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  • Writer's pictureK.E. Berr

José Rizal

The Poetic Fighter

José Rizal was a freedom fighter in the Philippines. His writing was notorious for its criticism of the Spanish rule in the Philippines and had a great influence over the revolution. He is now considered a national hero in the Philippines.

José Rizal, circa 1896.

Early Life

José Protasio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda was born on June 19, 1861, in Calamba in the province of Laguna, Philippines. He was the seventh of eleven children and his family consisted of an older brother, five older sisters and four younger sisters. His father, Francisco Rizal Mercado, was originally from a wealthy family in Biñan and was a well-educated and highly respected man. Similarly, his mother, Teodora Alonso y Quintos, came from a wealthy background and had received a good education. However, Rizal's maternal family was originally from China and faced discrimination due to anti-Chinese sentiments stoked by the Spanish colonizers. So, in order to cover up their Chinese ancestry, Rizals maternal family changed their name to Mercado, the Filipino word for market.

As a child, Rizals family was quite wealthy. Much of their wealth went to educating their children. Since both of Rizal's parents had pursued higher educations, they encouraged their children to do the same. They even had a personal library in their home which contained more than 1000 books, making it one of the largest libraries in the country at the time.

Rizals education began when he was barely three years old, when his mother began teaching him the alphabet and how to read and write. Rizal quickly picked it up and his family realized he had a natural knack for languages and literature.

Rizal also showed artistic talent. He often drew and sculpted, and his family expected him to one day become an artist. However, his family was worried that he would never achieve that goal as he was a frail child. His health caused concern within his family, especially after the death of his younger sister in 1865. Rizal's cousins, who he called Uncle Manuel Alberto and Uncle Gregorio, came to stay with the family in order to help heal the young Rizal. During this process, Manuel Alberto instilled a great love for the beauty and nature of the Philippines within Rizal while Uncle Gregorio helped Rizal to develop a love for education and knowledge.

Rizal's father would also hire a classmate, Leon Monroy, to begin tutoring his son in Latin. Although this only lasted several months, until Monroy's death in 1867. Just two years later, at the age of eight, Rizal wrote his first poem. It was titled Sa Aking Mga Kabata and was about Rizal's love for language and literature. After that, in 1870, Rizal studied Latin and Spanish in Biñan and studied painting further.

Rizal, aged 11 around 1872.

In 1871, Rizal's mother was arrested and imprisoned for allegedly poisoning her cousin's wife. While his family fought for her release, Rizal was sent to Manila, where he attended the Ateneo Municipal de Manila, a Jesuit-run private high school. Before beginning his studies, he shortened his name. His brother, Paciano Rizal Mercado, had created a bit of controversy and had become a bit of a notorious figure in the Philippines. So, under the advice of his brother and other family members, Rizal dropped his three last names, making him José Protasio Rizal.

At school, his knowledge of Latin and Spanish improved and he was soon fluent in both languages. His incredible smarts helped him to excel in school, even if they did occasionally land him in trouble getting into fights with other students who were jealous of him.

In 1876, Rizal graduated at 16-years-old. He received sobresaliente with nine other students. Sobresaliente means 'outstanding' and is one of the highest honours Rizal could've received.

After graduating, Rizal remained at the school for another year, studying land surveying. In May of 1878, he passed an exam to get his license in land surveying. However, since he was only 17, he could not receive his license. A year later, when he came of age in 1881, he was awarded his license.

While Rizal had been studying for his land surveyors license, he was also enrolled in the University of Santo Tomas. There, he studied philosophy and letters. In 1878, Rizal learned that his mother was going blind due to mistreatment during her imprisonment. Knowing there would be few doctors to help her, he began studying medicine and ophthalmology at Santo Tomas. However, in 1882 Rizal would leave the school due to the way the Spanish faculty discriminated against the Filipino students and favoured the Spanish students.

A sketch of Leonor Rivera by Rizal.

