IN THE DAYS BEFORE HIS EXECUTION, a 35-year-old Filipino named José Rizal leaned over a wooden desk and wrote 14 stanzas in neat Castilian handwriting on a paper about the size of his palm. He folded the paper twice and tucked it inside a gas lamp. On his sister Trinidad’s final visit, he whispered to her, using English so that the Spanish guards would not understand, that she should look for something in the lamp after his death. Just a few miles from his prison cell, in the hills by Manila, a revolution was stirring: a movement that he had inspired and then condemned, one that would bring freedom to his country and then tear it apart. Early in the morning on 30 December 1896, Rizal dressed in a fine, black suit and a white shirt, and turned his back on the near-empty cell. Just after dawn, he stepped out into the city.
His death sentence had been read to him the morning before, concluding a hasty trial within the walls of Manila’s Fort Santiago. He had spent the rest of the day receiving guests, composing letters, conducting interviews for the press in Madrid, and enduring the repeated visits of a group of Jesuits, who had orders to secure a retraction from the prisoner for his strident criticisms of church corruption.
When Rizal came to the third stanza in his poem, he wrote: “I die when I see the colour in the sky begin to turn/ And, at last, announce the day after a night of gloom.” His poem, filled with passionate love for his country and condemnation of colonial rule, went on to be translated into dozens of languages. A printer in Hong Kong gave the verses their first title, “Mi último pensamiento,” or “My Last Thoughts,” before another version settled on the poem’s most recognised title, “Mi último adiós,” or “My Last Farewell.” Within a few years, it was printed in major newspapers in New York, Boston and Washington, DC. It was read on the floor of the US Congress by liberals arguing for a bill that would create the first Philippine assembly of locally elected representatives. Miguel Unamuno, the Spanish poet, called Rizal the “Tagalog Christ” and explored the poet’s ambivalence towards the Philippine Revolution in an essay comparing him to Hamlet. Rudolf Virchow, the legendary German physician and anthropologist, recited a eulogy for Rizal to the anthropological society of Berlin the year after his death. The poem helped to spark a revolution that eventually ended more than three hundred years of Spanish rule, making the Philippines the first Asian colony to rise up for independence.
Schoolchildren in the Philippines have recited the verses for years, first in Spanish, then in English and now in Tagalog, the language spoken by most of the country’s 105 million inhabitants. The poem is memorised, translated and debated. Its instruction is legislated into the country’s constitution by a 1956 law mandating that all students study the stanzas and the life of the poet behind them. And over a century after it was written, many of the issues that Rizal struggled with are as vital and as unsettled in contemporary Filipino society as ever before.
The concept of the Filipino nation has been rethought and renegotiated since the 1950s by groups such as the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist party, in Luzon, the country’s largest island, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front—the primary Muslim separatist movement—in Mindanao, its second-largest. A drug war launched by President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, after his swift rise to power, is raging in the country, killing thousands and reopening wounds from the brutal two-decade rule, starting from the mid 1960s, of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. And the issue of Filipino identity, perhaps Rizal’s most abiding and fundamental concern, continues to shape society in ways that are economic, cultural and historical. Even the contemporary meaning of “Filipino” can be traced to Rizal. In his time, the term was commonly reserved for those of Spanish descent who were born in the colony. People native to the archipelago were derisively called “Indios” by Spanish authorities. But Rizal, of mixed Malay, Chinese and indigenous ancestry, was the first to dare to use “Filipino” to describe himself and to call the islands “Mi Patria” or “My Country.”
Today, Rizal’s face is minted on the one-peso coin that passes through millions of Filipino hands every day. On the streets of Manila, in the rural markets of Mindanao or across the outstretched arms of boatmen in the Visayas islands, ask a Filipino about José Rizal and she will tell you something. The stories they narrate reveal how Rizal continues to inform the question of where the Philippines is headed today.
ZARAH ESCUETA, a curator for the Rizal Museum in Manila, encouraged me to view a piece of Rizal’s vertebrae. It was chipped with a bullet hole and preserved in a display case on the second floor of the museum.
It was January 2008. Escueta had worked at the museum for seven months and was enthusiastically promoting Rizal’s artefacts. Among them was a bright silver set of his sculpting tools in a small red box, complete facsimiles of Rizal’s two novels, and a collection of shells the poet had gathered while in exile in Mindanao, each one carefully labelled with its scientific name.
The museum is housed within Fort Santiago, just a short walk from the prison cell where Rizal spent his last night and composed his famous poem. “It is here that are the real proofs of Rizal,” Escueta said, as she sat in her small office on the museum’s bottom floor with her hands folded before her. An air-conditioning unit hummed from the wall. “The things he had are here, the things he invented, he used, he had, are here.”
She seemed driven by the need for proof, for physical evidence. Her focus was not entirely misplaced. The multitude of myths and conflicting accounts of Rizal’s persona often cloud the facts and details of his life. One of the shells, a small, cream-coloured whorl, was labelled with neat handwriting, “cypraea annalus.” Rizal may have bent over on a beach or near a lagoon in Dapitan, on the northeast coast of Mindanao, to choose, instead of others, this specific shell. This seemed supremely important for Escueta, and, as she saw it, for her visitors. “Here they can see the actual things of José Rizal,” she concluded. “That José Rizal really existed.”
