TONDO is in the popular mind Manila’s workers’ district, although some sociologists point out, as they did when Manuel Villar was running for President in 2010 and hoping to win by passing himself off as poor, that it has never been all-proletarian, being home also to professionals and small traders. The myth persists, however, and Tondo-born Andres Bonifacio, whose birth the Philippines marks every November 30th with a holiday, is traditionally referred to as the country’s working-class hero.

The label’s both cliché as well as meant to distinguish him from such of the country’s heroes as Rizal the Ilustrado, and rural-gentry landowner Emilio Aguinaldo, whose own stature as hero has been diminished by his role in Bonifacio’s execution.

But working-class indeed was Bonifacio, one of six children born to parents who died when he was 14, forcing him to leave school, and, as generations of school children have been told, to fashion and vend walking canes and paper fans to put food on the table for himself and his siblings. In his later teens he became a clerk and sales agent despite his limited education, although it’s as warehouseman (bodeguero) Filipinos know him best via high school history class. It was while a bodeguero that Bonifacio founded the Katipunan after the arrest of Jose Rizal, finally convinced, perhaps, that Spain would never grant the reforms he and his fellow members in the reformist group La Liga Filipina wanted.

No sophisticate like Rizal, who was educated in the country’s then best schools and in Europe, Bonifacio was self-taught and a voracious though eclectic reader, favoring novels like Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew, and Rizal’s Noli and Fili. He did seem to have also read about the French Revolution, and read too the law books of law student and fellow Katipunero Emilio Jacinto, plus a volume on the lives of the presidents of the United States.

From his interest in the lives of US presidents among others, the late National Artist Nick Joaquin drew the conclusion that Bonifacio, having risen from his early poverty to Supremo of the Katipunan, could have entertained thoughts of rising from command of a clandestine group to the presidency of the entire country.

The Bulacan doctor Pio Valenzuela said almost the same thing during his questioning by the Spanish authorities for his involvement in the Katipunan. He claimed that Bonifacio often said that a blacksmith became president of the French Republic, perhaps implying that he too could rise to the same heights. Though he might have been in Spanish hands and under duress at the time, Valenzuela did not have to say, but did, that “There happened to him (Bonifacio) what had happened to Don Quixote — his head was turned and he was always dreaming of the presidency and speaking of the French Revolution.”

Valenzuela’s observation fits Nick Joaquin’s thesis (in A Question of Heroes) that it was pride and a sense of entitlement that drove Bonifacio to accept the Magdiwang invitation for him to mediate in the conflict between the Magdiwang and Magdalo factions in Cavite, where he tried to assert his authority as founder of the Katipunan.

Bonifacio founded the Katipunan in the awareness that only revolution would free the country, but he wasn’t as equal to the tasks of waging it as Emilio Aguinaldo and his generals were.

Perenially defeated in the battles he fought in Manila and its surrounding communities, Bonifacio and the Katipuneros of Manila had to go into hiding while the Cavite Katipunan was winning one battle after another and eventually gained control of the entire province. For that province he, his wife and his brothers left the Balara hills in December, 1896, in an attempt, so Nick Joaquin tells us, to take over the leadership of the Cavite forces of the Revolution, which, in contrast to its rout in Manila, was succeeding in that province.

But while not of gentry birth, and certainly no royal as Sophocles’ Oedipus or Shakespeare’s Hamlet were, Andres Bonifacio was nevertheless the leader of men all heroes are, having founded the Katipunan in 1892 during a clandestine meeting in a house in what’s now Claro M. Recto Avenue in Manila, the city of his birth, which today claims him as its hero — and leading it, had managed to attract thousands, including the middle-class and gentry militants of Cavite.

As Katipunan founder and Supremo, Bonifacio could not but have assumed that his authority and leadership would not only be acknowledged, but certified too by Aguinaldo and company by electing him President of the Republic they were contemplating. But he had won no territory from the Spaniards, a fact thrown into his face when he insisted on being thus recognized and while “acting like a King” among the Cavite gentry, thus aggravating the factionalism between Magdiwang and Magdalo and between Cavite and Manila rather than soothing either.

Despite the books he had read, Bonifacio did not seem to have learned much by way of a practical understanding of politics. Instead of unity as was his theme in Manila, his policy once he was in Cavite was, as Nick Joaquin put it, “ever to divide, divide, divide.” Out of fear that, with the Spanish forces knocking at Cavite’s gates, Bonifacio’s attempts to found his own army would endanger the Revolution, Aguinaldo had him arrested, tried and executed.

And yet, said Nick Joaquin, rather than meet a sad end in Maragondon, Cavite, Bonifacio could have been, were he more astute and more forceful, the leader of the Revolution in Cavite too as he was in Manila, and even first President of the Republic, although that belongs in the realm of historical speculation, among the “what ifs” that bedevil both historian and activist.

But even if we assume that Bonifacio’s trial and subsequent execution was driven by his attempting to capture leadership of what had become, the Revolution, rather than the other way around as favored by the late historian Renato Constantino (that Aguinaldo and company executed Bonifacio to seize the leadership of the Revolution from the proletariat), was he nevertheless an authentic hero, burdened though he would then be by hubris, the sin of pride for which fatal flaw all tragic heroes fall, in his case from Supremo to a corpse in an unmarked grave?

Indeed he was, if we define heroism as more than bravery and virtue, but also as ownership of a vision and the courage to fight for it despite the greatest odds, even if that vision should include imaginings of one’s own exalted place in the new society rising from the ruins of the old. Heroism has everything to do with being frailly human; humanity after all is what makes heroes.

Flawed as he might have been, Bonifacio was born when that portion of humanity today known as Filipinos had no real option other than independence and revolution. That he had neither the intellectual sophistication of Rizal nor the political and military skills of an Aguinaldo or Luna was of no moment, and neither was the pride that went before his fall. For he did begin it all, the Revolution, in that house in Azcarraga now appropriately named Claro M. Recto, and in behalf of something far greater than himself.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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