Humor in history | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Humor in history

Of all the pseudonyms of our heroes, one of my all-time favorites is Artemio Ricarte’s “Vibora” (Viper). His pseudonym adds detail to the name immortalized in our textbook history, Ricarte is someone made larger-than-life but fossilized in marble and bronze monuments. He also had the misfortune of being on the wrong side of history during the Japanese occupation and died in Hungduan, Ifugao, scared of the wrath of his own people.

Heroes and heroines seem more detached in photographs. Nobody smiles. All of them look straight at the camera and yet their gaze seems to look past, rather than at us. It is through anecdotes and memoirs that these distant figures come to life, more so if they maintain a sense of humor during their struggle for independence; first, against Spain, and later, against the United States, and Japan.

One of the things I noted on the flyleaf of my copy of Ricarte’s memoir (written in Bilibid Prison but published in Tokyo in 1927) was a story about Ariston Villanueva, Magdiwang war secretary, who delivered a speech in Ternate, Cavite, about human excrement found on the side of one of the doors of the town church. A committee of investigation declared that the culprit was a woman. Upon examination, they found that “urine was spread all over the excrement, for had it been a man’s, the urine would have been only on one side.”

Another primary source, Bradley Fiske’s “War Time in Manila” (Boston, 1913) recounted how the enemy on the US Ship Monadnock saw a Filipino sitting calmly on a bench near Parañaque Church. Then the captain gave the order, “You may fire one shot, but don’t hit him. Just scare him a little.” Fire they did with the cannonball landing a few feet from the man who didn’t flinch or run for cover as they expected. Irritated after three more shots, the captain ordered, “Try to hit him.” Still, the man on the bench had extraordinary nerve leading someone to remark: “Shouldn’t be surprised if that was a dummy … I got two telescopes of considerable magnification; it showed a most dilapidated dummy sitting on a bench.”


Edwin Wildman in “Aguinaldo: A narrative of Filipino ambitions” (Boston, 1901) recounts the arrest of Gen. Pantaleon Garcia who was caught in bed. An informant tipped the enemy on the house where Garcia had taken refuge. When the place was raided, they found a man sleeping in bed; they woke him and asked, “What is your name?” A visiting card was handed to the leader of the arresting party with the reply “Pedro Gonzalez.” The man who was handed the visiting card was not fooled, he pulled down the blanket, compared the man’s face with a photograph in Harper’s Weekly, and shouted “Pantaleon Garcia!” Caught in full uniform under the blanket, Garcia meekly blurted out: “Si Señor.”

Other Filipino generals were more adept at disguise. Miguel Malvar of Batangas often escaped capture because he was mistaken for a peasant or a carabao handler by the enemy. Gen. Quintin Salas, leader of the Filipino forces in Iloilo and Antique, eluded arrest because he was mistaken for a dirty rheumatic pauper and was set free following a dragnet, according to Mary H. Fee in “A Woman’s Impressions of the Philippines” (Chicago, 1910).

Last but not least is a reference to Macario Acosta, military governor of Ilocos Sur in Albert Sonnichsen’s “Ten Months Captive Among Filipinos” (New York, 1901). To prepare him to surrender to the enemy, he was taught some English words for some conversation during the event:

“The Governor-general came out, and I introduced him to Commander McCracken, upon whom he expended just one half of his entire English vocabulary, ‘Welcome!’ that so impressed the American officer with his knowledge of our (American not English) language that he at once expressed himself as deeply impressed to meet the honorable governor. Acosta understood not a word, so in despair, he used the other half of his vocabulary, ‘Good-bye!’”


Many of the humorous anecdotes about historical figures in the period that spanned the Philippine Revolution against Spain to the Spanish-American War are to be found in the memoirs of Gen. José Alejandrino’s “La senda del sacrificio” (Manila, 1933), which is better known under a translation from the original Spanish as “The Price of Freedom: Episodes and Anecdotes of Our Struggles for Freedom,” (Manila, 1949). This work has launched many columns and lectures of mine over the last 39 years. “Walang kupas,” as they say.

As a commissioned officer directly under Antonio Luna’s command, Alejandrino recounted how Luna challenged the anti-Filipino Spanish journalist Mir Deas to a duel in Barcelona in 1889. First, Luna changed his enemy’s name from Mir Deas to “Mier Das” (sh*t). This taught me never to use “maglamierda tayo” which everyone presumes is Spanish for “let’s take a walk.” You must use the Filipino word “pasyal” (from the Spanish “pasear” to stroll, take a walk) instead of inviting people to take a dump together.


Reading primary source historical materials can be a chore, but it becomes light when you trip upon small details with humor.


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