In the midst of a rich agricultural region in Laguna, the lake province of Luzon, famed for coconuts on the hillsides and sugar cane in the valleys, lies the town of Calamba. Here José Rizal, the apostle of Filipino freedom, was born on June 19, 1861.
As each member of his unusually affectionate family will appear in this story, it is well to make their acquaintance now. Panciano, the only brother, Saturnina, Narcissa, Olimpia, Lucia, and Maria were all older than he; the younger sisters were Josefa, Trinidad, and Soledad. José drew a family tree showing the dates of birth of the children and grandchildren. His full name was José Protasio Mercado y Alonzo Realonda. (01)
At a glance at the ancestral tree, which Professor Austin Craig (02) has traced for us, showed where Baby José came by all but two of his names. If the usual custom had been followed, the babe, when he became a man would have signed his name José Mercado". The name "Mercado" had been given to José's great-grandfather by their Chinese great-great-grandfather Lam-co in 1731, and again in 1850 the Spanish Governor General Claveria had decreed that "Mercado" should be the family name. His Excellency the Governor General had, indeed, been pleased to grant names, new and old, to a vast number of families. For example, he had added the name "Realonda" to the family of José's mother.
But it happened that José's father was a man of independent thought. To be called "Mercado", which means "market", struck him as inappropriate for a farmer. He might never have thought about it if the Governor General had not called his attention to this incongruity. But now that orders had come saying that he should be named "Mercado", Francisco decided that he should not! He adopted the word "racial", which means "green field", changed the spelling to "Rizal", and gave his children that name, just for the sake of his independent soul and his sense of fitness. Perhaps, too, José's second name "Protasio" was as near to "protesto" as he thought wise to spell it. Francisco's independent spirit, which his sons and daughters inherited, did not get him into trouble that time, but it did later.
If José Rizal inherited his free soul from his father, he inherited his genius largely from his mother. Doña Teodora Alonzo Realonda had ancestors and uncles by the dozen who had distinguished themselves as leaders and thinkers. Her brothers, Gregorio, Manual, and José Alberto were all unusual men. Her father Lorenzo Alberto Alonzo was a distinguished engineer, who had received the title of "Knight of the Grand Order of Isabel the Catholic". One grandfather was attorney Manuel de Quntos; the other grandfather was Captain Cipriano Alonzo. At least three of her great-grandfathers were captains, and one of these came of the "famous Florentino family." (03)
José's mother Teodora was herself unusually accomplished. She had graduated from the Santa Rosa College for Girls. Very devout, fond of poetry, and an excellent teacher, she was well qualified to give José encouragement in the direction of art and classics. So well did she and Saturnina teach little brother that by the age of three he knew his alphabet. From that point he began to educate himself! In the Tagalog language and Spanish this is possible for a precocious child because every word is spelled phonetically. He took his older sister's story book, compared each syllable with the book of syllables he had propped up in front of him, and slowly pieced out each word. (04) Within two years he was reading the Spanish family Bible. No other Filipino writer of the Spanish period referred to the Bible as much as Rizal did later in his many writings. Stimulated by his mother's enthusiasm for poetry he began writing verses at a surprisingly early period. Before he was eight years old he had composed a drama, which was performed at a local festival. To the child's delight, the municipal captain rewarded the young author with two pesos.
When only eight years of age, the records agree, he wrote the following poem
in Tagalog. It is the only Tagalog poem we now possess that was
unquestionably his. The translation here made preserves the meter and rhyme
as well as the thought of the original:
Another charming poem was written by José at the age of nine years,
according to Soledad and Trinidad, though Narcisa thinks her son Antonio
Lopez-Rizal was the author. Antonio learned to imitate the handwriting of
José, which may have led to this uncertainty. (05) The poem is too lovely to
be forgotten and reveals poetical genius in the family.
