Significant ironies surround Jose Rizal, my country’s national hero. On the one hand, he is ubiquitous. He is literally erected in monuments in almost every province, and inscribed in every peso coin most of us use every day. On the other hand, one can argue that there’s a lack of understanding of, even interest in, the life and works of this illustrious figure, whom a biographer once tagged as the ‘First Filipino.’

One can try to impress by mastering some trivia about him. For instance, one can recite his full name, or the order of his siblings. Nowadays, even knowing the exact date of his birthday can count as impressive.

For those of us who have gone to school, Rizal’s two novels, Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, are primary avenues for learning about the national hero. Sadly for me, I was not able to make the most out of these minimums set by the education system for teaching Rizal.

This is quite a shame for a literature grad. Reading Noli and Fili during high school might have appeared as a chore to me when I was younger. It is not that I shirked or napped in our classes: the lack of genuine interest in the novels is more likely an effect of our beloved education system’s playing out its favourite game of rote learning and textbook-worshiping. Thankfully, I was more attentive during our Philippine Institutions class (The Life and Works of Jose Rizal) in college.

I remember reading both Noli and Fili in the abridged comic versions which are available in bookstores for less than a hundred pesos. During senior year in high school, discussions of the Fili were more intense and less deplorable compared to those of Noli a school year earlier. Reporters were assigned for each chapter and after the discussion, a quiz would be given. This compelled the class to actually read the chapters. That is why I have stronger memories of characters and events in Fili than Noli: the Physics class with Placido Penitente and the schoolboys, Simoun’s foiled bomb-explosion attempt, his death and the throwing of the chest at the end. In our P.I. (the compulsory Philippine Institutions) class, I remember the discussions focusing less on the literary texts than the social contexts of Rizal’s life and his creations.

It is a pity for me not having read these novels—not just as a Lit major, not just as a student, but as a Filipino. At a time when schooling, accessing and reading books is becoming more like a privilege, and the study of literature and the arts is becoming less popular and discouraged, we can just resign and totally relegate Rizal’s novels to the shelves, forgotten except by nerds.

I am not resigning. Not that I have finally started going back and rereading these novels. We are getting there. Precisely this renewed and altered interest in Noli and Fili was spurred months ago when I encountered two books that touch on them, albeit differently.

Benedict Anderson’s Why Counting Counts: A study of forms of consciousness and the problems of language in Noli and Fili took the arduous task of counting the occurrence of particular linguistic terms—racial or ethnic terms, political vocabulary among others—in the two novels. This microscopic approach sought to turn away from one that relies on ‘selective and often tendentious short quotations from the novels in order to force their author into particular politics’ (80). As an alternative, Anderson looked at contexts: the characters using the terms, the interlocutors and the context of the conversations.

Meanwhile, Vicente Rafael’s merely used a scene from Noli me Tangere to bookend his discussion of encounters between the indios and the colonising Spaniards in Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society under Early Spanish Rule. Early in the book, he commented on a scene in Noli where Padre Damaso was giving a sermon to the indios: ‘they “fish out” discreet words from the stream of the sermon, arbitrarily attaching them to their imaginings… the drift away from the content of the sermon only pulls them back with ‘redoubled attention. … It is as if they saw other possibilities in those words, possibilities that served to mitigate the interminable verbal assaults being hurled from the pulpit’ (3). This generally set the tone for the book and prepared us for much of its argument: how the colonisation process was not received in a standard, let alone deferential manner by the indios.

I mostly recall Damaso as the malicious and lecherous priest who scandalised us with his treatment of, and relationship to, Maria Clara. I hardly recall him giving a sermon, much more a sermon where the band of listeners yawns. I may have missed really immersing myself in Rizal’s novels when I was a student and simply submitted to the prescribed contents of school work. Now I am thanking other reading exposures which haunt me with the presence of Rizal in them, beckoning me to go back to San Diego as a text the way Crisostomo Ibarra returned there as a fleshly being at the onset of Noli.

