Emilio Aguinaldo

Questioning Heroes


Rizal Park. Image care of Wikipedia.

In our milieu it seems that heroes exist on another plane. So hallowed have they become that they are practically unreachable; their actions impossible to duplicate, their mental faculties so far beyond the norm that they exist in the realm of myth and legend. Take the case of Jose Rizal, our National Hero (even as some dispute that position). He has become so mythologized, his mental capabilities so lauded and his achievements so exaggerated, that we have lost track even of who he was, what he was trying to achieve, and why he was so important at the time. Practically every child has to study Rizal A to Z, and yet few Filipinos understand Rizal’s hopes, dreams, politics, and beliefs. That American-era phrasing of Rizal as a reformist, first and foremost, is still extant and dominant. In other words the realities of Rizal are subsumed by a remnant of colonial thought. His enduring legacy, his subversive, satirical, and revolutionarily nationalist qualities novels, are little understood; despite them being mandatory reading. Father John Schumacher once called them paths to nationalism. I wonder how many Filipinos could articulate how and why they are avenues towards independence.

Original cover of Noli Me Tangere. Image from Wikipedia.

While it may seem that I am taking aim at our understanding of Rizal, I am only using him as the first example. The same holds true for the general understanding of Andres Bonifacio. He, in his own way, has become so overly manufactured and packaged that he bears little resemblance to what is historically known about him. His heroic existence has become such that it overshadows the Katipunan, and that groups’ true composition and accomplishments. Much like how our heroic reconstruction of Rizal has practically obliterated the accomplishments and beliefs of members of the Propaganda Movement; a movement that began well before he was born. On the flip side, the method with which we have constructed our ‘heroic’ understanding of Emilio Aguinaldo undermines the importance of the Philippine Republic; though that is also intertwined with how we have created Bonifacio.

Sometimes heroes are built just on the strength of one deed or one statement. This holds true for Senator Ninoy Aquino; everything that came before in his life, his politics, his beliefs, were obscured when he was assassinated. After, he became an unassailable icon of democracy and freedom. What is known of his politics has been forgotten in the shadow of a one moment. In favor of constructing the icon of Aquino even some history has been rewritten and purposefully forgotten. How much is known about LABAN? What do we actually know about Philippine resistance during his years in jail? Or while he was in exile? Or between his assassination and the eventual overthrow of Marcos? Ah yes, but Aquino died for our sins, so that must constitute the entirety of the resistance during Martial Law. He died for the Filipino, and that is enough. But, in truth, maybe it is not. Death, like life, to have meaning has to be consecrated to a greater ideal and hope. Rizal did not just die for the Filipino of his time, he died for the Philippines that he envisioned; that he hoped and fought for. What was that Philippines?

To an extant, all heroes require a certain level of sanitization and myth-building. All history to an extent becomes propaganda, and heroes even more so. What differentiates is the historical evidence that is used as basis for that myth-building and to what it is consecrated. Heroes act as beacons for right action and stalwart defenders of the public national good. They are models to emulate, through their lives and deeds a people understand how a nation is built and what it means to be, in our case, a Filipino. However, at no point should the hero overshadow their time and circumstances. Heroes must be in service of something: An ideal, a vision, a nation. Else heroes exist for just for themselves. And that is the situation that exists in the Philippines today. Our heroes exist on their own; sectioned away from the period in which they lived, the men with whom they fought and died, the politics they espoused, and the vision for which they fought. We have reduced our heroes to the most superficial of meanings, and in the process, excised their national importance.

I am not a fan of consistently benchmarking and evaluating ourselves against other nations and cultures. I am, though, in favor of cross-cultural comparative analysis to help understand and clarify our local situation. In the case of heroes, the United States provides excellent examples of heroic myth-building in favor of creating a national sensibility. The United States is exceptionally adept at sanitizing their heroes, while never ignoring that they lived, and survive, in service of a greater secular faith. One example is how the Battle of the Alamo (which was for Texian Independence from Mexico) was adopted into the US national patriotic narrative, on the strength of one letter that was written during the thirteen day long battle.  Or how George Washington, which based on his contemporaries was an insufferable asshole, has become the Father of the Republic. The American Founding Fathers exist as an untouchable pantheon in their public consciousness. But their knowledge of them is built on the strength of deeds, an understanding of their writings and political beliefs, and the context of the period in which they lived. At the risk of being far too simplistic, contextualizing elements that are completely absent in our understanding of our Pantheon of Heroes. Heroes require meaning to remain relevant; meaning requires understanding.

