Heroes are exemplary individuals who embody a community’s highest values and ideals. “Heroes” and “nation” typically go together because a country’s best-known heroes are those whose lives are intertwined with the nation’s emergence, emancipation, and transformation.
Without any doubt, the Filipino people’s two greatest heroes are Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio. Rizal, for offering through his writings and exemplary life a vision of Filipinos as a people capable of attaining the highest achievement within the reach of nations, including that of self-rule. Bonifacio, for organizing and initiating the revolution that eventually freed the country from Spanish colonial rule.
The Filipino nation regularly celebrates their lives and holds them up as models of patriotism, to be emulated by generations of its citizens, particularly the youth. Other communities have their respective heroes, too. The Catholic Church has its martyrs and saints. Revolutionary movements have their ideologues and warriors.
At about this time every year, the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation plucks out of anonymity some four or five Asians, and casts a light upon the heroic work they do to make the world a better place, especially for the poor and neglected sectors of society. Offering innovative solutions to new and existing problems, often in the face of great adversity, these Magsaysay laureates are living heroes in their own way. They serve as models of an alternative life worth living in a materialistic and self-absorbed world.
A hero is thus the closest personification of a value or set of values that a given community desires to preserve, reinforce, and promote. The battle for a nation’s memory is, at bottom, a battle to maintain its core values in a rapidly changing world. There are, however, times when swiftly unfolding events bring out a change in the national mood that contradicts values enshrined in existing state commemorations.
If the theory is right, the resulting cognitive dissonance compels either a revision in action—for example, by abolishing the commemoration of an event, or a change in attitude, such as by offering a different and less dissonant interpretation of what happened.
The 2022 presidential election brought the son and namesake of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos to Malacañang. The meaning of Marcos Jr.’s election by a big majority of Filipino voters seems to clash with everything that Ninoy Aquino Day, commemorated on Aug. 21 every year, seeks to represent. This special nonworking national holiday, instituted in honor of the former senator and martial law detainee, unavoidably recalls that fateful day in 1983 when, coming home from foreign exile, he was shot to death at the airport while under military escort.
As I argued in last week’s column, Ninoy Aquino’s assassination triggered a national outrage that eventually brought down the Marcos Sr. dictatorship. His martyrdom to the cause of democracy was immediately recognized and was undisputed in the years that followed. The people’s memory and appreciation of his heroism remained stable even after nearly three decades, when his son Noynoy was elected president.
It is remarkable that in a 2011 Social Weather Stations opinion poll on the personalities that Filipinos regard as genuine Filipino heroes, Ninoy ranked No. 3—after Rizal and Bonifacio. (Thanks to Mahar Mangahas for bringing this out in his column the other day.) Together with Cory Aquino at No. 4, Apolinario Mabini at No. 5, and Emilio Aguinaldo at No. 6—these names were the only ones that received double-digit percentage mentions. One wonders how the Aquinos would fare if the same poll were conducted today.
What is certain is that President Marcos Jr.’s administration has not seen it fit to remove Feb. 25 (the people power revolution) and Aug. 21 (Ninoy Aquino Day) from the list of official national commemorations. Neither has the administration signified any support for one lawmaker’s proposal to rename the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. It’s not hard to understand this. Not only will doing so appear vindictive, it also directly challenges the Filipino public’s sense of values.
This, however, does not mean that attempts to rewrite history to make it conform with the current political configuration is about to come to an end. As the film “Maid in Malacañang” indicates, the drift of current efforts appears to be toward a reinterpretation of the past in order to paint the Marcoses less as whimsical wielders of power and more as ordinary people with little control over events, and their political enemies less as the self-sacrificing heroes they are held out to be, but more as vicious and opportunistic power players.
Like everything in society, values change. Therefore, our conception of heroism and who our real heroes are is also bound to change. In 1981, writes historian Alfred W. McCoy, Marcos Sr. requested Pope John Paul II to ride a helicopter to bless the giant steel cross atop Mt. Samat in Bataan. By doing so, the visiting pope made Mt. Samat a shrine, “and by analogy honored Marcos as a hero, just as he would soon beatify (Lorenzo) Ruiz as a martyr.”
But only two years later, McCoy continues, Ninoy Aquino came home “to die a martyr before military executioners, stealing the Rizal-like heroism that Marcos so assiduously cultivated and subverting the ideological foundations of his authoritarian regime.”