The garrote as hero-making machine | Inquirer Opinion
On The Move

The garrote as hero-making machine

In the rambunctious landscape of the Philippines, where contemporary complaints about inflation, unemployment, graft, and corruption, often overshadow the deep emotional ties to the country, the film “GomBurZa” stands out as a rare and powerful piece that resurfaces the innate patriotic spirit among Filipinos. It is a movie that merits inclusion in the educational curriculum, compelling viewers to confront their historical roots and the sacrifices made by figures like Fathers Mariano Gomes, Jose Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora.

As I watched the film, I had a mixed sense of pique and pity when I observed that some viewers behind me could not understand what was happening and had to ask a lot of questions of their seatmates. Was it the first time they heard the story of Gomburza, or was it the dialogue in Spanish with the English subtitles not providing sufficient comprehension assistance? And when my batch of moviegoers clapped at the end of the movie, many moviegoers seemed to find the spontaneous visceral act of applauding a rousing movie odd.

The pinnacle of the movie is the execution scene, vividly depicting the deep impact it had on the public. While the Spaniards intended the execution by garrote of Gomburza in 1872 and of Jose Rizal by firing squad in 1896, public execution as a means of instilling fear, on the contrary, spawned patriotism and a sense of collective agency among the Filipinos, as history reveals.


It is intriguing that, despite its prominence in our memories, many Filipinos have never seen an actual garrote. I do not remember seeing it in any museum, not even at Villa Escudero in Laguna where one could find the rarest oddities, like a shrunken head.


Growing up in the 1950s, my grandfather, who was a strict disciplinarian, would respond to even the smallest transgression we kids would show with the warning in Pampango, “Tucnang ca, nung ali, garottian da ca (Stop that, or I’ll garrote you).” To us kids, it meant, if it progressed from warning to action, being whipped with a stick, the yantoc being the extreme pain-inducing variety. It was not only my grandfather—garrote had entered the local language as a symbol of extreme punishment.

The garrote, while identified as an instrument of torture, was meant to be a merciful way of killing. In the Spanish execution model, it was not meant to strangulate. The iron collar was meant to hold the prisoner by the neck, and a screw with a spiked tip was to be inserted at the precise point to snap the spine from the brain, causing instant death. If this mark is missed, as it must have frequently happened, that’s when it leads to an agonizing death.

Even on a worldwide scale, the execution by garrote of Gomburza has prominence. And extant photos of garrote execution events portray scenes from the Old Bilibid Prison. The continuation of garrote executions by the American colonial government until 1926 reveals the practice helped establish American authority and enforce control over the local population.

In the genre of Quentin Tarantino, Stanley Kubrick, and Sam Peckinpah known for gory movie scenes, I would have inserted a scene in the movie “GomBurZa” briefly featuring the garrote and its use, for maximum impact on the audience. This could enhance the historical context, emphasizing the gross injustice and inhumane penal methods predicated on fabricated evidence that should resonate with our contemporary society.

Drawing parallels to the present, the cases of Gomburza and Jose Rizal mirror modern phenomena like “Red-tagging.” Their advocacy for Filipino rights and criticism of Church abuses led to their unjust demise for political reasons, akin to present-day labeling actions against journalists, public intellectuals, activists, and political opponents that can lead to fatal consequences.

Amidst the reenergized historical exploration among Filipinos today, I commend the Republica Filipina Reenactment Group, a nonprofit organization that breathes life into pivotal moments in Philippine history such as their recent reenactment of Dr. Jose Rizal’s execution.


In the contemporary era of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and digital technology, reenactments, simulations, and revamped versions of zarzuelas and moro-moros offer a powerful platform to shape national consciousness. As we promote live performances that bridge the past and future, these initiatives may well forge new pathways for development and unity among our people. With these cultural forms, we can move beyond the static shadows of history and create a more inclusive and engaging narrative for the future.

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TAGS: garrote, heroes, On The Move

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