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150th birth anniversary of José Rizal: but no Spanish is so unRizal

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Para leer en el destino de los pueblos, es menester abrir el libro de su pasado. —José Rizal—

Krystal at the Rizal Shrine in Ciudad de Calambâ (taken just this morning).

Today, modern Philippine history is making history by celebrating history.

Our nation’s polymath national hero, Dr. José Protacio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realondo, turns 150 years today, the sesquicentennial anniversary of his birth. The whole archipelago, Filipino communities abroad, and all places of historical significance to Rizal are commemorating his natal day with lavish parties, parades, quiz bees, art and writing contests, and discombobulating speeches from politicians (happy is the “public servant”, indeed, who has been given the chance to grandstand on this very special occasion). There are even rock concerts and “special” appearances of TV personalities to boot.

It is indeed a national event (and international as well since overseas Filipino communities are also celebrating), an event that is reminiscent of the centennial celebration of our country’s “independence” 13 years ago.

During the previous years, I try to make it a point to attend Rizal’s natal day celebration in his hometown of Calambâ, La Laguna. Over the years, I find nothing new, except for the annual themes that nobody cares to enshrine into himself, primarily because they’re either in a foreign language (English) or they’re too over-the-top for an ordinary baker/bus driver/factory worker/saleswoman/mason/office clerk/service crew/etc. to comprehend. This year’s theme is Rizal: Haligi ng Bayan (Rizal: el Pilar de la Nación).

But what I do realize is that the Filipinos are made to appreciate him more and more. The “Love and Idolize Rizal” campaign has been brought outside the classroom is now out in the field, especially in this era of social networking in the internet. Filipinos are now encouraged to travel to places where Rizal had trod. This “appreciation campaign”, however, is focused more on Rizal’s life and loves and travels. Whatever energy that is left to make us appreciate his works is de-emphasized especially since his literary masterpieces are mere translations.

Who reads Rizal?

And that is what I want to rant about on this special day. How come that, in spite of a year-long preparation for his 150th birthday, the Spanish language —the language closest to Rizal’s heart and soul, the language of his mind— is again left out? How will the Filipinos ever have a full and genuine appreciation of his literary masterpieces —all written in Spanish— if they are made to read English and Tagalog translations?

And speaking of literature, there is yet another crisis: who reads Rizal’s work nowadays? And when I say read I mean to say reading for the sake of reading, i.e., enjoyment and pleasure.

On writing about Rizal’s famous novels, National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquín wove it perfectly more than anyone could:

Rizal’s books have been so beatified, so canonized, so enshrined, that they have almost ceased to belong to literature.

Whatever the motives of a writer to produce a work of literary art —be it religious, political, emotional, nationalistic, or just for the heck of it—, the reader’s enjoyment and/or mental gain will matter the most in the end. But in our case, the Filipino is being forced to read Rizal. A work of art, no matter what nationalistic bull it symbolizes, should never be enforced to be seen nor appreciated solely for the purpose of instilling nationalism. That is why this compulsory imposition of Rizal’s works further alienates the national hero from the average Juan de la Cruz.

Rizal law

In that, the late Senator Claro M. Recto had failed. A rabid nationalist and anti-WASP, he (together with Senator José P. Laurel) authored Republic Act No. 1425, more popularly known as the Rizal Law. This law is the reason why college students have Rizal’s Life and Works as a school subject. The opening lines of the law state:

WHEREAS, today, more than any other period of our history, there is a need for a re-dedication to the ideals of freedom and nationalism for which our heroes lived and died…

It should be noted that when this law was authored, the president back then was Ramón Magsaysay. He was well-loved by the masses but was notorious against Filipino nationalists such as Recto because the latter knew that the former had the full-backing of imperialist US (via CIA agent Edward Lansdale). Overwhelmed by imperialist enemies and alarmed by the seeming apathy of the Filipino masses, Recto thought it best to bring back Rizal’s nationalist endeavors to his milieu.

Unfortunately for the nationalist senator, he was barking up the wrong tree.

