Heroes. Have you ever wondered their significance to our nation? How do they mean to us? What makes a person a hero? Who decides to make someone a hero?  These questions entail that ‘hero’ is more than a four-letter word; that it has a thousand meanings to the people whom the hero symbolizes. Thus, it begs us to understand how someone becomes a hero and, in the case of Dr. Jose Rizal, a national hero.

When we start schooling, we are acquainted of the noble qualities of someone who has shown heroism and who has given significant contributions to our land. As our teachers and society inculcate us patriotism, they begin to introduce someone with admirable characteristics, someone who serves as a role model, or someone to be idolized. Then they tell us that these people who have outstanding achievements are called heroes.

However, did you know that Dr. Jose Rizal is not our official national hero?

In fact, we do not have any official national hero! But why do we call Dr. Rizal our “national hero? Let’s find out.

Jose Rizal: De Facto “National Hero”

Dr. Jose Rizal Mercado y Alonso (1861-1896) is widely known in the Philippines. Almost everyone is familiar with him and his martyrdom because of the coinage, stamps, and books made in honor for him. In addition, his resting place, the Luneta Park, is considered as the national symbol for our country. Almost every school, town hall, and plaza has his monument. School children recite a nursery rhyme of his principles. Buildings he touched are made historical site. He seems immortal in the eyes of the Filipino people.

He is heroic because of his numerous articles and reforms that had awaken the Filipino spirit and courage during the time of Spanish colonialism and oppression. His exemplary novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo served as a wake-up call to the inhabitants of the Philippines, especially the Filipino elites. As a result, he was deported, incarcerated, and was sentenced to death. Henceforth, it makes December 30, the day of his martyrdom, a significant day to commemorate nationalism in the Philippines.

He is seen as a reformist who advocated peaceful and diplomatic means t liberty rather than violence to achieve liberty. He was a predecessor of admirable Asian reformist and heroes such as Mahatma Gandhi and Sun Yat Sen.

Nonetheless, Rizal is honored and remembered as the ‘National Hero’. However, does this dismiss that other Philippine heroes such as Andres Bonifacio are just local heroes when they also fought and won battles to protect our nation? This question has aroused numerous debates for decades. Hence, we should understand first what made, or makes, Jose Rizal a National Hero’.

Jose Rizal: An American-sponsored Hero?

Distinguished historians recount that when the United States of America conquered the Philippines from Hispanic rule, they established the first Philippine Republic then a military government to prepare the Philippines for self-rule.

There is a popular belief that ‘the Americans through the American Governor William Howard Taft recommended to the Philippine Commission, which was sponsored by the US, to declare Jose Rizal as a national hero for the Filipinos. The Americans recommended Rizal because of the fact that he was executed by the Spaniards and of his peaceful way to achieve liberty. Unlike Andres Bonifacio whose desire to achieve independence for his native land required armed approach. The Americans deemed this approach to independence of Andres Bonifacio to be unacceptable and may inspire other Filipinos to rebel against American rule. This is why Jose Rizal was chosen over him as the national hero. Jose Rizal was declared as the greatest Filipino hero during the American colonization after the Aguinaldo led armed forces were subdued during the Philippine-American war.’

When the question of having a National Hero arose, they set five (5) criteria:

  1. 1. He must be Filipino.
  2. 2. He is already dead.
  3. 3. He displayed unconditional love for his country.
  4. 4. He was a low temper.
  5. 5. He had died dramatically.

After a series of deliberations, it was concluded that Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio are both worthy to be called national heroes. However, the proposal was opposed by the Americans, who were still “guiding” the Filipinos during that time. They advised the Filipinos to choose Rizal because he had ‘peaceful propaganda’ to achieve Philippine liberty, unlike Bonifacio who led a ‘bloody revolution’. Jose Rizal also died a dramatic death making it symbolic and meaning for the Philippine nation.

Some scholars perceive this as an American propaganda to denigrate Bonifacio who was against collaboration with the Americans and who led revolution against them. However, scholars soon found out that there was never an act that explicitly proclaimed Jose Rizal as a national hero.

According to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, “No law, executive order or proclamation has been enacted or issued officially proclaiming any Filipino historical figure as a national hero. However, because of their significant roles in the process of nation building and contributions to history, there were laws enacted and proclamations issued honoring these heroes.

“Even Jose Rizal, considered as the greatest among the Filipino heroes, was not explicitly proclaimed as a national hero. The position he now holds in Philippine history is a tribute to the continued veneration or acclamation of the people in recognition of his contribution to the significant social transformations that took place in our country.

“Aside from Rizal, the only other hero given an implied recognition as a national hero is Andres Bonifacio whose day of birth on November 30 has been made a national holiday.”

Prior to American rule, Filipino revolutionaries led by President Emilio Aguinaldo already considered Dr. Jose Rizal a Philippine hero. The Decree of December 20, 1898, issued by then General Emilio Aguinaldo, declared December 30 of every year a day of national mourning in honor of Dr. Jose Rizal and other victims of the Philippine Revolution.

Andres Bonifacio was honored a hero not later than 1921. Act No. 2946, enacted by the Philippine Legislature on February 16, 1921, made November 30 of each year a legal holiday to commemorate the birth of Andres Bonifacio, who also looked up and admired Jose Rizal. The writings of the latter also inspired the former to gather men who would fight for the country. Act No. 2760, issued on February 23, 1918, confirmed and ratified all steps taken for the creation, maintenance, improvement of national monuments and particularly for the erection of a monument to the memory of Andres Bonifacio.

