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Dr. Jose Rizal—the first Filipino TNT in America?

01:10 PM June 15, 2011

If U.S. immigration authorities were as strict in 1888, when Dr. Jose Rizal visited the US as a tourist, as they are now, the Philippine national hero—whose 150th birth anniversary we celebrate this week—could have faced deportation for an immigration violation.

When Dr. Rizal reached the port of San Francisco on April 28, 1888, after a 15 day journey from Yokohama on board the Belgic, he was placed in quarantine for six days, along with all the Asians on board, while Caucasians were allowed to freely disembark. This experience with racism had a profound impact on Rizal as he later described in a letter to Mariano Ponce in July of 1888:

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“They placed us under quarantine, in spite of the clearance given by the American Consul, of not having had a single case of illness aboard, and of the telegram of the governor of Hong Kong declaring that port free from epidemic. We were quarantined because there were on board 800 Chinese and, as elections were being held in San Francisco, the government wanted to boast that it was taking strict measures against the Chinese to win votes and the people’s sympathy. We were informed of the quarantine verbally, without specific duration. However, on the same day of our arrival, they unloaded 700 bales of silk without fumigating them; the ship’s doctor went ashore; many customs employees and an American doctor from the hospital for cholera victims came on board.”

Rizal would not likely be a victim of racial profiling now as San Francisco and Oakland both have Chinese American mayors (Ed Lee and Jean Quan) while next door neighbor Daly City even has a Filipino American mayor (Mike Guingona). But Rizal might have been detained for a violation that could have made him the first Filipino TNT (slang for “illegal alien”) in America—he entered the US under an assumed name.

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When Rizal was born on June 19, 1861 in Calamba, Laguna, his birth certificate showed his name as “Jose Protacio Mercado y Realonda”, the son of Francisco Mercado y Alejandro and Teodora Realonda y Quintos. That was the name he used until he enrolled at the Ateneo de Manila in 1872.

In 1872, the Spanish authorities cracked down on the secularization movement of native priests who were insisting on the right to preferential assignment in parishes over that of newly arrived Spanish friars. The leaders of this movement led by Fr. Jose Burgos were rounded up and executed by garrote. Rizal’s older brother, Paciano Mercado, was an associate of Fr. Burgos, and was also being hunted down. Fearing that family surname association with him would prevent Rizal from being accepted at the prestigious Ateneo, Paciano obtained a false birth certificate that allowed Jose Mercado y Realonda to enroll at the Ateneo as “Jose Protacio Rizal”.

“Rizal” was picked because it was the name (originally “Ricial” for “greenfields”), which his father adopted at one point until confusion in business transactions compelled him to return back to “Mercado” (Spanish for “market”), the surname his great grandfather, Domingo Lam Co, originally used after immigrating to the Philippines from Jinjiang, Quanzhou in the mid-17th century.

Changing surnames was not easy for the young Rizal who complained in a letter to a friend that the use of this assumed name was “giving me the appearance of an illegitimate child!” Ironically, after Rizal acquired notoriety as the author of Noli Mi Tangere (Touch Me Not) and El Filibusterismo (The Subversive), the entire Mercado family defiantly changed their surname to Rizal in 1891.

Despite entering the U.S. under an assumed name in 1888, Rizal had no problems with the authorities in the 10 days he spent traveling from San Francisco to New York City by transcontinental railroad. Along the way, Rizal passed through Sacramento, Reno, Ogden, Denver, Farmington, Salt Lake City, Provo, before going through Nebraska to Chicago on the way to Albany, New York, and then traveling along the bank of the Hudson River to Manhattan.

“I visited the largest cities of America with their big buildings, electric lights, and magnificent conceptions,” Rizal wrote Ponce in 1888. “Undoubtedly America is a great country, but it still has many defects. There is no real civil liberty. In some states, the Negro cannot marry a white woman, nor a Negress a white man. Because of their hatred for the Chinese, other Asiatics, like the Japanese, being confused with them, are likewise disliked by the ignorant Americans. The Customs are excessively strict. However, as they say rightly, America offers a home too for the poor who like to work.”

Little did Rizal know that less than just two decades later, from 1906 to 1925, more than 125,000 Filipinos would be brought to the US to work in the farm fields of Hawaii and California.

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Rizal may have had a premonition of this future because two years after his US visit, Rizal wrote “The Philippines: A Century Hence” where he explained why none of the European powers as well as a China and Japan would be interested in colonizing the Philippines once Filipinos declared their independence. The only possible foreign power who may be interested in acquiring the Philippines? “Perhaps the great American Republic, whose interests lie in the Pacific,… may some day dream of foreign possession.”

In the course of his storied life, Rizal traveled the length and breadth of the United States, Europe and Asia but the Philippines always remained in his heart. As he reflected in a letter to Fray Pastells in 1895, “It is very possible that that there are causes better than those I have embraced, but my cause is good and that is enough for me. Other causes will undoubtedly bring more profit, more renown, more honors, more glories, but the bamboo, in growing on this soil, comes to sustain nipa huts and not the heavy weights of European edifices.”

Happy 150th birthday, Jose Protacio Mercado y Realonda, alias “Dr. Jose Rizal”.

(Send comments to Rodel50@aol.com or mail them to the Law Offices of Rodel Rodis at 2429 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94127 or call 415.334.7800).

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