To begin with, Rizal’s novels were more anti-Catholic than anti-Spanish in nature (hardly nationalist), that is why he was met with opposition from the Catholic Church. The Vincentian friar Fr. Jesús Mª Cavanna argued intelligently that the Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo belonged to a different milieu and that teaching them would misrepresent current conditions. It was therefore unwise to enforce the books in schools. But all protestations were ignored. Recto won and his bill was signed into law on 12 June 1956.

A curious section in this law, the first one actually, states that:

Courses on the life, works and writings of José Rizal, particularly his novel Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, shall be included in the curricula of all schools, colleges and universities, public or private: Provided, that in the collegiate courses, the original or unexpurgated editions of the Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo of their English translation shall be used as basic texts.

The author(s) mentioned the word unexpurgated. This means that Rizal’s novels should be taught without censoring or amending it. If we are to go into technicalities (which is the wont of most laws and lawyers, if not all), translating his novels from Spanish to English is already tantamount to expurgation. And if taught in translation, the novels can be expurgated. This is evident enough in the numerous Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo textbooks that our schools use.

In this regard, the Rizal Law is, humorously, violating itself.

Rizal and the Spanish language

Truth to tell, although the said law states that English translations shall be used in the teaching of Rizal’s novels, Recto never had the English language in mind especially since this Tiáong native has Spanish as his first language. And being an intellectual and linguist (he reportedly mastered the English language in only three months!), he should have known first hand the dangers of translation. The late Ilonga writer/translator Soledad Lacson vda. de Locsín herself shared her insights into this matter while translating Rizal’s novels into English:

Spanish is a beautiful language; but translated into English literally, it becomes florid and clumsy with its long periodic sentences, shifting tenses and wandering modifiers and, therefore, less comprehensible.

To make the above statement simpler, how many ingenious Tagalog jokes are robbed of its humor when translated into English, and vice versa?

Translation per se is not bad. But oftentimes, it robs the cadence, the emotion, the sparse clarity, the wit, the humor, and the soul of what the original language had wanted to convey. Those who read Rizal through English translations of his novels do not notice the stark sarcasm of the author towards the institutions and persons that he was maligning. Another flaw which Lacon-Locsín had wisely observed was that there seemed to be a “greater pursuit to depict the political and social thoughts of Rizal’s time in the context of the translator’s milieu rather than simply to tell the story of a different world in a different time.”

Although translations have to be in tandem with the semantics of the age in which they are read to be appreciated, my own personal view is that they should, as much as possible, capture much of the nuances and cadence of the period in which they had been written; even at the risk of sounding awkward or stilted.

And how can the nuances and cadence of Rizal’s period be captured? By “capturing” Rizal’s mind. And how to capture this still mysterious mind?

There is a key: the Spanish language, of course.

We always quote Rizal: “To foretell the destiny of a nation, it is necessary to open the book that tells of her past.” But reading our past through translations is never enough. And it is not giving justice to Rizal whenever we read his poems, novels, and essays in English/Tagalog. English is so foreign to him as Swahili is so distant to us. In order to understand Rizal fully, it is necessary to capture the nuances of his genius.

Not only that, by learning Spanish we will uncover more about ourselves. We shall be able to, at last, open the book that tells us of our past. Our real past. Already, the small amount of “Spanish evidence” that we have is shedding much light about who we are and what we were. What more if we are able to salvage more than 13 million documents stocked in the National Archives, written in Spanish, waiting to be “decoded”?

Hopefully, our nation’s leaders will make something that is significantly historic: by fully reintegrating the Spanish language back into our lives. In doing so we will be able to understand what Rizal was all about, what his motives were, his emotions and attitude towards everything he tackled, and why he truly deserves to be called el pilar de nuestra nación.


My Facebook photos of Rizal@150.


13 responses »

  1. Creo Pepe, que este artículo debería haber estado escrito también en español, porque sino les estás dando la razón a los “anti Rizal”


  2. es curioso además porque este aniversario coincide con el dia de la lengua castellana a nivel internacional.
    No hay peor ciego que quien no quiere ver.


