The Explainer: Heroes by Acclamation

That was Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc.  Some years ago, Archbishop Oscar Cruz famously quipped, “If you talk to God, that’s a prayer. If God talks back to you, that’s schizophrenia.” Perhaps this pragmatism is why it took a few hundred years for the Catholic Church to decide whether or not to proclaim Joan of Arc a Saint.

They say that the secular equivalent of sainthood is what we call heroism; and that if religions have saints then a republic must have heroes.

Tonight, on National Heroes Day, we’ll examine a question put forward by many viewers. How, exactly, is the proclamation of hero determined? The answer may surprise you.

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.




In 1985, when Cory Aquino and Doy Laurel dared to give Marcos the thumbs down, their doing so by the monument Marcos built himself, reminded people of the poet Shelley’s meditation on power.

In his poem, “Ozymandias,” Shelley attributed these lines to a boastful inscription on a colossal statue of the Pharaoh Rameses II:


“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Contrasting the pride of the inscription with the destroyed and desolate reality of a broken monument, in real life, the battered Colossi of Memnon.

Monuments are of course a tangible expression of greatness; Marcos’ own obsession with medals also pointed to his belief he was a war hero. Even twenty years after World War II, he was still maneuvering to be awared medals for military bravery.

As a lawyer and politician, he believed heroism can be conferred by decree, from medals to monuments.

But recently, in his testimony in a hearing convened by Senator Manuel Roxas II, the popular historian Ambeth Ocampo said that we can’t legislate heroes –they are made by acclamation, that is, by public opinion.

He was reacting, of course, to the astonishing outpouring of popular feeling for Cory Aquino when she died, in demonstrations during her funeral cortege that reminded everyone of the manner in which the Filipino people accompanied her assassinated husband, Ninoy Aquino, to his final resting place back in 1983.

The President herself tried to outdo congressmen and senators proposing a national holiday and renaming schools, by ordering the construction of a monument to Cory within six months.

Ambeth Ocampo, in his senate testimony, said that the agency he heads, had rules that insist ten years should pass before the National Historical Institute can propose a holiday in honor of someone. He added that the Catholic Church itself waits five years before undertaking the examination of a candidacy for sainthood.

In a sense the NHI is like the modern Catholic Church; if, in the past, Catholics and the Filipino people alike, didn’t wait for formal processes but proclaimed saints and heroes, respectively, almost instinctively, out of a kind of spontaneous outpouring of community knowledge, nowadays clerics and bureaucrats alike are more deliberate and careful.

Of course there are cases so compelling, they can be expedited: so it was, when Pope John Paul II died, and mourners at his funeral shouted “Santo, subito!” Make him a saint, quickly! Similar calls, this time both to declare Cory Aquino a Catholic Saint and Filipino secular heroine, caused leaders to jump. While Catholic clergy could be more dispassionate, politicians facing an election year wanted to rush ahead.

The example of Catholicism reminds us that if there’s one thing that will clinch the question of sainthood, it’s martyrdom, or dying for the faith, as St. Peter did.

Though Peter himself came later to the crown of martyrdom that the saint Catholicism proclaims its protomartyr, or the first to die for the faith –Saint Stephen, who was stoned to death.

But for the rest, like Saint Jerome, a Doctor of the Church, the manner in which a Christian lived his life is what’s judged in deciding if he or she is a saint.

And sometimes, as the case of the national heroine of France, Joan of Arc proved, secular heroism may be agreed upon much earlier than religious sainthood, which was not achieved for her until centuries after her execution by the British.

Ambeth Ocampo, steeped in Catholicism and our country’s histories, also pointed out that the rush to legislate Cory Aquino’s heroic status as a national hero ignored the reality that no law has actually specifically proclaimed Jose Rizal our national hero.

And yet both among his contemporaries and for present-day Filipinos, Rizal is indubitably not only a hero, but the first among our heroes.

You’ve heard how some Katipuneros were initiated into that secret society, under a portrait of Rizal, who was still alive at the time.

And we know how Rizal went to his death not only knowing it would make him our national martyr, but also with the death of Fathers Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora in mind.

With two years of Rizal’s death, President Emilio Aguinaldo proclaimed a national commemoration of Rizal’s martyrdom –a commemoration that continued, practically uninterrupted, until the present Congress, which has reversed generations of observance by moving Rizal Day from December 30 to June 19.

But then what one generation establishes as a permanent remembrance can be easily modified or set aside by a subsequent generation that thinks it’s better than the one that came before. If Rizal’s contemporaries erected the Rizal Monument-

Then by the Garcia administration, this hideous addition had been made to try to make the Rizal Monument look more space age and chic. Luckily during the Macapagal administration Education Secretary Anding Roces had the stainless steel addition to the Rizal Monument removed.

It may be more accurate to say, then, that the most our officials, from our Presidents to our lawmakers can do, is to authorize memorials. We have many ways of doing this.