Rizal has given us this charming description of his childhood home:
"My father," by dint of economy was able to build a stone house, to buy another, and to make a little cottage of nipa in the middle of our garden under the shade of the bananas and other trees. There the rich atis [a sweet fruit] displayed her delicate fruits and dropped her branches as if to save me the labor of reaching up for them; the sweet santol [a native tree and its fruit Sandoricum indicum], the fragrant and mellow tampoy [a species of tree and its fruit: Eugenia jambos], the purple macopa [a species of tree and its fruit: Syzygium malaccense], strove before me for supremacy; beyond them, the plum the casuy [fruit of the cashew tree], rough and delicious, the lovely tamarind, alike pleased the eyes and delighted the palate; yonder, the papaya reached out its broad leaves and enticed the birds and its enormous fruits; on one side the nanca [Jack fruit] and the coffee tree perfumed the air with the aroma of their blossoms; on the other side, the iba [a native fruit], the balimbing [star fruit], the pomegranate, with their abundant foliage and beautiful flowers, enchanted the senses; here and there appeared elegant and majestic palms laden with huge nuts, swaying their lofty foliage and lovely branches, queens of the forest! As the evening closed down, multitudes of birds gathered from all directions, and I, while still a child of not over three years, amused myself with incredible joy by watching them. The yellow kuliawan, the maya in all its varieties, the luklak, the maria capra, the martin, and all varieties of the pitpit formed a pleasing concert and intoned in varied chorus a hymn of farewell to the sun as it disappeared between the mountains and the village. Then the clouds by a caprice of nature formed a thousand figures, which quickly melted away, even as those days so beautiful have disappeared, leaving nothing but pleasant memories. Oh that I might even yet see from the window of our house the lovely panorama at nightfall which my memories bring back with a sad eagerness." (06)
José was designed by nature to be an artist. This he revealed before he was five years of age, for without any assistance from others he began to draw with his pencil and to mould in wax or clay any object he saw about him. Fortunately, his mother, father, and uncles recognized this unusual talent and gave him every encouragement. They offered the boy an almost ideal environment for the building of genius. Uncle José Alberto had spent eleven years in a Calcutta mission school and now lived in a large artistically furnished house in the nearby village of Biñan. (07) He gave wise direction in the regular studies of the child. Uncle Gregorio was a tireless reader, with a flair for the artistic. Often he lectured the eager child on the foundations of success:
"Work hard and perform every task very carefully; learn to be swift as well as thorough; be independent in thinking, (which Rizal did not need to be told); and make visual pictures of everything." This last was immensely important for an eye-minded boy like Rizal. In learning twenty languages he made visual photographs of words, and never forgot them.
An important factor in José's development was the realization of his relatives that they were dealing with a precocious child, and their determination not to crush his tender genius. His father Francisco, who had received some education in the College of San José, insisted that all the customary subjects must be learned, not only well, but very well. For many months he kept an old man in the family for the purpose of teaching the boy the beginnings of Latin.
"My parents told me to be very careful of my books. They urged me to read and understand them. But they punished me for the least lie." (08)
One incident which he tells of his childhood reveals his inmost soul.
"One night, all the family, except my mother and myself, went to bed early. * * * My mother began to read me the fable of the young moth and the old one. She translated it from Spanish into Tagalog a little at a time.
"My attention increased from the first sentence. I looked toward the light and fixed my gaze on the moths which were circling around it. The story could not have been better timed. My mother repeated the warning of the old moth. She dwelt upon it and directed it to me. I heard her, but it is a curious thing that the light seemed to me each time more beautiful, the flame more attentive. I really envied the fortune of the insects. They frolicked so joyously in the enchanting splendor that the ones which had fallen and been drowned in the oil did not cause me any dread.
