José Rizal as a member of Nick Joaquin’s pantheon of dubious heroes | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022


It has been the facile conclusion that the “pacifist” Rizal became our national hero over the “war freak” Bonifacio because it thus suited the Americans’ pacifying campaign against us.

Now comes Nick Joaquin in “A Question of Heroes” telling us that Bonifacio could not be a hero because he was a failure, since the glorious Revolution of 1896 never quite happened unless we perversely insist on calling Bonifacio’s abortive attack on San Juan and his fast retreat to the hills of Montalban a revolution.

It seems the revolution we find in 1896 actually took off in the Cavite of Aguinaldo, and it was this which actually touched off the revolution in Bulacan and Pampanga until all of Luzon and the Visayas had risen successfully against Spain.

Unless we missed it somewhere, Manila never revolted successfully, and Mindanao is not in this story (but was it ever?).

It would take a whole book to refute Joaquin. The problem lies in the very structure of Joaquin’s opus, subtitled “Essays in Criticism of Ten Key Figures of Philippine History” (Makati: Filipinas Foundation Inc., 1977, hardcover).

It is a mass of historical data wondrously molded by a tidal flow of value judgments. One would have to begin by tracing every original source document and determine its authenticity and relevance. The task is mind-boggling and it is not made any easier by Joaquin’s non-use of reference index in almost every datum.
Filipino ‘notables’

If we ask any high-school student to stand up and recite the names of our national heroes, he would most likely say, “José Burgos, Marcelo H. del Pilar, Lopez-Jaena, José Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Emilio Aguinaldo, Mabini, Antonio Luna, Gregorio del Pilar and Ricarte.”

Innumerable streets and plazas, schoolhouses and societies, not to mention millions in coins and currency, have been named in honor of these men. Declamation contests by the thousands, poems and stories by the mile, have focused on their noble greatness.

What shall we do with them now? For Joaquin has done them in but good. That pantheon on our horizon is now gaping against the sky, except for a few jagged pedestals.

Burgos as accidental martyr

Burgos, we now understand, was only a martyr and a hero by accident. “Except for that irrelevant mutiny (the Cavite mutiby of 1872), it’s possible that Burgos, whatever his ideas, would not now be a name to us…”

There is even doubt on his being a “Filipino” (“But how Filipino was Burgos?”) because he was a Spanish mestizo, or a “Creole,” a term much used by Joaquin as though a personal invention.

He was heroic, Joaquin does say, in his ideas to Filipinize the clergy, in his efforts to seek reform within the law, in his concern to liberate the masses through education, and in his private drive to ennoble the Filipino by himself. But then, in a tantalizing inching toward a definition of a “hero,” Joaquin says, “Heroism does not guarantee one’s recognition as a hero.”

Forthright M.H. Del Pilar Marcelo H. del Pilar does not come off as poorly. He is firm and decisive, with both Spanish blood and Tagalog nobility running in his veins. While Rizal was still arguing on the competence of the Filipino, Del Pilar had presumed it.

He was audacious enough to carry his petition to the Queen Regent herself, and the Filipino colony in Madrid preferred his forthright authority to the vacillations of Rizal.

As the fiery editor of La Solidaridad, he personified the 1880s phase of the Propaganda movement in Madrid. Considering this is also an essay in criticism, we heave a sigh of relief: one name we can still recite, a hero still one.

Traitorous Jaena

Lopez-Jaena is a different sort. He wrote eloquent nationalist tirades, but only as long as he received his stipend. When this stopped, he turned into a bitter critic of the Propaganda. He finally ended up trying to run for office in the Spanish government and then dying in utter misery in Barcelona at the age of 40. Not only was he a slob, always unkempt with gauche manners, he was also (dare we say it?) a traitor to the Filipino cause.

With Rizal, we detect a defensive note in Joaquin. He begins with an epigraph from Cromwell (“Paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all, but remark all these roughness, pimples, warts and everything as you see me”), as if he were somewhat apologetic about his little hatchet job on Rizal.

We, too, may well cringe, because even the apostate would draw back from stepping on the Cross. For such has Rizal become to us, a holy figure almost, the apotheosis of all we felt in our people, our hero examplar. But then, what really can we feel when “a beautiful theory is murdered by a gang of brutal facts?”

Rizal did reject the Revolution of 1896. He was on his way to Cuba, a volunteer for the Spanish cause even before his final arrest and execution. True, he was a subversive against the Spanish regime in his novels, at least, but when revolution did break out, he turned his back on it.

Joaquin quotes Léon Ma. Guerrero’s observation that Rizal was “a nationalist who did not recognize his nation when it suddenly rose before him, a bloody apparition in arms.”

