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Looking Back

Was Bonifacio ambidextrous?

/ 09:49 PM November 29, 2012

PLAZA LAWTON was named after the highest-ranking casualty of the Philippine-American War. US general Henry Lawton, who participated in the capture of the Indian chief Geronimo in 1886, was shot dead in San Mateo in 1899 by a marksman under the command of Filipino general Glicerio Geronimo. Yet instead of Plaza Geronimo, we now have Liwasang Bonifacio.

Sixteen years ago during an official ceremony at the Liwasan, I enjoyed the early morning sunshine as well as the sound and fumes of jeepneys. As I contemplated the monument to the “Great Plebeian” (whatever that means), someone growled, “Where are the masses?” The man in a crumpled blue barong Tagalog shouted louder, “Where are the masses?” He said it again in a belligerent tone that made me look around for an escape route in case of trouble. Why was this rowdy fellow allowed to howl the same question a third time?

When I saw the trademark San Miguel Beer bottle in his hand, I realized that it was National Artist Nick Joaquin referring to “Revolt of the Masses” by Teodoro A. Agoncillo, the standard biography of Andres Bonifacio. Did the masses snub the invitation to participate in the official rites for Bonifacio Day? Were they gathering in a rally someplace else? Maybe they would come later in the day when the flowers offered by the women in Filipiniana attire and government officials in Katipunero hats had wilted.


In the popular mind, Andres Bonifacio wears a white camisa de chino and red pants, waves a bolo menacingly and shouts words unfit to print or be repeated by schoolchildren. This image was inspired by a prewar statue in Balintawak commemorating the Philippine Revolution of 1896—not made in Bonifacio’s image and likeness but in time regarded as so. “The old Balintawak Monument shows a man with his mouth open, crying,” says National Artist Guillermo Tolentino. “My statue shows him closed-mouthed.” Tolentino’s masterpiece in Caloocan gave the area its popular name—“Monumento.” When he made a modified copy of the central image in Caloocan for the Liwasan in Manila, there was again no shouting, just a dignified, inspiring defiance captured in bronze and stone.

Tolentino did more than a likeness; he created a symbol. Therefore, in the image at the Liwasan, Bonifacio wears an elegant embroidered barong Tagalog, with gun and bolo strapped to his waist, his right hand quick to the draw. But then comes the tie-breaker quiz bee questions: What was Bonifacio’s preferred weapon? Was he right- or left-handed, or good with both, ambidextrous? Manila Mayor Antonio Villegas once declared the hero left-handed based on the Caloocan image that depicts Bonifacio with a bolo in his right hand and a pistol in his left. But isn’t the pistol a better, more lethal, weapon? To create the image, Tolentino conjured spirits to verify the hero’s likeness, pored over old photos, and interviewed veterans to learn that military leaders had saber sheaths hanging from their left hip and holsters on the right. By giving Bonifacio both weapons, Tolentino left us with a visual riddle.

Teodoro Agoncillo said: “Bonifacio never fought with a bolo. I interviewed his contemporaries, like Pio Valenzuela and Guillermo Masangkay, and they insist that Bonifacio never fought with a bolo. As a matter of fact, Manila’s hero fought only in one battle—the battle of San Juan—and there he lost and nearly died. But he used a gun. That Tolentino monument is misleading. It compounds further an already popular misconception of how Bonifacio actually fought.

“Bonifacio neither fought with a saber nor a bolo, as confirmed by minutes of the trial when Aguinaldo’s tribunal enumerated the weapons found on his person. The records repetitiously mention guns and revolvers, but never sabers or bolos.”

Bonifacio didn’t wield the iconic bolo, he didn’t wear the white camisa and screaming red pants, he didn’t shout what has come down in history as “El grito de Balintawak” (The Cry of Balintawak), he actually began the revolution in Pugad Lawin, not Balintawak. After all this revisionism, how are we to remember him? Nick Joaquin said it best in 1963 when he wrote that Bonifacio:

“…was not charming, he was not likeable; he had a rough temper; he was impatient, rash and domineering; he had the insecurity of the poor, the touchiness of an upstart. Pio Valenzuela is said to have described him as ‘algo despota’—rather despotic. There’s the story that when a brother-in-law he had appointed minister of war demurred on the ground that he knew nothing of military science, Bonifacio screamed: ‘Do as you’re told, because I’ll shoot you if you don’t!’ Such stories may be apocryphal, but they indicate the contemporary view of him. Not apocryphal at all are the stories of his behavior in Cavite, which turned Caviteño feeling against him and ultimately led to his killing.”

Joaquin added: “Our two top heroes are oddballs indeed, for we must be the only country in the world that has for a national hero, not a warrior but an intellectual, and for revolutionary symbol, not a triumphant soldier like Bolivar or Washington, but a failed rebel. Admiration for clear, splendid victorious warriors with a sackful of laurels natural enough; but when a fighter who has no triumphs to show is cherished, that’s no longer hero worship but love, and a love no other love can exceed, being fused with love of country.”

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, andres bonifacio, column, glicerio Geronimo, henry Lawton, History, plaza lawton
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