Worth living for
The Filipino is worth dying for.” These words were uttered by the late senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. before he himself was ushered into the pantheon of the nation’s heroes when he fell onto the airport tarmac on Aug. 21, 1983. He had been shot in the head from behind by soldiers escorting him out of the plane he had come in.
Asked why he wanted to come home from exile despite warnings from both friends and foes, Ninoy said he wanted to be part of the transition that would inevitably follow once President Ferdinand Marcos, who had ruled as a dictator for over a decade, had left the scene, given rumors that Marcos was seriously ill. Then Aquino summed up his motivation succinctly: “The Filipino is worth dying for.”
Unfortunately, individuals prove themselves deserving of heroism mainly by dying. Our greatest national heroes, Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio, albeit recognized only informally and by acclamation (even contention) without benefit of law, distinguished themselves by their lives of bravery, leadership and resolve. But it was their deaths—execution by the Spanish colonizers in the case of Rizal, execution by fellow revolutionaries in the case of Bonifacio—that cemented their reputations and allowed them entry into the people’s hearts and veneration by the nation.
In contrast, behold the fate of Emilio Aguinaldo, who heroically picked up the mantle of leadership in the fight against the Spaniards and Americans. But, after his surrender, Aguinaldo continued to live on—and on and on—well into a ripe old age. His long lifetime led to a series of missteps: from running for president and then losing, to agreeing to work with first the Americans and then the Japanese, and, overall, tainting his early leadership of the revolution with compromise and accommodation.
Aguinaldo is among the nine Filipinos included in the “short list” compiled by a technical committee of historians, educators and bureaucrats when then President Fidel V. Ramos sought to settle all debates and proclaim the chosen ones as “national heroes.” But nothing came of the planned anointing, mainly because there were fears that the government would then be swamped with requests to proclaim a new national hero every so often. There was also the fact that, to this day, feverish debates continue to rage over who deserves (or does not deserve) recognition as a Filipino hero.
Which is why the country observes today “National Heroes Day,” a catch-all holiday to honor all those deserving to be called heroes—of the nation, a locality, even of a cause.
But the continuing confusion of who among millions of Filipinos deserve to be remembered and honored with the status of “hero” should not stop those of us still living, or those seeking to create their own future, from exploring ways to reach this status.
Certainly, there is no lack of individual examples of heroism to emulate. Long before the Spanish colonizers put the Philippines “under the parish bells,” there were countryfolk bearing arms and rushing headlong into battles against invaders.
This was not the only way they fought to win freedom and build the nation. Many others chose to fight with the pen as subversive journalists. Others fought their battles in schoolrooms by educating the next generation. Still others believed that by individual hard work and accomplishment, they could prove the Filipino the equal to any other person in whatever field of endeavor.
In most surveys conducted among young people that ask them who their personal heroes are, parents and other role models often come out on top. The young people cite the sacrifices made by their elders, whether as overseas workers, single parents, wage earners or laborers, all motivated by a desire to create a better life for their families.
This tells us that we can now amend Ninoy Aquino’s proclamation about his countryfolk. Yes, the Filipino is worth dying for; but, more important, the Filipino is worth living for. Every citizen is called upon to live a life of heroism—working in behalf of others, for the good of the whole, beyond his or her personal comfort zone, with an eye to the future.