Looking Back

Why is Gregorio del Pilar’s hand in his coat?

History is usually delivered in school through: textbooks, teachers’ lectures, assignments, quizzes, and exams. History can also be learned outside school through TV, movies, iPad games and the web, but I think history with the most subliminal messages are found in monuments—statues, memorials, or markers found all over the archipelago that don’t require electricity and broadband connection to teach us lessons about heroism, nationalism, and the duties of citizenship. If a picture is really worth a thousand words, then monuments speak volumes.

People in monuments are literally larger than life and do not smile. Apolinario Mabini is depicted as frail, stooped, and looking quite sad. As the “Sublime Paralytic,” he is always seated. In contrast,


Lapu-lapu is always on his feet, gym-fit and holding a bladed weapon. He is flesh-colored, with beautiful, long, black, straight hair in Mactan; he is painted gold with abs that look like a sack of potatoes outside the Cebu capitol. But nothing beats the huge one in Agrifina Circle, between the neoclassic Agriculture and Finance buildings, that is best described as Conan the Barbarian posing like an Oscar statuette. Naughty folks peek under his  bahag  to check if he is well-endowed. At the Ayala Triangle, Sultan Kudarat is often mistaken for Lapu-lapu.

A monument of Jose Rizal is found in every schoolyard and  municipio  throughout the archipelago. He is standing, dignified, and wears an overcoat to keep him warm in the tropics. Rizal seems lost in thought, his gaze going through us insignificant creatures as he looks toward the future. Sometimes Rizal carries a quill, a feather cut at the tip used as a pen. This is not quite right because quills were used by medieval monks, not late-19th-century folks. Before the ball pen or fountain pen was invented, Rizal used a wooden pen with a metal nib repeatedly dipped in ink to compose his novels, poems, and the 25 volumes of compiled writings that gave Ambeth Ocampo a career.


Rizal wrote a lot for a nation that does not read him. This may explain why he often carries his novels, “Noli Me Tangere” (1887) and “El Filibusterismo” (1891) very much like Moses carrying the tablets on which he inscribed the Ten Commandments. Contrary to popular belief and what he carries in monuments, Rizal published three books, not two. Often left at home or forgotten by sculptors is Rizal’s annotated edition of Antonio de Morga’s “Sucesos de las islas Filipinas” (Events in the Philippine Islands) published in Paris in 1890.

Like Rizal, Andres Bonifacio is almost always depicted as standing. Unlike Rizal who is serene, lost in thought and gazing at the future, Bonifacio is always angry: He wields a bolo menacingly, his mouth in the shape of a mute yell that lip readers translate as “Sugod,  mga  kapatid!” (Charge, brothers!) However, I read Bonifacio’s lips rather differently. I imagine that before he shouted the order to attack, the Katipunan Supremo shouted one of the most powerful phrases in the Filipino language—an expletive that begins with “p.” This unprintable phrase has launched many battles, fist fights and brawls in our history.

In Tutuban in the belly of Manila, Bonifacio, like Rizal, holds an anachronistic and historically inaccurate quill. Worse, he seems to be writing in a very uncomfortable position. The sculptor forgot to give him a table and chair. In Tutuban, Bonifacio is signing the Katipunan oath with his blood. Would you believe that some Katipuneros were so zealous they not only affixed their blood signature on an oath, they also wrote out the whole document in blood!

Uniformed military heroes are often in an equestrian pose, they are on horseback like Emilio Aguinaldo in Kawit, Cavite, or even Gabriela Silang in Makati, who also brandishes a bolo and yells bad words like Bonifacio. Gen. Pio del Pilar of Makati doesn’t have a horse, but like Bonifacio, he yells and wields both saber and revolver.

I have yet to see a monument to Gen. Gregorio del Pilar, who is often depicted in paintings on a white horse, his head tilted in pain when the enemy bullet hit its mark. I presume that if a sculptor models the handsome “Heneral Goyo” on his most famous photograph, he would be standing with his right hand inside his coat, just like Napoleon. This week someone asked me on Facebook why Del Pilar hid his hand. Was it crippled or deformed? Did he have unsightly fingernails? Was he scratching an itch, calming an ulcer, fondling a pendant on his necklace, or winding his watch? Did Del Pilar know that this pose was like those on European portraits of men with breeding and distinction, or found in classical Roman statues? Was he copying Napoleon? Is Napoleon’s hand hidden inside his waistcoat because the painter did not know how to paint hands?

Interpreting monuments has given me hours and hours of fun over the years. I try to match textbook history with artists’ representations of history and have always found the differences more intriguing than the similarities. History in art or books is always open to different interpretations, and that is what makes history engaging—that is, if the teacher is open to listen and process alternative ways of seeing.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Gregorio del Pilar, heroes, History, Looking Back, opinion
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