December 1, 2016

On Rizal, the artist

by Johsa Manzanilla  (Published in Pilipino Express December 1-15)

On November 19, 2016, the Knights of Rizal (Winnipeg Chapter) hosted an event “Celebrating Rizal the Artist.” ANAK’s Director Johsa Manzanilla was invited to provide the reflection. The following are her remarks.

To begin, it is a privilege and an honour to be invited today by the Knights of Rizal to reflect and expound on such a topic as “Rizal the Artist.” As Levy [Abad] said, I am a musician, actor and performance artist. I sing, play a number of instruments, write my own songs, and perform on stage and in some film. As a young Filipina, I have found it a challenge to balance following my artistic passions and pursuits with making meaningful, tangible contributions to society. I want to add to real world change that has a measureable, positive impact. Moreover, I am aware that a career in the arts does not necessarily provide lucrative financial compensation.

Jose Rizal didn’t start out wanting to make change, wanting to make a difference in the world. He didn’t wake up one morning deciding that he would make the impact that he eventually did. What Rizal did do was live and follow his passions and interests.

Let’s look at what Rizal is known for. We know him as an expert across a number of different subject areas, ranging from science to art. He is considered an intellectual. One might refer to him as a “Renaissance man” – from the period of the Renaissance, when there was a human awakening or enlightenment, a new appreciation for knowing and being able to do all things. He knew 22 languages. He was a Filipino nationalist; and though he was a member of the political reform movement for the Philippine “colony” while under Spain, his writings inspired both peaceful reformists and armed revolutionaries alike to form the anti-colonial revolution. It was a fight for freedom – freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, post-colonial liberation, and equal rights. We also know him for the fact that he was executed by the Spanish for the crime of rebellion.

Rizal was an opthamologist, educator, historian, journalist, farmer and horticulturalist – and a sculptor, painter, novelist, and playwright. Rizal was an artist.

In analyzing Rizal’s collection of produced works, he is also “Renaissance,” so to speak, in that he exceled across a number of different categories of art. He was a poet, an expert in the art of words – such as in his poem to the Philippine youth, A la Juventud Filipina, and in his final poem, written the night before his execution, Mi Ultimo Adios. He was a writer, journaling and creating dramas and plays – including his two novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. He was a fine artist, painting, sketching, drawing, sculpting and woodcarving, using different media; oil, watercolours, crayon, and on paper, porcelain or shells. One teacher remembers him ingeniously melting the fruits from a particular tree in the Philippines and using the melted wax-like substance to sculpt with. He was also a songwriter, having written pieces such as his Himno a Talisay, about the areas surrounding Dapitan, childhood happiness, and the importance of education. For this piece he collaborated with the children at the school he helped build in Dapitan, Zamboanga.

The definition of “art” according to the Oxford Dictionary is “the expression and application of human creative skill and imagination into works that are appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.” Human creative skill, or any human skill for that matter, can be developed. Imagination, however, is only fed by inspiration. Inspiration only comes when there is a basis of knowledge, something that allows us to understand the context or to express ourselves. Education can provide inspiration.

Has anyone heard of the story of the moth? – particularly, Rizal’s reflection on the story of the moth, as he watched two moths flying in the light of a coconut-oil-lit lamp. Rizal at the time was a young boy and had been attempting to read out loud a story to his mother from a book that was in Spanish, and was clearly becoming quite disinterested in it. So, his mother decided to read him another story from the book, translating it into Tagalog. It about the importance for moths to not get too close to the flame in case they be burned. With his mother’s warning voice in the background, Rizal reflects that, “it is a curious thing that the light seemed to me each time more beautiful, the flame more attractive … [The moths] frolicked so joyously in its enchanting splendour that the ones which had fallen and been drowned in the oil did not cause me any dread.” When one of the two insects’ wings get burned by the flame, and it falls into the coconut oil, “fluttering for a time,” then drowning, Rizal recalls how, “A curious change came over me which I have always noticed in myself… [The moth] had died a martyr to its illusions … I knew why the moths circled the flame.”

Rizal left the Philippines after one of his final years of medical school and completed his education halfway around the world. Although he had started out at Ateneo in law school, when his mother’s eyesight started failing, he decided to attend med school at the University of Santo Tomas and then subsequently he went to Spain, without his parents’ knowledge or consent, ultimately receiving further specialization there, as well as in Paris, France and Heidelberg, Germany. He returned to the Philippines to treat his mother, and, despite the imminent dangers, to also participate in the Philippine Revolution. He believed in the freedom of the Philippine people; he remembered why the moths circled the flame.

My message to you is that you don’t have to be an “artist” to do what Rizal did. You don’t have to be an artist to embody those values and those ideals. The search for truth, a fearless search that is most important because with enlightenment, you won’t be kept in the dark. Immerse, explore your roots, and be unafraid. Art is having the courage and bravery to put a light on things hidden.

I’d like to conclude with a quote by a young Filipina woman who herself was anti-colonial. I am choosing to end with a quote by a young woman as opposed to Rizal because I want to highlight that Rizal inspired both men and women alike to love their country so fiercely. In the late 1800s, 20 young Filipina women rallied and campaigned the local Spanish authorities and clergy to be able to attend night school. They were successful, even so far as to demand that they have a Filipina female teacher instead of a Spanish male clergyman. Rizal wrote a congratulatory letter, Sa Mga Kababaihang Taga Malolos: “Now that you’ve responded to our first appeal in the interest of the welfare of the people… you have set an example to those who… long to have their eyes opened and be delivered from servitude… because we have you for our allies and are confident of victory.” Rizal would have been a supporter of the feminist movement.

The young Filipina woman who I will quote founded the Malayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kalabaihan (or MAKIBAKA), which is the precursor organization of the GABRIELA Women’s Party. Her name is Lorena Barros.

“The new Filipina is one who can stay whole days and nights with striking workers, learning from them the social realities which her bourgeois education has kept from her. She is a woman who has discovered the exalting realm of responsibility, a woman fully engaged in the making of history.”

To both the young and old, men and women in this room, I encourage you to be fully engaged in fearlessly immersing, asking questions, discovering – and to understand and accept the exalting realm of responsibility in our love for the motherland – the art of enlightenment, justice and truth.

Johsa Manzanilla is a singer-songwriter, human rights organizer, and the current Director of ANAK. For more information about ANAK’s initiatives, resources and programs, visit