Ateneo De Naga high school 1980

Those who do not remember history are bound to live through it again.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Dr. Jose Rizal's travel across United States of America

I felt a bit uncomfortable while writing this article because I have only limited access to research materials. This is one of those days where I wish I was back in the Philippines where credible research materials are within reach. With very little material that I have to work with, hopefully this article has some value to an amateur historian. Today, I would like to write a short article about Dr. Jose Rizal’s travel to America.

About a decade ago, my wife & I plus our children traveled to Seattle, Washington to visit my good friend, Peter Ivan Guballa. During the first day of our visit, Peter invited me to go for a fast walk at a scenic trail. After walking about a mile we came to a park that is named, to my surprise, Dr. Jose Rizal Park! In the middle of the park is a statue of Dr. Rizal with a bronze plaque below it containing a short inscription about the Philippine national hero.

I was in disbelief at first because I never expected to find a small memorial park honoring Dr. Rizal in a place that is half a world away from the Philippines. The park sits on a hill that offers a panoramic view of downtown Seattle. Still feeling bewildered, I asked Peter if the Philippine national hero ever visited Seattle. Peter said that Dr. Rizal never step foot in Seattle. The place where Dr. Rizal landed during his visit to America was San Francisco, which is 800 miles south of Seattle, Washington. The Dr. J. Rizal memorial in Seattle was built to honor the Filipino martyr who was executed in 1896 by the Spaniards. It also recognized the Filipinos who migrated to Seattle in the early 1900s.

Dr. Rizal’s journey to America started at Yokohama, Japan on April 13, 1888. He boarded an English steamer named The Belgic. His heart felt pain while boarding the steamer because he knew that he will never be able to see the beautiful country of Japan again. He also felt sad because he will be leaving a Japanese girl he fell in loved with named Seiko Usui, whom he affectionately call O-Sei-San.

During the trans-Pacific voyage, Rizal met a semi-Filipino family. The mother of the family is the daughter of an Englishman whose last name is Jackson. The family brought with them a servant from Pangasinan. The child of the family asked Dr. Rizal if he knew a man in Manila named “Richal”, the author of Noli me tangere. Dr. Rizal told the child that he was the “Richal”. Upon hearing this, the mother was delighted to learn that there is a celebrity on board the ship.

One of the passengers in the ship was a Japanese national named Tetcho Suehiro (1849-1896). Tetcho is a journalist, novelist, professor and a statesman in Japan. He was imprisoned for criticizing the press ordinances in 1875 in Japan. According to one account, Suehiro was branded as a radical and was forced to leave Japan by the Government. Early during the voyage, Suehiro was mostly alone thinking that he was the only one in the ship who spoke Japanese. Dr. Rizal learned about this and befriended Suehiro and acted as his interpreter during their train trip from San Francisco to New York and their voyage from New York to London where they parted ways on December 1, 1888.

During the eight months that they were traveling together, Dr. Rizal told Suehiro about his life and his personal crusade against the oppressive Spanish rule in the Philippines.

Suehiro later wrote a remark about his impression on Dr. Rizal:

“Mr. Rizal….young as he was, he was proficient in seven languages. Rizal was an open-hearted man…He was an accomplished, good at picture, skillful in exquisite wax work, especially. …frank and daring fellow, fond of various arts, especially good at dearing…”
After traveling fifteen days across the Pacific Ocean, the steamer Belgic finally reached San Francisco in April 28, 1888. Upon learning that the ship carried Chinese nationals, the health officials at the dock immediately place the ship under quarantine. What disturbed Rizal is the clear act of discrimination done against the Asian passengers. When Rizal wrote a letter to Mariano Ponce in July 1888, he mentioned this incident. Rizal wrote:

“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 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. Afterwards only the passengers of the first class were allowed to land; those of the 2nd and 3rd classes – Japanese and Chinese -- remained for an indefinite period. It is said that in that way they got rid of about 300 Chinese, letting them gradually die on board. I don’t know if it is true.”
Rizal also wrote that the health officials were not afraid of the cargo of silk being contaminated (each bale cost $700) and these officials even ate their lunch on board the ship. It appears here that the merchandise cargo got more respect than the human cargo.

Six years prior to the arrival of Rizal in San Francisco, The Chinese Exclusion act was signed into law on May 8, 1882. This law banned Chinese nationals from migrating to the United States. The Chinese exclusion act was made permanent in 1902 but was repealed in December 17, 1943 because China became an important ally of the U.S. against Japan. It allowed a national quota of 105 Chinese immigrants per year. The Chinese only started migrating to the U.S. in groves after the immigration act of 1965.
Even though that Federal law was repealed in 1943, the laws in California still prevented the Chinese from marrying whites. That California law was eventually repealed in 1948.
On May 4, 1888 at three in the afternoon the quarantine ended. Dr. Rizal checked in at the Palace hotel which is considered a luxurious hotel in San Francisco. The room rate at the Palace was $4 per day.

