Closing Remarks, October 19, 2015
Filipino American Museum, Bowery Poetry Club
I was asked to share some of my thoughts on what we can draw from Jose Rizal’s work today. But, instead of speaking on behalf of a unified “us,” I thought I would come at it from another angle, to share some of my personal experiences that will hopefully resonate with some of the larger issues that many of us face in the diaspora today.
As a second-generation boy of Filipino and Indian descent, growing up in Toronto in the 80s and 90s, I never really learned about any Filipinos in history class. We didn’t read Rizal in high school. We didn’t have the 1956 Rizal law. And when you grow up not seeing yourself in history, you grow up, in a way, not seeing yourself. When I would see Filipinos and other people of color in the media, they were often represented as one-dimensional, as one-sided generic extras in somebody else’s story. So I was excited when I first started to read Rizal’s work. Refreshingly, and in stark contrast, Rizal’s writings offer us multi-dimensional stories with complex narratives that describe a more human history, with positive characters that embody intelligence, strength, courage, and resistance.
And it is a nuanced resistance. A resistance that transcends oversimplified binaries of an “us” and a “them.” Rizal was a cosmopolitan. He moved between contexts, between countries, like many of us. I think this is what gives his work an underlying tone that I relate to and that speaks to many of our experiences in the diaspora. I also like how Rizal appeals to a higher set of ideals, to the best in humanity, while simultaneously speaking truth to power. His legacy, through his work, is that he gives us a means to remember.
Remembering is an active process. Over the last three days, Rizal’s words, about our history, traveled on our breaths, were spoken through our lips, with our voices. Re-embodied and reconjured through our retellings with our individual inflections and accents.
For me, the act of reading “the Noli” took me back to the small town of Palauig in Zambales where my Lola lived before she died, and where I spent some of my summers growing up. I mapped stories and memories about my family and friends onto Rizal’s characters and I ended up reconnecting with old smells, colors, sounds, and feelings that I don’t often remember when I am here. My memories are often out of context, and are not always forthcoming, like trying to remember the tune of a song while another one is playing.
Reading and remembering are also a means of reconnecting. Reconnecting to our collective history, to our family histories. If you really think about it, Rizal was alive not that long ago. Depending on your age, it was just three or four generations ago. It was around the same time that Kipling was writing about white men and their burdens, and when just a few miles away from here, there were “Filipino headhunters” on display in a human zoo at Coney Island.
The act of remembering can also be an act of opening up to pain, to frustration, to anger, and to ambivalence. But, this is our story to remember. And through our conscious act of remembering, we are listening to Elias’ final whisper to not “forget those who fell during the night.”
According to one report, in the Philippines and in the diaspora, every year, over 10,000 speeches are said in Rizal’s honor. More than a thousand monuments dot the towns and cities throughout the Philippines. I wonder what he would think about all of this? I wonder who he really was? It’s hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to Rizal. It’s hard to know where the man starts and where the stories begin.
But what seems evident, when reading his letters, writings, and speeches is that his confidence, his honesty, his eloquence, and his intellect were noteworthy, and admirable on their own terms. But in addition, they also served to resist the infantilizing and racist perceptions projected onto the “savage” Filipinos by many Spaniards and Americans. These colonial projections, if internalized, can be the most dangerous of the master’s tools, enduring in the mind long after the occupiers have left the country and are dead and gone, passing from generation to generation if left unchecked.
Rizal’s two novels can be viewed as having helped to decolonialize a people’s collective vision, setting the stage for the beginning of the end. To decolonize one’s imagination, to free one’s psychological space is a crucial first step on the road to freedom.
As an artist myself, that Rizal’s stories still resonate so strongly, and that they brought us all together today, more than a century later, reinforces my belief in the power and importance of art. Art as means of critique, but, more importantly, as a way to remember where we have been and to imagine new possibilities of where we will go.
Reading Rizal is made possible in part with public funds from the Fund for Creative Communities, supported by New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature and administered by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
Reading Rizal is also made possible in part with public funds from the Manhattan Community Arts Fund, supported by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and administered by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.