I asked her about the stories of Rizal’s last night. There is still a heated debate over whether he recanted his criticisms of the church and went to confession. One version claims that he was married by a priest to his long-time companion, Josephine Bracken, on the morning of his execution. This proves, some say, that he did recant and returned to his Catholic faith. A document supporting this account, allegedly with Rizal’s signature, surfaced in the early part of the twentieth century, but it could have been fake—such forgeries were abundant after the revolution. Another version suggests that Rizal maintained his criticisms of the church until the end, and many point to a line in “Mi último adiós” as proof: “I’ll go where there are no slaves, tyrants, or hangmen/ Where faith does not kill and where God alone reigns.”
The question of religion is critical in the Philippines, where over 80 percent of the population is Catholic and the church remains a central force in society. Escueta seemed, at least officially, unsure of which version of the Rizal story to believe. There are different accounts, she said, swinging her head from side to side. When I pressed further, she drew herself up and spoke clearly. “Rizal is really religious, a god- fearing man,” she said. It makes no difference whether he returned to his ordained faith, she asserted. “You can be Christian without being part of the Catholic church, di ba?”
Rizal, though raised Catholic, broke with the church and, while in Europe, became a Mason, attracted by what he saw as the sect’s freethinking and learning, in contrast to the corruption of local friars in the Philippines. His upbringing was typical of the well-educated Filipinos of his time, with both schooling and faith highly prized in his household in Calamba, then a rural area southeast of Manila. Just before he turned 21, his family sent him to Spain to pursue a medical degree. But they may have had a motive other than his education, as the Rizals had already come under the watchful eye of authorities for José’s elder brother’s implication in an 1872 rebellion known as the Cavite Mutiny. José Rizal himself had had a violent brush with the Guardia Civil, or local law enforcement, being “mauled and wounded,” as he described in a letter, for failing to properly salute a local official one night.
In Madrid and Barcelona, he joined other young Filipino exiles, known as ilustrados, and advocated for reforms to Spanish rule in the pages of an anti-colonial paper, La Solidaridad. He spent nearly all of the following decade abroad, in Spain, Germany and France, with just a brief return to the Philippines in 1887. His first novel was published that same year. This was Noli Me Tangare, whose satirical take on corrupt church officials and the local elite created a firestorm of condemnation and prompted another stint of self-imposed exile. These years, for him and his peers, were marked by a distinct international outlook. They wrote letters in Spanish, German and French, with references in Tagalog or Filipino dialects; they kept abreast of political changes in Cuba and Hong Kong; and they annotated archives in the London Library to correct what they saw as inaccuracies in the treatment of their homeland’s history. But Rizal’s personal letters home also reveal his conflicting emotions: the excitement of a young man visiting Geneva or Berlin for the first time, yet also the despair of a writer viewing the setbacks in his advocacy and of a son hearing from afar about the constant threat of arrest and surveillance to his family back home.
Escueta, the curator at the Rizal Museum, is part of a contemporary shift in the Philippines away from the Catholic church and towards evangelical Christianity. She is also the host of a programme called “Mom from the Heart” that airs on a Christian radio station based in Rizal’s hometown, Calamba. Pentecostal, Charismatic and Renewalist faiths have all grown in recent years, though they still account for less than 10 percent of the population. Eddie Villanueva, the founder of the Jesus is Lord Church, ran strong presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2010 that focussed on a number of prophecies for the nation’s future. His church claims about three million members throughout the country.
In “Mi último adiós,” Rizal struck a deeply religious tone. He called the country “the Pearl of the Orient, our lost Eden,” expressing a longing for the country that he saw as a paradise crushed by injustice. He appealed for individual sacrifice that promised everlasting life. But his own relationship with the church was complex and his exact position on it remains a matter of contention.
OUTSIDE ESCUETA’S OFFICE, on a path leading from Rizal’s cell, gold footprints are nailed to the ground. Placed there in 1996 to commemorate the centenary of Rizal’s death, the footprints trace Rizal’s movements on his last morning and lead through Fort Santiago. I followed them from the inner fort and across a moat, where a sheet of violet-pink lilies covered the water’s surface.
Rizal walked down a narrow street and out the fort’s western gate, where he continued along a boulevard, followed by three priests and a column of armed soldiers. Just off his right shoulder, Manila Bay opened into the ocean. He reached a clearing, in a place now known as Luneta Park, where a crowd had already gathered in the early morning. It was not yet 7 a.m. A firing squad had assembled, made up of Filipinos armed with Remingtons, but nearby Spanish troops trained their guns on the scene. Rizal’s last request was to face his executioners and to be shot in the front, a sentiment consistent with his insistence on dignity in the face of bitter odds. But he was denied. As the shots rang out, so the legend goes, his body twisted to fall face up. Some witnesses later recounted this version to historians, though the only surviving photograph, taken from a distance, shows a blurry black-and-white scene. One of his sisters also said that she rushed up to his body and dipped a handkerchief in his blood, an item that became sacred and was passed along generations. Already, the myth-making had begun.
At some point along his final walk, Rizal may have seen, to his left, the rising towers of the San Agustín Church. It is the oldest church in the country and contains the remains of Miguel López De Legazpi, the first Spaniard to reach the shores of Luzon in 1571. When Legazpi landed in Manila, one of his first acts was to call for the founding of the church, an institution that would go on to largely replace Islam in the country and supplant a vast Islamic network that connected the Philippines to Brunei. Five Augustinians had accompanied him on his voyage from Navidad, in Mexico, and carried with them a charge given by Spain’s Philip II: to claim the territory and to bring Catholicism to the natives.
