Heroes for a nation that cannot remember

Nothing more powerfully communicates the self-understanding of a nation than the identity of its heroes.  We first teach the history of our country to our children by telling them the lives of our heroes.  Our heroes’ personal sacrifices mirror the nation’s own suffering, and their hopes define the nation’s moral identity.

A nation that is secure in its identity builds monuments and memorials to its heroes, and tells future generations: “Be like them.” It is a testimony to the contested nature of our recent history that, while our nation has not been lacking in heroes, the Philippine state itself has been incapable of giving them official recognition.

Thus, to this day, our annual celebration of National Heroes Day revolves around the figures of Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio, as if the history of the Filipino nation ended with our liberation from Spain. A shockingly large number of Filipinos do not know that we fought a war with America.  Many unsung heroes perished in that struggle. They have not been properly honored.  Our people also fiercely resisted the Japanese occupation in 1940s, and many died heroic deaths in the process.  But we have not told our children who they are.

One of the most interesting places in Washington D.C. is the Vietnam War Memorial where the names of American soldiers who fought and died in Vietnam are etched on a magnificent granite wall.  The nation celebrates their heroism without reservation, even though the American public’s attitude towards the Vietnam War has changed dramatically over the years. The memorial makes no attempt to explain or justify that war.

The local version of that memorial wall is the “Wall of Remembrance” that the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation has put up on a corner lot along Quezon Avenue and EDSA in Quezon City.  Unveiled on Bonifacio Day, November 30, 1992, the Wall honored 65 martyrs and heroes who died in the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship. Every year thereafter, more names have been added to the list, including those who survived the Martial Law regime but died shortly after.

Only a handful of these names belong to well-known figures.  This year, the names of nationalist historian Renato Constantino, who fought the dictatorship and gave a whole generation of Filipino students a sense of nation through his writings, and that of business leader Jaime V. Ongpin, who spoke up against Marcos when almost everyone else in the business community chose silence, were added to the wall.

The rest are those of simple men and women, many of them very young, who chose to live dangerously for their country so that future generations may live securely.  No one, outside their families and circle of friends, would know they even existed if their names were not written on the wall. One such martyr is Manuel C. Bautista, who was born in the slums of Quezon City, but managed to go to the University of the Philippines at Los Banos on a scholarship.  He was an officer in the student government and became a leader of the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK).  He was about to graduate with an economics degree when he joined the underground movement in 1972.  Arrested in 1973, he escaped with 13 other prisoners from Camp Vicente Lim after 2 months in detention, and rejoined the underground in the Quezon-Bicol area.  He died in an encounter with government soldiers in 1976.  He was 30 years old.

Last Thursday, Nov. 29, 2001, the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation read a citation for him and engraved his name on the wall.  No one from his family came to hear the citation (the Foundation could not locate any of his close relatives.)  But, no longer will he remain anonymous.

Three other students, all from the UP, were recognized for their martyrdom.  They were Jennifer K. Carino of Baguio City, Armando D. Palabay of La Union, and Jessica M. Sales of Quezon City. Jennifer was a science scholar at UP Baguio when she decided to drop out of school to become a full-time activist in the Cordillera region.  Under threat of being arrested, she went underground in 1972.  She was then 7 months pregnant.  She was 26 when she died in 1976.  Last Thursday, the baby she named Malaya whom she left in the care of her parents when she was just 2, came to sing a song for her mother.  She is a medical doctor.

With his elder brother Romulo, Armando Palabay became radicalized when he was just in high school.  At UP, where he took up economics, he joined the Kabataang Makabayan (KM) and became a veteran of the First Quarter Storm.  He went underground in 1972 and did organizing work among the Itnegs and Tinggians of Abra. Armando was only 21 when he was killed in an encounter along the Abra River in November 1974.

Jessica Sales graduated cum laude with a social science degree in 1972. For 5 years she taught sociology and political science at UP Manila and UP Los Banos while pursuing a masters degree in rural sociology. She was a leader of the Kapisanan ng mga Gurong Makabayan (Kaguma), a teachers’ organization opposed to the dictatorship.  In July 1977, while attending a meeting in Makati with 6 of her friends, she disappeared and was never heard from again. She was only 26.

We are not surprised that the Memorial Wall on which the names of these modern Filipino heroes and martyrs are engraved is wholly the initiative of a private foundation.  A government that has had no will to jail human rights violators under Martial Law or to seize the wealth plundered by the Marcoses and their cronies cannot be expected to know and remember the heroes and martyrs who fought the dictatorship.


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