José Rizal (1861-1896) was a national hero of the Philippines and the first Asian nationalist. He expressed the growing national consciousness of many Filipinos who opposed Spanish colonial tyranny and aspired to attain democratic rights.

José Rizal was born in Calamba, Laguna, on June 19, 1861, to a well-to-do family. He studied at the Jesuit Ateneo Municipal in Manila and won many literary honors and prizes. He obtained a bachelor of arts degree with highest honors in 1877. For a time he studied at the University of Santo Tomas, and in 1882 he left for Spain to enter the Central University of Madrid, where he completed his medical and humanistic studies.

Gadfly and Propagandist

In Spain, Rizal composed his sociohistorical novel Noli me tangere (1887), which reflected the sufferings of his countrymen under Spanish feudal despotism and their rebellion. His mother had been a victim of gross injustice at the hands of a vindictive Spanish official of the guardia civil. Because Rizal satirized the ruling friar caste and severely criticized the iniquitous social structure in the Philippines, his book was banned and its readers punished. He replied to his censors with searing lampoons and diatribes, such as La vision de Fray Rodriguez and Por telefono. Writing for the Filipino propaganda newspaper La Solidaridad, edited by Filipino intellectuals in Spain, Rizal fashioned perceptive historical critiques like La indolencia de los Filipinos (The Indolence of the Filipinos) and Filipinas dentro de cien años (The Philippines a Century Hence) and wrote numerous polemical pieces in response to current events.

Of decisive importance to the development of Rizal's political thought was the age-old agrarian trouble in his hometown in 1887-1892. The people of Calamba, including Rizal's family, who were tenants of an estate owned by the Dominican friars, submitted a "memorial" to the government on Jan. 8, 1888, listing their complaints and grievances about their exploitation by the religious corporation. After a long court litigation, the tenants lost their case, and Governor Valeriano Weyler, the "butcher of Cuba," ordered troops to expel the tenants from their ancestral farms at gunpoint and burn the houses. Among the victims were Rizal's father and three sisters, who were later deported.

Rizal arrived home on Aug. 5, 1887, but after 6 months he left for Europe in the belief that his presence in the Philippines was endangering his relatives. The crisis in Calamba together with the 1888 petition of many Filipinos against rampant abuses by the friars registered a collective impact in Rizal's sequel to his first book, El filibusterismo (1891).

Rizal's primary intention in both books is expressed in a letter to a friend (although this specifically refers to the first book): "I have endeavored to answer the calumnies which for centuries had been heaped on us and our country; I have described the social condition, the life, our beliefs, our hopes, our desires, our grievances, our griefs; I have unmasked hypocrisy which, under the guise of religion, came to impoverish and to brutalize us… ." In El filibusterismo, Rizal predicted the outbreak of a mass peasant revolution by showing how the bourgeois individualist hero of both novels, who is the product of the decadent feudal system, works only for his personal and diabolic interests. Rizal perceived the internal contradictions of the system as the source of social development concretely manifested in the class struggle.

Prison and Exile

Anguished at the plight of his family, Rizal rushed to Hong Kong for the purpose of ultimately going back to Manila. Here he conceived the idea of establishing a Filipino colony in Borneo and drafted the constitution of the Liga Filipina (Philippine League), a reformist civic association designed to promote national unity and liberalism. The Liga, founded on July 3, 1892, did not survive, though it inspired Andres Bonifacio, a Manila worker, to organize the first Filipino revolutionary party, the Katipunan, which spearheaded the 1896 revolution against Spain. Rizal was arrested and deported to Dapitan, Mindanao, on July 7, 1892.

For 4 years Rizal remained in exile in Dapitan, where he practiced ophthalmology, built a school and waterworks, planned town improvements, wrote, and carried out scientific experiments. Then he successfully petitioned the Spanish government to join the Spanish army in Cuba as a surgeon; but on his way to Spain to enlist, the Philippine revolution broke out, and Rizal was returned from Spain, imprisoned, and tried for false charges of treason and complicity with the revolution. His enemies in the government and Church were operating behind the scenes, and he was convicted. The day before he was executed he wrote to a friend: "I am innocent of the crime of rebellion. So I am going to die with a tranquil conscience."

The day of Rizal's execution, Dec. 30, 1896, signifies for many Filipinos the turning point in the long history of Spanish domination and the rise of a revolutionary people desiring freedom, independence, and justice. Rizal still continues to inspire the people, especially the peasants, workers, and intellectuals, by his exemplary selflessness and intense patriotic devotion. His radical humanist outlook forms part of the ideology of national democracy which Filipino nationalists today consider the objective of their revolutionary struggle.

Further Reading on José Rizal

Among the many books on Rizal, the following are reliable: Austin Craig, Lineage, Life and Labors of José Rizal (1913); Carlos Quirino, The Great Malayan (1940); Camilo Osias, José Rizal: Life and Times (1949); Rafael Palma, The Pride of the Malay Race (trans. 1949); Leon Maria Guerrero, The First Filipino (1963); Austin Coates, Rizal (1969); and Gregorio Zaide, José Rizal (1970). Recommended for general background is Gregorio Zaide, Philippine Political and Cultural History (1949; rev. ed. 1957).

Additional Biography Sources

Abeto, Isidro Escare, Rizal, the immortal Filipino (1861-1896), Metro Manila, Philippines: National Book Store, 1984.

Bernad, Miguel Anselmo, Rizal and Spain: an essay in biographical context, Metro Manila, Philippines: National Book Store, 1986.

Capino, Diosdado G., Rizal's life, works, and writings: their impact on our national identity, Quezon City: JMC Press, 1977.

Del Carmen, Vicente F., Rizal, an encyclopedic collection, Quezon City, Philippines: New Day Publishers, 1982.

Ocampo, Ambeth R., Rizal without the overcoat, Pasig, Metro Manila: Anvil Publishing, 1990.

Santos, Alfonso P., Rizal in life and legends, Quezon City: National Book Store, 1974.

Vano, Manolo O., Light in Rizal's death cell: (the true story of Rizal's last 24 hours on earth based on eyewitnesses's testimonies and newspaper reports), Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1985.

Zaide, Gregorio F., Jose Rizal: life, works, and writings of a genuis, writer, scientist, and national hero, Metro Manila, Philippines: National Book Store, 1984.