When you enter the church’s museum today, a large bell, cracked by an earthquake in 1863, lies in the centre of the room. To the faithful, it is a potent symbol of Christianity in the nation. Cabinets in long corridors display church figurines and copies of the original transcriptions of the Tagalog alphabet made by members of the Augustinian order—some of the earliest and most comprehensive studies of the language. On one wall hangs a poster with a quotation from the Filipino writer Nick Joaquin, who also published one of the most popular English translations of “Mi último adiós,” in 1944. “The Bell is one of the thirteen greatest events of the Philippine History,” it begins. “It was thus that Spain created a national identity, where before there was only a riot of identities.” Another poster displays, in a colourful graphic, the number of souls that each Christian order has “saved” since European arrival. The Augustinians are clearly in the lead. By 1898, according to a bar chart, the order had saved more than six million souls in the colony. The Augustinians, however, were also the target of some of Rizal’s harshest criticisms.
During Rizal’s time the friars—church representatives who exerted control at the local level—were the most powerful force in the colony. They owned vast amounts of land, took part in business decisions and had a direct line to political leaders in Spain. The military and state officials in the colony negotiated a delicate, and often secondary, role. In 1719, for instance, a group of friars had the governor of the colony assassinated for undermining their power.
A few days after my meeting with Zarah Escueta, I spoke to Pedro G. Galende, the director of the church’s museum since 1989. He sat in his office, at the edge of a large, round table, with a stack of papers before him. Ordained in the Augustinian order, Galende had completed a dissertation at Manila’s University of Santo Tomas and had written passionately about Rizal’s poetic similarities to the Spanish poet and priest Luis de León. He spoke English with a strong Spanish accent, and at one point called over his Filipino staff for help with the translation of a Tagalog phrase.
When I asked about Rizal’s criticisms of the church, he stopped and sat back in his chair. The subject is still sensitive in the Philippines. In Rizal’s work, Galende began, “there is fact and fiction. He had to exaggerate for impact.”
When the Philippine Congress was debating the legislation that would mandate the study of Rizal’s writings across the country’s schools, in the 1950s, the church mounted a ferocious campaign to oppose it. It issued its own versions of his novels, with offending passages omitted.
But the trial and execution, he said, are a different matter.
“It was a pitiful mistake,” he declared flatly. “For me, he was a good writer and he could have been a good leader of the commonwealth.”
Galende explained that he shared Rizal’s aversion to violent methods. “He said you have to prepare yourselves for the future. Because Rizal wanted to have a peaceful transition.”
Before I left, Galende directed me to a book of his that narrates the history of the church grounds from the sixteenth century onwards. I scanned the dates provided inside the book and found that in 1861, the year of Rizal’s birth, the pavement of the church was replaced by new Chinese tiling. Then, in 1896, the year of his execution, the Santa Rita bell was installed in the right tower. But there is no mention of Rizal at all.
IN 1961, two men entered the National Library in Manila and walked out with the original copy of “Mi último adiós.” They waited a few days and then sent a letter to demand a ransom for its return. Later, they said that the caper was easy, calling the guards tulog and tanga—asleep and unaware. Ambeth Ocampo, a former director of the National Historical Institute, wrote about the event years later in the Philippine Daily Globe, calling it “one of the most sensational thefts in Philippine history.” After months of negotiations and a series of mysterious meetings between the secretary of education and men representing the thieves, the poem was returned.
Today, it sits inside a heavy grey vault in the library. According to Ocampo, only two people know the combination to the lock. One afternoon in 2008, I found myself face to face with the poem. A woman who accompanied me from the director’s office stood by my side, wearing a lime-green dress and white gloves. I had promised not to touch it. A moment earlier, I had signed my name in the visitor’s book beneath the most recent guest, the ambassador of France.
I asked the woman if we could measure it. She stepped away and returned with a broad wooden ruler, then lay her hand flat against the poem to hold it down. Fifteen and one-tenth centimetres by nine-and-a-half centimetres, we figured. Folds still creased the paper. Rizal’s writing, in a brownish ink, was small, neat and curly. On one side it ran to the third line in the seventh verse, nearly halfway through the poem, and continued on the back. There was no name and no title.
The woman folded it, the soft paper easily collapsing at the creases. Then she unfolded it. It surprised me that she felt so at ease with this 112-year-old piece of paper. Her reverence, though apparent in her motions, did not make her hesitant. She did not do this regularly as part of her job, she had told me earlier. In fact, after the vault was opened, she had to search through various boxes to find the poem; her familiarity came from elsewhere.
The way Filipinos have interacted with its physical form over time is an important part of the poem’s trajectory. When the thieves took it, they said that as soon as they crossed the doors of the National Library, it became heavy. “The manuscript,” Ocampo reported one of the thieves saying, “must be holy or haunted!” But even before the theft, the poem had a long history of power. After Rizal’s family found the poem in the gas lamp, they made copies of the verses by hand. A few days later, they took the poem to rebels in the city of Cavite in southern Luzon, where Andrés Bonifacio, the rebel leader, is thought to have made the first translation into Tagalog. Bonifacio, in a move both patriotic and strategic, distributed copies of the poem throughout the rebel forces, where it gained a near-talismanic quality. The poem, combined with Rizal’s death, helped draw international sympathy to their cause and turned the rebellion into a full-fledged revolution. But many Filipinos at the time must have learned of the poem not from the page but through stories, rumours and retellings. This is where Rizal’s writing leaves the printed word and becomes something more amorphous and, perhaps, more intimate. What is produced is a relationship that carries through to today in the minds of Filipinos like the woman at the Library and Escueta at Fort Santiago.