We memorialize places, by putting markers on them, like Barasoain Church;

Our Presidents and lawmakers call for the building of monuments, supported by public funds or donations from the citizenry. The Rizal, Bonifacio, and Quezon Monuments, for example, even had their designs chosen by means of a public contest.

But you may be asking why, then, we consider Rizal our national hero, when no specific law or decree has declared him as such; according to Ambeth Ocampo we call him that, simply because the Department of Education decided to recognize his iconic status together with the narra as the nation tree, the sampaguita as the national flower, and the carabao as our national animal.

Consider the humble peso. The truth is, even if heroism is an individual achievement, it can also be viewed in relative terms, by comparing one hero to another; and the power of officials to influence the relative standing of heroes is quite strong.

Rizal is on the one peso coin because we’ve borrowed the practice of other countries of putting the preeminent hero of the country on the basic unit of currency –consider George Washington on the one dollar bill.

But this is a practice, for us, that’s relatively new, and more or less can be dated to the 1950s when Rizal was declared, not by Congress but merely designated by the Department of Education, as our national hero. Currency from the 1930s, for example, shows Rizal wasn’t even on the peso bill,  Mabini was.

The logic of our currency has been, with Rizal on the basic unit, the peso, the closer you are to the basic unit, the more important you are, historically. So today, the next bit of currency is the five peso coin, which has Emilio Aguinaldo on it.

This has been the case since the early 1980s when our present series of currency appeared, during the twilight years of the Marcos administration.

Rizal had been retained in the various redesigns of our currency, on the peso. With Rizal as a hero, other currency was viewed suitable only for portraying heroes, at least for lower, or more important, denominations.

But some adjustments were made. Where Bonifacio and Jacinto had been on the 20 peso bill prior to the Marcos years, under Marcos Bonifacio was increased in importance by being put on the five peso bill.

Then, as we saw, Aguinaldo was promoted to the five peso bill; what happened to Bonifacio? He was promoted, so to speak, in turn, to the two peso coin. The hierarchy of heroes was retained; and the next redesigned bill of the Marcos years featured Mabini on the ten peso bill.

But something curious happened after the fall of Marcos, and indeed, only within the past decade. Essentially, Bonifacio was demoted. He’d been on the two peso bill, higher, in the hierarchy of our  heroes as shown in our money,  than Aguinaldo. Then suddenly, Bonifacio was demoted to share the ten peso bill with Mabini, asserting the official line that now, as of the 1990s, Aguinaldo was a greater hero than Bonifacio.

The two continue to share the ten peso coin, making them lower on the hierarchy than Aguinaldo.

Under the pre-Edsa redesign of our currency, the 20, 50, and 100 portrayed the triumvirate that negotiated the recognition of our independence by the United States. This hierarchy was left untouched by the first change to our currency after Marcos-

The introduction of the 500 peso bill was in effect, the first official recognition by the national government, of Ninoy Aquino’s stature as a national hero. But this bill was also significant in that it represented a departure from the view, since the 1950s, that the lower the denomination, the greater the recognition.

A new logic would be represented by the higher the currency, the greater the honor; so that the 1,000 peso bill officially commemorates three martyrs –and thus heroes- of the Second World War: Chief Justice Jose Abad Santos, General Vicente Lim, and Jose Llanes Escoda.

But then there’s the anomaly of the 200 peso bill, which commemorates President Macapagal but according to which measure of prominence? Has he been declared more significant than Ninoy? Or less important, but if so, why then are Rizal and Aguinaldo, Bonifacio and Mabini on lower denominations if the symbolism’s changed?

This only goes to show that while we may all immediately know who is a hero and who’s not, what officials do can either reverse or modify, what the public already believes.

We’ll look at more examples of how officialdom wrestles with its desire to echo, or suppress, public opinion concerning our heroes, when we return.




That was Marlon Brando as Mark Anthony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, maneuvering the mob originally praising Caesar’s assassination to eventually turn on Caesar’s assassins.

If, as Ambeth Ocampo argued, heroes are not legislated, but rather, acclaimed, what then, as Shakespeare dramatized, when those formerly heroic are torn down, only to be raised up again by demagoguery or even fashion? Bonifacio, for example, is commemorated by a monument, but from the moment of his execution to the present, there have been those who believe he’s never been given his rightful prominence because of his rivalry with Emilio Aguinaldo and because Bonifacio’s revolutionary example makes governments uneasy unlike the reform-minded Rizal.

But Aguinaldo himself, who unlike many of our heroes, lived to a ripe old age, also believed he was not given his due, and his admirers also believed his longevity denied him of the proper measure of recognition by his country.

If, officially, at least, the country has steadily increased the recognition it gives Aguinaldo, much of it may be due to time healing all wounds –except the clock only began to tick, so to speak, when Aguinaldo died in the 1960s.

