A confusion of heroes

Using an Emilio Aguinaldo photo to represent Andres Bonifacio, or—which amounts to the same thing—mistaking Bonifacio for Aguinaldo, seemed like a sick joke, a flagrant example of historical ignorance. But, I wouldn’t be so harsh. Perhaps it was just the unfortunate result of a harassed researcher’s futile effort to fight drowsiness in the rush to meet a deadline. I prefer to think of it as a confusion caused by the attempt to erase from memory certain inconvenient truths about our nation’s history.

Still, many viewers rightly took to social media to mock it as a stupid error—an unforgivable one, given that it was supposed to commemorate the 122nd anniversary of the nation’s declaration of independence from Spain. PTV-4, the state-run television station, on which it was aired, immediately apologized and vowed to initiate “necessary training and skills development” for its staff.

Indeed, for those who know their history, no two Filipino heroes could possibly be more different from one another in what they stood for. While it was Bonifacio who started the revolution against Spain, he did not live long enough to finish it. The Supremo was no longer there at the declaration of independence. Mistakes committed in battle led other commanders to question his leadership abilities.

Even as they were all busy fighting the Spanish colonial army, the Cavite elite allied with Aguinaldo called for a meeting where they engineered the Katipunan founder’s removal from the leadership of the revolution. The so-called Tejeros Convention was nothing but a coup against the man who started it all. Aguinaldo, who wasn’t even present at the convention, was elected to head the new revolutionary government.

Bonifacio was later charged with sedition and treason for refusing to recognize and abide by the orders of the Aguinaldo-led government. Arrested and detained, he and his brother Procopio were sentenced to death by a revolutionary court. Though allegedly with some reluctance, Aguinaldo affirmed the death sentence for the two brothers. They were executed in the mountains of Maragondon, Cavite on May 10, 1897.

A year later, seeing that the Americans were determined to take over from the retreating Spanish forces, Aguinaldo proclaimed Philippine Independence from Spain. This is the event we have been celebrating every year since 1962, when former president Diosdado Macapagal changed the date of Philippine Independence from July 4, 1946 to June 12, 1898.

Until that shift, not many were aware of the significance of June 12. As a declaration of independence, it seemed ambivalent. For instance, it included this fateful passage in its text: “[U]nder the protection of the Mighty and Human North American Nation.” This was, no doubt, an attempt to disarm and win America’s favor.

But far from recognizing the independence declaration at Kawit, the new colonizers distanced themselves from Aguinaldo, even as they awaited the arrival of additional troops from America. Not long after, war broke out between the Philippines and the United States. It was a one-sided brutal war that culminated in the second colonization of the Philippines. Yet, entire generations of young Filipinos were, as Renato Constantino put it, “miseducated” to forget the Philippine-American War.

The recovery of a “usable past” was one of the battle cries of the activist decades of the ’70s and ’80s. That period witnessed, among others, the recuperation in the national memory of Bonifacio’s importance to the Filipino people’s struggle for genuine independence. This effort went hand-in-hand with a critical look at the tangled relationship between the “ilustrado” elites and the colonial powers at different crucial junctures of the nation’s history. Emblematic of this nationalist rewriting of the country’s history was the highlighting of the betrayal at Tejeros and the execution of the Bonifacio brothers by their own comrades.

As Bonifacio’s star started to shine brightly, that of Aguinaldo’s began to dim. The latter’s role in the nation’s history—a complex, lengthy, and multidimensional one—was reduced to a single image of the young revolutionary with the military haircut presiding over the proclamation of his people’s independence at the family’s Kawit, Cavite residence. Very little is taught in our history books of this man’s heroic struggle to form a functioning government in the wake of the independence proclamation, and of the role that Apolinario Mabini, his astute adviser, played during that period.

As an important historical moment, June 12 rightly belongs to Emilio Aguinaldo. But, to those in quest of a people’s hero who could be a vehicle for a radical agenda, there is no other figure than Andres Bonifacio. It is therefore not difficult to imagine a sleep-deprived TV-4 research assistant, who, having picked Aguinaldo’s portrait from the images of Philippine Independence available on Google, could summon no other name for the hero before him but Bonifacio. It is a cruel trick of the mind.

In Milan Kundera’s novel “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” the main character Mirek said: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” There are many aspects of a nation’s complex history that the ruling power of the day may try to erase in the interest of promoting a certain collective identity.

But forgetting, like remembering, entails conscious effort. The past is never completely past. It has a way of haunting us at unexpected moments, sometimes in the oddest ways.