Every year, people dust off my article on Rizal and Hitler, as Wish You Were Here most recently did.
Although I’m not really a Rizalist (if anything, I am a Mabinian, if there’s such a thing), today is Rizal Day, and I, for one, am all in favor of keeping the Rizal commemoration on this day and for keeping him the preeminent national hero.
My personal hero of heroes, Mabini, wrote this in La Revolucion Filipina:
Although Rizal’s banishment to Dapitan eliminated all possibility of his active participation in the movement, he was found guilty of having been its chief instigator because, had it not been for the articles he had published in La Solidaridad and for his novels, the people would never have taken to politics. This judgment was totally incorrect because political activities in the Philippines antedated Rizal, because Rizal was only a personality created by the needs of these activities: if Rizal had not existed, somebody else would have played his role. The movement was by nature slow and gentle, it had become violent because obstructed. Rizal had not started the resistance, yet he was condemned to death: were he not innocent, he would not be a martyr.
See my Why Rizal Went Bravely to His Death.
I once spoke at a program in the Lyceum where the main attraction was then-congressman Francis Escudero. It was the only time I got to see this up-and-coming politician up-close, and in action.
He began his talk by quoting fthe beginning of Rizal’s last poem in Spanish; what I found remarkable was that as he recited the lines, the students spoke along (I don’t know if this is a unique attribute of Lyceum students):
¡Adiós, Patria adorada, región del sol querida,
Perla del mar de oriente, nuestro perdido Edén!
But it is a demonstration of the motive power of Rizal, and the mastery of rhetoric by Escudero, a mastery now so rare that a demonstration of its elementary devices can inspire awe in young audiences (among these basic devices is to establish rapport with your audience, by means of reciting something they know intimately, too).
Rizal famously condemned the Revolution. As Reynaldo Ileto wrote.
The publicized trial was a farce, but it fitted the scenario perfectly. The prosecutor called Rizal “the soul of this rebellion” whose countrymen render him “liege homage and look up to him as a superior being whose sovereign commands are obeyed without question.” The Office of the Governor General submitted a document to the court that described Rizal as “the great agitator of the Philippines who is not only personally convinced that he is called to be the chosen vessel of a kind of redemption of his race, but who is considered by the masses of the native population to be a superhuman being.”
Faced with such charges, Rizal could only plead that he had nothing to do with political affairs from July 1892 to June of that year and that he was opposed to the armed conspiracy. But the Judge Advocate General refused to allow publication of Rizal’s manifesto condemning the uprising because, in effect it “said in substance: ‘Let us subject ourselves now, for later I shall lead to the Promised Land.'” At the trial’s end, news of Rizal’s impending execution quickly “spread everywhere, producing a deep impression.”
The problem we have with Bonifacio as first head of state is that he did not couch his position or even our nationhood in the terms we assume today, and which trace their origins to the leadership that supplanted Bonifacio. The Supremo would not call us Filipinos, would not view his country as the Philippines; would not even view his supreme authority as a presidency. He asserted that what Rizal and Aguinaldo called Filipinos were The Tagalogs, not in the ethnic sense of a particular tribe, but in the literal meaning of the word, “Taga-Ilog,” the people who dwell by the riverbanks. And, having denounced the Convention, he proclaimed himself not “president,” but “Hari ng Katagalugan.”
For a nation which is still mired in debate over the national language, Bonifacio’s attempt to make the term “Tagalog” have a generic and not ethnic meaning, is unacceptable; and for a nation which views itself in republican term, a self-proclaimed “king” is too much of an anachronism.
Reynaldo Ileto writes (see ),
Andres Bonifacio’s defeat at the Tejeros election was facilitated by comments of the opposition that he lacked education, could not handle Spanish, and was not truly a republican because people in the streets hailed him as “Hari ng Katagalugan” (King of the Tagalogs), not to mention his use of the controversial title “Supremo.” Some went to the extent of calling him a leader of bandits called “Katipungoles” and derided his alleged claim that the mythical Bernardo Carpio would come down from Mount Tapusi to help his struggling forces.
