Biography of José Rizal, National Hero of the Philippines

Statue of Jose Rizal in the Philippines

Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

José Rizal (June 19, 1861–December 30, 1896) was a man of intellectual power and artistic talent whom Filipinos honor as their national hero. He excelled at anything that he put his mind to: medicine, poetry, sketching, architecture, sociology, and more. Despite little evidence, he was martyred by Spanish colonial authorities on charges of conspiracy, sedition, and rebellion when he was only 35.

Fast Facts: José Rizal

  • Known For: National hero of the Philippines for his key role inspiring the Philippine Revolution against colonial Spain
  • Also Known As: José Protasio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda
  • Born: June 19, 1861, at Calamba, Laguna
  • Parents: Francisco Rizal Mercado and Teodora Alonzo y Quintos
  • Died: December 30, 1896, in Manila, the Philippines
  • Education: Ateneo Municipal de Manila; studied medicine at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila; medicine and philosophy at the Universidad Central de Madrid; ophthalmology at the University of Paris and the University of Heidelberg
  • Published Works: Noli Me Tangere, El Filibusterismo
  • Spouse: Josephine Bracken (married two hours before his death)
  • Notable Quote: "On this battlefield man has no better weapon than his intelligence, no other force but his heart."

Early Life

José Protasio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda was born on June 19, 1861, at Calamba, Laguna, the seventh child of Francisco Rizal Mercado and Teodora Alonzo y Quintos. The 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, Rizal showed a precocious intellect. He learned the alphabet from his mother at the age of 3 and could read and write at age 5.


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

Rizal 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. He was granted a license in 1881 when he reached the age of majority.

In 1878, the young man 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 May 1882, Rizal got on a ship to Spain without informing his parents. 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 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 for further study in ophthalmology. At Heidelberg, he studied under the famed professor Otto Becker (1828–1890). Rizal finished his second doctorate at Heidelberg in 1887.

Life in Europe

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

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 Wilhelmsfeld, Germany, with the Rev. Karl Ullmer.

Novels and Other Writing

Rizal wrote "Noli Me Tangere" in Spanish; it was published in 1887 in Berlin, Germany. The novel is a scathing indictment of the Catholic Church and Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines, and its publication cemented 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 against 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." When published in English, it was titled "The Reign of Greed."

Program of Reforms

In his novels and newspaper editorials, Rizal called for a number of reforms of the Spanish colonial system in the Philippines. He advocated 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 period, the people of the Philippines grew more eager to revolt against the Spanish colonial presence. Inspired in part by Rizal's progressive organization La Liga, rebel leaders such as 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 to tend to 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. Rizal was tried by court-martial and charged with conspiracy, sedition, and rebellion. Despite a lack of evidence of his complicity in the Revolution, Rizal was convicted on all counts and given a death sentence.

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


A José Rizal Monument in Manila, Philippines
Mariano Sayno / Getty Images

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

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


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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Biography of José Rizal, National Hero of the Philippines." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). Biography of José Rizal, National Hero of the Philippines. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Biography of José Rizal, National Hero of the Philippines." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).