A few years before leaving school, around 1880, Rizal met Leonor Rivera. Rivera was the daughter of the couple Rizal had been boarding with. She was also likely a second or third cousin. They had a six year age gap, meaning he was 19 and she was 13 when they met and fell in love. Within the year, they were engaged. While at first this may seem a bit predatory, it's important to note that an engagement in Filipino culture, especially at this time, entailed different customs. An upper-class man was expected to prove themselves worthy to the bride's family. In order to do this, instead of giving a gift (which wouldn't prove anything to a rich family who could buy their own things), a groom was expected to enter into a long engagement. By doing so, they would show that they were faithful and patient. So, even though Rizal and Rivera were engaged, it was expected that they wouldn't be married for several more years.

Despite this, Rivera's parents never approved of the engagement or their daughter's relationship with a man who seemed to be trouble. So, the couple was forced to keep their engagement a secret from them. For the next ten years, they would remain engaged.

Suddenly, without telling most of his friends and family, Rizal left the Philippines for Spain. He intended to continue his studies at Universidad Central de Madrid. In May of 1882, he said goodbye to Rivera and sailed for Spain.

A portrait of Consuelo Ortiga y Rey.

Time in Europe

While in Madrid, Rizal met the former mayor of Manila, Don Pablo Ortiga y Rey. Rizal also met the mayor's daughter, Consuelo Ortiga y Rey. By the start of 1883, Rizal and Consuelo had become close, despite their respective suitors. Consuelo wrote about Rizal in her diary and asked him for romantic verses. Rizal wrote and dedicated a poem to her, "A La Señorita C.O. y R." or "Miss C.O. y R.".

However, one of Consuelo's suitors, Eduardo de Lete, was another close friend of Rizals. When Lete heard of Rizal's relationship with Consuelo, though it wasn't necessarily romantic, he was so angry that he attacked Rizal. Rizal and Consuelo quickly called off their friendship, knowing how their relationship seemed to be getting too close. Rizal and Rivera continued their engagement, while Lete and Consuelo later became engaged, although it's unclear of their ultimate fate. Ultimately, Rizal remained faithful to Rivera, regularly writing her letters about his time in Spain.

On June 21, 1884, Rizal earned his License in Medicine. Nearly a year later, on June 19, 1885, he finished a course on philosophy and letters, earning high praise as one of the best students in the class.

With his degree in medicine, Rizal would've been able to return to the Philippines and begin practicing. Rizal instead travelled to Paris to further his knowledge of ophthalmology. There, Rizal studied under Louis de Wecker, a doctor who is credited with bringing the practice of ophthalmology to France. De Wecker offered Rizal a position as an assistant and they worked together from November 1885 until February 1886.

Throughout Rizal's time in France, he continued writing to his family in the Philippines. In his letters, he discussed his improvement at ophthalmology and his love for Paris.

Despite how well everything was going for Rizal in Paris, he was forced to leave as the cost of living was too high. Rizal had some difficulty finding another place to study ophthalmology. Eventually, he found somewhere to study in Germany and moved to Heidelberg in February of 1886. As the story goes, once Rizal arrived in Heidelberg, he entered a pub full of university students. There, he asked them to give him the name of a professor in ophthalmology. They told him to find Otto Becker.

Becker ran the Augenklinik, or eye clinic. He was also the professor of ophthalmology at the University of Heidelberg from 1860 until 1890. For six months, Rizal worked as an assistant with Becker. After those six months, he earned his second doctorate.

After his time in Germany, Rizal intended to return to Paris to work with de Wecker. Before returning to Paris though, Rizal travelled throughout Europe and Asia. He would learn many languages during this time, eventually learning to speak 22 languages. He also spent this period visiting other ophthalmologists, doctors and scientists.

He eventually stopped in Berlin to meet with Rudolf Virchow, a doctor credited with the creation of modern pathology. Virchow thought very highly of Rizal and decided to invite him to join the Berlin Anthropological Society. Rizal declined, instead choosing to continue his travels.

A statue dedicated to Rizal in the José Rizal Park in Wilhelmsfeld, Germany.

