Filipinos honor their heroes—the men and women who led or contributed to the country’s struggle for freedom against the Spanish colonizers—on the last Monday of August, which falls on Aug. 28 this year.
But for a group in Arayat, Pampanga, every day is spent in veneration of National Hero Jose Rizal. The group’s members do not even consider formal education for children a priority; they believe in the superiority of learning about the life and teachings of Rizal as taught by their late leader and founder, Epifania Valdejos Castillejos.
The Arayat Rizalistas divide education into the “material” and the “spiritual,” according to Samuel Adrao, 72, a follower of Castillejos for 51 years.
“Material education is the one offered by universities, high schools and elementary schools. Spiritual education is a higher level of learning than academic education,” said Adrao.
Elderly members of the Arayat Rizalistas live in a gated compound called “Señor Ignacio Coronado Enchanted Maria Sinukuan Dr. Jose Protacio Rizal Universal Shrine” in Barangay San Juan Baño, where it was established in the 1950s.
Catillejos, whom the Rizalistas reverently call “Apo Panyang” or “Apo,” was their only teacher. She taught them about Rizal’s “divinity” and social values according to his words and works, principally his two novels, “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo.”
When children were still living in the compound, Castillejos did not require them to attend school. “Apo was already the greatest teacher,” Adrao said. “The compound in Arayat is not an ordinary school because it is God’s school.”
After Catillejos’ death 32 years ago, no one gave instructions on who among the children needed to enroll, or not, in regular schools. Without their teacher, the Rizalistas were left to study their faith on their own.
“Apo said the time will come when she will cease to decide for them. This is why now, parents decide for their children,” Adrao said. The group has no record of the number of children in or out of school.
According to history professor Nilo Ocampo of the University of the Philippines, the Arayat Rizalistas may be considered a cult with a belief system influenced by the country’s dominant Roman Catholic religion.
“Rizal saw himself as Christ,” Ocampo says, pointing out that Rizal uttered “Consummatum est” (Latin for “It is finished”) moments before his execution at Bagumbayan on Dec. 30, 1896. These were the same final words spoken by Jesus Christ as he was dying on the cross.
Ocampo says the Rizalistas’ dim view of formal education is a manifestation of Castillejos’ grip on the minds of her believers. Her word was law as far as they were concerned.
In his book, “Kristo Pilipino: Pananampalataya kay Jose Rizal,” Ocampo counts 21 similar groups nationwide, including several in Laguna, Rizal’s home province, and nearby Quezon.
Although faith in the divine Rizal is common among them, Ocampo says, one group based on Mount Banahaw at the boundary of Quezon and Laguna only believes that Rizal is a hero who followed the ways of Christ, and not a god himself.
“These groups are personalistic,” says Ocampo, adding that they follow the commands of their “god” without hesitation.
The Arayat Rizalistas believe that Rizal’s soul reincarnated as Castillejos in February 1947, a few years before their group was established.
“That soul came from Rizal’s body. It was the female transformation of Rizal,” Adrao said in explaining how their leader became a “god,” too.
Castillejos died at 85 on Dec. 7, 1991. But her death did not mark the end of her existence. As a “mystery of faith,” her followers believe that her soul lives among them to this day.
Last June 19, the group celebrated Rizal’s 162nd birth anniversary in a gathering at the Arayat compound. About 100 of them attended the celebration, offering songs and poems to Castillejos.
They shared with each other not only food but also “personal research” about Rizal. These “studies” help them explain and understand Rizal for their spiritual education, Adrao said.
The Arayat Rizalistas use Rizal’s writings along with Castillejos’ teachings, which have been recorded on cassette tapes, to learn about the national hero, according to Adrao. The cassette recordings, in pure Tagalog, are “so many” and are stored in two “drums,” he said.
Adrao admitted that he had yet to hear the entirety of Castillejos’ recorded teachings. Today, the group is no longer able to listen to the tapes for lack of a cassette player, which was widely used in the 1980s but is now rarely available.