"My mother kept on reading and I listened breathlessly. The fate of the two insects interested me greatly. The flame rolled its golden tongue to one side and a moth, which this movement had singed, fell into the oil, fluttered for a time and then became quiet. That became for me a great event. A curious change came over me which I have always noticed in myself whenever anything has stirred my feelings. The flame and the moth seemed to go farther away, and my mother's voice sounded strange and uncanny. I did not notice when she ended the fable. All my attention was fixed on the fate of the insect. I watched it with my whole soul. It had died a martyr to its illusions. * * *
"It was a long time before I fell asleep. The story revealed to me things until then unknown. Moths no longer were, for me, insignificant insects. Moths talked; they knew how to warn. They advised, just like my mother. The light seemed to me more beautiful, more dazzling, and more attractive. I now knew why the moths circled the flame." (09)
Uncle Manuel, a huge man who loved sports above everything else, took José in hand and taught him athletics. This was fortunate, for the little boy was undersized and frail. With his tedious tendencies he might have fallen victim to the dread tuberculosis that cuts short so many hopeful careers, had not Uncle Manuel torn him from his books and led him out into the joys of vigorous sports. Thus, like Theodore Roosevelt, José was able to build up health and muscle and to form habits of daily exercise that kept him fit through the terrible years which followed. He learned to run, to jump, to fence, and to swim. He loved to ride on his pony, so spirited that few others could handle it, and to take long walks through the forests and along the streams with his great black dog. Always his eyes were open. Animals, birds, butterflies, insects of every kind, anything with life and beauty, caught his artist's eye. He examined them, drew them, or molded them in clay, and valiantly defended them from all harm. (10)
Another happy influence in building José's character was the parish priest who lived in the convent just around the corner from the Rizal home. Father Leoncio Lopez was an independent thinker with wide intelligence and sound judgment. (11) He loved children, but above all the eager little boy who asked serious leading questions about the things he had heard his elders say. Years later in Noli Me Tangere, the most famous of his books, Rizal paid a beautiful tribute to Father Leoncio. (12) Perhaps, too, he had this beloved old priest in mind when in El Filibusterismo he makes Father Florentino utter the most famous of all quotations from Rizal's prose writings: "Where are the youth, who will consecrate their rosy hours, their dreams, and their enthusiasm for the welfare of their motherland?..."
When a few years later Rizal recalled those joyous days of his childhood in
Calamba, he revealed his heart in this poem: (13)
When he was nine years of age José Rizal was sent to a boy's school in Biñan, where lived his uncle José Alberto, after whom he had been named. His teacher was Dr. Justiniano Aquino Cruz, whose first name exactly represented his spirit as a teacher -- justice not seasoned by mercy. He was a convinced practitioner of the ancient method of pounding knowledge not only into the eye and ear but also into the palm of the hand. He used an especially tough switch for this purpose. Had it not been tough it would soon have worn out. José's Boyhood Story preserves his memories of the just Doctor Justiniano. "I used to win in the competitions, for nobody happened to be better than I. Of these successes I made the most.
In spite of the reputation I had of being a good boy, rare were the days when the teacher did not call me up to receive five or six blows on the hand. . . . How it hurt!" After a few months José was instructed to go home, for he had learned all there was to be taught at Biñan. When José reported this to his father, he was soundly scolded and hustled back to the school. There Dr. Cruz told the elder Rizal that the lad's statement was true: he had completed all the work that was offered. Accordingly, José left Biñan at the Christmas vacation (1871).
The boy had learned more of value for his later life in the home of his Uncle José Alberto than in the Biñan school. The two most important things he learned had been household talk for thirteen years. In 1858, three years before José Rizal was born, the Governor of Hongkong, Sir John Bowring, had paid his Uncle Alberto a visit. This remarkable Englishman was one of the great linguists of the century. He had translated into English poems from "practically every one of the languages of Europe." (14) From his pen have come two of our best known English hymns, "In the Cross of Christ I Glory" and "Watchman, Tell us of the Night." The visit of Sir John had been the chief event in the history of Biñan. As José Rizal heard tales of this famous man, he was fired with an ambition to become a great linguist and a great poet.
Sir John told about a book written by an early Spaniard named Morga. That work was much more favorable to the early Filipinos than were those of the Spaniards of the nineteenth century. (15) Rizal was never thereafter satisfied until he had found the book, nearly twenty years later, in the British Museum, and had it reprinted so that all the Filipinos could read it.
The Rizal family now determined that José should continue his education in Manila. He was making preparations to depart when an injustice occurred which threw the first shadow across his happy young life. His mother was thrown into prison, accused of a crime of which she was so wholly incapable that everybody knew it was a pure fabrication. The charge against her was that she had conspired with her brother, José's uncle Alberto Realonda, to kill his wife, who had separated from him. The real reason for the arrest, as everybody well knew, was that honest, independent Francisco Rizal Mercado had been too frank in dealing with two Spanish officials, and that these men now sought to wreak vengeance on the father of José by imprisoning José's mother.