Rizal was the intellectual force behind the Revolution, on that we all seem to basically agree (setting aside the reformist trope for a moment). But, what exactly did that mean? What was it about his ideas that were so compelling? What were his philosophical and humanist beliefs that underpinned his advocacies? Who influenced him and why? The same holds true for Andres Bonifacio. We adulate him, but what do we know about his politics and philosophies? What was he trying to build through the Philippine Revolution? How about Emilio Jacinto? Apolinario Mabini? The Philippine Republic? There are reams of surviving public essays, letters, and articles from the Reformists, Propagandists, and Revolutionaries expounding, arguing, and defining exactly what they were trying to achieve. Instead of offering a deeper understanding of our heroes and their dreams, we are fixated, for example, on the fact that Rizal was (supposedly) fluent in twenty-three languages. That does nothing to further our national understanding, or connect us to Rizal as the hero. What it does is continue to support Rizal the Mythic Hero. Lost is the post-Enlightenment Rizal; the thinker who remains quite revolutionary today. Lost is Jacinto, who argued against any form of racial or ideological bias; who wrote that ‘goodness’ and ‘nobility’ are not found in an aquiline nose, but in the rightness of action and deed.

We are desperate for heroes. At the drop of a hat we are ready to dub any and all, even for the most superficial and simplistic of accomplishments, a national hero worthy of praise and honor. We rush to their defense, we hold them close to our collective heart and proclaim this is who we are and we are proud! Damn any who disagree! And yet I cannot help but feel that rush to adulate any and all flows from our tragically weak understanding of heroism. We barely acknowledge, much less understand, the historical accomplishments and importance of our Great and Glorious Pantheon of Heroes; beyond some grotesquely reductive examples of ‘heroism.’ At the heart of our misunderstanding of our heroes is an almost perverse simplicity in action. Ignored are the intricacies and complexities of what they believed and were trying to achieve. The result, I firmly believe, negatively affects modern day interpretations of ‘Filipino’ and patriotism. Superficiality reigns and we erroneously equate mindless and romantic momentary passionate action with deep-rooted nationalism; for example, as in the case of the August 23rd Cry of Pugad Lawin (an event with little resemblance to history). Our current social and cultural construction of heroes is antithetical to fostering a sense of deep, abiding, and binding nationalism. By reducing heroism to singular moments with little context we irrevocably limit our sense of modern nationalism. Deeper and more significant engagement will be found in reconsidering their philosophies, understanding their historical circumstances, and being aware of their cultural importance. In other words we have to put our heroes to the question. That process, those answers, will uncover the realities of our heroes and inevitably lead to a greater and far more invigorating sense of Filipino nationalism. Our heroes can become what they were meant to be: Guides for the future Philippines.

Sticking to the script

Marking the 113th anniversary of the Philippine declaration of independence, President Aquino used the solemn occasion to highlight the fulfillment of his campaign pledge to rid the country of corruption.

Speaking at the ancestral mansion of Emilio Aguinaldo, the revolutionary leader in Kawit, Cavite, who became the first Philippine president, PNoy said that he would end the cycle of corruption that has added to the suffering of Filipinos living below the poverty line. At the shrine of Jose Rizal in Luneta, the president rhetorically asked whether indeed the national artist would still have been willing to lay down his life to free his country if he were alive today.

At the Vin d’honneur in Malacanang Palace, PNoy affirmed to everyone there that just as his parents dedicated their lives to the restoration of freedom and the rebuilding of democracy, he would dedicate his to bring about a more prosperous and progressive country.

In all these speeches, the president appeared to be “sticking to the script” that was laid down during his election campaign of fighting poverty by eradicating corruption. The president was indeed most presidential when he stuck to the high road in this way pointing to modest achievements in his first year of having stopped questionable contracts and compensation practices in government agencies and companies.

It was through his spokeswoman Abigail Valte that we learned that this involved some $23 million or over P1 billion in spending at the public works department and from Budget Sec Butch Abad we found out that GOCC’s were able to produce $686 million or P29.5 billion worth of savings this year. Part of these savings went to housing of soldiers in Bulacan province.

It appears therefore that the president seems fully convinced that the path he has chosen of reducing waste in government will lead to greater capacity on the government’s part to raise social spending and bring down the incidence of poverty. The example he cites was the reduction of rice importation to less than half of the previous year’s 2.5 million tons and the funding of the conditional cash transfers program benefiting indigent families.

Perhaps where PNoy appeared less presidential and deviated from the script somewhat was when he addressed criticisms from the opposition accusing him of living the “high life” by his enjoyment of “wine, women and song” or “fast cars and girls”. The president’s response that he had done nothing illegal seemed to mimic the former US president Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair or the more contemporary case of New York Cong Weiner who admitted to flirting with several women via Twitter.

Aside from this, one other possible inaccuracy in his speeches was when he pointed out that the savings made by his government through the close scrutiny of its infrastructure and loan contracts were re-allocated to social programs. The first year of his presidency has indeed seen a slowdown of government capital expenditure and interest payments, but the growth in its spending for social programs resulting from this has yet to be seen.

Indeed the first few months of this year saw the rise of hunger, unemployment and poverty along with a rapid slowdown in growth. Perhaps this inconvenient truth was what was left out in all the speeches. However, PNoy did admit that the challenges of improving living conditions still remained, and that he was committed to address them during the remainder of his presidency.

The more important question however is whether the formula he has set out to follow will indeed produce the sort of growth and jobs that it promises to deliver or whether the script needs to change at some point.

