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.
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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.