To the rest of us, the Independence Day celebrations are a reminder of Dr. Jose Rizal's greatest achievement: rekindling the spirit of nationalism in a people long stripped of dignity after centuries of invasion and colonization. To a small group of Filipinos, however, Rizal’s greatness transcends even his status as a national hero, placing him at the center of a religion where he is no less than a divinity.
On this day, Rizal's followers—who call themselves Rizalistas—from the hero-god's hometown of Calamba, Laguna, are expected take to the streets to join other Rizalista churches in a procession. Everyone is dressed in all-white attires, with women wearing long dresses, and the men neat and trim in their barong tagalog.
Half an hour away from the town proper, past the abundance of houses and the hectares of farming fields, by the shore of Laguna de Bay and at the foot of Mt. Makiling in Calamba City is a small sitio that seems stuck in the past, where the remaining Rizalistas reside. This is Sitio Ronggot, and there stands a small, lone chapel for the Rizalist church of Sagrada Familia.
Sitio Ronggot’s Sagrada Familia believes in a holy trinity much like Christianity: with Diyos Ama being Señor Ignacio Coronado, also known as Apo Asyong, whose name appears in the teachings of many Rizalista sects; the Diyos Ina, known as Inang Adarna; and Diyos Anak, who, like Jesus, had come in human form. It is their belief, however, that the Holy Child came down in the form of Dr. Jose Rizal. Amang Doktor, they call him. The different Rizalist churches are connected by their devotion and faith in Rizal as a deity, though they are scattered across the country, with varying doctrines and traditions.
Some Catholics-turned-Rizalistas in the area have managed to find convergence in Catholic doctrine and Rizalista teachings. The use of the cross, the Bible, and the reverence for Mary and Jesus stayed with them. The Catholic Sign of the Cross is also used with some variations. Mainly the common ground, however, is their belief of a messiah who will bring them salvation through his second coming.
The far-flung sitio may not seem like the best location to build a church, but the founder of Sagrada Familia, Danny Bibat, seemed to see something in it when he led a few other families from Pangasinan to what they believed was their Promised Land. Sitio Ronggot is where they were to start a new community and build a church, the perfect location to meet Rizal the messiah as he was prophesied to descend from Mount Makiling.
Sitio Ronggot is where they were to start a new community and build a church, the perfect location to meet Rizal the messiah as he was prophesied to descend from Mount Makiling.
"Dito kami idinestino ng kapangyarihan ng Diyos Ama, Diyos Ina, Diyos Anak, at Diyos Espiritu Santo. Kaya kahit anong hirap nagtitiyaga at nagtitiis kami dito," says Gloria Bibat, the current leader of Sagrada Familia.
Sitio Ronggot's residents are now fourth-generation Rizalistas who still hold their beliefs intact. After Danny Bibat’s passing, the responsibility of leading the church fell to his sister, Gloria. Also known as Nanay Gloria, she is now in her 90s—frail, hard of hearing, weak of memory, and beset with many medical issues related to old age. Despite all this, her devotion to Rizal has not wavered.
In their kapilya is a seven-foot tall sculpture of Rizal; on the altar are various framed pictures depicting Rizal, side by side with the Holy Trinity and the symbol for the All-Seeing Eye. The church has attracted its share of visitors, from college students on exposure trips to curious travelers—some of whom have added a few mementos to the altar. The chapel's seats are old chairs from a neighboring public elementary school, and above the church, the broken ceiling houses a few birds and critters.
Behind the altar is a small room with a single bed, done up in fresh white linen and with a kulambo draped from above. It looks like an ordinary bedroom—for one of the leaders of the church, perhaps. According to Virgie Bibat, the right-hand woman of Nanay Gloria, the bedroom is for the spirit of Apo Asyong, who sometimes visits the chapel.
"At kahit makapal ang ulap, lilitaw rin ang liwanag. Jose Rizal ang kanyang pangalan na martir sa bagumbayan. Siyang Kristo ng Kapilipinohan." —from a Rizalista hymn
During their Mass service on Sundays, the small chapel is usually far from even being half full. There may be around ten attendees—mostly senior citizens, mostly members of the Bibat clan. They recognize that they can't really stop worshippers from having a change of heart, or from moving away from the sitio to find a better life.
The Mass service does not have a strict format, but it starts at 8am every Sunday, and end on different times. Mostly it consists of singing old Rizalist hymns a capella; the attendees would sometimes go around the room in a circle, or kneel on the cheap linoleum floor as they sing. Nanay Gloria leads the service: She would tell them when to sing or to stop, when to kneel, when to pray. The aging leader would forget how much time has passed, and sometimes she would request for a song that they had already sang, and everyone has a hard time hiding their disappointed faces.
Sermons are always a part of their service, which means Nanay Gloria will share well-memorized Bible verses and and talk until she becomes too weak to stand. At the end of every service, they would line up to kiss the Philippine flag as Nanay Gloria reminds her “anak” of love of country.
Blinded by the weird spectacle that the Rizalistas present, most people never see the residents' more mundane struggles. Sitio Ronggot is one of the most poverty-stricken areas in Calamba, and most of the people there have not even gone to high school. Many make a meager living by growing and selling their main commodity, kangkong, while a few others engage in subsistence farming or fishing. They just try to get by from day to day without starving.
Sitio Ronggot has no proper water and sewerage system, and the residents rely on poso for their water needs. Only select houses have electricity. When rainy season comes, flooding is so common in the sitio that some houses have raised floors. Illnesses would inevitably strike, and, worse, their crops may be wiped out, along with their living.
"Maraming paghihirap namin dito lalo na noong ako'y nabalo. Itinaguyod ko yung anak kong walo. Maski araw o gabi, dadalhin ko sa palengke ang kangkong ako lang mag isa namamangka sa bangka namin na kahoy. Hindi ako natatakot. Wala yung takot ko basta hinihingi ko lang ang tulong ng ama't ina na huwag akong pabayaaan para aking mga anak, mga supling ko'y mabuhay ko," confided Virgie Bibat to our documentary team.
Blinded by the weird spectacle that the Rizalistas present, most people never see the residents' more mundane struggles. Sitio Ronggot is one of the most poverty-stricken areas in Calamba, and most of the people there have not even gone to high school.
As much as they pride themselves living on their Promised Land, the Rizalistas of Ronggot have lived decades in the sitio as informal settlers. No land title prove their ownership of the land they've built their church and homes upon, though they have tried to obtain them in the past. They are well aware that one day, the time might come for all of them to be evicted from their Promised Land.
But, despite all the peculiarities of their beliefs, and despite their material poverty, the Rizalistas are always hospitable to outsiders. Visitors are welcomed with crackers and juice—for which the hosts would apologize that it is the only thing that they could afford. During all our visits there, not once were we asked to convert to "Rizalismo." Evangelization of their faith has never been part of their mission. Although they are aware that others may see them as bizarre, they continue to stand their ground unfazed.
The Rizalistas of Ronggot may have an odd faith, but they are strange but wonderful people. They seem to understand the beauty of simplicity in life, and they somehow continue to be motivated, despite being faced by harsh living conditions and being met with unacceptance. If anything, they offer a simple life lesson: That nationalism is not about knowing the history books or all things politics; nationalism is also about conscientiously carrying on the values and living the humble life of a Filipino, amid challenges.