‘Indio’ Over ‘Filipino’

How can seemingly trivial details prompt us to tease out less simplistic reflections on Rizal’s work? Anderson looked at the terms designating races and ethnicity in the two novels and here I would like to focus on the key distinction between the ‘indio’ and the ‘Filipino’. Said Anderson: ‘In the novel’s 354 pages, the use of Filipino to mean something not confined to creoles occurs only about 14 times, and never emerges from the mouths of either Tasio or Elias (both of which Anderson tagged as ‘politically conscious’ characters). When Elias described himself, what he says is ‘Soy un indio,’ not ‘Soy un Filipino.”‘ This points us to the way racial categories were stratified in the twilight decades of Spanish occupation. As Anderson also clarified, the peninsulares were the pure-bred Spaniards, born in Spain; the creoles were pure-bred Spanish but born in the Philippines; mestizos are interracial ones and indios as the pure ‘Filipinos.’

As much as the term ‘Filipino’ is yet to be used to collectively refer to the people of the country, an official term for this country (now ‘Philippines’) is also absent. Actually, the term ‘Filipinos’ was already used but it referred to the creoles; hence, Spaniards, not Filipinos like Rizal.

Can we not compare the way the word ‘indio’ was employed and owned by the colonized people to the way terms such as ‘queer’ or ‘the N-word’ were appropriated by oppressed groups in contemporary times? While the colonisers bandied about the tag ‘indio’ in a derogatory way, we can say that the Filipinos huddled around this designation in order to collectively identify themselves.

Following this, an anecdote by Ambeth Ocampo reported by Anderson becomes revealing: ‘when Rizal signed his consent to the document decreeing his execution, he crossed out the word “chino” describing himself and substituted not “Filipino” but “indio”’ (48). A cute reaffirmation of what we know already: Rizal’s allegiance to his fellow people, the indios then, we Filipinos today.

To Lay Bare and to Unsettle

How can we approach Rizal? Is there an essential Rizal which institutions such as schools, mass media and the government deliver immaculately to the public?

Towards the end of his book, Rafael recalled the ambivalence in the word ‘exponer’ Rizal used in the Preface to the novel. It could mean ‘to lay bare’ (i.e. the social cancer) but also ‘to put in danger, to hazard, to expose to chance’ (216).

There is no Rizal-at-his-core to be discovered. No Rizal’s essence to be fathomed. Only a Rizal to be used as guide to the continuing formation of one’s own belief, a Rizal to be continually read and discovered as a prospective guide to one’s life practices, a historical figure we can lay bare only to be further unsettled.

Rafael then went back to the sermon and the mood of ‘general paralysis’ it ironically inspired: ‘the Governor snores, the principales nod off, the rest of the clergy are rendered powerless to halt the chaotic stream of words from the pulpit.’ All these contribute to the ‘confounding of the social order’. The act of translation and imposing authority does not happen without a crease, without interrogations or refusals; the colonised do not simply defer.

The same process can be emphasised as the Philippines remembers Rizal’s 156th birthday. Given how bloody the current regime is turning out and how fast paced and ephemeral events are seeming, there is hardly an excuse for snoring and yawning like Damaso’s audience. But the potential to ask questions, to refuse and interrogate remains. We need to be more keen and critical in ‘laying bare’ and making sense of events, perhaps using Rizal’s heroism and his teachings about our history as a starting point. We can always go back to the basics, the so-called ‘foundational’ texts—in this case, the Noli and the Fili. But we can also detour and hunt texts that will inevitably lead us to their real foundations, enabling us to see them in renewed and heightened interest.

Clearly, we do not need a new designation where we can all band together, a term to replace ‘Filipino’. What is more urgently needed is the asking: what does it mean to be ‘Filipino’; who are our fellow ‘Filipinos’, and why band with them?


Ivan Labayne is part of the art collective Pedantic Pedestrians. He obtained his BA and MA in Language and Literature at the University of the Philippines-Baguio. His works have appeared in ‘Daluyan’, a UP literary publication, and the Ateneo de Manila’s peer-reviewed journal, ‘Kritika Kultura’. He blogs at

Header image: ‘Cool José Rizal’ by Flickr user Michael Francis McCarthy, used under Creative Commons.