by   Ma. Cielito Reyno

      In these times of unprecedented exodus abroad of youth searching for jobs or the fulfillment of their dreams; of public servants going back on their oath of honest service, in exchange for the returns of Mammon; of activists who continue to disappear and die in the course of their mission to change society for the least of that society; or of the rare Filipino who risks his own life and family if only to serve the cause of truth- it would be fitting to remember Rizal’s timeless call to all patriots of past, present and future as a gauge of our own place and worth as Filipinos at this point in our history.

     It may be said that Rizal’s foremost mission in life had been determined for him by fate- and early in his life.  In 1872 Fathers Jose Burgos, Mariano Gomes and Jacinto Zamora, priests whose names were identified with the movement to reform the priesthood, and the Catholic Church itself, in the Philippines, were executed on the ground of inciting the Mutiny of Cavite.  That execution proved to be Rizal’s political epiphany, the beginning of his coming of age as a Filipino aware of being part of one nation.  It was to culminate in full fruition at his death more than 20 years later, but by then a generation of his fellow natives had been molded, by his life’s work, into Filipinos with a sense of nation.

      The generation into which Rizal was born was the generation that up till then produced the greatest of Filipino youth.  It grew up in the worst and best of times, a time of upheaval, and revolution and sacrifice, the call to which Rizal and his fellow youth had unhesitatingly, and without looking back, answered.

      Among them, however, Rizal and Marcelo H. del Pilar, a fellow Propagandist, stood out for their determination.  Del Pilar had left homeland, wife and two daughters to wage his political struggle in Spain.  He would die there.  Rizal was driven by one thing and one thing only: to serve the nation.  He spoke of it a year after he left his homeland for studies in Spain:  “In my heart I have suppressed all loves, except that of my native land; in my mind I have erased all ideas which do not signify her progress; and my lips have forgotten the names of the native races in the Philippines in order not to say more than Filipinos.”

     Rizal’s chief aim was to reform Philippine society, first by uncovering its ills and second, by awakening the Filipino youth.  His enemies were the oppressive colonial government, but especially the corrupt elements among the friars, members of the religious orders that exerted the greatest influence over the government and thereby held complete sway over the lives of the Filipinos.

      Rizal knew the best way to awaken the youth and lead them toward right action was through education, but especially foreign education.  For local education, being controlled by the friars then kept the Filipinos in the dark, ignorant of their rights and heritage- and meek in the face of oppression.  This was partly why he left for Spain in 1882, to continue his studies there.

    Championing the cause of the nation for him entailed becoming the best person he could be.  He carried over to his activism the mental and physical disciplines he learned from his elders.

      His capacity for self-denial had developed to such a degree that enabled him -when he was short on funds abroad- to breakfast on a few biscuits for days on end; to take exams on an empty stomach or go for hours without food; to burn the candle at both ends studying his lessons or learning a new language; to steel himself from falling into the trap of drinking and gambling, which had waylaid many of his compatriots from their mission; to retain his empathy for the downtrodden as when moved upon encountering a child begging in the streets of Madrid, perhaps reminding him of the child beggars back home.

      He plunged himself into the thick of the Propaganda, a movement that agitated for government reforms in the Philippines, foremost of which was Filipinos’ assimilation in the Spanish nation through representation in the Cortes (Spanish Parliament).  He waged his campaign among progressive members of the Cortes and Spanish intellectuals; he wrote letters and articles for La Solidaridad, the Propaganda mouthpiece, as well as other publications, producing some of his best work during this period such as “The Indolence of the Filipinos”; “Message to the Women of Malolos”, or “The Philippines a Century Hence”.

Despite his deprivations, he continued to push himself to serve his nation’s cause finally producing his greatest work, the novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, works that paved his way to an untimely death but also to a lasting place in the hearts and minds of his compatriots.

      Of his vision for the Filipinos, Rizal wrote his comrade Mariano Ponce in 1888:  “Let this be our only motto: For the welfare of the Native Land.  On the day when all Filipinos should think like him [Del Pilar] and like us, on that day we shall have fulfilled our arduous mission, which is the formation of the Filipino nation”.  To Rizal that nation was a nation free of injustice, oppression and corruption.  May the Filipinos of today finally begin fulfilling this timeless challenge of Rizal.