The Rizal Law: Institutionalizing the Unofficial National Hero

Despite the absence of a formal legislation declaring Dr. Jose Rizal our ‘official’ national hero, majority of the population know Rizal as THE national hero. This is largely because the life, works, and legacy of Dr. Jose Rizal has been widely taught in schools, public or private, since basic education to higher education institutions.

Republic Act No. 1425, known as the Rizal Law, mandates all educational institutions in the Philippines to offer courses about José Rizal. The full name of the law is An Act to Include in the Curricula of All Public and Private Schools, Colleges and Universities Courses On the Life, Works and Writings of Jose Rizal, Particularly His Novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, Authorizing the Printing and Distribution Thereof, and for Other Purposes.

Senator Claro M. Recto was the main proponent of the Rizal Bill. He sought to sponsor the bill at Congress. However, this was met with stiff opposition from the Catholic Church. During the 1955 Senate election, the church charged Recto with being a communist and an anti-Catholic. After Recto’s election, the Church continued to oppose the bill mandating the reading of Rizal’s novels Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo, claiming it would violate freedom of conscience and religion.

In the campaign to oppose the Rizal bill, the Catholic Church urged its adherents to write to their congressmen and senators showing their opposition to the bill; later, it organized symposiums. In one of these symposiums, Fr. Jesus Cavanna argued that the novels belonged to the past and that teaching them would misrepresent current conditions. Radio commentator Jesus Paredes also said that Catholics had the right to refuse to read them as it would “endanger their salvation”.

Groups such as Catholic Action of the Philippines, the Congregation of the Mission, the Knights of Columbus, and the Catholic Teachers Guild organized opposition to the bill; they were countered by Veteranos de la Revolución (Spirit of 1896), Alagad in Rizal, the Freemasons, and the Knights of Rizal. The Senate Committee on Education sponsored a bill co-written by both José P. Laurel and Recto, with the only opposition coming from Francisco Soc Rodrigo, Mariano Jesús Cuenco, and Decoroso Rosales.

The Archbishop of Manila, Rufino Santos, protested in a pastoral letter that Catholic students would be affected if compulsory reading of the unexpurgated version were pushed through.

Arsenio Lacson, Manila’s mayor, who supported the bill, walked out of Mass when the priest read a circular from the archbishop denouncing the bill.

Rizal, according to Cuenco, “attack[ed] dogmas, beliefs and practices of the Church. The assertion that Rizal limited himself to castigating undeserving priests and refrained from criticizing, ridiculing or putting in doubt dogmas of the Catholic Church, is absolutely gratuitous and misleading.” Cuenco touched on Rizal’s denial of the existence of purgatory, as it was not found in the Bible, and that Moses and Jesus Christ did not mention its existence; Cuenco concluded that a “majority of the Members of this Chamber, if not all [including] our good friend, the gentleman from Sulu” believed in purgatory.

The senator from Sulu, Domocao Alonto, attacked Filipinos who proclaimed Rizal as “their national hero but seemed to despise what he had written”, saying that the Indonesians used Rizal’s books as their Bible on their independence movement; Pedro López, who hails from Cebu, Cuenco’s province, in his support for the bill, reasoned out that it was in their province the independence movement started, when Lapu-Lapu fought Ferdinand Magellan.

Outside the Senate, the Catholic schools threatened to close down if the bill was passed; Recto countered that if that happened, the schools would be nationalized. Recto did not believe the threat, stating that the schools were too profitable to be closed.

The schools gave up the threat, but threatened to “punish” legislators in favor of the law in future elections. A compromise was suggested, to use the expurgated version; Recto, who had supported the required reading of the unexpurgated version, declared: “The people who would eliminate the books of Rizal from the schools would blot out from our minds the memory of the national hero. This is not a fight against Recto but a fight against Rizal”, adding that since Rizal is dead, they are attempting to suppress his memory.

On May 12, 1956, a compromise inserted by Committee on Education chairman Laurel that accommodated the objections of the Catholic Church was approved unanimously. The bill specified that only college (university) students would have the option of reading unexpurgated versions of clerically-contested reading material, such as Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo.

Official or not, Still, A Hero

Renato Constantino argues that he is an American-sponsored hero; that Rizal symbolized nonviolence and peaceful advancement of reforms, traits that the American occupiers wanted for Filipinos to adopt and thus prevent further revolts against their hegemony. Others have hailed Andres Bonifacio as the “true” national hero for organizing the first Philippine government and leading the first anti-colonial revolution in Asia. The Retraction Controversy has also placed doubts on Rizal’s nationalism and his anti-clerical stance.

T There are groups arguing that we make Andres Bonifacio our national hero as there’s no other hero in the whole wide world who was not a revolutionary (like Andres; Rizal, after all was a reformist and downplayed the revolution at first).

Regardless, at the end of the day, they all played a great part in our history. All of them sacrificed a lot for the liberty of this country. It’s just that it is Rizal who captured most of the people’s heart, and that does not make all the other heroes, known or unsung, any less of a hero. So, official or not, still, they are all heroes. It’s just that, Rizal, for now, is the foremost of them all.