in one room nor be limited to a single category, yes. But all of these had a purpose: to help those around him and make the future come true. For Rizal, the future was not just abstract time, for our Lolo Pepe, it meant a better country and a happy people.
Ramon C. Sunico or RayVi to his friends manages Cacho Publishing House. He writes poems, stories (for children and adults) and essays, translates literary pieces occasionally, and edits and designs books. He also teaches online for the Ateneo de Manila and was among the first to moderate an Internet mailing list, then called a listserv, on Philippine books and culture.