Noli me tangere

By Basilio Valdehuesa – I HAVE always had a strange relationship with Jose Rizal and his works. As a Filipino-American who migrated to the United States at the age of 9, I never had to read and study “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo,” as did many of my contemporaries who were educated in the Philippines. But like the stamps of my identity, like my almond-shaped eyes and tanned skin, I have always carried the ghost of Rizal with me, especially because of my first name. Everywhere I go, educated Filipinos would ask, “Hey, Basilio, where’s Crispin?” And for most of my life, I had only a vague idea of what they were talking about because I had not read Rizal’s works, although I was aware that his writings played a significant role in my homeland’s struggle for independence.

It wasn’t until I was 27 and a graduate student that I finally picked up “Noli Me Tangere” and plunged into it, plumbing my identity as an “exiled” Filipino. That led me to a discovery that revealed more to me about myself, the land where I came from and the brilliance of my countrymen.

Even as a child, I knew (thanks to my curiosity about this strangely titled book sitting on my parents’ bookshelf) that the popular translation of “Noli Me Tangere” was “Touch Me Not.” I always thought it was an odd title for a book of its repute, for what did a command not to be touched have to do with Philippine independence? I also found it strange that the title did not sound Filipino, or even Spanish (which many people I knew believed it was). I assumed that if I read the book, I would know why Rizal chose this title.

Reading “Noli,” however, I could not find any overt reference that would give its exact meaning. When I discussed this with my parents and my contemporaries, I learned that Filipinos are often taught that “touch me not” was a request from Filipinos to their Spanish colonial masters to “leave them be” or to stop abusing our people. But this sounded too simplistic to me. For if it was meant as a request to be left alone, why did Rizal choose to put it this way and in a strange language?

In the introduction to his English translation of Rizal’s book, Leon Maria Guerrero offers another explanation: “Touch Me Not” refers to the Spanish religious orders of the time, who were considered invincible and “untouchable,” and whose despotic and corrupt practices were the principal target of the book. This explanation I also found inadequate. I felt it did not go deep enough into the heart of the matter.

In graduate school, I finally decided to get to the bottom of this mystery. On the Internet, the first thing I discovered was that “noli me tangere” was not something that was unique to Philippine history. It is Latin, and it can be found in the Bible in John 20:17: “Noli me tangere,” Jesus tells Mary Magdalene upon her discovery of His resurrected body, following His crucifixion and burial. It is a dramatic moment, captured by many paintings over the centuries that bear the injunction as their title.

I also found out the meaning of “noli me tangere” has never been precisely defined, and that it has been the subject of debate among Christian theologians and scholars for hundreds of years. One eminent theologian, Fr. Raymond Edward Brown, has counted at least 11 different interpretations given by various scholars.

Some said Jesus’ wounds were still sore, and so He asked not to be touched to be spared the pain. Others believed that Jesus was admonishing Mary Magdalene not to look for physical proof that He was alive but instead to have faith in His Resurrection. But among the many different interpretations identified by Brown, the most plausible, to me, was the one advanced by St. John Chrysostom, bishop of Antioch in the 4th and 5th centuries. St. John said that when Jesus uttered those words, He was asking for respect. St. John believed that Jesus was saying, “Approach Me not as ye did before, for matters are not in the same state, nor shall I henceforth be with you in the same way.”

When I read St. John, I had a eureka moment. I felt sure that this was what Rizal intended to say when he gave his novel the title, “Noli Me Tangere,” not only because of its relevance to the Filipinos’ relationship with their colonial masters, but also because the name of “Noli’s” hero, Juan Crisostomo Ibarra, has an uncanny similarity to St. John Chrysostom’s. Moreover, St. John was known to have openly criticized the Church and the government of his time, denouncing their corruption and excesses. (“Chrysostom” is Greek for “golden-mouthed,” a name given to the bishop because of his reputation as a great orator and speaker of the truth.) And he was severely punished for his views by being banished and exiled. The parallels between the experiences of St. John and Ibarra cannot be mere coincidence.

