4 questionable myths about Jose Rizal

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Jose Rizal (center) with Juan Luna (left) and Valentin Ventura, fencing outside Luna’s studio in Paris, in 1889. Photo from WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Myths are generally known to be stories handed down through oral tradition without tangible and traceable proof of its source.

“Historical myths originally started out as ‘fake news.’ As such, there can be no one source, it is a conflation of various things,” says Lianne Habana, a history professor at the Ateneo de Manila University.

“Sometimes all you need is one know-it-all who read or heard something and pushes forward the story as ‘truth.’ It is very difficult to trace myths to one cause or one person,” she adds.

Myths go around communities, from one generation to another, as an attempt to explain a phenomenon or an attempt to make sense of a highly regarded person’s life. Saints, martyrs, and heroes are often the focus of myths precisely because these personas are regarded both as a phenomenon and an important figure in one’s culture.

In the Philippines, for instance, urban legends and myths surround our heroes, from Andres Bonifacio to Jose Rizal. Rizal, in particular, is even more prone to myths not only because he is our national hero, but also because of the volume of written works he has put out, making them vulnerable to different kinds of interpretation.

Habana contends that these myths have only added salaciousness and scandal to an otherwise straightforward story. “In fact, I think it is unfortunate that it is often this aspect that is highlighted rather than the real contributions of Rizal: in terms of ideology, and actual nation-building,” she says.

These myths, like any type of information, have informed the Filipino identity, and Habana believes that Filipinos should be more mindful of the ways in which we consume information. “We should be more critical of sources, rigorous in research and not advance the ‘chismis’ mentality,” she explains.  

As an homage to Jose Rizal’s martyrdom on Dec. 30, here are four myths about our national hero juxtaposed with the facts. Through shedding more light on the factual, historical events that happened, perhaps we can be more conscientious in how we take, reflect, and respond to information.


Myth #1: Jose Rizal was not an ophthalmologist.

At a lecture in Sentro Oftalmologico Jose Rizal, University of the Philippines’ Philippine General Hospital on June 2011, Dr. Dominga Padilla detailed the life of Rizal as an ophthalmologist, as evidenced by her research.

She said that questions like “Was Rizal really an ophthalmologist?” and “Did his mother go blind because he experimented with her eyes?” are still raised frequently, even by other doctors. She explained in her lecture that Rizal became an ophthalmologist because he wanted to heal his mother who went blind. He also enrolled at the Ateneo Municipal de Manila as a land surveyor and assessor, while studying philosophy in the University of Santo Tomas (UST).

However, upon learning about his mother’s condition, he decided to pursue medicine at the UST Faculty of Medicine and Surgery. He left for Europe before getting his diploma because he felt that the Spanish friars discriminated against Filipino students, and completed his studies in Madrid. He was also writing “Noli Me Tangere” throughout his ophthalmology training. Furthermore, when he was already in exile in Dapitan, foreigners and Filipinos would go all the way to Mindanao to have their eye problems checked.


Myth #2: Jose Rizal opposed the 1896 Revolution and wanted the assimilation of the Philippines to Spain.

According to Rizal’s correspondence to his friend and mentor, Ferdinand Blumentritt, he already expressed that an assimilation to Spain was a mistake. In his first letter dated Feb. 21, 1887, Rizal said: “The Filipinos had long wished for Hispanization and they were wrong in aspiring for it. It is Spain and not the Philippines who ought to wish for the assimilation of the country.”

In another letter dated Jan. 26, 1887, he said: “A peaceful struggle shall always be a dream, for Spain will never learn the lesson of her South American colonies. Spain cannot learn what England and the United States have learned. But, under the present circumstances, we do not want separation from Spain. All that we ask is greater attention, better education, better government [officials], one or two representatives [in parliament], and greater security for persons and our properties. Spain could always win the appreciation of Filipinos if she were only reasonable.”

However, some authors have misquoted the letters, which could have caused the debate of whether Rizal was a bourgeoisie reformist who only wanted the Philippines to be part of Spain. American author Ruth Roland, for example, omitted the first sentence “A peaceful struggle will always be a dream, for Spain will never learn,” which then transforms the letter into having a different tone.


Myth #3:  Jose Rizal’s La Liga Filipina was an enemy of Bonifacio’s Katipunan.

Rizal inaugurated La Liga Filipina, a society consisting of people directly involved in the reform movement, a few days before his exile to Dapitan. But because Rizal had to be banished, the group reorganized through the initiative of Don Domingo Franco and Andres Bonifacio. According to Apolinario Mabini’s account in “The Philippine Revolution,” the members of La Liga were made to pay a small contribution, and proceeds go to “La Solidaridad,” the propaganda movement periodical of that period.

However, other group members quickly realized that reform through peaceful means was useless. And so, those who wanted to keep paying five pesos for “La Solidaridad” formed a group called Compromisarios, while Andres Bonifacio already gathered people under the Katipunan. Therefore, the La Liga was a precursor to the Katipunan. Rizal’s last poem, “Mi Ultimo Adios,” was also “a rallying cry” of the Katipuneros after Bonifacio distributed vernacular copies to the rebels. Rizal’s martyrdom also marked his deification as the Tagalog Christ of the revolutionary folks, one that is still seen today among the Rizalistas in Dapitan and Mt. Banahaw.


Myth #4:  Jose Rizal wrote “Sa Aking Mga Kababata.”

The word “kalayaan” was used twice in the 1869 poem “Sa Aking Mga Kababata,” which Rizal supposedly wrote when he was eight years old. However, in a correspondence with his brother Paciano in 1886, he, at 25, sent a translation of a German play called “Wilhelm Tell,” and said he lacked some words, such as the direct translation of “liberty,” and noted that he just discovered the word “kalayahan” in Marcelo del Pilar’s “Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa.

Nilo Ocampo, a literature professor at the University of the Philippines, questioned:

“Is it possible that Rizal did not think of this [kalayaan] or use it in the 16 years since he wrote his poem at the age of eight and that it just popped into his mind after such a long time? Or was it perhaps because the admiration of the person who held the poem was so excessive that, without any doubt, he declared it was the work of the child genius?