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Before his life was cut short at the age of 35, José Rizal accomplished more than many do in a lifetime. He was an award winning poet, and brilliant critic of the Spanish historical accounts of the societies in his native pre-colonial Philippines. Full of intelligence and humility, Rizal gained the respect and admiration of prominent men from around the world. Yet, more importantly, Rizal’s love for his nation and his fellow men led him to spark a revolution that uplifted the welfare of so many.
An outstanding academic, he originally planned on studying land surveying, but when his mother began to go blind, he decided to study medicine. Unable to continue his education at Manila’s University of Santo Tomas due to discrimination because he was a native, Rizal traveled to Spain to study at the Universidad Central de Madrid. Before the age of 25, Rizal had traveled to Paris to earn a second doctorate, and then to Germany, where he completed his eye specialization and was inducted as a member of the Berlin Ethnological and Anthropological Societies.
A master in 22 languages, Rizal used his intellectual and writing talents to write about the Spanish Colonial elite and the atrocities committed towards the natives by the Friars in the name of the Church. He translated and published his writings in many languages. However, this meant Rizal faced strong public opposition from elites in many countries who wanted to protect their interests in colonialism.
Rizal returned to the Philippines in 1892 and formed a civic movement called “La Liga Filipina.” His goal was to unite Filipinos for protection from violence and injustice and to fight for change through peaceful and legal means. Rizal was declared an enemy of the state and his organization was disbanded by the Spanish governor.
“…our liberty will (not) be secured at the sword’s point…we must secure it by making ourselves worthy of it. And when a people reaches that height God will provide a weapon, the idols will be shattered, tyranny will crumble like a house of cards and liberty will shine out like the first dawn” – José Rizal
Even when the infamous General Baleriano Weyler (who developed harsh tactics and cruel concentration camps for the natives in Cuba a few years earlier) was transferred to the Philippines to suppress the native organizing, José Rizal continued speaking out and leading tenants against the injustices oppressing them, including ever-increasing rents, evictions, and the farm destruction ordered by the General.
Recognized years later by Ghandi as a forefunner in the cause of freedom, Rizal never once backed down from his beliefs that his people needed proper representation, strong education, better protection and a better government. Yet, his undaunted courage and determination to improve the welfare of Filipinos was feared by his enemies. They quickly deported him as a rebel.
Where many would give up or become discouraged, Rizal used those four years of exile to build a school, a hospital and water dam and supply system that were considered engineering marvels. His sincerity and friendliness won the trust and confidence of everyone, even his prison guards.
Shortly after his return, the Philippines began a full-blown revolution. In order to disassociate with the violent uprising, which he felt would not be enough to change the minds of the wealthy Filipinos, Rizal volunteered to go serve victims of yellow fever in Cuba.
He was arrested en route to Cuba and sent to prison. A prime example of his character is seen in his return voyage. The guards refused to chain him or touch him because he was known for his honesty. Rizal never took advantage of opportunities to escape.
Upon his return, José Rizal was charged with sedition, conspiracy and rebellion and sentenced to death. Without a chance to challenge the charges, Rizal was executed by a firing squad, and buried secretly and without a casket in unholy ground.
A monument now stands in the place where he was killed. The inscription reads, “I want to show to those who deprive people the right to love of country, that when we know how to sacrifice ourselves for our duties and convictions, death does not matter if one dies for those one loves – for his country and for others dear to him.”
His life and death was a catalyst that sparked the revolution against Spain and six years later would change the long-held view of the U.S. government that the Filipinos were too barbaric to govern themselves. The U.S. passed a bill in support of a Democratic government in the Philippines after hearing one of his poems read in congress.
“I die without seeing the dawn brighten over my native land. You who have it to see, welcome it and forget not those who have fallen during the night!” – José Rizal