As a journalist, there are people I’d give a hand and a foot to interview face to face: Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Hollywood’s Anne Hathaway, Chicago mobster Alfonse “Al” Capone, all the wives of Playboy’s Hugh Hefner, Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, the Archangel Michael, actress Marilyn Monroe, the Apostle Paul and, of course, our national hero José Rizal. The list, as most are dead or alive only in spirit, leaves me with Castro, Hathaway, Hefner’s wives and Llosa.
José Rizal is a subject worth a journalist’s one-year pay check. Nearing his 150th, I have been running in my head a scene where Rizal and I, coffee mugs in both our hands, with a grand view of Laguna de Ba’I, are discussing the latest in national controversies. I have often wondered how Pepé would react to some of the issues of the day.
Nothing can be so strangely surreal, I bet. And for the sake of that one dreamlike leap into what litterateurs call speculative fiction (aren’t they all speculative?), let’s indulge in some magical realism of our own. Now, don’t get all tight-lipped and prickly, historians and purists. This is simply a work of the imagination, not a diatribe on our beloved and revered national hero. It’s a way of celebrating José Rizal’s 150th birthday, and the Philippines Graphic’s 21st anniversary this June.
Philippines Graphic: Who prepares the breakfast of tuyo in your home? Calamba surely has changed from the days of the Spanish colonialists…
José Rizal: A hundred-fifty years have done a lot to change my province. I’m appalled at the prices of goods, especially tuyo, which I was told can reach nearly a hundred pesos per packet! I’m glad the province progressed from its humble beginnings, but I terribly miss the slow and cool provincial life.
What exactly do you miss?
My trips to Laguna de Ba’i. As a boy I used to sit on one of the logs to gaze deeply into the sunset. I have neither seen nor felt anything so lovely in all my travels: the slight chill, the soft breeze, the scent of the lagoon’s fresh waters, the sight of hills and green plains that frame the edge of the blue-crystal bay. Today, only fish pens litter its waters and God-knows-what-else. It never occurred to me that such a huge body of water could grow dark and murky in just a matter of a few decades.
Is the progress you now see anywhere near the kind of progress you envisioned for the country to have?
As for the idea of progress, I have only my travels to European cities to use as a basis.Barcelonawas above all things a lovely and elegant city, so wasBerlin. What I think is worth mentioning was the fact that these cities worked to preserve their history and heritage. I am all for progress, but not the sort that destroys historical landmarks and cultural heritage of a place. Progress, after all, is a journey toward human and cultural development and their preservation.
To sustain progress, fuel is one of its significant requirements. What can you say about the continuing rise of oil prices?
Allow me to throw back a question: what are you, as Filipino, doing about it? If you think your hard-earned money is worth the conveniences that this kind of progress offers, then I will not stand in your way. But if you think this continuing oil price increase hinders and stains the very progress it promises to give, then, again, what are you doing to change it?
What are your thoughts on graft and corruption in government?
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Do you know why I had second thoughts about revolution? It had nothing at all to do with my wanting Filipinas to be part of the Spanish Cortez. Nothing terrified me more than Filipinos winning the war againstSpainwithout so much as a textbook knowledge on self-rule to guide them. I have seenSpainfight tooth and nail for that veritable chance to establish a republic. If it took Filipinos 300 years to fight off the Spaniards, how long do you think it would take to win over our darkest shadows, our most inviolable secrets?
What about the Catholic Church’s apparent meddling in state affairs?
After centuries of seeing man’s utter ability to make a mess of things, including those in its own ranks, the Catholic Church should have learned its lessons by now.
And what lesson might that be?
That God never dropped or broke a single, fragile porcelain plate in His life? (smile)
What about the Reproductive Health Bill?
Don’t ask me. Ask a Filipina. The present state of the Filipina is the best commentary for and against reproductive health. We should have a national referendum where only the women are required to vote for or against the RH Bill.
What about legal divorce?
Didn’t live long enough to be married long enough.
I’m curious about your idea of the Presidency. I presume you’ve heard about a former president who was said to have spent a million pesos of public funds for dinner at Manhattan’s posh Le Cirque. The said President naturally denied using government money to pay the $20,000 tab. Somewhere in a corner street in New York City, about a year after, a new Philippine president enjoyed only a serving of American hotdogs. Do these things say anything to you about the Presidency?
(Breathes deeply, shows hint of exasperation, then grins) Compared to these two, I’m surely the worst of the lot. It would take more than a gun on my head to make me spend a peseta for tuyo. But that’s me and I’m not President. But if I were President, I’d probably treat the chef at Le Cirque and that sidewalk hotdog vendor to a taste of our dried fish, or tinola.
Do you think you’re popular enough to become President of the Republic?
(Laughs loudly) First, I’m not sure if you’ve read my works. They’re not exactly fairy tale material. La Liga Filipina, for all its lofty principles, didn’t last longer than I had expected. And if my own relationship with my fellow ilustrados inBarcelona andMadrid was any indication of my popularity, well, there’s my answer. Go ask Plaridel [Marcelo del Pilar]. Let me throw my own query: do you really want a president who speaks his mind? Believe me, being considered a national hero is bad enough as it is. Got shot in order to be one, didn’t I? I won’t add to my woes by being President. Besides, my beloved Leonor is camera-shy. The thought of her photos splashed in tabloids, I’m sure, will not sit well with her.
What about the current state of education in the country?
I recall my letter to the young women of Malolos: “Ignorance is servitude, because as a man thinks, so he is; a man who does not think for himself and allowed himself to be guided by the thought of another is like the beast led by a halter.” We learn so we can speak for ourselves, not simply echo the words of others. You want your graduates to perform well? Teach them, and then free them to think for themselves.
Having been a national hero for the better part of 150 years, would you give us your idea of real heroism?
Redemption is a product of sacrifice, I once wrote in La Solidaridad. Great and exacting, final sacrifice. No return-on-investments to expect, no other reward except that one chance to die well for country. Every other act is simply bravery.
If you’re given an hour to spend with President Noynoy Aquino, what would you say to him?
First, I’d listen to what he wants to say to me. He probably has more questions than I do. We’ll probably spend the first thirty minutes sharing a smoke or two, and hopefully some local wine, exchanging notes about our ideas on government.
I once said it is a useless life that is not consecrated to a great ideal. It is like a stone wasted on the field without becoming a part of any edifice. That stone, let me add, must someday feel that it is not only part of the edifice, that it is the edifice. The strength of his parents, Ninoy and Cory, didn’t simply rest on their being part of an ideal—they were the ideal. That was what I meant about consecration. The hour Noynoy understands this is the very hour he grows up.
Have you heard about the smoking ban in primary and secondary streets in Metro Manila?
Primary and secondary streets? From where I’m standing they all look alike. But, for the sake of experience, I’m willing to try everything once. Do you have a light?
How did it feel like to face your executioners?
(Lights a cigarette, and puffs…) One only dies once, and if one does not die well, a good opportunity is lost and will not present itself again. That was what I told my good friend Mariano Ponce. In short, it was glorious! You ought to give heroism a try.
JOEL PABLO SALUD is the editor-in-chief and interim literary editor of the Philippines Graphic magazine, the country’s top newsweekly publication under the ALC Group of Publications, which include the BusinessMirror. He is a member of the Unyon ng Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL) and the Manila Critics Circle. He regularly writes reviews for the Philippines Graphic Review of Literature.