Dark Light
I review a 132-year-old essay by Filipino polymath José Rizal, which is both a wistful imagining of possible futures and a dire warning of impending revolution. Did it accomplish anything?

Rizal wrote “The Philippines A Century Hence” in 1889 for La Solidaridad, a bi-weekly publication created by Spain-based Filipino literati. The ilustrados, as they were called, were the privileged, educated writers and artists who advocated for equal rights at the twilight of Spanish rule.

The ilustrados were instrumental in bringing about the 1896 Philippine Revolution, even if the subsequent victory was marred by lack of international recognition, dampened by further oppression, and pretty much shattered by the World War. Battle-scarred and confused, our current difficultes are perhaps no surprise, for we are young: The world did not acknowledge an independent Philippines until 1946.

“The Philippines a Century Hence” by José Rizal

José Rizal begins his essay about the future of the Philippines by talking about its past. He laments the traditions lost over the past three centuries — the way Filipinos had traded valuable, ancient knowledge for

“…other doctrines, which they did not understand; other ethics, other tastes, different from those inspired in their race by their climate and their way of thinking.”

“The Philippines a Century Hence” by José Rizal

This reminded me of the love of nature and oral tradition Rizal revealed in his essay Mariang Makiling. For that essay, he had hiked to the summit (no mean feat, as I’ve come to experience) and interviewed locals. In this first part of “A Century Hence,” Rizal asserts that the theatrics of the Catholic Church exploited the Filipinos’ “already naturally superstitious spirit” by making them “ashamed of what was distinctively their own.”

To the traditional Filipino, even of today, Rizal’s words are strong: he as good as accuses the Church of “ethical abasement” via cultural erasure. But perhaps he knew that enlightened Europe would have enough sense not to accuse him of heresy — that’s why La Solidaridad was published in Spanish, in Spain.

Aware of the rising tensions at home, Rizal continues to point a less-than-gentle, accusing finger at the Motherland. Though he mentions that there still existed loyalty, fidelity, and attachment for the conqueror, the existing transgressions could no longer be borne:

“The people no longer have confidence in its former protectors, who are now their exploiters and executioners. The masks have fallen.”

“The Philippines a Century Hence” by José Rizal

The following is my favorite excerpt — even if I don’t totally agree with it. Rizal basically writes that despite so much oppression, the country could still be redeemed by thinking minds. It’s a very poetic, very emotional statement, but proclaimed from a plinth of privilege.

“In spite of the dark horde of friars, in whose hands rests the instruction of youths who miserably waste years and years in the colleges, graduating tired, weary, and disgusted with books; in spite of censorship which tries to close every avenue to progress; in spite of all the pulpits, confessionals, books, and missals that inspire hatred, not only for all scientific knowledge, but even toward the Spanish language itself; in spite of a whole elaborate system perfected and tenaciously operated by those who wish to keep the Islands in holy ignorance, there exist writers, freethinkers, historians, philosophers, chemists, physicians, artists, and jurists. Enlightenment is spreading, and persecution only quickens it. No, the divine flame of thought is inextinguishable in the Filipino people, and somehow, it will shine forth and compel recognition. It is impossible to brutalize the inhabitants of the Philippines!”

“The Philippines a Century Hence” by José Rizal

In the Philippines we occupy now, our athletes strongly consider repatriation; our physicians go abroad; our writers, philosophers, and freethinkers often risk public ridicule and legal persecution; our artists usually can’t afford to take political sides; many of our jurists are characters of questionable honor. Rizal seems to have forgotten that his brains, and those of his contemporaries, formed part of an educated minority. They are the faces we see on our coins and peso bills today; they’re that special.

Rizal speaks of “the divine flame of thought,” further asserting that poverty is futile in suppressing the Filipino people. Not to be pessimistic, but I’d say poverty has held us back, and on a large scale. In our generation’s experience, rational discourse is easily overcome by the apathy or anger of millions of impoverished Filipinos, who just want peace and their daily bread. That said, our author isn’t all sparkling eyes — he issues his “prediction.”

“The Philippines, then, will remain under Spanish domination, but with more law and greater liberty, or they will declare themselves independent, after steeping themselves and the mother country in blood.”

“The Philippines a Century Hence” by José Rizal

We all know what happened: Himagsikan. Revolución.

The essay’s title is clickbait; it’s less a prediction than a barely veiled ultimatum. Rizal is warning European society that unless things change for the better, there will be a bid for independence. Like Cassandra, he was unheard, and many of his contemporaries would choose to take up arms — or spend the remainder of their lives away from their homeland.

“Since it is necessary to grant six million Filipinos their rights, so that they may be in fact Spaniards, let the government grant these rights freely and spontaneously, without damaging reservations, without irritating mistrust. We shall never tire of repeating this while a ray of hope is left us…”

“The Philippines a Century Hence” by José Rizal

Later, Rizal would pen his strong disapproval for the 1896 uprising, decrying it as “criminal” and “plotted behind my back.” The Katipuneros had used his name as a passcode and a battle-cry, implicating him in a violent uprising he had not approved of. In this, Rizal shared the fate of his fictional character Crisostomo Ibarra, whose peaceful attempts at minor reforms won the hearts of the rebels and earned the wrath of the friars.

The National Hero that Never Was

José Rizal’s preference for gentle diplomacy was, in some ways, futile. There were results, just not as peaceful as he’d hoped for. In both his novels, he had made references to “The pen is mightier than the sword,” a line from the 19th century play, Cardinal Richelieu. Indeed, the fact that he ended up receiving more than the full weight of the law meant that his words had struck and stung.

The revolution did not exactly liberate the Philippines. Spain, already struggling to maintain power over both Cuba and the Philippines, found itself at war with the United States. In the 1898 Treaty of Paris, Spain ceded the ownership of the Philippines to the U.S. for $20 million, a nominal fee for the existing infrastructure in the country. The conquerors simply changed uniforms.

Perhaps as consolation to patriotic sensibilities, the U.S. government promptly declared as heroes many who died in the revolution — even those who fought against the Americans themselves. As a result, generations of Filipinos have grown up with a very mixed assortment of “heroes” from the end of the 19th century. José Rizal was particularly lauded, possibly because he was the least violent example available. Thanks to William Howard Taft and decades of uncorrected textbooks, many of us think of José Rizal as our “national hero” — when he is not (because there is no official, national hero).

The Fruits of the Propaganda Movement

La Solidaridad called for political reforms and equal opportunities — not total independence. Its founders and contributors, however, eventually found themselves caught in the whirlwind end of an era. Fueled by centuries of oppression, the Propaganda Movement saw its final form in the radical Katipunan.

Many of the original ilustrados died in battle or in exile, though some lived to wield a measure of political power well into the mid-20th century. As for Rizal, despite his many heartfelt assertions that the Philippines would be better off remaining a Spanish colony, he would be executed for rebellion.

It’s hard to imagine the same fate for today’s erudite bourgeoisie. Generations of experience have informed the average Filipino that a bloody fate awaits the patriotic loudmouth. But if the tide of history is changing once again, it may very well be that another time for heroes is upon us — whatever we mean by “heroes.”

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