Looking Back

‘Desgracia, desgraciada’

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March 22 was Emilio Aguinaldo’s 143rd birthday. In his memoirs, Aguinaldo narrated how he came into the world with a bang in 1869. His mother had started a long and difficult labor, so to speed things up his father lit a big firecracker under their bed, producing a loud explosion that jolted baby Emilio from his mother’s womb!

Aguinaldo would later claim that he probably became a soldier because his first breath in the world contained gunpowder.

March 23 was the birthday of the Office of the President of the Philippines. Malacañang traces its foundation to Tejeros on March 23, 1897, when the Katipunan was dissolved and replaced by a revolutionary government headed by Aguinaldo, who was elected president in what we now know as the Tejeros Convention. Of course, there are revisionists who argue that Andres Bonifacio, rather than Aguinaldo, should be our “first President” based on the title “pangulo” (president/chair/presiding officer) also used by the Supremo of the Katipunan. We will leave that issue for another column because today we will deal with the way Aguinaldo classified his birthdays as either gracia (good fortune) or desgracia (bad fortune) in the context of his long life. There were three major desgracia birthdays in his controversial life.

While most people today would be happy to be elected president of the Philippines, Aguinaldo had mixed feelings. His election came as a surprise; he was not even in Tejeros during the election presided over by Bonifacio. Later, Bonifacio would declare the election null and void before storming out of Tejeros after his election as secretary of the interior was challenged.

Aguinaldo celebrated his first desgracia birthday on March 22, 1897, defending a Filipino position against the enemy in Pasong Santol. Next day he was informed of his election as president and advised to leave the defensive position to take his oath, together with other elected officials (except Bonifacio), in Tanza, Cavite (then Santa Cruz de Malabon). When Aguinaldo hesitated, his elder brother Crispulo offered to take the lead, and promised that the enemy would only pass their lines over his dead body. Two days after Aguinaldo’s election, his kuya Crispulo, true to his word, defended Pasong Santol—and paid with his life. Today, Crispulo Aguinaldo’s heroism is remembered by a crispy pata and chicharon franchise called “Crispy Ulo.”

The second desgracia birthday happened in Palanan, Isabela, in 1901. Aguinaldo described the festivity in this way: “The little village [we were in] was in gala dress. Arches had been erected, and such other decorations were provided as the limited resources of the place could supply. A number of people had made the 50-mile journey from Casiguran to greet me on the occasion, and we celebrated the day with horse races, dancing, serenades, and amateur theatricals.”

That birthday party was taken as a gracia until the next day when Frederick Funston, together with mercenaries from Macabebe, Pampanga, took over the camp and arrested Aguinaldo.

The third desgracia birthday was on March 22, 1957. Aguinaldo had refused to celebrate his 88th birthday because the nation was in mourning following the death of President Ramon Magsaysay in a plane crash. Magsaysay was buried on the same day as Aguinaldo’s birthday, which he classified that year as a desgracia.

I remembered Aguinaldo’s desgracia birthdays recently while watching yet another installment of Renato Corona’s impeachment trial and overhearing some people in a restaurant asking why the Chief Justice doesn’t just resign to end his and our agony. The remark made me dig up Aguinaldo’s 1898 Christmas Day message to his countrymen, where he offered his resignation from the presidency! This did not come to pass although the text of the document was already printed and ready for distribution. Obviously, the people around Aguinaldo, acting on personal reasons, convinced him to stay on.

Someone should research on all of Aguinaldo’s birthdays and trace whether these were gracia or desgracia years in his eyes and in history’s eyes. Someone should also follow the lead regarding the choice of June 12, 1898, as the date for the proclamation of Philippine independence; it is said that someone had suggested that this historic event be done on March 22, 1898, Aguinaldo’s 29th birthday. This well-meaning and sipsip suggestion was ignored by everyone and June 12 was chosen because June 13 didn’t seem auspicious enough.

Would our history be different if we had the proclamation on a different date? Would our history be different if the text of the proclamation was shorter and better written?

Filipinos today use the word desgracia to mean an accident, and desgraciada to mean a pregnant unmarried woman, so we must go back to Aguinaldo’s birthday and ask about the other events of 1898 that are not in our textbooks or in our history books. Was 1898 a gracia or desgracia year for Aguinaldo? Why did he consider quitting the presidency six months after the birth of the nation? As they say, “the devil is in the details,” and our historians have a lot of researching and writing ahead of them.

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