Bonifacio was executed by his countrymen and Aguinaldo lived so long as to become a kind of permanent fixture people could take for granted. In a sense, martyrdom, which confers immediate sainthood, also confers instant heroism on those who die at the hands of foreign enemies, like General Pio del Pilar.

For the same reason, Jose Abad Santos, executed by the Japanese, by paying the highest price, his life, for his country, was unquestionably considered a hero while his contemporaries’ place in history continues to be debated because they lived on.

Cory Aquino’s place in history was hotly debated until the outpouring of public emotions at her funeral essentially made the debate on her stature academic. Officials might continue to debate the proper way to recognize her, but the public literally voted with their feet by visiting her wake and escorting her remains to the cemetery.

But if that’s why, why then does the NHI, say that in terms of official memorials –holidays or monuments, appearances on our money and so on- time is properly required. Could the public be wrong? In other words, when is popular acclaim beyond mere mob rule?

This is, perhaps, a political question. The NHI restricts itself to gathering information for the proper appreciation of the lives of prominent Filipinos, and the care and conservation of their relicts, the shrines, monuments, landmarks and other historic places, that already exist to commemorate individuals considered great locally and nationally.

The debate on whether to proclaim Cory Aquino a national heroine, and whether this would affect Rizal’s stature as the national hero, and the whole question of whether our presidents and congresses actually decide who are heroes, or simply ratify what the public has already decided by acclamation, is a useful one –but also, a tricky one.

Consider President Fidel V. Ramos’ putting together of a commission to decide, once and for all, who our official roster of national heroes are.

He put together a National Heroes Committee composed of these respected individuals.

In the end, they got as far as putting forward nine individuals they believed deserved to be considered our national heroes. The thing is, after submitting their list to the Department of Education, nothing happened. The practical and also, political problem their choices caused, of course, was, when you make a list, you add some, and remove some; and every choice is therefore, a cause for controversy.

This is because any smaller group –whether a presidential commission composed of scholars and academics, or a president and his advisers, or Congress as elected representatives- is still substituting its own judgment for the national judgment as demonstrated by public opinion. Their criteria may be far removed from the popular criteria. Consider the criteria used by the commission appointed by FVR, to decide who are our national heroes, and who aren’t.

First, Heroes are those who have a concept of nation and thereafter aspire and struggle for the nation’s freedom.

Second, Heroes are those who define and contribute to a system or life of freedom and order for a nation.

Third, Heroes are those who contribute to the quality of life and destiny of a nation.

This is all very nice, but is this criteria your criteria, for example, to determine who is a hero and who’s not? Is it a criteria that would be acceptable to your community? To the country?

Or, consider, for example, one set of criteria, used not by academics but by the Catholic Church during the evaluation of candidates for sainthood. Do candidates, for example, display the Heroic Virtues, a combination of the Cardinal and Theological Virtues?

The Cardinal Virtues are Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude –individually and collectively, would these characterize saints and even heroes, for you? For other Christians?

Or the three Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity –are they what saints require? Would they be what you, as a Filipino citizen, consider requirements for secular heroes?

Our would this dictionary definition be closer to your values, than those of the Catholic Church or the commission appointed by President Ramos?

The human answer might be, if you combined all these possible ways of determining who is a hero, you would get a cross-section of the public and they’d be a wide enough cross-section, to arrive at a consensus. There are times when we make this collective choice instantly –like when Rizal, Jose Abad Santos, or Ninoy Aquino died for their country; or after a long time, as Aguinaldo has steadily risen in the public’s appreciation.

Yet whether they die or live for our country, those we decide are heroes more likely than not, lived during extraordinary times that call for extraordinary people to do amazing, heroic, things.

And yet, you often hear the question, what about ordinary times?

Under ordinary circumstances, we don’t need heroes, we need good citizens. It is only in extreme circumstances that heroes arise.

Yet it is what one went through, what one was –in other words, the values one internalized during normal circumstances- that can make or unmake a hero.

Consider an extremely extreme circumstance: the Holocaust. Cynthia Ozick, in her essay, “On Christian Heroism,” pointed out that during that period, you could divide people into three broad categories, and reflecting on these categories requires us to make a mental choice:


Three ‘participant’ categories of the Holocaust are commonly named: murderers, victims, bystanders. Imagination demands a choosing. Which, of this entangled trio, are we? Which are we most likely to become?


The choice, she argued, must become because the extreme choices –murder or victim- are extreme, because most people don’t want to have to make an extreme choice. But this, she warns, carries a great  danger:


…When a whole population takes on the status of bystander, the victims are without allies; the criminals, unchecked, are strengthened; and only then do we need to speak of heroes. When a field is filled from end to end with sheep, a stag stands out. When a continent is filled end to end with the compliant, we learn what heroism is. And alas for the society that requires heroes.


And that’s why, later tonight, we’ll be talking to someone who surely believes in heroes, but has dedicated himself to finding a way for all of us to be good citizens –which might remove the need for heroes in the first place.


I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.



Manuel L. Quezon III.

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