Bonifacio’s significance

It was he who founded the underground movement that ended centuries of Spanish colonial rule over our people. Yet, the relative obscurity of Andres Bonifacio’s life and the controversial circumstances surrounding his death made it difficult to define his role in the nation’s history. No doubt, this difficulty was compounded by the coming of the Americans who used deception and superior force to turn back the Filipinos’ quest for freedom. In life or in death, a man like Bonifacio spelled danger to any colonizer.

It thus took 20 years before an official monument would be erected in his name. In contrast, national recognition for Jose Rizal’s heroism was instantaneous. Rizal’s public execution by the Spaniards on Dec. 30, 1896, on the belief that he was the principal instigator of the revolution guaranteed him a preeminent place in the nation’s pantheon of heroes. In fact, Rizal had dissuaded Bonifacio from proceeding with the revolution, arguing that the people were not ready and that the time was not right. Historians would later say that, in the eyes of the new American rulers, Rizal was a safe hero.

This dichotomy, interestingly enough, continues to this day. Rizal and Bonifacio are typically compared with one another in school debates on who is more deserving of the title “national hero.” As an instructional technique for inculcating national values and stimulating interest in the lives of our heroes, this format may have its virtues.

But, now this debate is being elevated to Congress through a bill that aims to officially name Andres Bonifacio the country’s national hero. I don’t know how this can be done without putting down Rizal. It is one thing to recognize and honor Bonifacio’s contributions to the birth of our nation on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary. It is quite another to officially proclaim him as the nation’s greatest hero. What do we hope to gain as a nation from turning this issue into a collectively-binding decision?

I believe there is nothing wrong in letting our students debate the various merits and qualities of our heroes. My hope is that these debates go beyond Rizal and Bonifacio, for there is much to learn from the other heroes.  But to seek to cap this debate with a law proclaiming a single national hero is, to my mind, to unduly politicize the matter. It would open up old wounds and invite alternative accounts of history that directly oppose existing notions of how our nation came into being.

In his provocative book, “Rescuing history from the nation,” the Indian historian Prasenjit Duara wrote: “Nationalism is rarely the nationalism of the nation, but rather marks the site where different representations of the nation contest and negotiate with each other…. The state is never able to eliminate alternative constructions of the nation among both old and new communities. The most successful states are able to contain these conceptions within relatively de-politicized spaces; but even where such states are older, as in Western Europe, there are overt challenges to the established national form in almost every nation.”

Bonifacio knew that the success of the revolution rested on the unity of the people. He did not refer to the nation he had in mind as “Filipinas.” Instead, he called it “Haring  Bayang  Katagalugan” (The Sovereign Tagalog Nation).  But it was clear to him and his young comrade Emilio Jacinto, that in employing this term, they were not only referring to the Tagalog-speaking regions, but to all the communities in these islands that aspired to free themselves from Spanish colonial rule. Even as Bonifacio was aware that unity was not assured even in the Tagalog provinces, his nationalist vision, like that of Rizal’s, certainly went beyond ethnic boundaries.

But this is not the same as saying that the revolution could speak for all the communities that rose up in arms against Spain. Nationalism tends to flourish ahead of the actual formation of the nation. Indeed, as we know only too well, the formal establishment of the nation does not terminate subnational identities and histories. A recent Inquirer commentary (08/19/13) submitted by Valenzuela Rep. Magtanggol Gunigundo testifies to this. He writes: “The struggles in the various regions for freedom and democracy have been ignored in favor of the political center’s narrative of the making of the nation.  Hence, the pantheon of heroism in the national struggle marginalizes the roles of Dagohoy of Bohol, Leon Quilat of Cebu and Sultan Kudarat of Mindanao, among many others in successive generations of Philippine heroes.”

I believe this is not an isolated view. We see it everywhere increasingly articulated in the form of “subaltern” narratives that question the premises of a national history. The struggle to create a Moro nation draws very much from the retelling of history from the standpoint of the Moro people.

At the same time, with globalization, future generations of Filipinos may find national identity too limiting as a source of personal identity. They will be drawing from myriad sources of representation—gender, work, religion, and the thousand and one avatars made possible by a digitally interconnected world. In such a world, languages are bound to lose their value as political signifiers, and states will be judged solely on the basis of how well they prepare their young people to live in future social systems.

Through all these shifts, we honor heroes like Bonifacio by keeping them alive as symbols of the universal quest for freedom, social justice, and solidarity.

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