During his time in Europe, Rizal came to admire the openness of European politics. He had a growing interest in politics, and felt that it was time to do something about the Spanish presence in the Philippines. Sometime in 1886, he stayed in Wilhelmsfeld, Germany, where he began writing Noli Me Tangere (Latin for Touch Me Not) or The Social Cancer. Once he had finished writing it, he took it to Berlin, where it was published. Copies of the book were immediately sent to the Governor-General and the Arch Bishop of the Philippines, two people who did not take the novel lightly.

The novel was highly critical of the Spanish rule in the Philippines, both in the past and Rizals present. Through his writing, he exposed the dark past of the Catholic Church in the Philippines. He also focused on the Catholic Friar's role in the injustices being done to the Filipino people and the role that the Spanish people took in the oppression of the Filipino people.

The Catholic Church was obviously extremely upset. In order to hide their past and stop any anti-Catholic support, the book was nearly immediately banned in the Philippines. People who were found with a copy of it were often jailed.

Still, the book managed to reach many people before it was banned. Even after the ban, many copies were still smuggled into the country. The book's message reached the people it needed to reach and many supported Rizal's message. Soon, there was a secretive, but quickly growing movement against the Spanish rule.

The Catholic Church took note of Rizal and marked him as a man against the church.

Brief Return to the Philippines

In 1887, Rizal returned to the Philippines. He visited Calamba in August of that year. There, he was finally able to help his mother after completing his studies in ophthalmology. He likely performed an iridectomy on his mothers eyes at this time. Soon, word began to spread about his skills in ophthalmology. Many began to travel to Calamba to seek his help.

Among the natives of the Philippines, Rizal was beloved. Not only was he performing miracle treatments, but he had awoken many both socially and politically.

This love was not shared by the Spanish, who saw Rizal as a threat. Rizal began to receive death threats, and he was worried about his and his family's safety. His family begged him to leave the Philippines, but he didn't want to. It took convincing, but he eventually gave in. He left in February of 1888.

Rizals Time in Japan

After leaving the Philippines, he again travelled throughout Europe, Asia, and Hong Kong. Rizal also spent time in Japan, living in the Spanish Legislation in Tokyo. Though he was not particularly revered by the Spanish, he was able to live there under the invite of an official in the legislation.

Seiko Usui, Rizal's teacher, tour guide and partner during his time in Japan.

It was during this time that Rizal met the daughter of a samurai, Seiko Usui. She had been passing by the legislation on her daily walk when Rizal saw her. Apparently, Rizal was immediately fascinated by her. However, he was also too nervous to approach her. Instead, he asked the locals about her and the next day, when she passed by again, Rizal was already waiting for her. He was surprised to learn that she spoke English and French, so they could easily communicate. Rizal asked Seiko to act as his tour guide, to which she happily agreed. She showed him around the cultural landmarks of Japan and helped him to learn Nihonggo. The two soon fell in love.

Rizal was actually still engaged to Rivera during this time, and still regularly wrote to her. However, he had not received any letters from her in response. He hadn't even heard from her since he had initially left the Philippines in 1882. Unbeknownst to both of them, Rivera's mother had discovered their relationship and had been hiding Rizals letters from her daughter. Rizal assumed Rivera was upset he had left the country, while Rivera assumed he had forgotten about her. They had no possible way to reach each other, and certainly no way to reunite.

During Rizal's time away, Rivera's mother had set up a proposal for her daughter with British engineer, Charles Henry Kipping. Rivera, upset and unsure of her status with Rizal, reluctantly accepted Kipping's proposal.

It wasn't until 1890 that a letter from Rizal finally reached Rivera. She realized that Rizal hadn't forgotten her and she still loved him. She confronted her mother, who confessed to hiding his letters. Mrs. Rivera gave her all of the letters that she had been hiding. Rivera reportedly read through all of them, sobbing.

By that time, it was too late for Rivera to break off her engagement to Kipping. She also had no way to contact Rizal, who had no permanent address. So she agreed to go through with the wedding, but only under two conditions. Her first condition was that she would never sing or play music again, and the other was that her mother would have to live with her for the entirety of the marriage. When she did marry Kipping, her dress apparently had the ashes of Rizal's letters woven into the fabric.

