Andres Bonifacio and Apolinario Mabini have always been my heroes of choice.
My top hero was the Supremo because he was (and is) regarded as the full-blooded revolutionary who led the masses’ fight against our Spanish oppressors.
Second was Mabini because of his intelligence and uncompromising patriotism. He came in conflict against the illustrious Cabinet members of then President Emilio Aguinaldo, which, later alienated him. Mabini was one of those who would rather lose power than give his principles up.
Dr. Jose Rizal was also on my list. After all, his writings inspired the Katipunan. He was also martyred by the enemy. But Rizal was my far third.
Rizal was highly educated. Bonifacio was virtually unschooled. Rizal rejected the revolution. He wanted annexation to, not independence from Spain. Bonifacio, despite the odds, went on and led the revolution towards Motherland’s independence.
I believed that Rizal was a safe choice for the Americans as our national hero over Bonifacio because he was a pacifist, and the latter, a rebel.
In short, I bought the idea that Rizal was a reformist and Bonifacio was the revolutionary. Bonifacio’s image with the grim face, a bolo-bearing arm raised as if shouting, “Sugod mga kapatid!” truly captivates me. It was so romantic, I could swoon.
As an activist, I want systemic change. I think that nothing short of a revolution, albeit non-bloody, can solve our country’s problems. I believe that the “masa” should lead the revolution, ala-Bonifacio.
To me, Bonifacio was bigger than Rizal.
What about Emilio Aguinaldo? Without really bothering to learn more, I regarded him as the villain of the revolution. He had my hero, the Supremo, killed. He sold out to the Americans. I needed nothing more.
Or so I thought.
Lest I be accused of biases, let me state that I write this piece not as an expert but as a student of history.
I also write this not to defend Aguinaldo but to raise concerns on how we learn from our past. Purposely, this piece comes after the showing of the movie on Aguinaldo. I have nothing to do with it.
Activism rekindled my interest in our history, particularly, the Philippine revolution. Through the years, I have read many related books, publications, even unpublished manuscripts.
I searched for materials on revolutionary Filipino women. My belief that katipuneras did more than feeding the men and healing the sick was reinforced because of accounts of women fighting side by side with katipuneros.
I visited museums and historical homes and places, looking for clues about the lives of those who came before us. Seeing their personal things fascinated me.
My thirst for knowledge and understanding has given me insights about the context within which our heroes, even those we consider as villains, operated.
I learned that Rizal did not reject the revolution outright. He wanted for the group to prepare more and acquire arms that the Katipunan sorely lacked.
I learned how lonely and hard-up Rizal was in Europe despite pictures of parties and get-togethers we see of him. His letters to his family and his writings at this point revealed this. He even wrote about the loneliness of being unable to court women he found attractive because he had a job to do for his country!
From various publications, I learned how hotheaded Bonifacio was, and how it appeared to people that he liked being treated as “maharlika”. There are some accounts of katipuneros complaining about Supremo’s highhandedness.
I also learned that the revolution’s launch was more accidental than planned. Katipunan was discovered because of a quarrel between two members. One revealed the secrets of the society to his sister who in turn told a nun. The nun had the katipunero confess to a priest. Thus, KKK was discovered and members were hunted down.
A few days after, Bonifacio launched the revolution. Nagkasubuan na!
Many months before the movie El Presidente was shown, I got lucky and had the opportunity to read some of Aguinaldo’s papers.
I must confess that reading his words, his perspectives on things, their difficulties during the revolution, the treachery within and outside Katipunan, gave me a different point of view.
Aguinaldo became President at the age of 28. What does a 28-year old know? In the papers I read, he spoke of his sadness that Mabini chose to leave him. He said he only wanted the best and the brightest to help him in building the nation.
I think I understand better.
The movie El Presidente was based on Aguinaldo’s memoirs. It can easily be dismissed as his way of clearing his name and perhaps it is. But will we know for sure?
A number of people strongly rejected the way the Supremo was portrayed in the movie arguing that Bonifacio was not a traitor. Perhaps that is true. But it is also possible that Aguinaldo (if indeed he wrote it) was telling the truth.
The reactions against the movie are understandable. But at the very least, the movie presented another side of the story of the revolution.
We venerate our heroes, especially Rizal and Bonifacio. We firmly believe that they did no wrong. Sometimes, we forget they were people like us, complete with shortcomings and limitations. Mistakes happened along the way. Our heroes were not Gods.
We should look at the context within which our heroes did things. They made decisions perhaps with the best intentions in mind at a very difficult time. It was war. Such context is important if we are to truly understand.
Aguinaldo is perhaps the least popular of Katipunan leaders but it is undeniable that he was a key player. I believe that his life, together with the lives of others, needs to be further studied with an open mind.
Now, I regard Bonifacio, Rizal, Mabini, Aguinaldo, and the rest as heroes. Flawed -- but heroes still.
We will never know the whole story but we will benefit from taking lessons from our past. We have our heroes to inspire us. This is how we move forward.
firstname.lastname@example.org and @bethangsioco on Twitter