All of these criticisms actually point to Bonifacio’s ability to render the struggle meaningful to the common people and the disdain with which many members of the “better classes” regarded such behavior.
Mabini minced no words in his memoirs of the revolution:
Andres Bonifacio had no less schooling than any of those elected in the aforesaid assembly, and he had shown an uncommon sagacity in organizing the Katipunan. All the electors were friends of Don Emilio Aguinaldo and Don Mariano Trias, who were united, while Bonifacio, although he had established his integrity, was looked upon with distrust only because he was not a native of the province: this explains his resentment. However, he did not show it by any act of turbulent defiance, for, seeing that no one was working for reconciliation, he was content with quitting the province for San Mateo in the company of his brothers. When it is considered that Mr. Aguinaldo (the elected leader) was primarily answerable for insubordination against the head of the Katipunan of which he was a member; when it is appreciated that reconciliation was the only solution proper in the critical state of the Revolution, the motive for the assassination cannot be ascribed except to feelings and judgments which deeply dishonor the former; in any case, such a crime was the first victory of personal ambition over true patriotism.
Yet Nick Joaquin, an Aguinaldista and fervent Manileno, wrote,
Since Bonifacio’s place in our pantheon is now secure, it’s time we faced up to the reasons we have not been so ready to exult over him as over Rizal — and the reasons go back to racial memory, back to the attitudes of the men who knew Bonifacio. He was not charming, he was not likeable; he had a rough temper; he was impatient, rash and domineering, he had the insecurity of the poor, the touchiness of the upstart. Pio Valenzuela is said to have described him as “algo despota” — rather despotic. There’s the story that when a brother-in-law he had appointed minister of war demurred on the ground that he knew nothing of military science, Bonifacio screamed. “Do as you’re told, because I’ll shoot you if you don’t!” Such stories may be apocryphal, but they indicate the contemporary view of him.
We return, once more, to Leon Ma. Guerrero, in a Rizal lecture he delivered titled Rizal As Liberal; Bonifacio As Democrat.
There is much of Rizal in this: the political –and I say political because there really is no valid historical evidence for it– the political, then, nostalgia for an idyllic past which could not be recovered on the eve of the 20th Century; the unfamiliarity with, not to say indifference toward, the economic and social realities; that reverse colonial mentality which blames all the ills of the country on the foreign ruler’s malevolence; the utopian conviction that a government of the Filipinos by the Filipinos would be very heaven.
In a way, Rizal and Bonifacio were romantics, very much like Rousseau with his “noble savage”, Bonifacio perhaps more than the relatively sophisticated Rizal, and indeed under the influence of Rizal. They seemed to yearn for a simpler and nobler age when men of honor mixed their blood in cups of wine, and the merchants of Cathay and Cipango could leave their silks on unknown beaches to return in their junks after a year for the recompense of jars, honey and beaten gold.
At this point, let us look at the romanticism of Rizal and Bonifacio.
In Reynaldo Ileto’s translation of Bonifacio’s “What the Tagalogs Should Know” (it appears as a footnote in the reproduction of the Agoncillo translation in The Bonifacio Papers), we see this:
In the early days, before the Spaniards set foot on our soil which was governed by our compatriots, Katagalugan enjoyed a life of great abundance (kasaganaan) and prosperity (kaginhawaan). She maintained good relations with her neighbors, especially with Japan, and maintained trade relationships with them all. That is why there was wealth and good behavior in everyone; young and old, women included, could read and write using their own alphabet. Then the Spaniards came and appeared to offer to guide us toward increased betterment and awakening of our minds; our leaders became seduced by the sweetness of such enticing words. The Spaniards, however, were required to comply with the existing customs of the Tagalogs, and to bind their agreements by means of an oath, which consisted of taking blood from each other’s veins, mixing and drinking it as a sign of genuine and wholehearted sincerity in pledging not to be traitorous to their agreement. This was called the “Blood Compact” of King Sikatuna and Legaspi, the representative of the King of Spain.
Returning to Guerrero,
But surely neither really expected to turn back the calendar to the 16th century! Surely Bonifacio did not see himself as a revived Silapulapu, slaying the cuirassed Spaniard in the bloody surf of Manila Bay, or Rizal fancy himself as a reincarnation of Sikatunaw, pledging reforms with the Spanish liberals by mixing their blood in wine!