Rizal, who didn't know about any of this, continued his relationship with Seiko, or O Sei San as he would call her in his private journals. Despite their short time together, they were seemingly deeply in love. It seemed as though they would be married. But Rizal knew that if they were to marry, he would have to stay in Japan and would be unable to help his country. On April 13, 1888, Rizal left Japan. He would never see Seiko again.

The Beginning of the Revolution

After leaving Japan, Rizal became the unofficial leader of the Filipino Propaganda Movement. This was a group of Filipino students and activists who lived in Europe and wrote anti-Spanish pieces that were published in newspapers, magazines and pamphlets that were sent to the Philippines. One of their publishers was La Solidaridad, a frequent collaborator of Rizal's. For the next three years, Rizal travelled throughout Europe working with the Filipino Propaganda Movement. Quickly, the anti-Spanish movement kept growing bigger and bigger.

In February of 1891, Rizal returned to France, where he would nearly be involved in a duel. He had befriended the Boustead family two years before and they had invited him to their winter residence in Biarritz. He was especially close with the two daughters of the family, Nellie and Adelina. Rizal and Nellie quickly began a romantic relationship. Rizal was soon writing home discussing his plans to marry her. He was encouraged to propose by his family and friends.

However, Boulsteads former fiance, Antonio Luna was not so happy. One night, after having a bit much to drink, he made a few comments about Boulstead that Rizal did not take lightly. Upset, the two nearly duelled before Luna apologized and the duel was called off.

Rizal and Boulstead didn't end up marrying, since Boulstead was a protestant and Rizal refused to convert. Because of this, Boulstead's mother would not approve of the marriage, and they broke off their engagement.

While all of this had been happening, Rizal had also been hard at work continuing his writings. In July of 1891, while living in Brussels, he finished writing El Filibusteismo. The title was derived from the word 'filibuster', a word commonly used by the Spanish to degrade a Filipino who acted against the church. Many with this title were executed.

Just like his first book, his second was highly critical of the Spanish. Also like his first book, the people of the Philippines loved the book while the Spanish were furious. This time, they didn't just ban the book; they banished Rizal's family, supporters, and anyone who was in contact with him.

Knowing there was no way he could return to his country, Rizal instead decided to travel to Hong Kong in November of 1891. There, he set up an ophthalmological practice. His family likely joined him in Hong Kong, as this is likely where he performed a second operation on his mother's eyes in 1892.

Still, Rizal couldn't help but feel homesick for his country. In June of 1892, he returned to Manila. His family and many others tried to stop him, but he still returned in secret. Knowing this could be dangerous, he wrote two letters that weren't to be published until after his death.

In his first letter, which was written to his family, he told them that he loved them and explained that he needed to return to the Philippines as he felt it was the only way he could change things. The second letter was to his followers and the people of the Propaganda Movement and in it, he explained his dedication to them and their beliefs.

He also drafted an outline for La Liga Filipino, a group he intended to start upon his return. There was also a plan for him to start a Filipino colony in Borneo, which he had already been given 190 000 acres of land by the British governor to do.

Rizal was able to successfully return to the Philippines and on July 3, Rizal officially founded La Liga Filipino. La Liga was founded on the belief that revolution should be peaceful and achieved through legal means rather than violence. They were quickly forced to disband as it was claimed they were a reason for the civil unrest in the Philippines. Though they had to disband, they inspired Andres Bonifacio, who would organize the Katipunan Party, the first official Filipino Revolutionary Party.

Arrest and End of Life

Rizal was arrested and imprisoned in Fort Santiago on July 6, 1892. The next day, he was exiled to Dapitan on the island of Mindanao. There, he led a peaceful life. He lived with several family members and students. Initially, he worked as a farmer and merchant, earning just enough to support himself.

In the mornings, he would tend to his chickens and help anyone who came seeking his medical help. Afterwards, he would often take his baroto (a canoe-like boat) into Dapitan, where he would help those who couldn't come to his home for medical help. In the afternoon, he would teach several students who lived on his property. They would then help him tend to his farm. Rizal kept in touch with his colleagues and even returned to painting. He even performed a final surgery on his mothers eyes, which would finally restore her sight. However, she would take her bandages off too early and ruin her vision.