MY DREAMS WHEN A LAD, when scarcely adolescent:
my dreams when a young man, now with vigour inflamed;
were to behold you one day—Jewel of eastern waters! —
griefless the dusky eyes: lofty the upright brow:
unclouded, unfurrowed, unblemished, and unashamed!
The fourth stanza of “Mi último adiós” speaks of Rizal’s clear, unbridled hopes for freedom, but it is also the work of a man trained in concealment, of a writer whose personal letters would be used against him in his trials and whose fiction would be cited as evidence of his sedition. Such complexity is now weaved into Filipino society.
“Rizal had several items on his agenda but he was not pro-independence,” said Augusto de Viana, a professor at the University of Santo Tomas who teaches a course on Rizal’s writings. “He was for the resurgence of the Filipinos as a people. We historians call it pagbabangong puri, the restoration of dignity—puri is dignity. So you are trying to restore your dignity as a nation. You are a great people and great leaders and there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
This notion of dignity was central to Rizal’s liberation philosophy. His continual insistence on etiquette and good manners has been seen in contemporary times as collusion with colonial control. This view was deliberately promoted by American occupiers after they took over control of the Philippines in 1898. They pointed to Rizal’s criticism of the revolution as a way to pacify forces still advocating for self-rule. But Rizal’s complex view of Philippine independence had evolved over time. He started out aligning with the other ilustrados in Spain, calling for greater representation in Spain’s government and for church reform, but stopping short of demanding full independence. Over the years, however, his writing grew more radical. This sense of dignity for Filipinos was essential to his goal of kalayaan, or freedom. Without it, he wrote, the slaves of today would merely become the tyrants of tomorrow, one class replacing another in a perpetual system of colonial power. “For all who suffer in unequalled pain,” he writes in the ninth verse, “Pray that redemption yourself may attain.” Rizal’s commitment was to a broader social transformation, a promise that remains unfulfilled even today.
RIZAL WAS BORN into the last generation under Spain’s three-century rule of the Philippines. By the time he was a teenager, Spain had already lost control of most of its colonies in North and Central America, and its legendary military fleet was in decline. But Spain’s hold on the islands was quickly replaced by that of a rising power in the west: the United States. After Filipino rebels swore in their first president, Emilio Aguinaldo, in 1898, the United States ambushed him and launched a military campaign against the remaining rebels. After a decade-long-war, Americans took tight control of the archipelago and maintained their hold until the Second World War, only losing their grip when the Imperial Japanese Army invaded. The cruelty of the Japanese occupation, with its forced labour and sexual violence, is well documented, and also recounted to this day by many Filipino families. When the Philippines finally became independent in 1946, it was a country devastated by war and occupation. Its once fabled capital, Manila, had been ruined by repeated bombing campaigns and invasions. Democracy lasted for two decades, after which an ambitious young politician from the north of the country, Ferdinand Marcos, seized the presidency and, with critical backing from the United States, held on for 21 years, imposing martial law, imprisoning students, detaining journalists and killing critics of his government. He fell in 1986, after a mass uprising that Filipinos fondly refer to as “People Power,” when citizens flooded the streets and faced down Marcos’s tanks and guns. Key military leaders finally decided it was time to shift loyalties and disobeyed his orders to fire on civilians. In the post-Marcos era, the country had to rewrite its constitution, so weakened were the basic functions of government and justice. Much promise followed, but so did military coups and revolving leaders.
The country’s current leader, Rodrigo Duterte, is a brash, tough-talking former mayor of the southern city of Davao. His campaign pledges to bring quick justice to criminals and stamp out political corruption appealed to many Filipinos exhausted by generations of failure by the elite. His first two years in office, however, have been plagued by allegations of human-rights abuses and sudden cabinet shake-ups. Besides the drug war, the country is currently going through a severe rice shortage.
This April, Irma Lucasia sat on a cement ledge across from her home in Bagong Silangan, a district north-east of Manila. It was near noon, and a white sun burnt overhead. The narrow street was filled with people: kids splashing about in inflatable pools, a man cutting another’s hair into a fauxhawk and a group breaking open a brandy bottle by the curb, while karaoke music blasted from a television.
“He was scared, sure,” Lucasia, who is 62 years old, said about her son, Salvador. “But he went anyway.” Salvador was part of the first wave of people in the neighbourhood to surrender to the local police station at the start of the government’s drug war. Shortly after Duterte was sworn into office, he launched a programme encouraging drug users and small-time peddlers to register with local government offices. Rehabilitation was the goal, according to officials, but Duterte had also urged, on multiple occasions, the outright killing of drug users and had pledged, in his first State of the Nation address, that the war would not stop until “all drug lords and pushers had surrendered or were put below ground.” The message to local cops was clear: the government has got your back. The word went out to residents and lists of suspected drug users were compiled.
Salvador was on that list. At the police station, according to Lucasia, they took a picture of him and recorded his name. He went back home. About a week later, on 31 August 2016, as he sat on a crowded street corner near their house, armed men shot him dead. He was 41 years old. The murder took place during the funeral wake of a neighbour. Many witnesses described to Lucasia what happened, but none were willing to come forward publicly.
