While his assassination, questions about which remain open to this day, has transformed him into a martyr of democracy, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., the scion of a prominent clan in Tarlac, was by no means the passive or peaceable figure that the idea of martyrdom tends to conjure up—he was very much the opposite, in fact. As Cory, his own wife, once wryly remarked: “I know he’d die if we led a quiet life.” When he first entered public life as an assistant to President Ramon Magsaysay, he was, as he recounted to National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, a “siga-siga“: cocky and tough, believing that offense was the best defense.
Such an attitude would serve him well as he rode his vaulting ambition all the way to the Senate, where he occupied a seat that was initially perilous. On account of his youth—at the time that the 1967 elections were held, he was 17 days short of 35 years, the minimum required age for a Senator—a protest was lodged with the Senate Electoral Tribunal in order to remove him from office. The tribunal eventually decided that the proper reckoning of age ought to begin on the day that the “the expression of the popular will” was ascertained—that is, the day that the final poll results were announced—and allowed him to keep his post. Long before the ruling was handed down, however, Ninoy had already formulated a strategy: attack President Ferdinand Marcos. “If I kept hitting at Marcos, any effort to get me kicked out of the Senate would become political persecution, pure and simple,” he said.
If his fire and his capacity for calculation did not especially distinguish him from his foe—his similarity to Marcos has been remarked on more than once—Ninoy did tread a different path, fighting to make known to the world the excesses of the chief executive from the halls of the Senate, from behind bars, and from the United States, where he lived with his family for three years in self-exile. (Notwithstanding his flamboyance and bombast, he could be eerily prescient: his first speech as Senator, for instance, raised the alarm about the creeping development of a militarized state, five years before Marcos issued the infamous proclamation that placed the entire country under martial law and ushered in the so-called New Society.) And in spite of the very real risks that awaited him at home—no less than the First Lady had warned him against returning to the Philippines—he came back anyway, setting into motion the events that would topple a repressive regime and restore to his people the freedom to dictate their national destiny.
Nearly three decades after he was gunned down as he was being escorted by a contingent of soldiers from his airplane to a van that was supposed to take him to jail, what do we know or recall about Ninoy, whose death anniversary we commemorate on this day? Apart from his smiling visage printed on the 500-peso bill, the yellow-beribboned annual reprieve from the daily grind mandated in his honor since 2004, or the notoriously inefficient international airport that bears his name, what of this man have we managed to hold on to as we move through and make our history?
Very little, one suspects, but then, 29 years is about the span of a generation, and so the gap should probably not be surprising. It is unfortunate, though, that a good number of the people who are routinely credited in our history books with having played significant roles in the formation of the Philippines appear fated to serve no greater purpose than to allow teachers to burden their students with information that is only relevant and actionable within the configuration of space and time defined by the next bit of homework, pop quiz, or periodical exam.
This is not in any way to suggest, of course, that we should pay Ninoy obsequious homage and lavish upon him florid platitudes—however ubiquitous these gestures may become today, they are detrimental to sober and thoughtful reflection. It may be sufficient to remind ourselves on this day that we are the legatees of his sacrifice, and that we must prove ourselves equal to the responsibility of making sure that he was right: that the Filipino was, and is, worth dying for.