Rizal seemingly enjoyed his time in exile as much as he could, even though he still wanted to help his country.

According to his family, he at some point travelled to Dagupan and reunited with Rivera. There, he confronted her for marrying Kipping when he had apparently remained faithful. She was, however, so overwhelmed that she ended up fainting and Rizal was forced to leave.

While in exile, Rizal quickly began to earn money. Though poor patients were treated for free, wealthy patients had to pay. He was friends with people in both the lower and upper classes of Dapitan. With this money and connections, he was able to help build a school, hospital and water system and helped to modernize farming on the island by bringing in new equipment and techniques.

Josephine Bracken, Rizal's common-law wife.

In late February of 1895, Rizal met Josephine Bracken, the 18-year-old adopted daughter of a patient who had come all the way from Hong King to see Rizal. They quickly fell in love, and Rizal allegedly asked her to marry him only a week after meeting. Her father was shocked and refused since he needed Bracken to care for him, so he took Bracken to Manila. Upon realizing his eyes could not be fixed, he let Bracken remain in Manila with Rizal's family while he returned to Hong Kong.

When she returned to Dapitan in July of 1895, Rizals family warned him not to marry her. They were concerned that she was a spy for the Spanish. They even suggested that any food she prepared for him should be tested before he ate it. Still, he intended to marry her. Their marriage was denied by the church, which upset the Catholic Bracken. Still, they remained as common-law husband and wife.

A sculpture made by Rizal, titled "Josephine Sleeping".

By 1896, the couple were expecting a baby. In March, Bracken gave birth to a son, a month before he was due. The baby was weak and Rizal knew that he would not live long. He did everything he could to save the baby, but nothing helped. The baby was baptized and he died only three hours after his birth. He was buried under a tree near their home.

In 1896, the Katipunan had gained a lot of power and it was obvious that the country was on the brink of revolution. Though Rizal had no association with the group, they had still made him their honourary president and his name was used as their battle cry.

Rizal was not pleased with this. Rizal disapproved of the tactics the group used and the principles they followed. In order to distance himself from the group, Rizal asked for permission to enroll as an army doctor in Cuba. He was approved.

Before he left Dapitan in July of 1896, Rizal wrote a manifesto condemning the revolution, deeming it too violent. While en route to Cuba, Bonifacio and two other members of the Katipunan snuck aboard his ship and tried to convince Rizal to join them. Rizal refused and they eventually relented.

Rizal never made it to Cuba. Before he could, he was arrested and imprisoned in Barcelona. The Philippine Revolution had broken out, and Rizal was being blamed for it. He was taken back to Fort Santiago in Manila in November of 1896. Also imprisoned was Rizal's brother Paciano, who was tortured by the Spaniards who were trying to get information on Rizal's role in the revolution.

Rizal was tried before a court-martial in a show trial. He was tried for sedition, rebellion and conspiracy. He was found guilty on all three charges. He was sentenced to death by firing squad.

RIzal, on the far left, awaiting his execution.

The day before his execution, Rizal wrote his final poem, Mi último adiós or My Last Farewell. In this, he said goodbye to his people, his country and his beliefs. He also wrote a final will and letters to his loved ones, which was smuggled out by his sisters.

On December 30, 1896, Rizal was executed by firing squad Bagumbayan Field. A crowd watched as it was a public execution. He was only 35.

"La tumba de Rizal". The tomb of Rizal is decorated with wreaths on the anniversary of his death.


People were outraged by his death. The rebellion was strengthened by their rage and continued until 1898. That year, the Spanish finally relented and left the country. Still, the Philippines wouldn't officially gain independence until after World War II.


Rizal is now a symbol of freedom and independence within the Philippines. His date of death is now a national holiday and his likeness is on the 2 peso bill. In his memory, The Jose Rizal College was dedicated to him in 1919. There are also multiple monuments dedicated to him, including a statue in Luneta Parm, near the site of his execution.

Rizals writings changed the course of history in the Philippines and his death was a turning point for the country. He is a martyr in the Philippines fight for independence.


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