“By the time I got to the scene, his body was gone,” she told me. “We found him at the hospital, at the morgue, that’s where we claimed his body.” She pointed out three sheets of old Plexiglas leaning against her house. The bottom floor, with walls of rough cinder blocks and unfinished windows, was boarded up. Normally, she said, her son would be the one to help with repairs around the house. But since his death, the family has had trouble making ends meet. Her husband suffered a stroke in 2013 and was growing steadily weaker. Her salary of 450 pesos a week—just under ten dollars—for part-time work with the local government was barely enough to cover food costs. Her son had made mistakes in his life, she said, but always came to help out in the house. Now, she is haunted by his death.
“Look, he wanted to change, he wanted a new life, but they killed him,” Lucasia said. “At night, when I’m going to sleep, what runs through my mind is: what did he look like when he died? How was he killed? At times, I force myself to dream about him and he wakes me up, calling out to me, ‘Mom, Mom!’ But what should I do? There’s nothing I can do.”
I heard many stories similar to Lucasia’s during my time at Bagong Silangan. Sixty-nine-year-old Linda Baguinon, for instance, described how her son was shot and killed on 11 July 2016 while asleep beside his wife on the floor of their home. His death, according to residents, was the first in the neighbourhood in the drug war, less than two weeks after Duterte became president. The loss shattered the family, Baguinon said, and after a year of trying to get answers, her daughter-in-law gave up and returned to Bikol, about 16 hours away by bus. Baguinon was left scrambling to pay for basic needs, such as her diabetes medication. I also met a sixth-grader named Lovely Ramos, who was 11 years old when her parents were killed in front of her during a police raid at their home on 24 August 2016. They left behind seven orphans. “I held my mom’s head in my arms after she was shot,” Ramos recounted. “I kept telling her, ‘Wake up, Wake up,’ because I thought she was still alive.”
These incidents are difficult to verify against official accounts. In most cases, witnesses describe night-time attacks in which armed men in street clothes arrive suddenly. Sometimes, the family can identify whether they are local police, federal agents or vigilante hitmen; sometimes they cannot. Some have enough courage or desperation to go to the local police office and seek answers. If they can prove their relationship to the deceased and get a witness to step forward and get the ear of a police investigator, they may be able to open a case. But transparency—such as getting hold of statistics about how many arrests have been made or details of what the police have found at the scenes of these crimes—has been a problem from the start. After I heard the stories at Bagong Silangan, I went to the local police station, known as Batasan Station 6, to get more details on the cases. The staff at the desk told me the superintendent could not talk to me because he had a conference that afternoon. They also could not release any statistics or information without permission. They advised me to put my request in writing, which I did, submitting it at the Quezon City police headquarters. After two weeks, the office wrote back denying my request for numbers on arrests or deaths. They cited “confidentiality and security reasons” for withholding the data. In April 2018, after a case brought by families of some of the victims, the Supreme Court ruled that the police had to release full records on deadly encounters in the drug war, including the names, addresses and gender of those killed. The police have yet to comply with the order, but some groups have attempted to tally and document the killings on their own. Local media put the death toll at 7,000 after the first year, drawing on data from the Philippine National Police. By 2018, Human Rights Watch estimated it had risen to 12,000, including deaths that took place outside police operations.
In Bagong Silangan, a 61-year-old former drug runner named Geronimo Jarabelo has tried to track the killings. During his years in the drug trade he went by the alias Bigote. When I met him at the San Isidro Labrador Parish Church in the neighbourhood, it was clear to me how he got the nickname: a thick, grey mustache (bigote, in Spanish) covered his top lip. He wore wire glasses and a red baseball cap.
“Everyone knows me here,” Jarabelo said. He works with an ecumenical group called Rise Up for Life and for Rights, helping local families find out what happened to their loved ones. It has a list of 50 people killed in drug actions over the past two years, many of whom Jarabelo knew personally. “The drug trade was rampant here before, sold on the corners like sugar,” he explained. “We all knew each other.”
He considers himself one of the lucky ones. He quit drugs shortly before Duterte took office. He says he heard the calling of the church but understands why some of his neighbours turn to drugs. “When you’re poor, there are few other options,” he said. “You can sell a little and turn that 300 pesos into food and you can feed your family.” According to him, the trade has recently gone underground. You can still score a small bag of methamphetamine, known as shabu locally, for 200 pesos, if you know where to look. “They’re going after small-time guys, these little vendors on the street, but no one is talking about poverty, the cause of all of this,” he said, gesturing at the busy blocks around him. “We’re devastated here.”
On the second floor of the national headquarters of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, Sheila Valmoria, who works in the public information office, greeted me with a smile. Like the president and many government workers who came to Manila to join his administration, she is from Davao.
“You know, I am from Mindanao,” she told me when we met. “I grew up there. We are very direct, we don’t like any screwing around.” She winked as she said this, using the term gulo in Tagalog, which could also mean “chaos” or “disorder.” She was hinting at what many of Duterte’s supporters see as his biggest appeal: unlike past presidents from Luzon’s powerful classes, he is a straight talker, often lacing his comments with blunt language and swear words.
She handed me a print-out with the agency’s latest figures from the drug war. Since 1 July 2016, according to the PDEA, authorities have arrested over 120,000 people and conducted just over 90,000 operations, including raids and buy-and-bust deals. This has left 4,075 people dead, although the figures exclude deaths from encounters with vigilante or unknown gunmen.
