‘Bayani’ a richer word than ‘hero’ | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

‘Bayani’ a richer word than ‘hero’

/ 12:26 AM September 02, 2016

Words seem simple until you are faced with more than one meaning and have to choose based on usage and context. For example, the burial of Ferdinand Marcos would not be an issue in an ordinary cemetery or memorial park. There are two issues raised against him: First, should we consider him a “hero” fit to be buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani? And second, is his presidency something we want to remember or erase from our collective memory?

It is not well known that in the Manila North Cemetery (or the Cementerio del Norte) stands a whitewashed circular structure commissioned by US Governor-General James F. Smith in 1908 to honor the veterans of the Philippine Revolution. This used to be known as the “Panteon de los Veteranos de la Revolucion,” and it used to house the remains of those gallant men (and even Melchora Aquino) who fought in the Philippine Revolution against Spain and the “Philippine Insurrection” now acknowledged as the Philippine-American War. There are very few remains left in the Pantheon now because towns and provinces have since claimed their heroes from Norte. When I first visited the Pantheon in the 1980s, I found a family who had established residence inside and who had used the empty graves and niches as compartments for pots, pans, and other domestic objects, even shoes.

In May 1947 a Republic Memorial Cemetery was planned to be the resting place of Filipino soldiers who died in the service of the nation during World War II. Congress passed Republic Act No. 289 (or an Act for the Construction of a National Pantheon for Presidents of the Philippines, National Heroes and Patriots of the Country) that was signed into law by President Elpidio Quirino in June 1948. Quirino’s successor, Ramon Magsaysay, renamed the Republic Memorial Cemetery as the Libingan ng mga Bayani in 1954. It is to be noted here that Magsaysay is still buried in the Manila North Cemetery while Quirino was reinterred this year in the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

It is the term “bayani” that is the bone of contention in the Marcos burial. Are all the people buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani a hero?


Or does burial there make one, no matter how unworthy, a hero?

If you google the word “hero,” you will get two meanings: one, “a person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities,” and the other, a “submarine sandwich”! If you look up “bayani,” you will find many meanings. Vito C. Santos in his Vicassan’s dictionary (1978), gives the following: hero, patriot (“taong makabayan”), cooperative endeavor, mutual aid, a person who volunteers or offers free service or labor to a cooperative endeavor, to prevail, to be victorious, to prevail (“mamayani”), leading man in a play (often referred to as the “bida”—from the Spanish word for life, “vida”—who is contrasted with the villain or “kontrabida” from the Spanish “contra vida,” against life). These words help us better understand the word for the lifesaver, the inflatable rubber tube or “salbabida,” from the Spanish “salvar vida,” to save life.

Not content with the hefty Vicassan’s dictionary, I looked up the UP Diksiyionaryong Filipino (2001) that lists three meanings for bayani : a person of extraordinary courage and ability; a person considered to possess extraordinary talents or someone who did something noble (“dakila”); a leading man in a play. It was added that a bayani or hero from mythology were those who had the qualities of the gods, extraordinary strength, bravery, or ability.

Then there is the Vocabulario de la lengua Tagala by the Jesuits Juan de Noceda and Pedro de Sanlucar, first published in 1754 but better known for its 1860 edition that can be found in Manila and covered with pigskin. This once-rare book has been made readily available again by the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino in an edition by Almario, Ebreo and Yglopaz translated from the original Spanish into Filipino. Bayani in this dictionary has several meanings: someone who is brave or valiant, someone who works toward a common task or cooperative endeavor (“bayanihan”). It is significant that bayani comes a few words under “bayan,” which is defined as: the space between here and the sky. Bayan is also a town, municipality, pueblo, or nation, and can refer to people and citizens (“mamamayan”) who live in those communities, or to those who originate or come from the same place (“kababayan”). Bayan also refers to the day (“araw”) or a time of day (“malalim ang bayan”) or even to the weather, good or bad (“masamang bayan”).


I have been opening old dictionaries to find out what bayani meant to people in the past as a way of figuring out what bayani should mean to Filipinos in the 21st century. Johnnie Walker has begun a campaign to help us review and define hero/bayani for our time; it proposes ambition as a peg. That may be one way of looking at the question, but hero and bayani do not have the same meaning. Bayani is a richer word than hero because it may be rooted in bayan as place or in doing something great, not for oneself, but for a  greater good, for community or nation.

Old heroes were those who contributed to the birth of nation. Maybe the modern bayani is one who pushes the envelope further by contributing to a nation in a global world.


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TAGS: bayani, Elpidio Quirino, Ferdinand Marcos, Hero, Libingan ng mga Bayani

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