  3. HugoChavezFrias

    aint it that Rizal is a product of the WASP? if it werent for the White Anglo Saxon Protestants Rizal would not be a National Hero. . .

    viva Andres Bonifacio!


  4. In this context you are correct. Rizal, like many Filipinos during his time, were Hispanoparlantes. Spanish and Tagalog were languages in his household.

    “English is so foreign to him as Swahili is so distant to us.”

    English was practically foreign, but what do we know about the conversations between him and Josephine Bracken? Remember that he was a polyglot.
    Where the Southern Europeans have a melodramatic tendency comparable to the Arabs, the Northern Europeans tend to understate. You took the Southern European style, which our Americanized culture (more related to Northern European culture) takes with a grain of salt.
    Look for evidence about the conversations between him and his “l’extranjera dulce” to find conclusive evidence about that statement.

    “Those who read Rizal through English translations of his novels do not notice the stark sarcasm of the author towards the institutions and persons that he was maligning.”

    Unfortunately, you were right. When I read the chapter of Don Tiburcio and Doña Victorina, I was expecting a certain context of sarcasm when he made a pun. It surely got lost in translation. In this case, «Traduttore, traditore» or «Traductor, traidor» applies best in here.

    I do not know how credible ABS-CBN is when they said that the family stopped speaking Spanish and used Tagalog, and they stopped hearing Catholic Mass, and some of the members even joined the Katipunan. Where are their sources?

    The documentary showed 2 sides about the retraction: that the retraction was just a fabricated document (according to Gemma Cruz, the great grand-niece of our national hero) and that the retraction was real (according to Ambeth Ocampo and the Archdiocese of Manila).

    Gemma’s explanation is “If Rizal signed the retraction, then his Noli and Fili will be nullified and he will lose credibility. It is like saying ‘Don’t read my works, these are not my beliefs’ and doing so will put him in hypocrisy.”


    • “English was practically foreign, but what do we know about the conversations between him and Josephine Bracken? Remember that he was a polyglot.”

      To tell you honestly, I do not know if they conversed in English or in Spanish. But even if they conversed in English, it still doesn’t change the fact that the language in question is still a foreign language to Rizal. Then as now.

      “If Rizal signed the retraction, then his Noli and Fili will be nullified and he will lose credibility.”

      Ms. Gemma Cruz de Araneta is an online friend (both of us are members of the Círculo Hispano-Filipino). But I will have to say this: with all due respect to Ms. Araneta, that argument of hers is weak. Casí cayá nga retraction ang tawag dun, eh, dahil binawi ni Rizal yung mga pinágsusulat niyá laban sa Iglesia Católica. Talagáng mawáwalan ng credibilidad ang isáng enemigo ng Iglesia capág lumagdá siyá ng isáng abjuración.


  5. Mr. Alas you do now that Jose Rizal was sponsored by your favorite villain, the Americans. It was them who chose Rizal for us. It was thru Gov. Gen. William Howard Taft that he became the “national hero.” As you know Taft became a US president. Have you read the unabridged versions of the Noli and Fili? They might have offended your Catholic sensibilities. The one that they use in Catholic schools are the censored versions. The ones that do not portray the friars in a bad light. He disliked the friars. He wrote in Spanish but also said, ang hindi mag-mahal sa sariling wika ay higit pa…… know the rest.


    • If they chose Bonifacio, that would be very bad for the Americans. That will also be a whammy for Emilio Aguinaldo’s government. Aguinaldo will be tried and executed for what he did to Bonifacio if his name was glorified. For the Americans, it will incite rebellion against their government because they were invaders and they lost the war. They were occupiers.

      Whatever the case is, our Independence Day is technically shared with the United States of America. We went into deals that favored the American over the Philippines when they were about to let us go. We cannot blame the nationalists for purifying our newly-independent country during that time for they viewed the Americans as cunning and unfair. There was a carryover of anti-Hispanic sentiment from some propaganda and general sentiment of going back to the culture before the whites came in. It was Diosdado Macapagal who moved Independence Day to its present day.