Valmoria said she was aware of the concerns around the drug war, but was adamant that the operations had had an effect. “People don’t understand,” she said. “It is very difficult to defend ourselves against the criticisms.” According to her, agents on the front lines often find themselves in dangerous situations and are trained to shoot only when a suspect resists or tries to flee, a characterisation many families dispute. Also, she added, there are currently 1,800 agents for the entire country, so enforcement depends on local police. But that has led to deadly consequences. Since the drug war started, Duterte has suspended the Philippine National Police’s participation in it on two occasions because of public outrage over its abuses. The first was after police were involved in the kidnapping and killing of a Korean businessman, in 2016. The second, in 2017, was after police were caught on video dragging an unarmed 17-year-old during a drug bust. He was later found shot dead with a gun by his left hand.
I told her about the accounts of some families, including their descriptions of abuse by law enforcement officers and belief that users and small-time peddlers are bearing the brunt of the drug war. She held up a clipping from that morning’s newspaper with a headline about Duterte replacing the head of the justice department. The day before, in a sweep of dismissals, he had also replaced the heads of the Philippine National Police and the armed forces. One of the fiercest criticisms of the justice department was its failure to prosecute two high-profile drug lords even after they publicly admitted to their roles in the drug trade. Many saw this as a sign that the government was disproportionately focussed on poor residents, while the powerful got away.
Valmoria, however, insisted that the staff changes were proof that Duterte is serious about the drug war. “The Philippines is a damaged country,” she said, citing the years of colonialism, war, dictatorship and the history of violence. “Filipinos are in a deep slumber, just as Rizal wrote.” She told me that she had studied Rizal in college and kept stacks of his books at home. As proof, she not only listed the cast of characters in his novels, but also named those in his private correspondence, published years after his death. “You know, many people see Duterte as a Rizal figure because he speaks out against the church and the oligarchs,” she added.
For Valmoria, the current tendency towards violence in the Duterte administration is not in conflict with Rizal’s legacy, even though Rizal maintained until the end his unwillingness to shed Filipino blood in the name of revolution. Indeed, despite the uproar sparked by his drug war, Duterte boasts solid support from many Filipinos, both at home and abroad. His backers point to his appointment of Muslims and women, two groups historically ignored in Mindanao, to key posts in his city administration during his time in Davao. His supporters also span the political spectrum, with some on the left highlighting his endorsement of same-sex marriage and his willingness to openly criticise traditional power-backers, such as the United States or China as indications of his independence.
But the drug war remains his most controversial policy, even provoking an ongoing preliminary investigation at the International Criminal Court. As a presidential candidate, Duterte had pledged to eradicate drugs completely within six months of taking office, a goal that today appears more elusive than ever, despite the rising body count.
LIZA MAZA IS THE HEAD of the Anti-Poverty Commission in the Duterte administration and is a former representative in the Philippine Congress. The 61-year-old is from the Gabriela Party, which represents the interests of women in the country. The Philippine House of Representatives is composed mostly of politicians from various geographic districts, on a model similar to the one followed in the United States, but the 1987 constitution added seats for members who represent not geographic communities but segments of society that were deemed neglected or poorly represented under traditional government structures. As a result, 20 percent of congressional seats are filled with members who represent sectors such as labour, youth, peasants or women. These representatives are often the most outspoken in their opposition to the central government. Maza is no exception: in 2006, her criticisms of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the president at the time, resulted in her being put under house arrest for 71 days. She and her staff regularly received death threats during that time.
I met Maza in 2008, outside her office in Quezon City, on a quiet residential street. A vendor passed by calling out his wares—tahoooo, a sweet tofu drink. Maza sat behind a small, plastic table, sipping from a mug of instant coffee. “What we are missing is a sense of identity,” she said. “I think if we have a good grasp of history and identity we can move forward—and the women moving forward alongside the men.”
I asked her about Rizal and his role in shaping Filipino identity. “Women are half the population,” Maza said. “They are a viable economic force. If women are confined or are discriminated against at work or robbed of their dignity, they will not have the self-confidence to participate in society.”
She took issue with Rizal’s status as the national martyr. “The personification of Rizal as a hero is overstated,” she said. For Maza, Andrés Bonifacio, the tireless organiser from humble origins, is the real hero, who has been marginalised by historians from Rizal’s own elite class. “An ordinary Filipino would relate more to Bonifacio at the time, it’s natural.”
Even more overlooked, perhaps, are the women in both men’s lives. Gregoria de Jesus, Bonifacio’s wife, was a member of the Katipunan secret society. She was known to carry a gun and played a part in planning strategy. Josephine Bracken, who appears in the last stanza of Rizal’s poem, is alternately portrayed as uneducated, scheming or controlling. But at the age of 20 years, and as a mixed-race woman herself—she was Chinese and Irish—Bracken demonstrated courage in pressing for the release of Rizal’s papers after his death and then visiting the rebels in Cavite.
Rizal himself created a sometimes conflicted portrait of Filipino women in his writings. The character Maria Clara, from his novel Noli Me Tangere, is a model of a submissive tragic heroine, playing the object to the male protagonist’s complex dilemmas. But she also sings some of the most famous lines from the work, about love for the country: “Death is a night wind for any/ Without homeland, without mother, without love.” In 1888, when women in the town of Malolos petitioned the Spanish government to continue running a school that taught Castilian, Rizal wrote in their defence, describing the important role that women had to play in the reforms he envisioned. It is notable, too, that the first president after Marcos’s 20-year regime was a woman, Cory Aquino, and the country elected another, Leni Robredo, as the vice president in 2016.