(According to one historical article I read about hotels back in 1888, hotel room rates included the meals for the day. Luxury hotel room rates during the late 1800s ranges between $2 to $3 per day in California. Per 1890 census, the average daily income then for a worker was $1.53 a day.)
Dr. Rizal did a lot of strolling around downtown San Francisco visiting places like The Golden Gate, which is a short distance from the Palace hotel. He mentioned that the best street in San Francisco is ‘The Market’ street. He also went to a street near Chinatown.

(note: The Golden Gate that Dr. Rizal visited is not the Golden Gate Bridge for the bridge was not yet built in 1888. Dr. Rizal visited the Golden Gate PARK).

Rizal left San Francisco on May 6, 1888 and boarded a train (possibly a Southern Pacific Railroad train) that was loaded up on a train ferry at Port Costa. The only known train ferry service I know that transported trains from Port Costa to Benicia back in 1888 was the 424 feet long Solano train ferry. Solano was capable of carrying entire passenger trains or a 48-car freight train plus locomotive. It was in service from 1879 to 1930.

Rizal bought a 75-cent dinner at Sacramento, California and slept at the train coach. I wonder what kind of dinner Rizal bought? The cost per pound of round steak back in the late 1800s was 12 cents per pound. Strangely enough, the price for a pound of butter during the same period was 25.5 cents. Rizal also ate a meal at Provo, Utah for the same cost of 75 cents.

While traveling through Utah, Rizal noticed that in spite Mormonism being the dominant religious order in the state, the cities are not thickly populated. I guess Mormons had been to known to have large families. One strange observation that Rizal noted was in Utah, the ones who waited on restaurant tables are women.

Rizal observed that the state of Colorado has more trees than the three previous states they traveled through. In Chicago, he noted that every tobacco shop has a statue of an Indian. (Tobacco was introduced by the American Indians. The Indian statues were used to signal to people, specially the illiterate ones during those early years, that the store sells tobacco and permits smoking inside the establishment.)

The train stopped for a few hours near Niagara Falls where Rizal went down to the foot of the falls. Rizal was amazed by the titanic size of the falls and the thunder that it created as more than 168,000 cubit meters of water poured down from the falls every minute. He called the falls as “The majestic cascade” in his letter to Mariano Ponce.

As they were living Niagara falls in the evening, Rizal described the mysterious sound and echo that he heard coming from the falls. Though Rizal was impressed by Niagara Falls, he noted in his diary that it is not as pretty as the falls in Los Banos. But he added that there is no comparison between the two falls.

When Dr. Rizal arrived in New York, he got a room at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. From the time Rizal arrived in New York on May 13, 1888 at 11:10AM until he left for Europe on May 16th at 9AM, he did not write a lot of details about what he saw and observed in New York. In one of his letters, Rizal wrote that New York is a big city and “everything is new”. Rizal probably wrote this observation because he was used to the aged and antiquity of buildings and other material things that is a common sight in Europe.

Rizal also mentioned in the same letter that he visited “some relics of Washington”. He called Washington as “The great man whom I believe has no second in this century”. It is interesting to me that Rizal praised George Washington because Washington used military means to gain independence from the British. I can’t help but wonder if Dr. Rizal was inspired by Washington’s military achievements and hoped that the same armed struggle for emancipation can be achieved in the Philippines.

Ten years after Rizal visited New York, Dr. Pio A. Valenzuela met with Dr. Rizal at Dapitan in June 21, 1896. Dr. Valenzuela laid out the Katipunan’s plan for an armed revolt against the Spaniards. During this meeting, Rizal shared to Dr. Valenzuela his approval for an armed revolt to gain independence from the Spaniards. But Rizal pointed out the importance of having arms and also the support of the aristocratic Filipinos.

There are historians who claims that Rizal never approved of an armed revolt to gain independence. But in the memoirs written by Dr. Pio A. Valenzuela during the 1920s, he mentioned the details of his meeting with Dr. Rizal where Rizal even shared with Dr. Valenzuela his attempt to borrow money from a rich Filipino so that he can buy arms from Japan. But a school of historians are doubting the accuracy of the memoirs because of the inconsistencies that had been found in it.
Even though Rizal was repulsed by the mistreatment of the Chinese nationals on the Belgic steamer, Rizal never mentioned being personally discriminated while traveling across America. Though he never experience discrimination, he wrote this observation:

“I visited the largest cities of America with their big buildings, electric lights, and magnificent conceptions. Undoubtedly America is a great country, but it still has many defects. There is no real civil liberty. In some states a Negro cannot marry a white woman, nor can a Negress marry a white man. Because of the hatred of the Chinese, other Asiatics, like the Japanese, being confused with them, are likewise disliked by the ignorant Americans. These customs are excessively strict."

Though Rizal wrote about the social ills of America, he also added this statement:

“However, as they say rightly, America offers a home to the poor who like to work.”
I wonder if Rizal saw the very first vending machine ever installed in America. The first vending machine was placed at the elevated New York train station in 1888 and it dispensed Tutti-Fruitti gum.