I was 10 years old, in Grade Five at the Rosales Elementary School, when my teacher, Miss Soledad Oriel, handed me the Derbyshire translation of Rizal's Noli Me Tangere. From the very beginning, the story gripped me and when I came to the part where Sisa's two sons, Crispin and Basilio, were wrongly accused of stealing, I wept out of pity. They were about my age and I strongly identified with them.
Years later, I recreated Sisa, Crispin and Basilio's mother, in the Rosales saga. She was Tia Nena, and her two boys were Luis and Victor in My Brother, My Executioner. Rizal became the greatest single influence in my life as a writer, and all of my writing has been dedicated to his theme -- the Filipino's search for a moral order and social justice.
My personal discovery of our National Hero happened when I was very young. Today, he is taken for granted -- his monument is in every town plaza, his novels are compulsory reading in schools, and every December 30 we mark his martyrdom.
The Rizal industry itself is very much alive, churning as it does volumes and volumes on the life of this man who best symbolizes what is heroic and noble in us.
I am afraid though that he is not embedded deeply enough in our minds and hearts, particularly in our leaders, for if he were, we would not be in this pitiful rut today.
What rut indeed? Our streets are clogged with fat, glossy cars, the skyline of Manila is studded with monoliths, and our air-conditioned shopping malls are bursting with luxury goods. Ask our government drumbeaters and they will proclaim our economic ascendancy.
But I ask that we look at the many thousands upon thousands who eat only once a day, who cannot go to school because they cannot afford tuition, and who die because they cannot pay for medicine and hospital care. I ask that we look at the truth that there is really no justice in our country because our government systems are ineffective.
All these bring us back to Rizal in his time when he exposed the injustices of Spanish rule. The injustices he faced then are the ideological continuity that many of us can not recognize today when our oppressors are our own elites.
Rizal made me recognize injustice at a very early age. This profound insight is what I hope every young Filipino will also discover and struggle against. Rizal did this not just with his pen but with his very life. With his two novels, he signed his own death sentence. And he returned to the Philippines when he could have easily flourished abroad as a medical doctor. He recognized that the fight for justice was not in Europe or in Spain where he found refuge and friends, but here in his own homeland where injustice was rife.
To recognize the depredation by our own greedy elites is to accept revolution. In the end, this is what Rizal was -- a revolutionary. He gave us memory, and above all, reason to sacrifice.
To be even just a shadow of our National Hero requires of us not just rootedness and intelligence, but most of all, a tenacious affection for this blighted and unhappy country.