After the Americans took over (1899ff), they opted for Rizal over other Filipino candidates as “national hero” because he was the safest – he had never fought against the USA (unlike Aguinaldo) because he died before they invaded, and he apparently advocated non-violent change (unlike Bonifacio). They sponsored Rizal’s image in schools and in public display (statues, etc.) throughout the country. In the 1960s there arose a campaign – originally from UP, citing the works of Teodoro Agoncillo – which used the fact of this sponsorship to try to promote Bonifacio instead, sometimes trying to discredit Rizal as a sell-out
But many Filipinos had already made Rizal a “national hero” even before the Americans arrived. The Katipunan itself venerated Rizal, and Reynaldo Ileto’s research reveals how deeply this veneration – verging on worship – had penetrated the peasantry, especially in the Tagalog region. So it could be argued that what the Americans were doing was simply confirming officially a decision the Filipino people had already made unofficially, that Rizal was the greatest Filipino, and the one who most completely embodied the national dream.
I have to say that as an outsider who has studied Philippine history for nearly 50 years I find Rizal to be far and away the most admirable Filipino, worthiest to be the national hero (if we must single out one of many). He is/was perhaps the country’s greatest novelist and among its greatest essayists, historians, and poets, and he dedicated his life – and eventually his death – to the welfare of “Filipinas” at a time when many of his countrymen were scarcely aware of the “nation” as such. He had his flaws – who doesn’t? – but his combination of intelligence/creativity and patriotism has rarely been equaled in any country. The Philippines should be proud of him