Rizal as ‘First Filipino’

Joaquin renders Rizal the tribute as “The First Filipino,” who had most created the idea of the Filipino nation. This First Filipino, however, in Joaquin’s view, also suffered from an inferiority complex because he was small, with the sly hint that he was small not only in height. There is insinuation that Rizal suffered from some sexual complex which prevented him from consummating his flirtations.

But whence comes this bolt from the blue tribute of being “The First Filipino?” On what achievement is it supposed to rest? If we are to follow Joaquin’s own narration, he would have to give the title to  Luis Rodriquez Valera, the one who baptized himself El Conde Filipino.

If the word “first,” however, refers not to usage but to achievements, then why not state them?

By Joaquin’s own view, Bonifacio’s revolt was a failure, and this was the revolt presented to Rizal for his approval. Could Rizal not be credited with discernment in realizing that the seeds of failure were contained in the plan of revolt? As a man whose consistent desire for the welfare of his people has never been questioned, why not credit him with wisdom in rejecting a revolt that would surely bring death without victory to his people?

For Rizal was right. The revolt did fail. We can relish 1896 only in the same way we relish Bataan and Corregidor—glorious as the charge of the Light Brigade, but failures still. In fact, Joaquin is aware of this oddity in our national character when he does refer to Bataan and Corregidor in his chapter on Gregorio del Pilar and other glorious failure of Tirad Pass: “A few more Tirads and we’ll be the most heroic people in extinction.”

The whole chapter on Rizal actually serves to advance Joaquin’s pet thesis: The Creole richly deserves a place of the highest honor in the development of the Filipino nation. Granted, for it is true that so many of the key figures in our national life have Spanish or Chinese blood in their veins.

But  let us not give the corollary impression that the Malays were only so much rabble. Speak of them as well. Tell how war is fought with both generals and privates, with the privates dying in disproportionately greater numbers. Tell how generals plan, and also how the privates implement.

Say it like it truly is, including that there were also Malay propagandists, and generals and privates, too. This whole nation is carried on Malay backs, so why not include them in the parade?

Impetuous Bonifacio

NICK Joaquin

Andres Bonifacio fares no better than Rizal, although here Joaquin’s criticism is specific and profound. The thesis is that Bonifacio failed from excessive ardour, vanity and impetuousness.
Against Spanish guns, he drew his bolos and blindly believed in the headlong charge against a fixed fortification. In one week, the last week of August 1896, Bonifacio’s revolt began and failed.

Invited to Cavite by the Magdiwang faction to mediate their quarrel with the Magdalos of Aguinaldo, he succeeded only in alienating both by behaving as a dominating upstart. His revolt had failed; the Cavite revolt, conducted with organization and preparation, had succeeded; and yet he sought to impose his will, that of a failure, on those who had succeeded.

Justly rejected, he unjustly and stupidly ordered the arrest of Magdalo officers in Cavite, issued decrees nullifying Aguinaldo’s acts, thus acting with more ferocity against his own than against the Spaniards.

His execution by Aguinaldo emerges as a necessary measure to save the Revolution, and reveals this early Aguinaldo in a most noble and merciful light. It was a contest between professional intellect and plebeian passion, and the latter lost.
“Why fell the Supremo?” asks Joaquin, and his answer is that Bonifacio was simply too incompetent to be one.

Prudent Aguinaldo

From the start, Joaquin makes it clear he hardly approves of Aguinaldo. He was a petit bourgeois, too prudent, lacking in imagination, and incapable of pushing enough just when history hung in the balance.
He refused to assert himself at the Imus conference, and so Cavite remained divided between the Magdiwang and the Magdalo, and the Revolution “was doomed.” He had the chance to take Manila in 1898, but he hesitated, and then fell to an American ploy which deprived him of the nation’s seat of authority.

From there on, he inexorably slipped into a paranoia which prevented him from drawing into the Revolution every individual and group which could have ensured its success. Thus, he ended up killing, instead of utilizing, Antonio Luna, his best professional soldier.

Aguinaldo’s character, the implication goes, was simply too small to muster the talent of a Luna whose own tendency to brutal actions made him an object of easy dislike.

Toward the end, we see Aguinaldo reduced to a clannish paranoiac, running helter-skelter from the Americans, and callously interposing a doomed Gregorio del Pilar between himself and the pursuing Yankee troops.

A small-town man, of a prudence greater than  his intellect, Aguinaldo found his doom in laying a role too large for him. With his judgment, what can we do? The lesson is that failures are by definition foolish, and fools cannot be heroes.

Infantile Mabini

Mabini was an antihero because he saw history “as a series of problems confronting men, not men confronting problems.” Mabini “remembers all the legal problems of the revolution, but not a single dramatic scene.” Mabini “…whenever he appears in our history is arguing a question of legality.” He was already “gray of hue even before his crippling.”

