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.
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.