There was some controversy among the Filipino-American community when busts of their martyred national hero Dr. Jose Rizal, commissioned by the Philippine government, were erected outside branches of Seafood City's supermarket chain in 1996 to mark the centenary of his execution by firing squad.
For some, it was a call for unity to a people whose diverse dialects and cultures originated in an archipelago of 7,000 islands. Others saw it as disrespectful for the supermarket to erect the sculpture in the parking lot of its National City branch.
But the anniversary of Rizal's death, on Dec. 30, was marked last week by a celebration event there hosted by the Council of Philippine American Organizations of San Diego County Inc. and the Philippine American Youth Organization of San Diego. So maybe Rizal Day has become a permanent fixture in the South County calendar after all.
As national heroes go, Rizal is an exceptional man. He wasn't a military figure or a guerrilla fighter but a prodigiously talented eye surgeon, philosopher, engineer and ladies man who spoke 22 languages and traveled extensively.
He also wrote nationalistic and revolutionary books. In 1887 his "Noli me Tangere," a satirical novel exposing the arrogance and despotism of the Spanish clergy, was published in Berlin.
To argue that the Filipinos had a civilization long before Spaniards set foot on Philippine soil, he reprinted a book by a Spanish author with his own commentary added to the text. In 1891, his second novel, "El Filibusterismo," a more revolutionary and tragic sequel to Noli, was printed in Belgium.
His exposure of the injustices committed by the civil and clerical officials (the friars) was a spur to Filipino people striving to assert their dignity but it provoked the colonial regime. He was imprisoned for several days on a charge that anti-friar pamphlets were found in his sister's luggage.
He was then exiled to the city of Dapitan, where he maintained and operated a hospital, and taught languages, arts and sciences. With the help of his pupils, he built a dam and a surveyed a relief map of Mindanao.
Although he played no part in the 1896 revolution, he was nonetheless framed by the Spanish, imprisoned and, after a mockery of a trial, convicted of "rebellion, sedition and of forming illegal association" for which he received the death sentence at age 35.
From the rather plodding movie of Rizal's life directed by Marilou Diaz-Abaya and released in 1998, it appears that Rizal's demands were essentially a peaceful call for civil rights and equal access to education.
From the way Filipino-American organizations in the South County continually stress the value of education, it is clear that his legacy remains undiminished.