The group does not follow a specific curriculum on what lessons must be learned first in an advancing or graduated manner. Members are now free to decide how they wish to study their faith.
Adrao, a grade school graduate, has been largely self-taught about Rizal since Castillejos’ death. He said he was now “mastering” numerology, which he delved into before joining the Rizalistas, to explain and understand what it meant to venerate the national hero.
“Mathematics and computations helped me understand the mysterious words of Jose Rizal,” he said without elaborating.
Believers may seek help from the personal approaches and “research” of others like Adrao to understand Rizal’s teachings. “Rizalistas have their own approaches to studying, depending on the abilities that Apo gave them,” Adrao said.
He said there had been instances when Rizalista children showed competence in handling normal school work: “Apo took in children who have not received any form of education. But when they attended school, they passed all their subjects. There is nothing impossible with Apo.”
Phrincez Amurao, an Arayat native, said she had a Rizalista classmate when she was in the sixth grade. “She was smart, but she was my classmate for only a year. When I got to high school, she was not in my class anymore,” Amurao said.
Adrao said that when Castillejos was still alive, she ordered that attending school was not required. “You can’t do anything about that because she is God,” he said.
Asked for comment, Barangay San Juan Bano Chair Froilan Soriano said he would speak with Rizalista parents who refuse to send their children to school. “I will then raise the problem to the Department of Education because it has ample knowledge of the legal steps that must be taken,” he said.
Soriano said that fortunately, he had yet to encounter any instance of children being barred from going to school since he took office as barangay chair in 2018. As of last June, there were no children permanently living in the small Rizalista compound.
Castillejos’ death left variations in the ways her followers are acquiring formal education, Adrao said. What remains imperative is for the children to receive Rizalista teachings, although studying in a formal school may still be required for them, depending on their parents’ wishes.
Adrao said that while group members like himself had a better capacity to explain their faith, they did not have official teachers aside from Castillejos.
Completing their spiritual education is a feat that all Rizalistas would not ever accomplish, he said, adding: “No one stops learning. As long as you live, you will continue studying because you aim for perfection.”
In the Rizalista compound, there are old huts serving as residences. There is one main dining area beside the kitchen where there are charcoal-fed stoves.
At the heart of the enclosed community is an altar where images of Rizal and Castillejos are displayed along with small chandelier-like ornaments made of tiny shells—all to signify to the members that they are in “his place.”
For their daily needs, the six Rizalista elders in the compound rely mainly on donations from fellow believers who visit on occasion.
Adrao himself lives with his wife and son, both Rizalistas, in Marikina City in Metro Manila, where he assists people with land ownership concerns at the local government office. He previously worked as a security guard and as a construction laborer.
When she was still alive, Castillejos decided who she would require to live in the compound with her. Now it is up to the community members to decide where to live.
Other members are from the provinces of Pangasinan, Quezon and Palawan, the Bicol and Ilocos regions, and the Visayas. Steep travel expenses allow only those from Bulacan and Pampanga to visit the compound for its activities, like the recent assembly to mark Rizal’s birthday.
In a 2012 report in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Arayat Rizalistas numbered around 300. There is no current reliable figure to indicate the group’s growth or decline. Even Adrao could not provide an estimate.
Adrao’s parents were Rizalistas from Bicol—Christians who embraced “this faith” with help from Rizalista “missionaries.”
Castillejos sent missionaries to various parts of the country to introduce her to the public. But, per Adrao, she stopped this proselytizing work because the missionaries’ “self-interest” got in the way and they went beyond their task.
“Apo told them to stop because they were already introducing themselves, not her. They were causing her stress,” Adrao said.
Adrao himself joined the Arayat Rizalistas in 1972, the year his son was born. But he and other believers are still “waiting” to be declared true Rizalistas.
That may be a long wait because, after Castillejos’ death, there is no one to “baptize” them in the faith. But Adrao doesn’t care. “I am not aiming to reach that point in my life. What is important is that I know Apo,” he said.
Julienne Maxine Espinosa, a third-year journalism student of the University of the Philippines’ College of Mass Communication, is an intern of CoverStory.ph.