Heroes. Have you ever wondered their significance to our nation? How do they mean to us?
What makes a person a hero? Who decides to make someone a hero? These questions entail
that ‘hero’ is more than a four-letter word; that it has a thousand meanings to the people whom
the hero symbolizes. Thus, it begs us to understand how someone becomes a hero and, in the
case of Dr. Jose Rizal, a national hero.

When we start schooling, we are acquainted of the noble qualities of someone who has shown
heroism and who has given significant contributions to our land. As our teachers and society
inculcate us patriotism, they begin to introduce someone with admirable characteristics,
someone who serves as a role model, or someone to be idolized. Then they tell us that these
people who have outstanding achievements are called heroes.

However, did you know that Dr. Jose Rizal is not our official national hero?
In fact, we do not have any official national hero! But why do we call Dr. Rizal our “national
hero? Let’s find out.

Jose Rizal: De Facto “National Hero”

Dr. Jose Rizal Mercado y Alonso (1861-1896) is widely known in the Philippines. Almost
everyone is familiar with him and his martyrdom because of the coinage, stamps, and books
made in honor for him. In addition, his resting place, the Luneta Park, is considered as the
national symbol for our country. Almost every school, town hall, and plaza has his monument.
School children recite a nursery rhyme of his principles. Buildings he touched are made
historical site. He seems immortal in the eyes of the Filipino people.

He is heroic because of his numerous articles and reforms that had awaken the Filipino spirit
and courage during the time of Spanish colonialism and oppression. His exemplary novels Noli
Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo served as a wake-up call to the inhabitants of the Philippines,
especially the Filipino elites. As a result, he was deported, incarcerated, and was sentenced to
death. Henceforth, it makes December 30, the day of his martyrdom, a significant day to
commemorate nationalism in the Philippines.

He is seen as a reformist who advocated peaceful and diplomatic means t liberty rather than
violence to achieve liberty. He was a predecessor of admirable Asian reformist and heroes such
as Mahatma Gandhi and Sun Yat Sen.

Nonetheless, Rizal is honored and remembered as the ‘National Hero’. However, does this
dismiss that other Philippine heroes such as Andres Bonifacio are just local heroes when they
also fought and won battles to protect our nation? This question has aroused numerous debates
for decades. Hence, we should understand first what made, or makes, Jose Rizal a National

Jose Rizal: An American-sponsored Hero?

Distinguished historians recount that when the United States of America conquered the
Philippines from Hispanic rule, they established the first Philippine Republic then a military
government to prepare the Philippines for self-rule.

There is a popular belief that ‘the Americans through the American Governor William Howard
Taft recommended to the Philippine Commission, which was sponsored by the US, to declare
Jose Rizal as a national hero for the Filipinos. The Americans recommended Rizal because of
the fact that he was executed by the Spaniards and of his peaceful way to achieve liberty.

Unlike Andres Bonifacio whose desire to achieve independence for his native land required
armed approach. The Americans deemed this approach to independence of Andres Bonifacio to
be unacceptable and may inspire other Filipinos to rebel against American rule. This is why
Jose Rizal was chosen over him as the national hero. Jose Rizal was declared as the greatest
Filipino hero during the American colonization after the Aguinaldo led armed forces were
subdued during the Philippine-American war.’

When the question of having a National Hero arose, they set five (5) criteria:
1. 1. He must be Filipino.
2. 2. He is already dead.
3. 3. He displayed unconditional love for his country.
4. 4. He was a low temper.
5. 5. He had died dramatically.

After a series of deliberations, it was concluded that Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio are both
worthy to be called national heroes. However, the proposal was opposed by the Americans,
who were still “guiding” the Filipinos during that time. They advised the Filipinos to choose Rizal
because he had ‘peaceful propaganda’ to achieve Philippine liberty, unlike Bonifacio who led a
‘bloody revolution’. Jose Rizal also died a dramatic death making it symbolic and meaning for
the Philippine nation.

Some scholars perceive this as an American propaganda to denigrate Bonifacio who was
against collaboration with the Americans and who led revolution against them. However,
scholars soon found out that there was never an act that explicitly proclaimed Jose Rizal as a
national hero.

According to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, “No law, executive order or
proclamation has been enacted or issued officially proclaiming any Filipino historical
figure as a national hero. However, because of their significant roles in the process of nation
building and contributions to history, there were laws enacted and proclamations issued
honoring these heroes.

“Even Jose Rizal, considered as the greatest among the Filipino heroes, was not explicitly
proclaimed as a national hero. The position he now holds in Philippine history is a tribute to the
continued veneration or acclamation of the people in recognition of his contribution to the
significant social transformations that took place in our country.

“Aside from Rizal, the only other hero given an implied recognition as a national hero is Andres
Bonifacio whose day of birth on November 30 has been made a national holiday.”
Prior to American rule, Filipino revolutionaries led by President Emilio Aguinaldo already
considered Dr. Jose Rizal a Philippine hero. The Decree of December 20, 1898, issued by then
General Emilio Aguinaldo, declared December 30 of every year a day of national mourning in
honor of Dr. Jose Rizal and other victims of the Philippine Revolution.

Andres Bonifacio was honored a hero not later than 1921. Act No. 2946, enacted by the
Philippine Legislature on February 16, 1921, made November 30 of each year a legal holiday to
commemorate the birth of Andres Bonifacio, who also looked up and admired Jose Rizal. The
writings of the latter also inspired the former to gather men who would fight for the country. Act
No. 2760, issued on February 23, 1918, confirmed and ratified all steps taken for the creation,
maintenance, improvement of national monuments and particularly for the erection of a
monument to the memory of Andres Bonifacio.

