Jose Rizal had a girl in almost every port. Antonio Luna had a vile temper that cost him his life. Andres Bonifacio didn’t win any battles. And Ninoy Aquino was the quintessential trapo until the system he had served so well arrested, tried, and killed him.
Rizal’s intelligence, and quite possibly his charm, led to his, by pre-Joseph Estrada standards, phenomenal success with women — a multinational nine during his 35 years of life, according to historians. Certain worthies think a romantic, not to mention a sexual, side unworthy of heroism, and frown on this side of Rizal. But by common consent as well as US legislative fiat, Rizal’s not only a hero, but the national one as well (he was so declared during the US colonial regime).
Luna studied military tactics in Belgium, and seems to have been the only general of the Revolution who knew anything about the subject. He was a chemist by profession who also founded, in the depths of the Philippine-American war, the first military academy in the Philippines. A disciplinarian who would disarm, berate and slap soldiers who refused to follow orders, Luna was killed by the troops of the Katipunan’s Kawit battalion loyal to Emilio Aguinaldo on June 4, 1899.
Luna is nevertheless in the Philippine pantheon of heroes, together with, among others, Andres Bonifacio. About the Katipunan founder, those of patrician origins (or pretensions) sneer that he was only a bodeguero, a warehouseman more adept at moving bales of goods around rather than troops.
The late National Artist Nick Joaquin also points out in his “A Question of Heroes” series that Bonifacio didn’t win any battles, and therefore didn’t deserve the title of national hero, which in the 1960s radical students were arguing had gone to Rizal because the latter supposedly favored reform over revolution. But hero Bonifacio nevertheless is, no matter how many battles he lost — and no matter the ignominy of his death, which came at the hands of his fellow revolutionaries on a mountain with Buntis for improbable name.
Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino was as traditional a politician as they came. Focused on winning the presidency, he abandoned his college studies at the age of 22 to become a high profile war correspondent so he could quickly get into the public eye. As a young senator of 35, he was the first to use opinion polls so he could get a sense of what the voters were thinking, and tell them what they wanted to hear.
No less a political wheeler-dealer than his contemporaries, Aquino rose to national prominence on the wings of these tactics. By the time Marcos declared martial law, he was almost certain to be the Liberal Party nominee for President of the Republic. His murder at the Manila International Airport on August 21, 1983 began a three-year process that ended with the collapse of the Marcos regime, his wife Corazon’s assumption to the presidency, and the adoption of a new constitution.
Heroes all in the public mind and eye, what Rizal, Luna, Bonifacio, and Aquino seem to have had in common was how far they were from the perfection people assume heroes to be.
But there’s another sense in which they seemed to have been so much like the rest of us, and it’s in their having shared the same impatience, anger and outrage over injustice and misery many people do experience.
What made them different, however, was that they did something about it, and they did so despite the peril to life, liberty and fortune that writing a book, organizing a revolutionary organization, taking up the gun and leading men in battle, and even the simple act of coming home offered.
Apparently that’s much more than what most people are prepared to do, however. In the Philippine age of apathy, so few are prepared to risk much less than life, liberty or fortune to contribute their warm bodies to a demonstration or to even write a letter to the newspapers, outraged as they may be over high prices, poverty, corruption, injustice, and putrid governance.
The linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky once said in an interview that compared to other countries, it didn’t take high levels of courage to protest in the United States, where a person’s not likely to go to prison for opposing government policies. As repressive as the Arroyo regime may be, the same could also be said of the Philippines, where waving a placard in a demonstration in Jejomar Binay’s Makati entails considerably less risk than shouting slogans and unfurling streamers in the seedy streets of Rangoon.
When Benigno Aquino Jr. was murdered, the cry in Philippine streets was that he wasn’t alone, as neither Rizal nor Luna nor Bonifacio were not alone, and had in fact been moved by the lives they had lived and the lives they had seen around them.
Revolutions are after all waged by the millions — and heroes made by vast constituencies: by the nameless men and women who, confronting police batons, tear gas, water cannon, and even guns, create and imbue leaders with the courage, the sense of community and the single-minded purpose that enable them to be the faces and voices of protest and change. To our sorrow ours does not seem to be a heroic age; and we do not have — we have actually lost — the constituencies that once made heroes of ordinary and flawed mortals.
First published in BusinessWorld.