Who’s the bigger hero, Jose Rizal or Andres Bonifacio?
We’ve expended no small amount of energy, or indeed passion, trying to answer that question, and will probably expend a little bit more of it over the next several months as we inch toward Bonifacio’s 150th birth anniversary in November. P-Noy’s Independence Day speech on Wednesday will highlight the drama, being held at the Liwasang Bonifacio and dwelling, if the press releases are to be believed, on Bonifacio’s greatness.
The question is not irrelevant, and is often fraught with meaning and implication. Such as during the 1960s and 1970s when the Left extoled the virtues of Bonifacio over Rizal and proposed to make him the national hero instead of Rizal. The argument being that Bonifacio acted while Rizal merely wrote, Bonifacio waged a revolution while Rizal merely campaigned for reform, Bonifacio represented freedom while Rizal represented only enlightenment. Indeed, the argument being that the only reason Rizal and not Bonifacio was the national hero was that Rizal was burgis while Bonifacio was proletarian, Rizal wielded the pen while Bonifacio wielded the bolo, Rizal was safe while Bonifacio remained dangerous.
Truly, the past is never past.
I did buy the argument in my activist days, but I’ve since thoroughly revised my opinion. Both in fact were revolutionaries through and through. Both in fact were dangerous in the extreme.
The fault lies in thinking that writing is not acting, ideas do not move the world, only actions do. Rizal wrote, and by doing so moved the world, and by doing so changed the world. By his work, indeed by what he was—writer, doctor, artist, scientist, historian, ethnographer, lover: a Renaissance man in every respect—he showed not just that the indio could be equal to his master but that he could be better than him. The Spaniards were right to find Rizal the most subversive person in the country. His very existence assailed them.
You need no further proof of it than that Bonifacio himself thought so. Rizal was his greatest influence along with Victor Hugo. He was what turned him into one of the world’s greatest revolutionaries.
Yes, the world’s. A thing grossly unappreciated, simply because unlike Mao and Ho and Mandela, he did not write as resolutely as he acted, he did not theorize as resolutely as he practiced. And, well, he did not live long enough to see the fruits of his labor. Or fight yet another tyrant from another shore.
But what Bonifacio did was spectacular, envisioning, founding, and launching the first plebeian, or proletarian, revolution in the colonies. The Latin American revolutions had come earlier, in the 1820s, but they had been bourgeois revolutions, led by the creoles and mestizos. Bonifacio’s revolution was not, it was organized by an indio, led by a working man who sold canes and fans, unleashed by someone who had fought adversity all his life but had sought salvation and liberation and freedom not just for himself but for his fellow indios. Until it was seized from him, plucked away from him, by an elite that had scoffed at it and blocked it but wanted it for itself when it began to show the promise of success.
I leave this country to (re)discover Bonifacio’s greatness over the next few months as scholars and commentators and public officials draw more attention to it. But though the question of whether Rizal or Bonifacio is the greater hero is not unimportant—and has at least the supreme merit of getting us to be more interested in the past; nothing like controversy or intrigue to do the trick—there’s one far more so.
That is the question of why after such an auspicious beginning, we’ve reached such a pathetic ending. Why after a grand and heroic time—having to debate who is the grander hero, Rizal or Bonifacio, is an embarrassment of riches—we’ve reached a miserable and pedestrian pass. Why after a time when we had the vision and resolve to make history, to try to change the world, we’ve reached a pass where we just want to make do, to get by as best we may in strange and hostile lands.
Of course we have another colonizer, the one that came after we came near to toppling the first, to thank for that. Who are of course the Americans, who seized Spain’s colonies toward the end of the 19th century, who insisted that the one country that had produced Rizal and Bonifacio, the enlightenment and the revolution in the very far East, was badly in need of civilizing. Who rooted out every seed and sapling and shoot of the Filipino’s pride, preventing him from flying his flag, from singing his songs, from remembering everything that came before that gave him dignity, that gave him character, that defined him.
And of course we have another despot, oppressor, an a–hole who came well after we had presumably gained our freedom, after we were presumably breathing the air of free men, who turned us into a nation of slaves again after vowing fervently to make this nation great again. Name that tune, or tyrant.
But in the end, we have ourselves to thank for it, in our unwillingness to be like Rizal and Bonifacio and fight against arguably prodigious adversity, and meet head-on a patently daunting challenge. In our refusal to be like Bernardo Carpio, pushing against the clashing rocks of forgetfulness and mediocrity, willing, bidding, flailing at ourselves to remember we truly were great once and can be so again. In our inability, like Theseus, to discover Ariadne’s thread, which is our thread to the past, which is our recollection of the past, a past as grand and glorious as they come in all its striving and for all its constantly being thwarted, and to find our way out of the Minotaur’s cave.
Our war for independence isn’t over. It’s raging in the mind.
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