At one point, Maza listed the viable occupations for young women in the country: being a factory worker, a call-centre operator, an entertainer or a vendor. Then, she added: sex worker. This last addition is not an afterthought. The Philippines is recognised as one of the primary origin points for human trafficking from Southeast Asia.
In 2003, Maza helped pass the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act. It was hailed at the time as a significant step forward in tackling the widespread problem. But she admitted that the law had very little effect in its first years. Few prosecutions were attempted, and the network that sustains and promotes the trafficking of women and children remains intact. “My view is that our job is not only to legislate but also, and more importantly, to articulate the abuse and perspectives of the sectors we represent,” Maza said. “And to challenge the predominant ideology that has sustained this society for centuries dating back to Rizal’s time.”
After meeting Maza, I decided to visit Malate, one of the oldest parts of the city, now home to Manila’s notorious red-light district. It was around nine o’ clock in the evening. Inside a second-story dance club, just ten blocks south of Luneta Park. A 23-year-old woman who said her name was Kim sat on a couch, sipping a bright-blue margarita and mouthing the words to a Japanese song on the videoke screen above the bar counter.
“Their culture is so much more beautiful than ours,” she said in Tagalog, her eyes fixed on the monitor. She used the word maganda, which not only describes physical beauty, but the beauty in, say, a fulfilling life. Despite a sparse crowd, music blasted through the wide room. A man stood on the stage, singing off-key. A woman standing to his side swayed back and forth. For 500 pesos, or about ten dollars, you can have unlimited drinks in the club for one of the three-hour shifts during the night. If you want a woman to join you, it costs 300 pesos more. Buy her a drink, another 300. This is what the 48-year-old madame of the club, Amor, told me when I entered. I mentioned that I was a reporter researching Rizal and asked if there was anything she could tell me. She smiled. “My grandmother spoke perfect Spanish,” she said, launching into a very loud rendition of “Bésame Mucho.”
Kim kept singing along to the Japanese lyrics. She is Filipino, from Bulacan, a province north of Manila, but had been to Japan three times, to work at local entertainment clubs. There are many stories about the abuse that Filipinos, especially young women, have endured while working in Japan, as well as accounts of migration to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Hong Kong and the United States. The number of migrant workers increases each year and today one out of every ten Filipinos lives and works overseas. Last year they sent a record $28 billion home, according to the Philippines Central Bank. There are some areas in Manila, and towns in the countryside, in which entire neighbourhoods depend on this infusion of cash to survive. Yet it also comes at a high personal cost: families separated for years at a time—fathers from daughters, wives from husbands—amid the steady flow of labour and creativity to other shores. This loss also highlights one of Rizal’s staunchest warnings: that a nation that cannot provide a future for its citizens is doomed.
AFTER COMPLETING HIS SECOND NOVEL, El Filibusterismo, or The Subversive, in 1891, Rizal broke ties with the other Filipino exiles in Spain, declaring, “The revolution must be from within the Philippines.” He was running a great risk in returning. Noli Me Tangere had already drawn the wrath of the powerful Catholic church, and his work was attacked from the pulpit and by the government. His own family, though of the educated class, had their lands seized by their Dominican landlords. Rizal’s brother and the husbands of his sisters were exiled to Jolo and, according to a letter written by Rizal, his mother and sister were forced to walk from Manila to Laguna for four days in order to present themselves in person before the local governor.
On the eve of his departure from Hong Kong to return to Manila, Rizal sat down to write a letter, this time addressed to the Filipino people. His fears of death or imprisonment were not unrealistic. “I know that at present the future of my country gravitates in some degree towards me,” he wrote. “That at my death, many would rejoice, and consequently many are longing for my downfall. But what to do?”
The Spanish government was considering the same question.
Upon his arrival he was, at first, allowed to move freely. He held a meeting in Manila and founded an organisation called La Liga Filipina, whose stated goal was to unite the Filipinos throughout the country into a shared society and to ensure both economic and cultural uplift. One of those present at the meeting was a young Andrés Bonifacio. Two days after the meeting, however, Rizal was summoned by the captain-general and accused of smuggling anti-friar pamphlets into the country. Rizal denied the accusation, but was soon on a boat headed for Mindanao to begin a four-year exile in Dapitan. He consoled himself with the thought that his exile would serve his family: “I go contented, knowing that the General has accorded you liberty and because I believe that wherever I go I shall always be in the hands of God who has in His hands the destinies of men.”
The name “Dapitan” comes from the Visayan word dapit, which means “to invite.” But to mainland Filipinos in the nineteenth century, it was an outpost of the Spanish empire. It acted as the border between the more pacified Christian lowlands and the still resistant Muslim and indigenous communities residing in the mountains of Mindanao. The town sits on a northern hook of land in the province of Zamboanga del Norte. When Rizal arrived, Dapitan was a fortification, both religious and military, from which the Spanish launched their conversion campaigns. During his first month in the town, Rizal attended a moro-moro show, a theatrical re-enactment of the Christian-Muslim battles popular at the time. It was, he wrote to his family, “a show which amused me much.” Rizal’s amusement reveals a patronising attitude that carried through to the post-Spanish period and made the question of the nation deeply contested.
In 1898, when the revolutionary government convened in Luzon to plan the beginnings of the new country, not a single delegate from Mindanao was in attendance. In 1935, when the much-postponed independence appeared imminent, a coalition of leaders from Mindanao wrote directly to the US government asking it to consider not granting the country independence if, as they put it, Mindanao would be included in the bargain. The uneasy relationship between the central government in Luzon and the population in Mindanao has led to violence that sends thousands to Manila every year.