Aguinaldo’s Long March

The Long March is associated with Mao Zedong and the Red Army’s retreat during the Chinese Revolution. Facing decimation along the coastal cities, the Red Army embarked on a long tortuous journey fighting their way to northwest provinces controlled by warlords and Chiang Kai Shek’s garrisons until the survivors, a tenth of the original exodus, reached the caves of Yenan to rebuild the Red Army that would liberate China from Kuomintang rule and Japanese/western occupation.

The Long March of General Aguinaldo during the 1896-98 Revolution and Philippine-American War was of much smaller scale. This odyssey began in March 1897 after the Tejeros convention and the fall of Imus, the revolutionary capital. Mao’s series of interrupted marches involving several armies took 370 days, Aguinaldo’s, five years. Pursued by General Lachambre, Aguinaldo retreated to Naic where he consolidated the revolutionary government, thence to Maragondon, the highlands of Cavite down to Talisay, Batangas, back to Cavite where at Paliparan, he left behind his family, and took off with 400 men to the lake towns of Laguna and Morong. At Mt. Puray, his and General Licerio Geronimo’s troops routed the Spanish pursuers.

Reaching Biak-na-Bato in June 1897, Aguinaldo formed a republican government, while directing guerrilla war against the enemy besieged in many more provinces than the original eight. Unable to get reinforcements, the Spanish governor-general agreed to a truce with Aguinaldo who also had to get more arms for his growing army. Hence, the Pact of Biak-na-Bato, now recalling the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact in 1939, where both dictators were portrayed by Philippine Free Press cartoonist Izon as having pistols under the table aimed at each other.

On December 17, 1897, Aguinaldo and his staff departed for Hong Kong, by train and steamer to the Crown Colony where they stayed for more than four months, buying arms with the “indemnity” fund and dealing with duplicitous US consuls in Hong Kong and Singapore, before returning to Cavite by US gunboat McCullough. Equally duplicitous was Admiral Dewey who promised independence, not in writing, for Aguinaldo to intensify the war against Spain, trusting that the US was an ally.

From Cavite port, now US- occupied, Aguinaldo moved his headquarters to Kawit, where he proclaimed independence (“under the protection of the Great North American republic”) on June 12, 1898. He later corrected the proclamation in Bacoor, removing “the protection” phrase. Feeling vulnerable within range of US naval guns. Aguinaldo transferred the seat of government to Malolos, where the First Philippine Republic was inaugurated, with him as president. By then Aguinaldo’s army had already liberated the country, and surrounded Manila.

War broke out on February 4, 1899 in the suburbs of Santa Mesa and San Juan, and quickly spread, enabling the enemy, under cover of their naval fleet, to capture Filipino trenches—massacring civilians in Paco, Sta. Ana, and other suburban towns.

The US northern offensive forced the Aguinaldo government to move from Malolos to San Isidro, thence to Caba-natuan and Tarlac. In Bayam-bang, Pangasinan, Aguinaldo ordered that guerrilla warfare be waged. His march continued to northern Luzon. With US troops in hot pursuit, General Gregorio del Pilar and sixty soldiers fought to the death, defending Tirad Pass to enable Aguinaldo to slip into the hinterlands. Aguinaldo’s contingent now reduced to about a hundred including relatives hiked through forests, ravines, and steep slopes of the Cordillera, reaching Cagayan valley. At Talubin, Aguinaldo’s wife Hilaria, head of the Filipino Red Cross, agreed to be left behind and captured with son Miguel and some women, escorted by two officers, so as not to slow down Aguinaldo’s march with 118 officers and men with him.

Reaching Cagayan valley, they were welcomed by the townspeople with fiestas, provisions, and guides. In one town, upon learning that the enemy was near, Aguinaldo’s group crossed the Sierra Madre —braving natural hazards, leeches, and malaria. They finally reached Palanan, an isolated town in the Pacific coast, where Aguinaldo communicated with his field commanders. Unluckily one of his couriers was intercepted. Within a year, Aguinaldo was captured under a ruse of the wily Colonel Frederick Funston, using Macabebe scouts dressed in rayadillo of the Filipino army, bringing five American “prisoners” including Funston himself.

The first phase of Aguinaldo’s Long March is a journey to Biak-na-Bato from the beleaguered towns of Cavite. The second phase was the retreat from Central Luzon to Northern Luzon in a circuitous route ending in Palanan. Hongkong was an interlude that enabled Aguinaldo to plan and defeat the Spanish army, even before the landing of US troops in Manila.

Not getting recognition from other nations, the First Philippine Republic was doomed— leading to the Philippine American War. Mark Twain and the US Anti-Imperialist League vigorously opposed the US annexation—to no avail.

Aguinaldo’s capture in Palanan on March 23, 1901 signalled the end of the Republic but not the struggle for independence. In Mark Twain’s anti-imperialist essay, Filipinos and other peoples victimized by colonial powers are the “person (s) sitting in darkness” (Matthew, 4:16); in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “White Man’s Burden”—the “new caught, sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child.”

Note: This article written by Dr. Elmer A. Ordonez first appeared on Manila Times (06/04/2011 issue). The author has allowed Mr. John Sun to repost it on PH.CN.

Image: via Wikipedia, public domain