The Rizal Law: Institutionalizing the Unofficial National Hero

Despite the absence of a formal legislation declaring Dr. Jose Rizal our ‘official’ national hero,
majority of the population know Rizal as THE national hero. This is largely because the life,
works, and legacy of Dr. Jose Rizal has been widely taught in schools, public or private, since
basic education to higher education institutions.

Republic Act No. 1425, known as the Rizal Law, mandates all educational institutions in the
Philippines to offer courses about José Rizal. The full name of the law is An Act to Include in the
Curricula of All Public and Private Schools, Colleges and Universities Courses On the Life,
Works and Writings of Jose Rizal, Particularly His Novels Noli Me Tangere and El
Filibusterismo, Authorizing the Printing and Distribution Thereof, and for Other Purposes.

Senator Claro M. Recto was the main proponent of the Rizal Bill. He sought to sponsor the bill
at Congress. However, this was met with stiff opposition from the Catholic Church. During the
1955 Senate election, the church charged Recto with being a communist and an anti-Catholic.
After Recto's election, the Church continued to oppose the bill mandating the reading of Rizal's
novels Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo, claiming it would violate freedom of conscience
and religion.

In the campaign to oppose the Rizal bill, the Catholic Church urged its adherents to write to their
congressmen and senators showing their opposition to the bill; later, it organized symposiums.
In one of these symposiums, Fr. Jesus Cavanna argued that the novels belonged to the past
and that teaching them would misrepresent current conditions. Radio commentator Jesus
Paredes also said that Catholics had the right to refuse to read them as it would "endanger their

Groups such as Catholic Action of the Philippines, the Congregation of the Mission, the Knights
of Columbus, and the Catholic Teachers Guild organized opposition to the bill; they were
countered by Veteranos de la Revolución (Spirit of 1896), Alagad in Rizal, the Freemasons, and
the Knights of Rizal. The Senate Committee on Education sponsored a bill co-written by both
José P. Laurel and Recto, with the only opposition coming from Francisco Soc Rodrigo, Mariano
Jesús Cuenco, and Decoroso Rosales .

The Archbishop of Manila, Rufino Santos, protested in a pastoral letter that Catholic students
would be affected if compulsory reading of the unexpurgated version were pushed through.
Arsenio Lacson, Manila's mayor, who supported the bill, walked out of Mass when the priest
read a circular from the archbishop denouncing the bill.
Rizal, according to Cuenco, "attack[ed] dogmas, beliefs and practices of the Church. The
assertion that Rizal limited himself to castigating undeserving priests and refrained from
criticizing, ridiculing or putting in doubt dogmas of the Catholic Church, is absolutely gratuitous and misleading." Cuenco touched on Rizal's denial of the existence of purgatory, as it was not
found in the Bible, and that Moses and Jesus Christ did not mention its existence; Cuenco concluded that a "majority of the Members of this Chamber, if not all [including] our good friend, the gentleman from Sulu" believed in purgatory.

The senator from Sulu, Domocao Alonto, attacked Filipinos who proclaimed Rizal as "their
national hero but seemed to despise what he had written", saying that the Indonesians used
Rizal's books as their Bible on their independence movement; Pedro López, who hails from
Cebu, Cuenco's province, in his support for the bill, reasoned out that it was in their province the
independence movement started, when Lapu-Lapu fought Ferdinand Magellan.

Outside the Senate, the Catholic schools threatened to close down if the bill was passed; Recto
countered that if that happened, the schools would be nationalized. Recto did not believe the
threat, stating that the schools were too profitable to be closed.

The schools gave up the threat, but threatened to "punish" legislators in favor of the law in
future elections. A compromise was suggested, to use the expurgated version; Recto, who had
supported the required reading of the unexpurgated version, declared: "The people who would
eliminate the books of Rizal from the schools would blot out from our minds the memory of the
national hero. This is not a fight against Recto but a fight against Rizal", adding that since Rizal
is dead, they are attempting to suppress his memory.

On May 12, 1956, a compromise inserted by Committee on Education chairman Laurel that
accommodated the objections of the Catholic Church was approved unanimously. The bill
specified that only college (university) students would have the option of reading unexpurgated
versions of clerically-contested reading material, such as Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo.

Official or not, Still, A Hero

Renato Constantino argues that he is an American-sponsored hero; that Rizal symbolized
nonviolence and peaceful advancement of reforms, traits that the American occupiers wanted
for Filipinos to adopt and thus prevent further revolts against their hegemony. Others have
hailed Andres Bonifacio as the "true" national hero for organizing the first Philippine government
and leading the first anti-colonial revolution in Asia. The Retraction Controversy has also placed
doubts on Rizal's nationalism and his anti-clerical stance.

There are groups arguing that we make Andres Bonifacio our national hero as there’s no
other hero in the whole wide world who was not a revolutionary (like Andres; Rizal, after all was
a reformist and downplayed the revolution at first).

Regardless, at the end of the day, they all played a great part in our history. All of them
sacrificed a lot for the liberty of this country. It’s just that it is Rizal who captured most of the
people’s heart, and that does not make all the other heroes, known or unsung, any less of a hero. So, official or not, still, they are all heroes. It’s just that, Rizal, for now, is the foremost of them all.

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