The paradox of National Heroes Day: It rightly remembers the heroes who fought in Asia’s first anticolonial revolution, but it does not commemorate an exact date. Rather, it refers to a notional period: sometime in August. Since the mid-1980s, the holiday has been celebrated as a moveable feast (the last Sunday of the month, until it was changed in the mid-2000s to the last Monday of August) in part to skirt the contentious issue that historians continue to debate until today. When did the revolution against Spain actually start?
This paradox is a useful lens with which to view the simultaneous holding of two major and somewhat contrary mass initiatives today: the antipork protest rally in Manila, and the reform caucus in Quezon City. Because while the exact date of the start of the Philippine Revolution remains controversial, the choice of month is right. It was in August 1896 when the existence of the revolutionary organization, the Katipunan, was discovered by the Spanish colonial authorities; it was soon after that Katipunan leaders met several times to debate the next step; it was in late August when the first skirmishes against Spanish colonial authorities were fought.
As the historians Milagros Guerrero, Emmanuel Encarnacion and Ramon Villegas argue in a 2003 paper (available on the National Commission for Culture and the Arts website), the true start of the revolution may also be reckoned in terms of various large and small acts.
“What occurred during those last days of August 1896? Eyewitness accounts mention captures, escapes, recaptures, killings of Katipunan members; the interrogation of Chinese spies; the arrival of arms in Meycauayan, Bulacan; the debate with Teodoro Plata and others; the decision to go to war; the shouting of slogan[s]; tearing of cedulas; the sending of letters [to] presidents of Sanggunian and balangay councils; the arrival of [the] civil guard; the loss of Katipunan funds during the skirmish. All these events, and many others, constitute the beginning of nationwide revolution.”
The debate over the exact date may be as old as the revolution itself; it is interesting to note, for example, that top revolutionary generals who survived the war and wrote memoirs afterwards remember the date differently. Artemio Ricarte locates it in Balintawak, on Aug. 23; Santiago Alvarez dates it to Aug. 29. For half a century, until 1962, Aug. 26 was deemed the official date of the start of the revolution. The still-current debate, however, began to take shape in the 1950s, with the release of historian Teodoro Agoncillo’s highly influential book,
“The Revolt of the Masses.” Based on the testimony of Pio Valenzuela, a controversial Katipunero who was not in fact present at the so-called First Cry of the revolution, Agoncillo moved the date to Aug. 23 and the location to Pugadlawin.
(For the record, the historians Guerrero, Encarnacion and Villegas use the Biak-na-Bato constitution and Emilio Aguinaldo’s memoirs to date the Cry of Balintawak to Aug. 24.)
Place and date are still controversial after all these years—but there can be no controversy about the deeper meaning of the national holiday: It recognizes that moment in our history when the most successful uprising against the Spanish colonial authorities took place, when the nation that had been imagined by writers like Jose Rizal and Marcelo H. del Pilar began to take actual shape, under the leadership of organizers like Andres Bonifacio and generals like Emilio Aguinaldo. Even more: Today’s holiday recognizes the heroism and self-sacrifice of thousands of ordinary people who took part in the revolution. They fought under different leaders, in different provinces, using different tactics. The memoirs and anecdotes they left behind reveal the contradictions inherent in a revolution, but many of them saw themselves as caught up in a popular undertaking. (Alvarez’s memoirs, in particular, paint poignant portraits of a people enjoying sudden liberation.)
Many years from now, when the history of the maturing of the Philippine polity is written, today’s protest rally against all forms of pork barrel and the convention to institutionalize reforms may be seen as disparate events with a common direction: constituting the beginning of the end, perhaps, of patronage politics.
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