A question of heroes

The Philippines is a cursed country indeed, if we are to follow Brecht’s idea that “cursed is the nation that needs heroes.”

Our textbook history is built on the exploits of our heroes (and a handful of heroines); our provinces, cities, towns and barangays are littered with monuments to heroes, along with schools, streets and parks named after them. We once had a National Heroes Commission, a government agency responsible for the propagation of the lives and works of our heroes.

Nick Joaquin reacted to all this hero worship with a compilation of essays titled “A Question of Heroes.” There were also two famous speeches by Renato Constantino, widely circulated in the 1960s, that took on the prime national hero: The first suggested that Rizal was an American-sponsored hero, and the second called on the people to make Rizal obsolete by reforming the nation.

“Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral,” by Jerrold Tarog, is a complex film fueled by the same iconoclastic sentiment; it is an antihero film that is not meant simply to debunk, but rather to question the blind hero worship Filipinos are reared on. Viewers can be overwhelmed by the historically accurate production design, or the many scenes shot so well you can freeze the frame, print it and send it to your mom on Mother’s Day.

Viewers may be easily distracted from the actual horrors of the Philippine-American War by all the good-looking actors and actresses who fill the screen. There are many thought-provoking lines — mostly from the mouth and pen of Apolinario Mabini — that make us pause and shudder at the fact that the situations our heroes faced a century ago are still our own today.

“Goyo” made me reflect on my own career, which, for the past three decades, has been about heroes and history. When I was starting out, many people of an earlier generation disagreed with my methods, because they insisted on heroes fossilized in bronze and marble, heroes who inspired simply by being unreachable. They didn’t want heroes of flesh and blood, heroes with feet of clay, who inspired simply because they were human like you and me.

I’d like to think that, in the end, our heroes were not diminished by their defects; rather, they were made relevant to a younger generation by their humanity.

For the past two years, I have been grappling with a different creature in Ferdinand Marcos, who is a villain to all but his kin, friends and fellow Ilocanos. As a martial law baby, I grew up with propaganda about Marcos’ heroism and greatness. All that was mercifully thrown away following the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolt, and a historiography of the past three decades that has painted him out to be the most evil person in contemporary Philippine history.

Then came Marcos’ diaries covering the years 1969-1984, collated from five different sources, that give us his version of the story. Since the diaries were written to be read in the future, he put his best foot forward. It’s amusing in parts when Marcos lies even to his own diary.

In 1973, an asalto was held in Malacañang on the eve of his birthday, where the top brass of the Armed Forces of the Philippines were compelled by the first lady to entertain the guests by appearing in drag and acting like streetwalkers. Marcos noted that he “pounded the table to splinters from hilarity.” Many of those generals were not amused, and perhaps the seed of Marcos’ downfall in 1986 were planted on that birthday in 1973.

Ten days later, on the first anniversary of the declaration of martial law, an elated Marcos wrote: “A rather happy day. Delivered what could be one of my best speeches over TV — the State of the Nation on year after [Proclamation No.] 1081. I attach copies of the speech without the ad libs and inserts which will be set in the printed copy. This is the first Philippine Thanksgiving Day.”

Next day he wrote: “I have often said achievement is but the meeting or congruence of preparation and opportunity… I have had phenomenal luck in time of war as well as peace. And there must be a Guiding Hand above who has forgiven me my sins, of which I have had more than my mortal share, and led me to my destiny.”

Is this a sense of destiny, of history or megalomania? Reading the Marcos diaries is like watching a film he himself produced, directed and appeared in. One must remain critical, since, as he declared in his last interview with Playboy magazine: “History is not done with me yet!”

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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