Mabini would follow a leader, uphold him, then turn against him as he did to Aguinaldo. After being part of a systematic campaign to baffle Luna, Mabini piously states (after Luna’s assassination) that Luna should have been supported.

His paralysis is presented as a mystery, with no definite cause, although the clear insinuation is that Mabini had somehow willed himself into it because he wanted to operate as a pure intellect disengaged from every personal relationship or physical confrontation.
Joaquin, after all this precision marksmanship, again repels us, as he did with Rizal, by insinuating a sexual infantilism in Mabini.

Far more fundamental that all this, Mabini has a very serious charge from Joaquin: Mabini was a prime contributor to the disunity which rent the Revolution.
He alienated the propertied classes by compromising a dictatorship propped up by the peasant army. He alienated the Church with his anticlericalism. He alienated the Malolos Congress by successfully placing it under the sway of a “dictator.”

Eventually, even the masses fell away from him because “their decisions and values were, after all, not his.” As the man behind Aguinaldo and behind many fundamental decisions, Mabini’s character finally rent the Revolution. In the end, he blamed everybody else for its failure except himself.

As for Gregorio del Pilar, the evidence of Joaquin against him is quite conclusive. Remove him from our pantheon and let him no more be a heroic subject in high-school declamations. Our pantheon, already an abode of dubious residents, can do better without a dandy, bungler and hatchet man.

Tenacious Luna

In Antonio Luna, we have  Joaquin’s only hero. Was there enough fault in the man to be an antihero? Certainly not, and the brutality of his temper appeared so because we were a society that prized pakikisama.
Three sentences will suffice: “He was a soldier trying to win a war and thwarted at every turn by those on whom he should have been able to depend. He was a nationalist at a time when the new nation he would save was already disintegrating. And he was ignored champion of a bourgeoisie divided against itself.”

“Would Luna have been a strongman?” Joaquin asks, and then he answers: “Alas, no… He was a patriot with a single obsession: to resist the invader, to expel the Americans.”

And after the Cavite clansmen had deliberately refused to defend Caloocan, the gateway to the North, the Revolution’s fate was truly sealed. Had they obeyed Luna, the Mountain Province could have become a fortress of the Republic where it could have sat out the crises in safely.
Of course, these last assertions are posed as questions, but taken as a whole they are meant to be assertions.

But again, we interpose a little question: Could the Mountain Province, surrounded by a hostile Luzon, really have sat out the crisis? Obviously not, but then, perhaps, this objections need not have been Luna’s, whose specific aim was simply to hold on as doggedly as possible.
Nevertheless, we do agree that the conception was heroic, and that Luna was, indeed, a hero (if on no better grounds than that his intentions conform with our values).

But are great patriotic intentions enough to raise a man to hero’s status? What notable victories over himself or over the obstacles to his people did Antonio Luna achieve?

We are not aware of any, except glorious attempts. Joaquin, by his own standards, could have gone on to pass on Luna much the same judgment he passed on to Burgos, Rizal and Bonifacio. They were heroes per accidens: Burgos just because he was garrotted; Rizal just because he was executed; and Bonifacio just because the Caviteños successfully revolted a few days after his fiasco.
Luna became a hero because notables like Aguinaldo and Mabini talked much of him in order to expiate their guilt by removing the merely personal for their vengeance.

Ricarte in the shadows

The Ricarte episode is not really about Ricarte. True, he is portrayed accurately as a factotum of the Revolution (caretaker of the Pact of Biak-na-Bato, etc.), the last holdout of the storied group outliving his time till he ended up in the shadows of a conquering enemy, and whose last claim to fame is somewhat  as a symbol of something indomitable in the Filipino.
Let him rest undisturbed, Joaquin seems to say, but lay no more wreaths at his feet.

The Ricarte episode is, in fact, another unique expansion of Joaquin of our old understandings. In the chapter on Burgos, Joaquin gives the Creole class its due (after all these centuries of blood intermingling, is there still any non-Creole Filipino?). In Marcelo H. del Pilar, the Propaganda movement was defined and, thus, extended backward as far as the 1870s and forward as far as the 1950s as if the 1950s, had still an alien government, a proposition we cannot fault unless one sustains another definition of the Propaganda.
In Ricarte, we find out that the Revolution did not end in Palanan in September 1900.

Joaquin’s notable contribution is to sweep away the calumnies we also accepted as truths about the uprising which continued to bedevil the American regime.
These were not bandits, tulisanes, religious nuts and disgruntled politicos. In Joaquin’s view, they represented a resurgence of the Revolution on a national scope. All the ilustrado had finally gone over to the American side, and we may credibly say that they were still continuing the Revolution using “nonviolent parliamentary tactics.”
If we accept Joaquin’s view (and it is quite persuasive), the Revolution had at last become truly “of the masses.”

The author is retired army colonel, a bemedalled officer and an awarded writer.

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