This discovery about the title of his book, our national treasure, underscored for me the brilliance of Jose Rizal, and made me proud to be a Filipino. It showed that long before the age of the Internet and advanced information technology, Rizal was a scholar who had studied the writings of a 5th-century bishop whom very few people know, both in the Philippines and in the United States. Rizal even directly quotes the saint in the last chapter of his other masterpiece, “El Filibusterismo.”

I have observed that we Filipinos often put ourselves down. We seem to believe that we are inferior to other peoples, especially the Americans and Europeans. Whenever I return to my homeland, I am assailed by billboards featuring actors and models who don’t look like the Filipinos walking in the street, and by products like skin whiteners that are an affront to people like me who have the benefit of living in a society that teaches that all people are equal, no matter the color of our skin. Even in the United States, where Filipinos are the second largest Asian immigrant group, we do our best to be unobtrusive and barely recognizable by other Americans. We are often mistaken for Chinese, Koreans or Vietnamese, because we try to discard our culture quickly and assimilate with other groups, hoping we can get rid of our “flaws” and imbibe the “superior” aspects of other cultures.

Jose Rizal was a great man. He was of slight stature and had almond eyes, a wide nose and brown skin. Once he wrote, referring to the virtues of justice, law and reason, that “it is useless to answer certain objections of some fine writers regarding the rather brown skins and faces with somewhat wide nostrils … Law has no skin nor Reason, nostrils.” Let us honor him by remembering his fine example and taking with pride our rightful place in the world, knowing that we are a gifted and beautiful people.

Basilio I. Valdehuesa, 28, recently graduated from New York University with a master of science degree in Global Affairs.

Find more like this: Opinion


  1. […] by Jaki’s Notes and in  Raf’s Site. A Filipino-American’s reflections are in the Pinoy. And Canis Lupus Dendron Deux on a Rizal comic book: see Amazing Dr. […]

  2. reb_el z. says:

    i still grapple with the thought of why we should celebrate jose rizal as a hero…hopefully i can be enlightened one day

  3. Datu Puti says:

    Though he did not take an active role in the revolution, he was the driving inspiration behind it. Most know that there have always been people that took up arms and struggled against imperialism from Magellan’s landing until today. The eloquent works of Rizal brought solidarity to the people. It voiced their pains and the ills of society. His works were the driving force in the creation of the Katipunan. It was used to recruit men and open up the peoples eyes to the evils around them. It’s an injustice, my trying to explain his role and contributions. If you haven’t yet, please read his works. Get introduced to Crisostomo Ibarra and Maria Clara. Find out why it is that this and its sequel were banned in the Philippines during Spanish occupation.

  4. Sheree says:

    You can read Noli Me Tangere online here

  5. reb_el z. says:

    tnx. will do. let u kno wut i think when i’m done

  6. *knock*knock* says:

    I agree with you reb_el z. I too cannot feel the essence of Jose Rizal of being a hero. Maybe one day I can be enlightened also… I really hope so… :D

  7. Datu Puti says:

    Knock knock, if you have not read Noli and Fili, I suggest you do. He opened the peoples eyes and gave them hope. He brought solidarity and fused the Filipino identity, before everyone identified themselves as either Bisaya, Ilocano, Tagalog, etc. His works inspired people like Andres Bonifacio and sparked the revolution. Just read the books and you’ll understand. If it pissed me off, reading about things I knew nothing about or was not experiencing, imagine what it did for the people that were living it.

  8. jean says:

    For reb and knock, you should really know the relevance of Dr. Rizal’s works and achievements for you to realize your exact role in our country.. Think of this: What Rizal did was for our country’s sake.. he made a great role in behalf of others.. What he has shown was his great LOVE and CARE for us filipinos.. Now, can you imagine of yourself living alone without someone sees you or accountable enough to support you? Well, Rizal was one of those people who gave certain effort and time for the goodness of everybody.. that’s why he is considered to be our NAT’L HERO for he has exerted unusual and extraordinary endeavor for our country.. :->

  9. jean says:

    Thank you Datu Puti! you’re so nice…. be good always and GODBLESS YOU and YOUR FAMILY! :->

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