It is not very common knowledge that at the time of the National Hero’s exile in Dapitan, his very presence there was felt quite palpably here in the town of what was then known as Cagayan de Misamis. From oral lore, we know that at least two residents of this town were brought to Dapitan for eye treatment. One of them, Paz Corrales, was the sister of my paternal grandmother. She was a spinster who died in our family home at the age of 99. My older siblings who grew up in her presence were all witnesses to her narrative of the time she had gone to Dapitan to have an eye ailment treated. There was no highway then, and Dapitan was reached by way of sailboat travel across the sea off today’s Misamis Oriental and Occidental, across the bay of Iligan.
The other patient of Rizal from Cagayan was Josefa “Inday” Roa who had a congenital disease that made her blind later in childhood. She was the aunt of the late Cagayan de Oro mayor and Misamis Oriental governor, the wealthy philanthropist Pedro “Oloy” Roa.
At the time of Rizal’s exile, Dapitan was a commandancia that was part of the vast second district of Misamis, which then encompassed the two Misamis provinces of today, and Camiguin, Bukidnon, Lanao del Norte, but also today’s Zamboanga del Norte and even a portion of today’s North Cotabato.
Rizal’s presence in northern Mindanao spawned urban legends. There are tales, for example, that he had also set foot in Tagoloan and in the barrio of Agusan in Cagayan. It was said that he came to Tagoloan at the behest of a classmate of his by the name of Urbano Alvarez, a medical doctor like him who had lived in Tagoloan at that time. The tale even claims that the sailboat that took Rizal landed on the shores of today’s barangay Baluarte from where he and his companions walked all the way to the town poblacion about a kilometer away. The elements of the tale all sound believable and real.
Curious to determine the veracity of the tales – for if true it would be a historical gem to know that the National Hero had indeed set foot here once upon a time – I checked out the archives of the University of Santo Tomas. The UST Archives is one of the best authoritative state-of-the-art archival institutions in the entire country. The archivist returned to me by saying that they had found no classmate of Rizal by the name of Urbano Alvarez. And so I thought that he must have been a classmate of his, not at UST where he studied medicine, but at the Ateneo. Rizal’s records at the Ateneo are still extant. Unfortunately, as in UST, no classmate of that name had turned out from the records.
And so these tales must remain as they are, as urban legends. This simply tells us that Rizal was the kind of national figure that can generate historical interpretations that continue to take the form of today’s conjured up tales. That also tells us the kind of following and adulation that he continues to engender.
No region in the country as northern Mindanao could have been more blessed to have hosted Jose Rizal for four years. One reaches this profound realization when visiting Dapitan. In Dapitan, the town plaza itself was designed by Rizal. It was he who planted the acacia trees that ring the peripheries of the plaza. It was he who also designed where to place the kiosk. And then of course, at one side of the plaza is a Rizal artifact that is now declared by the National Museum of the Philippines as a National Cultural Treasure. This is the relief map of Mindanao fashioned out of soil and grass that Rizal had made with his own bare hands, together with his Jesuit friend and mentor, Fr. Francisco de Paula Sanchez.
Across this plaza, inside the parish church of St. James, is another historical marker that indicates the exact spot where Rizal would stand each Sunday to hear mass.
There is also the street that Rizal had once walked on that dark night he arrived in Dapitan for his exile. Commemorated by a historical marker, Rizal and his Spanish captors walked all the way to the town plaza, aided only by a “farol de combate.”
Today, many old families of Dapitan still harbor treasured evidences of their past with Jose Rizal. Some still keep letters and furniture that had once belonged to the National Hero. There is a family, for example, of one of his students in his Talisay farm that has a treasure trove of various pieces of furniture that had once belonged to Rizal and his sister Trining. When Rizal left Dapitan, some of his students went with him back to Manila, hence the material things that they had brought with them back that had once been touched by the National Hero.
At dusk of the day he left Dapitan, the townsfolk all came out to say goodbye, and brought out the town band which played the dolorous Funeral March of Chopin (“Marcha Funebre”). National historical markers are now written in the Tagalog text. This one stands out for its beautiful prose: Sa dalampasigang ito, sa dapit-hapon ng Hulyo 31, 1896 . . . It was probably one of the most spontaneously poignant scenes in the short life of the National Hero. That was the kind of following that Rizal had inspired in life.
In death, the following for him had even intensified. News of his death in 1896 had reached Cagayan. Four years later, Cagayan rose against the new invading colonial masters, the Americans. Many of the those local revolutionaries, men like Nicolas Capistrano, Apolinar Velez, Juan Roa, were all inspired by Rizal and became fierce nationalists. Juan Roa, who was my grandfather, would keep all his Rizal books and pamphlets until his death in 1963.
It is not difficult to be inspired by Rizal, that is what I always tell my students. And the reason is because he was just like us who went through the same hopes and fears in life. He may have been exceptionally intelligent, but he had his own weaknesses. He wept for three days upon knowing of Leonor Rivera’s death. For all his vaunted intelligence, he was an emotionally petty man. He had his own share of fights and arguments. It was said, in fact, that in Madrid, his fellow Filipinos made it a point to avoid him in their drinking sprees for he would always sermonize them. He was too serious and was a wet blanket for company. He was a kill-joy.
But that is precisely the point. An ordinary and weak human being was capable of leaving us these words: “I have always loved my poor country, and I shall love her until my very end.” We who are as ordinary and weak as Rizal could do no less.