Indeed the basic question of the Philippine revolution still awaits a fully satisfactory answer. Why exactly did it take place? Why did the Filipinos take up arms against the Spanish colonial regime?
…The contrast between Rizal and Bonifacio deepens when we observe that Bonifacio’s grievances do not include, at least specifically, the main points of Rizal’s avowed program of reforms: representation in the Spanish Cortes, extension of Spanish legislation and the Spanish Constitution to the Philippines, equality of rights and opportunities, in brief, the Hispanization of the Philippines.
These reforms might indeed have prevented or remedied the abuses which rankled in Bonifacio’s heart, but the man from Tondo was not one to be thinking of constitutions and parliaments. His grievances were those of the common people among whom he lived, of whom indeed he was truly one, grievances that, homely and petty as they might sound, they felt in their own shacks and tenements, in their own families, in their own bodies, the stick on their backs, the empty plate.
If we ask ourselves again why the Filipinos took up arms, we may be nearer the correct answer in Bonifacio’s wrongs, the wrongs inflicted upon the common people, than in Rizal’s rights, the rights which he desired for his aborning nation…
In the end, Guerrero wrote,
I have suggested that Rizal and Bonifacio both appear to be romantics, nurturing illusions of an idyllic pre-Spanish past. But their romanticism was really political tactics: Rizal’s to refute the clerical claim that Mother Church and Mother Spain had brought the natives down from the trees; Bonifacio’s to attract followers with the vision of a primitive paradise without taxes and police…
It was the perennial conflict between the intellectual, on the one hand, who is always waiting for something more, one more condition to be fulfilled, one more factor to be supplied, one last question that should be answered, and the man of instinct, on the other hand, who knows only when he has had enough.
It was also the conflict between the liberal, anxious to reconcile the old and the new in an orderly and controlled progress, and the democrat, ready and willing to leave it all to the will of the people, right or wrong.
On a more contemporary note, and shifting the focus back to Bonifacio again, the American historian Glenn May was basically ridden out of town on a rail, because of his questioning what he described as myth-making by Filipino historians:
The works of Artigas, de los Santos, Santos, Agoncillo, and even to some extent Ileto, in addition to being historical studies and contributions to an ongoing nationalist discourse, are, at their core, modern-day Philippine varieties of “hero myths” — stories in the tradition of Greek tales about Theseus and Herakles and Indian ones about Krishna and Karna.3 But, within that genre, they fall within a distinct, somewhat underexplored, contemporary category — the national hero myth, the national hero being a relatively modern mythical figure since the nation-state is itself of recent vintage. Not surprisingly, then, both in form as well as content, many of the stories told by the Philippine mythmakers bear a striking resemblance to those found in Weems’s biography of Washington and other early books about the heroes of the American Revolution. The hero’s humble origins and intellectual powers are emphasized, even when, as in the case of Washington, the evidence does not necessarily support the claims. Also emphasized are the hero’s virtues and strength of character. For American and Filipino mythmakers alike, the hero served as a model to be emulated.
But national heroes differ from truly legendary heroes in one important respect. As modern historical figures, their lives can be studied by historians. Furthermore, historians being what they are, the lives of the great and presumably great are much more likely to be studied and restudied, and then restudied again, than are the lives of anyone else. If modern-day hero stories are based on weak or nonexistent evidential foundations, it seems inevitable that they will eventually be exposed.
A summary of the whole brouhaha is in History and Histrionics by Patricio Abinales:
These books can (must?) therefore be seen as a clash of interpretations arising from the relative inadequacy of historical material. To appreciate them more meaningfully, and thus go past the acrimony of present debates, they must be understood as part of a continuing effort by historians and their peers to make sense of a vital period in Philippine history which — alas — remains obstinately coy in revealing to us its fullness. Any serious student of history can find value in this anarchy of interpretations, especially since the full story of how our nation came into being has yet to be written.
Visit the Jose Rizal Website and Bonifacio Papers.
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Leon Ma. Guerrero