Aguinaldo in a fairer light | Inquirer Opinion

Aguinaldo in a fairer light

By: - Arts and Books Editor / @LitoZulueta
/ 05:03 AM May 22, 2021

Independence Day is less than a month away, so it is auspicious that the man who declared it on June 12, 1898, often vilified for having allegedly assassinated Andres Bonifacio and “Heneral Luna,” if not independence itself, is getting a fair shake from a Philippine historian with no mean international reputation.

In the Jose Rizal Lecture of the Philippine PEN, Reynaldo Ileto, author of “Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines 1840-1910” in 1979 and recipient of the Fukuoka academic prize in 2003, tackled our “three foundational heroes”—Rizal, Bonifacio, and Emilio Aguinaldo—with the third coming out even more foundational than the two.

“But to the Filipino public or at least to those who have watched the movie ‘Heneral Luna,’ Aguinaldo is decidedly a negative figure, his hands stained with the blood of Bonifacio and Luna,” the historian said, so much so that Congress had tried to change the name of Camp Aguinaldo to “Camp Antonio Luna.”

But the odium heaped on Aguinaldo is the product of “black propaganda” that began after the United States’ “treacherous refusal to allow the Filipino forces to participate in the capture of Manila in August 1898.” And when Aguinaldo asked the United States to recognize the Malolos republic, “the demonization of Aguinaldo in the American press promptly followed.”


After the war with the United States, the black propaganda went on because Aguinaldo “continued to influence the struggle for independence throughout the American occupation period.”

Post-war, he “would figure in Cold-War-era histories as the model either of a strong president and nation-builder or a fascist leader from the ruling class that sought to suppress the aspiration of the masses from the Katipunan era to the Communist Party.”

Ileto traced the careers of the three heroes to the pueblo, the “reordering” of Philippine society by the Spanish empire. With the reducciones and the pueblos, the natives were brought together bajo de la campana, under the bell of the church, or within earshot of the friar cura párroco. Beyond the pueblo would be the spaces occupied by those who refused Spanish rule—“the apostates, sectas, vagabundos, tulisanes, indocumentados, mga taong-labas”—“the people from the outside.”

Rizal and Aguinaldo came from the pueblos of Calamba and Cavite Viejo. Bonifacio came from Manila, the “metropole.” With Rizal’s Manila education and further studies in Madrid, he likewise joined the metropole.


But Aguinaldo, his Letran education cut short by his father’s death and his return to Cavite to handle the family business, remained in the pueblo. He in fact became capitan de municipal, the mayor of Cavite Viejo.

Ileto dismissed as hasty generalization that the mayor was nothing but a puppet of the friar. He explained that the mayor must practice tact and diplomacy and even must be “crafty” to work with the friar. He must be a good communicator and relate well with the “taong-loob” and even do backdoor deals with the “taong-labas” to preserve peace and order.


Representing the Spanish monarch and the pope in Rome, the friar too must work with the mayor to be an effective shepherd of the flock.

Ileto said freemasonry was an Anglo-Saxon movement to undermine the Spanish empire’s “Pearl of the Orient” by anti-clerical propaganda since Filipinas was held together by the strong friar presence. All three heroes were freemasons, but Aguinaldo, having worked with the friars, had a more nuanced regard for them. By his own account, he asked Bonifacio to spare two of three friars captured by the Magdiwang since “talagang mabait naman sila.” But Bonifacio scornfully turned down the request and had all three executed.

Having lost battle after battle in Manila, the supremo sought refuge in Cavite. He addressed Aguinaldo not by the latter’s military rank but as “Capitan,” as in “capitan de municipal,” as a functionary of the pueblo. “Thrust into the rural environment of Cavite,” Ileto said, “Bonifacio was in alien territory.” Unbeknown to him, he was now cast as the taong-labas.

The leadership qualities Aguinaldo showed as mayor would later be in full display as revolutionary general, political leader, and, for all intents and purposes, founding father of the nation.

“I was certainly not sympathetic to Aguinaldo in ‘Pasyon and Revolution,’ but that was nearly 50 years ago,” Ileto said. “For better or for worse, my views about these three heroes have changed significantly.”

Aguinaldo has all along had a bad rap. “Our problems really began in 1898 with the arrival of the Americans, their betrayal of their ally Aguinaldo, and their destruction of the first republic,” Ileto said. “I have yet to watch a Filipino movie that brings home this truth.”


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Long-time journalist and editor Lito B. Zulueta teaches at the University of Santo Tomas and is national secretary of the Philippine PEN.

TAGS: Emilio Aguinaldo, History, Independence Day, June 12

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