He was a frail looking guy at 5 ft. 2 inches on slightly elevated shoes, of no compelling physical stature, if the life-like statue by Aala creek in Honolulu’s Chinatown is to be trusted. But he had a brain that sopped knowledge like a sponge, an imagination that unleashed a robust heart into great heights, and a capability to voraciously soaked into the breath and depth of human experience, reflecting on his exposures and learning as the sound philosopher, accomplished artist, and noted scientist we had known him to be.
Or, so we would like to think, as we recreate again the hero persona José Protacio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda in our imagination.
I was a participant in a camp on the grounds of Rizal’s Mi Retiro Park in Dapitan, in far away Zamboanga in ’63. Not yet eighteen, I joined some fifty students from across the country who lived together for two months in bamboo frond dwellings covered with a tarp to keep us dry from the occasional rain, sleeping in folding canvas cot beds, in the first YMCA-sponsored RYLTI - Rizal Youth Leadership Training Institute.
An open mind Methodist Christian, I was by then demythologizing Ra of the pyramids and Zeus of Olympus, along with the Roman Deus/Jupiter and the Greek Iesu. Schooled in the value-driven teachings of post-WWII American protestant missionaries, Jose Rizal came off as a cardboard figure of Midwestern U.S. liberal virtues.
At Dapitan, in the surroundings where he once labored as a medical doctor in exile, and entertained his paramour, I was grounded into his earthiness more than mesmerized by the grandeur of his much heralded achievements.
I did not yet get past Rizal of Austin Coates, the Brit HK magistrate who penned Myself a Mandarin, the second foreigner who wrote a Rizal bio, when I briefly resided in the Bantug family house in Mandaluyong Metro Manila. Bantugs are relatives of Rizal. Ambeth Ocampo, the then up-and-coming Jesuit-trained, and later, Benedictine monk historian, who was parading his iconoclasm in the acceptable guise of historical recollection during the restrictive Marcos martial law years, did musings through the Bantugmemory. His Rizal Without the Overcoat is a bestseller.
Ocampo did much to demythologize the wavy haired Pride of the Malay Race so much so that Lolo Pepe, as Rizal is endearingly referred to by the masa, is now recognizably human. He started his 35-year journey150 years ago on June 19, 1861.
Being in China, I usually blend easily and when queried of my origins, I say that my ancestry hails from Fujian but that we had not spoken the language for a long time.
Luckily, English is now a desired language, and my shopkeeper down the street once thanked me for speaking to him in English so he can practice whatever he remembers from 10 years of study, as well as spare him the task of deciphering a foreigner’s badly spoken Putunghua, which the rest of our foreign teachers attempt to do to gain acceptance among the locals.
It is helpful to be identified as being from Xia Wei Yi (Hawaii); the local’s experience of Pinoys is confined to kinder teachers and the hotel pubs’ rock bands.
Philippine President Noynoy Aquino visited his great grandfather’s Hongjian village in Fujian when he came to China. His Lolo Xu Yuhuan’s place enshrined the memory of Cory Cojuangco Aquino, Noynoy’s mom, who sought the settlement on a trip to China while still the President. The Cojuangcos directly trace their lineage to the village.
One of Rizal’s great ancestors also came from China and a family tree is on display in Bahay Chinoy (Chinese-Filipino heritage museum) at Manila’s Walled City. Traceable to the Cao family of Amoy (Zhou like Zhou En Lai), Fujian, Rizal’s mother is often referred to as a Chinese-Spanish mestiza.
In the surgical cauterization of Filipino memory through the abolition of the use of the pre-Spanish writing by the crusading Spanish padres, we lost much connection to our Malay heritage and our Fujian roots.
In my grandma’s house, I remember China jars and porcelain from the Ming dynasty. The folks of Northern Luzon are kin to southern China’s ethnic groups; trade flourished with Canton and Amoy, occasionally interrupted by the celebrated villain Li Ma Hong.
I grew up with a few choice prejudices, mostly against the folks from Zhongguo (China). We called them "Tsonggo," monkeys, a play on the word "unggoy." "Intsik" was a pejorative term, used to delineate bad manners (as in wearing an undershirt to the dining table), as being called "Judio" by the European Christians.
The appropriation of the Chinoy heritage through Rizal and the Cojuangcos relieves the native soul from the memory of the ugly searing of its communal memory in the service of European racial and cultural supremacy.
Like Lolo Pepe, we can individually re-appropriate our Chinoy heritage, live our lives as graciously as he did, and can die our death as gloriously as he did as well, anywhere in the world, even if his forced exit proved to be more dramatic than our chosen valedictum in gloriam. It would be redundant to wish for more.