History by the roadside

On any Sunday morning, motor bikers congregate at their favorite gas stations in the city before taking off to wherever they can get a good breakfast, preferably amid cool and quiet surroundings. For the big bikers who call themselves “Hombres,” my riding buddies for the last 10 years, a suitable breakfast place could be as humble as a roadside gotohan, or as exclusive as a golf club restaurant. We eat, we talk—mostly about our bikes, our illnesses, the nation’s problems, and everything else under the sun—and head back for home before noon.

Last Sunday, we decided to give a more sublime purpose to our ride. We went to a museum—the newly renovated Apolinario Mabini Shrine in Tanauan, Batangas. In terms of the vivid impressions it left on us, I think it was one of the best short rides we have ever had. We vowed to go back, this time with our families.

It all came together by chance. We were looking for a short ride going south. Someone suggested that we might explore the roadside eateries in Talisay, Batangas, where one of us said he needed to be to open a weekend planning retreat for his staff at the sprawling Club Balai Isabel. We ended up joining them at the resort’s wonderful buffet breakfast.

Rather than approach Talisay from the Tagaytay ridge, something we have done a couple of times, our group commander proposed that we take it from the STAR Tollway. This stretch of highway, which leads into the heartland of Batangas, is now directly linked to the South Luzon Expressway. The road to Talisay is accessible via the STAR Tollway’s Tanauan exit.

A bell instantly rang in my head at the mention of Tanauan. “That’s the birthplace of Apolinario Mabini,” I exclaimed. “There’s a museum there! Can we take a detour and just take a quick look after breakfast,” I asked, feeling like a schoolchild. “No need for a detour, it’s along the way,” the commander assured me. This was the same sensation that had gripped me when we once rode through the small town of Badoc in Ilocos Norte in search of Juan Luna’s house. These images linger long in our minds because they are anchored in our nation’s past.

It was Maris Diokno, head of the National Historical Commission, who first told me of the newly rebuilt Mabini Shrine in Tanauan. The refurbishing of this building (designed by National Artist Juan F. Nakpil) and a couple of other national shrines that mark crucial periods in our country’s difficult passage to modern nationhood have been an abiding project of the NHC under Maris. Being the historian and teacher that she is, Maris’ principal target has been the young generation. She wants these national shrines to be in the itinerary of all educational field trips, as an integral part of the process of forming citizens. After visiting the Mabini Shrine, it occurred to me that every Filipino, regardless of age, would find a visit to such places edifying. It would fill them with pride, an essential ingredient of self-respect. It would make them understand the sacred obligations of citizenship, and let them know why the project of nationhood remains unfinished.

The “Sublime Paralytic,” as Mabini was referred to in grade school lessons in history, has always been my favorite Filipino hero. He was a homegrown ilustrado with an intellectual sharpness and vision that he put completely in the service of the fledgling Filipino nation. He understood the strengths and limits of our culture. The focus on his physical disability, I believe, unintentionally diminished his importance in the eyes of many, especially when he is viewed beside Rizal and Bonifacio.

Although Mabini’s involvement in the Philippine Revolution encompassed no more than one and a half years, his role in the shaping of our nation’s history is immense. He was by Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo’s side during that critical period between the declaration of independence from Spain and the outbreak of the Philippine-American War, advising him about the internal and external complexities in which the revolution was enmeshed.

He read America’s colonial intentions correctly after Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States under the Treaty of Paris of Dec. 10, 1898. He interpreted for Aguinaldo the larger implications of the split between the annexationists and the autonomists, on one hand, and the advocates of full independence, on the other. He saw the Malolos Congress as an instrument to secure legitimacy and support for the 1898 declaration of independence at Kawit. But he counseled Aguinaldo against handing over to that Congress the powers of government while the revolution was still fighting for survival.

On the subject of statecraft, Mabini had few peers. Reflecting upon the perilous course that the revolution was taking after he had quit the Malolos government and gone into hiding, he wrote: “We desire independence not as an end but as a means… without which we can achieve nothing…. But independence alone is not enough. A moral government is also indispensable, but it must be very moral, that is, it governs with truth and without deceit, sincerely complying with the laws and its promises to the people.”

The summer heat was stifling when we went back to the shrine’s tree-shaded parking area to collect our bikes. It was 12 noon. What we expected to be a brief pit stop to use the museum’s toilets and check out what’s inside had stretched out to a two-hour tour of the nation’s past. Back on the same road that Mabini had walked on his way to school in Tanauan town proper in the 1870s, we encountered busloads of vacationers on their way to the beaches of Taal Lake. I wondered if they were aware that history was waiting for them by the roadside.

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