With school starting again at many colleges and universities this month, it’s time to think of how we can make the mandatory Rizal course easier to navigate and understand.
Per Republic Act No. 1425 of 1956, the life and works of national hero Dr. Jose Rizal are to be taught in a subject at the college level as part of the general education lineup. This requirement has not been repealed by the Basic Education Act or K-12 law.
Given that, the question is how to make the subject more palatable, and even interesting, for Gen Z who see Rizal as an archaic figure lost in the mists of time? Heck, even I, a Gen X’er, found Rizal hard to reach even back in my day. He was a contemporary of the Victorians, after all – he was nine when Charles Dickens died, and he was born two years after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories.
So anything that makes the legend more approachable as a flesh-and-blood person is welcome. That is why the 2021 reissue of Nick Joaquin’s Rizal in Saga: A Life for Student Fans, first published for the 1996 Centennial, is timely and much appreciated. Add to that the fact that the original version was almost immediately out of print because it was produced for an event and given away as souvenirs.
Joaquin was an eloquent and elegant writer, eminently readable and comprehensible. What makes this new edition by Milflores Publishing more interesting are the introduction and notes by historian Ambeth Ocampo, whose efforts have done much to popularize Philippine history. The notes add historical context and information not available to Joaquin, or that he chose not to include. The result is an expanded version with deeper nuance and meaning.
There are 35 chapters in the book, one for each year of Rizal’s short but action-packed life – just to prove that youth is not an obstacle to great achievement. Four appendices, essays written also by Joaquin, provide sharp and penetrating insights into the literary merits of Rizal’s fiction and poetry. There are photos of the young Rizal, some rare, and for those alone, this book is a must-have for every Filipino home.
Nick Joaquin was an erudite reader and explainer of history and had the rare ability to connect disparate dots together to come up with the big picture. His exploration of the timeline of Rizal’ life, amply fleshed out with details of his subject’s daily doings and thoughts, creates a well-rounded narrative that will plump out the skeleton of knowledge we retain about Rizal.
The first 23 chapters focus on Rizal’s youth, and these will probably help students relate more to him and see him as someone who was once like themselves, bright and curious and on the brink of their life’s great adventure.
Here’s something a lot of folks probably don’t know about the national hero: he was extremely insecure about his lack of height (he was five-two) and compensated by building up his muscles through exercise (which is why the photos of him fencing in Spain with compatriots). He also spoke Tagalog at home and wrote in the language, even if most of his works were in Spanish; he nearly drowned in the Biñan River when his naughty nephew pushed him in and was saved only by someone grabbing him by the feet; and as a young boy at the Ateneo, his landlady taught him to play pangguingue and he did so well she regularly made him play in her place and collected his winnings!
Aside from the tidbits about Rizal, what rounds out Joaquin’s account is the portrayal of Rizal’s character development, how his personality was marked by adverse events in his childhood, and how tough lessons motivated him to excel. Though he had a pessimistic streak, prompting classmates to call him ‘paniki’ (bat), his future would be one of optimistic striving for the good of many.
But for all the adoring passages about Rizal in this book, such as this one — “Rizal’s career illustrates the theory of challenge and response as the secret of progress. He started out timid and insecure; he ended up bold and confident.
Rizal soared because his every response overshot the challenge. With each achievement, whether in science or letters or scholarship, he added one more cubit to his stature, until he could no longer decry himself as little” – ‘Rizal in Saga’ is not a hagiography. Joaquin tells it like it is.
He contends, for instance, that Rizal, contrary to our popular belief, did not bring down the Spanish empire – “The usual bottom line on Rizal is: If with a bullet they cracked his brain, with his brain he cracked their empire. Which is quite false.
Neither with his pen nor his death did Rizal shake the Spanish empire, though it was already shaky with decay. Its hour of truth was the Spanish-American War, which delivered the fatal push.”
So how are we to think of Rizal’s life and legacy? You may read Joaquin’s takes about that in this book, which offers alternate and contextualized readings of Rizal’s works and life.
Milflores Publishing head Atty. Andrea Pasion-Flores deserves kudos for bringing this work back into print. Not only does it connect us with Rizal, the man, and hero, but it also links us to our colonial past and gives us a richer sense of where we have been, so that we may understand where we want to go and do our part in creating a Philippines that is worthy and appreciative of Rizal’s sacrifice.
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You may reach the author on Facebook and Twitter: @DrJennyO
Rizal in Saga: A Life for Student Fans
By Nick Joaquin
Introduction and notes by Ambeth R. Ocampo
2021, 308 pgs, hb, Milflores Publishing