The First Filipino won the Centennial Award in 1961 for best biography of the Philippines’ national hero, Jose Rizal. Rizal is seen as the first native ever to seriously articulate the vision for a united Philippines, then a colony of Spain for more than three hundred years. Rizal’s contemporaries were constrained by regionalism, the same weakness among the natives that were exploited by the colonizers to divide the ethnic regions and prevent any serious united front against the Crown. In the prologue, the Spanish friar is shown as the real power behind colonization: “He was a blind reactionary who reached for the whip when he heard the word progress.” The friar in effect wielded more clout than the civil guard, keeping watch over every indio from cradle to grave. To discourage filibusterism (rebellion or inciting to sedition), the natives are kept ignorant, steeped in religious and folk superstition, hooked to cockfighting and other forms of gambling. The small educated minority composed of mestizos and children of native landowners are held in check, some of whom are trained in the colonial service, using them against their own countrymen.The Philippines has always been ruled by an elite who control most of the country’s wealth. His authority challenged, the last Spaniard (the Spanish friar) would become the great antagonist of the First Filipino. In the opening chapter, the book focuses on the execution of the Three Martyrs – Fathers Gomez, Burgoz and Zamora or “Gomburza” – who are unjustly accused of plotting to overthrow the government. After a hasty trial, they are sentenced to death by means of the garrotte, a contraption whereby the neck is suddenly screwed tight, wringing the neck of the condemned. This incident has a profound influence on the young Rizal, whose brother Paciano was also a student activist. In fact, the family had decided to have young Jose use Rizal as his surname instead of the more well-known Mercado for fear of arousing suspicion on the part of the authorities towards the boy, who has shown early indications of a versatile genius. In time he was to become an artist, farmer, surveyor, physician, novelist, historian, scholar, freethinker. The book traces Rizal’s early awakening to the conditions in his native land. He becomes eyewitness to abuses: his mother herself is a victim, forced to walk a long way as punishment for a petty offense. He deplores the discrimination towards the natives (known as indios); the rampant land-grabbing and other injustice; the corruption in government; the sordid state of education. He also becomes aware of the apathy, indolence, and vices that have kept the indios shackled to poverty. He believes such shortcomings on their part are but the effects of centuries of foreign domination. His travel to Europe after taking up medicine further awakens him to the truth. There he mingles freely with compatriots dedicated to the attainment of reforms at home. As student of history, Rizal comes to believe that his forebears were not the savages depicted in history books, but were quite civilized and prosperous before the white man came. He writes a detailed account of life in the Islands in his novel Noli Me Tengere, which is quickly denounced by the friars as subversive, its copies confiscated. Rizal pictures the Islands as paradise lost, and goes on to annotate Antonio Morga’s history book, correcting what he perceives are biases against the natives. Independence from Spain was at this point too radical, and Rizal shrank from violence. He believes the people, ignorant and incapable of governing themselves, are not ready for independence. It is his view that the people should first be educated before they could begin thinking of independence from Spain. He asks, through his novel ElFilibusterismo
: “What is the use of independence if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?” Seen as a threat to the government, Rizal is banished to the island of Dapitan where he practises medicine, opens a school, tried his hand in farming, undertakes community improvement projects, conducts scientific research, and keeps on writing. During his sojourn in Dapitan he falls in love with Josephine Bracken, an Englishwoman from Hong Kong. He lives with her without the benefit of marriage (Rizal has been ex-communicated by the Church due to his writings). In the meantime, the Philippine revolution has caught up with him. He applies as a volunteer surgeon in Cuba but is ordered to return and incarcerated at Fort Santiago for treason. He is sentenced to die after going through the motions of a trial, defended by a military officer as counsel. He was sentenced to die by musketry on the 30th of December, 1896. His last few hours preparing for execution are among the most controversial of his life. In the chapter The Hounds of Heaven, Guerrero cites accounts of how two of Rizal’s former Jesuit mentors at the Ateneo strive to win him back to the Catholic fold. In this book, Guerrero is of the view that Rizal’s alleged retraction, hotly debated until now, may have indeed come to pass. It does not sit well with the Freemasons and other Rizal historians, but whatever may be its shortcomings, The First Filipino remains one of the best-written books about Rizal, a must reading for everyone who wants to have a comprehensive understanding of Philippine political history and culture.