Biography of Jose Rizal, National Hero of the Philippines

Biography of Jose Rizal, National Hero of the Philippines

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José Rizal (June 19, 1861-December 30, 1896) was a man of incredible intellectual power and amazing artistic talent. He excelled at anything that he put his mind to-medicine, poetry, sketching, architecture, sociology, and more. Rizal's martyrdom by the Spanish colonial authorities, while he was still quite young, was a huge loss to ‚Äčthe Philippines and to the world at large. Today, the people of the Philippines honor him as their national hero.

Fast Facts: José Rizal

  • Known For: National hero of the Philippines for his key role inspiring and leading the Philippine Revolution against colonial Spain
  • Born: June 19, 1861 at Calamba, Laguna
  • Parents: Francisco Rizal Mercado and Teodora Alonzo y Quintos
  • Died: December 30, 1896 in Barcelona, Spain
  • Education: Ateneo Municipal de Manila, studied medicine at the University of Santo Tomas and medicine and philosophy at the Universidad Central de Madrid (1884); ophthalmology at the University of Paris and the University of Heidelberg
  • Published Works: Noli Me Tangere, El Filibusterismo
  • Spouse(s): Josephine Bracken (married two hours before his death)
  • Children: None

Early Life

José Rizal was born on June 19, 1861, at Calamba, Laguna, the seventh child of Francisco Rizal Mercado and Teodora Alonzo y Quintos. They named the boy Jose Protasio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda. The Mercado family were wealthy farmers who rented land from the Dominican religious order. Descendants of a Chinese immigrant named Domingo Lam-co, they changed their name to Mercado ("market") under the pressure of anti-Chinese feeling among the Spanish colonizers.

From an early age, Jose Rizal Mercado showed a precocious intellect. He learned the alphabet from his mother at the age of 3 and could read and write at age 5.


José Rizal Mercado attended the Ateneo Municipal de Manila, graduating at the age of 16 with the highest honors. He took a post-graduate course there in land surveying.

Rizal Mercado completed his surveyor's training in 1877 and passed the licensing exam in May 1878, but he could not receive a license to practice because he was only 17 years old. (He was eventually granted a license in 1881 when he reached the age of majority.)

In 1878, the young man also enrolled in the University of Santo Tomas as a medical student. He later quit the school, alleging discrimination against Filipino students by the Dominican professors.

In Madrid

In May 1882, José Rizal got on a ship to Spain without informing his parents of his intentions. He enrolled at the Universidad Central de Madrid after arriving. In June 1884, he received his medical degree at the age of 23; the following year, he also graduated from the Philosophy and Letters department.

Inspired by his mother's advancing blindness, Rizal next went to the University of Paris and then to the University of Heidelberg to complete further study in the field of ophthalmology. At Heidelberg, he studied under the famed professor Otto Becker (1828-1890). Rizal finished his second doctorate at Heidelberg in 1887.

Rizal's Life in Europe

Jose Rizal lived in Europe for 10 years. During that time, he picked up a number of languages-he could converse in more than 10 different tongues. While in Europe, the young Filipino impressed everyone who met him with his charm, intelligence, and his mastery of an incredible range of different fields of study. Rizal excelled at martial arts, fencing, sculpture, painting, teaching, anthropology, and journalism, among other things.

During his European sojourn, he also began to write novels. Rizal finished his first book, "Noli Me Tangere" (Latin for "Touch me not") while living in Wilhemsfeld with the Reverend Karl Ullmer.

Novels and Other Works

Rizal wrote "Noli Me Tangere" in Spanish; it was published in 1887 in Berlin. The novel is a scathing indictment of the Catholic Church and Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines, and its publication cemented Jose Rizal's position on the Spanish colonial government's list of troublemakers. When Rizal returned home for a visit, he received a summons from the Governor General and had to defend himself from charges of disseminating subversive ideas.

Although the Spanish governor accepted Rizal's explanations, the Catholic Church was less willing to forgive. In 1891, Rizal published a sequel, titled "El Filibusterismo," and when published in English, it was titled "The Reign of Greed."

Program of Reforms

In both his novels and newspaper editorials, Jose Rizal called for a number of reforms of the Spanish colonial system in the Philippines. He advocated for freedom of speech and assembly, equal rights before the law for Filipinos, and Filipino priests in place of the often-corrupt Spanish churchmen. In addition, Rizal called for the Philippines to become a province of Spain, with representation in the Spanish legislature (the Cortes Generales).

Rizal never called for independence for the Philippines. Nonetheless, the colonial government considered him a dangerous radical and declared him an enemy of the state.

Exile and Courtship

In 1892, Rizal returned to the Philippines. He was almost immediately accused of being involved in the brewing rebellion and was exiled to Dapitan City, on the island of Mindanao. Rizal would stay there for four years, teaching school and encouraging agricultural reforms.

During that same period, the people of the Philippines grew more eager to revolt against the Spanish colonial presence. Inspired in part by Rizal's organization La Liga, rebel leaders like Andres Bonifacio (1863-1897) began to press for military action against the Spanish regime.

In Dapitan, Rizal met and fell in love with Josephine Bracken, who brought her stepfather to him for a cataract operation. The couple applied for a marriage license but were denied by the Church (which had excommunicated Rizal).

Trial and Execution

The Philippine Revolution broke out in 1896. Rizal denounced the violence and received permission to travel to Cuba in order to tend victims of yellow fever in exchange for his freedom. Bonifacio and two associates sneaked aboard the ship to Cuba before it left the Philippines and tried to convince Rizal to escape with them, but Rizal refused.

He was arrested by the Spanish on the way, taken to Barcelona, and then extradited to Manila for trial. José Rizal was tried by court-martial and charged with conspiracy, sedition, and rebellion. Despite a lack of any evidence of his complicity in the Revolution, Rizal was convicted on all counts and given a death sentence.

He was allowed to marry Josephine two hours before his execution by firing squad on December 30, 1896. Jose Rizal was just 35 years old.


Mariano Sayno / Getty Images

José Rizal is remembered today throughout the Philippines for his brilliance, courage, peaceful resistance to tyranny, and his compassion. Filipino schoolchildren study his final literary work, a poem called Mi Ultimo Adios ("My Last Goodbye"), and his two famous novels.

Spurred on by Rizal's martyrdom, the Philippine Revolution continued until 1898. With assistance from the United States, the Philippine archipelago was able to defeat the Spanish army. The Philippines declared its independence from Spain on June 12, 1898. It was the first democratic republic in Asia.


  • de Ocampo, Estaban A. "Dr. Jose Rizal, Father of Filipino Nationalism." Journal of Southeast Asian History 3.1 (1962): 44-55.
  • Rizal, José. "One Hundred Letters of José Rizal." Manila: Philippine National Historical Society, 1959.
  • Valenzuela, Maria Theresa. "Constructing National Heroes: Postcolonial Philippine and Cuban Biographies of José Rizal and José Martí." Biography 37.3 (2014): 745-61.

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