      The present-day Catholic Church is still under fire for corruption and Common stereotype among US shows is that priests are viewed as sexual molesters of young boys.
      Even in Spain and Italy, I think that Padre Damaso with Doña Pia incident (midnight rendezvous between priest and local girl) happened in the past.


    • Mr. Paeng, you’re giving me old news. Please tell me something new. In the meantime, let me give you something that might be new to you: Rizal did not write that poem you’re alluding to. Click here.


      • Here are new things for you. They are not really new because they were written by by the Spaniards who were in the Philippines. They narrated their own observations of the Spanish language as used in the Philippines during colonial times:

        They are not hard to find. There are more books (other than the ones I mentioned here) were written by the Spaniards who were in the Philippines during colonial times.

        Exposición de filipinas: colección de artículos publicados en El Globo, diario ilustrado político, cientifico y literario Madrid 1887-
        Page 212 -“In a population of 7 millions at least 200,000 speak Spanish. Only at least 200,000 has knowledge of our language, understand our laws, and able to study our civilization. Not a single amount appears on the budget to boost the teaching of Spanish, not even the slightest effort is being done to end this shame.”

        Filipinas y sus habitantes Main Author: González y Martín, R. Published: Béjar, Estab. tip. de la viuda de Aguilar, 1896. Page 98 – inspite of the four long (writer wrote it as four) centuries that Spain has owned and dominated the Philippines, the elegant and rich Spanish language is barely known and spoken. In the Philippines 8/10 or 9/10 of the natives have no knowledge of Spanish. Without changing the current circumstances in the Archipelago, it will be difficult if not impossible for the natives to accept the mother tongue of the country.

        Viajes por Filipinas: de F. Jagor Imprenta, esterotipia y galvanoplastia de Aribau y c.a (sucesores de Rivadeneyra), 1875 – Page 140 – Reading and writing in Spanish is being taught or at least it is mandated. However, the teachers themselves do not know Spanish.

        This one I am sure was written by one of Rizal’s associates:
        La Solidaridad – AÑO III Madrid 15 Enero de 1891 Num 47
        “The knowledge of the Spanish language is so limited that interpreters are still needed so that Spaniards may be understood by the natives, communication that should have been easy between peoples of the same nationality”

        This one is from: THE FILIPINO PEOPLE ASK JUSTICE SPEECH OF HON. MANUEL L. QUEZON OF THE PHILIPPINES IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, WASHINGTON FEB 1913 ENGLISH OR SPANISH QUALIFICATION TO VOTE – I have asked the gentleman from Pennsylvania how many voters there would be in this country if the people of the United States were required to read and write German or any other foreign language And I ask the same question again. Neither Spanish nor English are native languages in the Philippines

        Oh! regarding El Filibusterismo by Dr Jose Rizal – through Simoun, Rizal said this to Basilio: What will you get from the Spanish language? The few people who speak it?

        This is not about preventing anyone from learning Spanish. But you talk as though any native who was not speaking Spanish during colonial times was an outcast.


    • Please Juan Paeng Do Not Use The Term Americans For The Citizens Of The United States Colombians Argentines Salvadorians Canadians Are Americans America Is A Continent Not A Country Peruvians Did Not Kill Filipinos Unitedstatesians Have Unitedstatesians Not Americans Free From Mental Imperialism I Am From The United Mexican States I Am An American


  6. Carl Tomacruz

    With regards to the retraction, this is what Ambeth Ocampo told me: “The text is authentic; that’s really his handwriting. The signature, on the other hand, is doubtable.”


    • Hi Carl. Rizal’s signature should not be contested anymore. His signature in that controversial retraction has been analyzed many times even before you and I were born. And they all claim the same: the signature is authentic. If I am not mistaken, what Ocampo doubts (which is shared by many anti-friar/anti-Spanish history buffs) is Rizal’s sincerity in signing the retraction document and not the signature per se (you may bring this up to him if you like for further clarification). Thanks for visiting.



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