Although Zamboanga del Norte is relatively safe, Dapitan and other cities are connected by land to areas of conflict to the south. Today, the region is still under martial law after a 2017 military offensive against Islamic State-inspired groups killed thousands and displaced some 400,000 people. Throughout the decades of conflict, however, there have been moments of hope. One of the greatest came directly after the fall of Ferdinand Marcos, when the country looked to Cory Aquino, the wife of the slain opposition leader Benigno Aquino III, as a possible harbinger of change. She took over a country traumatised by killings, forced disappearances and political persecution under Marcos, who adroitly used the spectre of communism and Muslim rebellion to secure American support for his corrupt government.
In 1988, Aquino approved the creation of the Regional Consultative Commission for Muslim Mindanao, a coalition that had representatives from the Christian and Muslim communities and was charged with making recommendations to the Congress on the 1976 proposal of an autonomous region in the island. One of those who represented District 1 in Zamboanga del Norte was Gabby Cad of Dapitan.
“During our negotiations, I was trying to encourage that we should forget about Christianity, we should forget about Mohammedism,” Cad recalled when we met in 2008. “We should think of ourselves as Filipinos. Religion should be a private thing between me and God.” Cad stood in front of a refurbished life-size model of Rizal’s home in a section of Dapitan called Talisay. Cicadas whined in the late afternoon. “Why blame the people for accepting the Christian faith?” he asked. “And why blame others for accepting Mohammedism? It should not be the consideration.” Cad said that, in any case, many residents of Mindanao could point to a history that predates both religions, an indigenous tradition. As waves of outsiders swept in, people had to adapt in order to survive.
“So what’s the solution?” I asked him.
“A clear acceptance that we are brothers and sisters. We are Filipinos and we should discount any other consideration. Just that we’re Filipinos,” he said.
If Cad sounded like he was lifting an idea from Rizal, it is because he was. He is one of the foremost experts on Rizal in Dapitan and grew up surrounded by Rizal’s mythology. Cad remembered his grandfather reciting “Mi último adiós” in Spanish as they walked to church together, in the old man’s last years. He drew inspiration from Rizal’s teachings, but he also shared one of Rizal’s most controversial views: that the Filipinos of the poet’s time were not ready for independence. Cad pointed to the implosion of the first government set up by Emilio Aguinaldo as evidence that Filipinos were not, in fact, prepared. One of Aguinaldo’s first acts was to ambush and then execute Bonifacio on a charge of treason against the new government. The ordeal involved a speedy trial that eerily echoed Rizal’s process with the Spanish. As colonial power switched from Spanish to American hands, Aguinaldo had fought alongside other rebels, but after being captured he made a deal with the occupying forces to flee the country and wait out the conflict from Hong Kong.
“There were a lot of quarrels,” Cad said. “You cannot really distinguish between nationalism and personal interest.” The cicadas had grown quiet and evening darkened the grounds at Talisay. “Perhaps they forgot about Rizal,” he added, looking up into the trees.
RIZAL’S FOUR YEARS OF EXILE in Dapitan came to an abrupt end.
On July 30 1896, he received a letter from the colonial government granting his request to administer to sick and wounded Spanish soldiers fighting in Cuba. He was trained in ophthalmology and had tended to patients during his time in Dapitan. The request, however, had been sent six months previously, and during the intervening time Rizal had heard nothing back. He had resigned himself to staying in Mindanao, and began new construction on his house, even sending letters to his mother inviting her to join him.
“We can live here until we die,” he wrote to her. But by the time the government’s letter arrived, rumours of the revolution had begun to circulate. Arrests were made. People disappeared. For Rizal to now decline to leave would make it seem that he was waiting for the uprising to take hold. So he hastily packed his things and left Dapitan the next day, close to midnight, aboard a ship called España.
At each port along the way—Singapore, Colombo, Aden—telegrams of the growing rebellion, the rising Filipino deaths, the calls for retaliation from the Spanish elite, came in. At each port, friends of Rizal’s urged him to desert the ship. After all, once on British soil he would be free. Again and again, he refused.
When passing through the Suez Canal, he met a boat loaded with Spanish troops headed back to Manila. Then, when he reached the Mediterranean, a telegram arrived. It announced that he would be jailed in Barcelona and then returned to Manila to stand trial.
That night, he wrote in his journal:
The Mediterranean is a little rough but the boat does not rock. They have given me bad news which, if true, would make me doubt everything. In the afternoon the wind rose and the sky became dark.
As he approached Manila, hundreds of Filipinos were already locked into the dungeons beneath Fort Santiago. Plans were underway to bring in Rizal’s brother, Paciano, and torture him until he was unable to move, speak or feel. As the boat neared the city, guards confiscated Rizal’s journal and examined it for evidence that could be used against him. “The wind rose and the sky became dark,” they read. Nearly all his letters over the four years of his exile had been censored. His books had been burned and had entire chapters removed. But Rizal would reserve one final effort to speak in a way that captured the wholeness of his life, the complexity of his country and the moment of his death. It would be a poem.
Correction: The print version of this article mistakenly stated that José Rizal made a brief return to the Philippines in 1882. Rizal visited the country in 1887. The Caravan regrets the error.
Dorian Merina is a print and radio journalist based in Manila and Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Miami Herald, and The Jakarta Post, while his radio work has been featured on Public Radio International and WYNC. He also serves as a mentor with United Press International, working with student journalists from across Asia.