National heroes and heroines | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

National heroes and heroines

Contrary to popular belief, Jose Rizal is not our only national hero. We have a lot of them celebrated each year on the last Monday of August, National Heroes Day. Our present commemoration was set in 2007 by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the context of her long weekend, holiday economics program. Before that, from 1952, National Heroes Day was set on the last Sunday of August to commemorate the beginning of the 1896 Philippine Revolution against Spain. In other times, like the Japanese Occupation and part of the Commonwealth era, National Heroes Day was celebrated on Nov. 30, Bonifacio Day.

Historians are still arguing about the exact date of the start of the revolution, is it Aug. 20, 23, 24, 25, 26, or Sept. 5, 1896? Historians are still in disagreement over the site of “The Cry”: Bahay Toro, Kangkong, Pasong Tamo, Pugadlawin, Pacpaclawin, Banlat, etc. that are all within parts of today’s Caloocan and Quezon City previously known as Balintawak. Nobody disputes that the revolution did happen. Part of the confusion stems from the iconic image we have of Andres Bonifacio, the national hero in white camisa de chino and red pants folded up to his knees, waving a bolo. He raises a bladed weapon in defiance, one that Nick Joaquin insisted was of a type called “sangbartolome” from Malabon, named after the town patron saint whose feast falls on Aug. 24. Bonifacio in art and monuments has his mouth open in a silent, wordless scream that is the “grito” or “cry of Balintawak/Pugadlawin.”

Jorge Pineda drew the image we know and accept as Bonifacio, on the cover of “El Renacimiento Filipino” for July 14, 1911. Based on Pineda’s drawing, Ramon Martinez sculpted a monument unveiled in Balintawak on Sept. 3, 1911. It is clear from many sources: newspaper clippings, postcards, and oral history that the monument did not refer to one national hero, Bonifacio, but to many heroes of the revolution as “Ala-ala ng bayang Pilipino sa mga Bayani ng ‘96” (A memorial of the Filipino nation for the heroes of 1896). How a monument to all heroes became Bonifacio is hard to explain. This monument was moved from Balintawak to the front of Vinzons Hall in the University of the Philippines, Diliman campus.


National Heroes Day is a reminder that we have more heroes than those enumerated in our textbooks or those honored in monuments and commemorations. It is also a day to reflect on the changing meanings of heroism. Heroes are not just the old, dead men whose names were drilled into us in school. Heroes are not history, not a thing of the past. Heroes and heroines exist in our time but in a different shape and form.


When we think of heroes we think of people of outstanding achievement, courage, or nobility. The dictionary even refers to a hero as “a submarine sandwich”! But when we translate hero into bayani it is clear that the root word is bayan. A word that can mean town, municipality, pueblo, or nation. Bayan can also refer to people or citizens as in mamamayan or people from the same place or region as in kababayan. In Spanish-era vocabularios and diccionarios the word bayan also referred to “the space between here and the sky” or even the weather or time of day.

Bayani could mean a hero or patriot, someone of extraordinary strength or nobility. He could have god-like qualities. Bayani was someone who prevails or is victorious as in mamayani. Bayani is the leading man in a play or story, that we commonly refer to as bida from the Spanish vida (life) the opposite of the kontrabida from the Spanish contra vida (against life). Our word for a floater or lifesaver is salbabida from the Spanish salva (save) vida (life). In my long explorations of old dictionaries, I found in the 1836 “Vocabulario de la lengua tagala” by the Jesuits Juan de Noceda and Pedro de Sanlucar a bayani definition relevant to our time. They defined bayani as “a person who volunteers or offers free service towards a cooperative task or common endeavor.” Isn’t bayanihan a community effort of carrying someone’s house from one place to another? A bayani is a selfless person who does something for causes bigger than himself. A bayani does good for his community and his country. One need not die to be a hero, one can be a living hero who makes the world a better place for others.


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TAGS: balintawak, Bonifacio, monument, National Heroes

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