One of these Spanish officials was a lieutenant. Francisco Rizal had dared to request this officer to remove his squad of civil guards from a field, because the troops were destroying the crops. The lieutenant swore that he would avenge that insult. He did not have long to wait. It happened that a judge visited the Rizal home, as did all important visitors to Calamba. But he imagined that he had not been shown any greater respect than the Filipino visitors, which wounded his dignity. The judge and lieutenant conspired to show this Filipino, Francisco Rizal, how to treat a Spanish official. The police were sent to the Rizal home by the insulted lieutenant. They forced Mrs. Rizal Mercado to walk nearly fifty kilometers over a rough road to the prison at Sta. Cruz, the capital of Laguna Province. The judge in person saw to it that she was not permitted to ride one step of the way. She was thrown into prison to await trial. The insulted judge acted as her prosecutor as well as her jury. She appealed to the Supreme Court of the Philippines, which ordered her immediate release. The judge then rearrested her for insulting him, declaring that for her to appeal to the Supreme Court was contempt of his court. The Supreme Court agreed that this was true! She had to face trial for one false charge after another -- six charges in all. It began to look as though she might remain in prison for the rest of her life, a misfortune which had befallen many others in those dark days of injustice.
It was with a sad heart that Francisco Rizal finally sent José off to school in Manila. The boy was now eleven years of age. His brother Paciano was studying in the College of San José under its famous teacher Dr. José Burgos, a noble and courageous Filipino priest. Here José came face to face with the second tragedy that shattered his childhood dreams. He found his brother Paciano distracted over a ghastly tragedy that had just taken place. The beloved Dr. Bugos had been executed. The crime of which he had been convicted was that of inciting mutiny.
Some Filipino Catholic priests in Cavite had been thrown out of their churches in order to make place for Spanish friars. Dr. Burgos had openly denounced this injustice which his deposed fellow priests had suffered. It happened that not long after this there was a mutiny of a few soldiers and employees in Cavite. Dr. Burgos was falsely blamed for having stirred up this mutiny. He was court-martialed, together with Fathers Gomez and Zamora, two other innocent Filipino Catholic priests, and convicted. All three were executed by having the inhumanly cruel garrote screwed into the backs of their necks until the vertebrae cracked.
Paciano Rizal had loved and well-neigh worshipped Dr. Burgos, "the most popular professor in the university." What Paciano said in his grief and rage resulted in his being thrown into a pillory and in his not being allowed to take his examinations. All of this had happened just before José reached Manila.
This and his mother's imprisonment were fearful shocks for an idealistic young artist to endure all at one time, and they burned ineradicably into his soul. "Under the sense of an intolerable wrong. . . . all the rest of his life he seemed a lonely and rather melancholy figure. . . . a feeling grew upon him that the misfortunes of his people were to be the business of his life." (16)
During two years of José's stay in the Ateneo, his mother lay in the Santa Cruz prison. Then she was released for a reason that revealed more plainly than ever how little justice existed in that period. The Governor General (17) happened to be visiting Calamba. Some little girls danced for his entertainment. One of them was so pretty and did her steps so charmingly that the Governor General called her to his side and said:
"What present can I give you, charming little dancer?"
"Oh, please, Governor," she answered, "release my mother from prison."
"Who is this little girl's mother? Set her free!" cried the Governor General.
The pretty girl was José's sister, Soledad. Her mother was at once released and the case dismissed without a trial. A cultured lady, mother of ten children, in prison two and one-half years because her husband had offended some government officials, was now set free on the merits of a dance! (18)
José Rizal bitterly recalled how many times he had seen men lashed by petty
officials or soldiers for failing to raise their hats quickly enough.
"Almost every day in our town," he wrote in his Boyhood Story, "we saw the
Guardia Civil lieutenant caning or injuring some unarmed and inoffensive
villager. The only fault would be that while at a distance he had not taken
off his hat and made his bow. . . . We saw no restraint put upon brutality.
Those whose duty it was to look out for the public peace. . . . were the
(01) Rizal's "Bachiller en
Artes" degree from Ateneo Municipal de Manila, conferred on him on March 23,
1877, gave the name José Rizal Mercado y Alonzo.