I ended up writing my review in 4 parts because there was SO MUCH information to digest!
I thought I'd share my learnings as I read this treasure, something I've picked up again on this day dedicated to national heroes (primarily for my own memory! Hehe, as I'd like Facebook to remind me of these posts in the future).
The book is divided into 14 chapters, featuring the different men (alas, no heroines are featured!) whose actions shaped our nation today.
National Artist Nick Joaquin entitled each chapter with a question, the first one being "How 'Filipino' was Burgos?"
Joaquin reminds us that the term "Filipino" originally referred to the Spanish mestizo (he uses the term "Creole"), but that this changed with the Cavite Mutiny of 1872, and that this united Filipinos of different ethnic backgrounds versus the Spanish oppressor. Two such Creoles were Padre Gomez and Burgos themselves.
A peace-loving man, one who "sought reform within the law, disliked violent upheaval, concerned with liberating the masses through education," is wrongfully accused of inciting bloody revolution.
And no, Joaquin is referring not to Jose Rizal nor his literary creation, Ibarra, but Padre Jose Burgos.
Textbooks often treat the 3 martyr priests as one entity: "Gomburza," but it was fascinating to read of how Zamora was arrested by accident (the warrant was for JOSE Zamora, not Padre Jacinto whose only misfortune was to be the co-curate of the REAL hero, Burgos), of Gomez's activism in his youth but how he was only punished for it when he was already 85 and had accepted the status quo, and of the glorious promise of Burgos whose dizzying rise to power threatened the foreign friars to the point that they invented an excuse to have him killed.
Joaquin writes of the accidental nature of heroism, and how society changes in its treatment of heroes depending on the times ("Even Aguinaldo, from the 1900's to the 1950's, was regarded as more villain than patriot.").
When we celebrate our heroes today, we would do well to reflect whether we have always seen them as thus. Or has their memory been sanitized and purged of past wrong doing, and towards what end?
"For wealth bred insolence, the insolence of grandeur."
Behold the Propaganda, "a sophisticated movement, conducted with pen and word, seeking reform, preaching enlightenment."
The next two chapters in the book were supposedly about the propagandists Marcelo H. del Pilar and Graciano Lopez-Jaena, but to my surprise, Nick Joaquin brought up other, less well-known names.
With the economic boom in the 1800's came wealth and privilege to Filipinos, and when rich families sent their sons to study in Europe, they started campaigning for reforms back at home.
Nick Joaquin wrote glowingly of Gregorio Sanciangco, a Chinese mestizo whose book EL PROGRESO DE FILIPINAS (1881) was "THE epiphany that started the Propaganda." He set down what other propagandists merely echoed in their appeals to the Spanish court.
I was quite dismayed to read the portrayal of Graciano Lopez-Jaena, whose brilliance was not used to the fullest because he was incapable of holding down a job, too busy drinking and using up funds given by countrymen in fleeting pleasures.
It saddened me to read how a very contemporary problem visited our heroes a century ago: embezzlement and misappropriation of funds to be used for the country. Not even "the great Lopez-Jaena" was exempt from corruption.
Lopez-Jaena, in the end, washed his hands of the movement, and even spoke ill against his former partner-patriot, Marcelo H. del Pilar! The audacity. He had the gall to beg for more funds (after misusing earlier monies) so he could campaign for politics in Spain. The nerve. Joaquin puts it bluntly: "He used the Propaganda movement to freeload."
Saddened by what he saw his countrymen do abroad, Rizal wrote:
"If our countrymen place their hopes in us here in Europe they are certainly mistaken. The help we can give them is our lives in our country... the medicine must be brought near to the sick man."
Same sickness, different century. The struggle continues.
"What is the use of independence if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?"
Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, and Emilio Aguinaldo. Even if one weren't familiar with the Three "Biggies," the fact that author Nick Joaquin wrote two chapters for each of them is a clear indicator of their importance (he reserves the same honor for Apolinario Mabini, but that will be part of the next post).
Our national hero wrote books that inspired a revolutionary movement, which in turn inspired our future First President.
What fascinates me about Nick Joaquin's book is that it offers an alternative interpretation of events, while always sticking to the facts. Joaquin quotes primary sources, usually words penned by the heroes themselves.
These six chapters could best be summarized by the word "anti-hero." Nick Joaquin recounted how these three failed to live up to their idealized versions in different ways: Jose Rizal's denial to join the Katipunan and his application to serve Spain as a doctor in Cuba ("Rizal, when the Revolution came, chose to disown it and to enlist on the side of Spain."), Andres Bonifacio's failures as a military leader and his proud, domineering escapades that cost him his life in Cavite ("The revolutionaries had closed ranks behind Aguinaldo, and the price of unity was Bonifacio's blood."), and Emilio Aguinaldo's lack of foresight that made him trust in the deceitful American leaders who used him so the Americans could "conquer" Manila ("His was a politics of convenience.").
To be honest, I found Joaquin's account rather distressing, as I have been taught by pro-Rizal and pro-Bonifacio teachers. Then again, there is a kernel of truth to each side of the story, and having known one version, I count myself enriched by learning the other side.
What rings true are Joaquin's penetrating psychological descriptions. The descriptions of our heroes' weaknesses resonate with me culturally. When Nick Joaquin describes the inferiority complexes, the small-minded naivete, and provincial loyalties, he could have very well been describing ANY Filipino and not the best of our race.
"The Revolution was inopportune, because it cost the lives of the very men who could have made a true Filipino nation work," mourns Nick Joaquin, whose regard for the ilustrado is evident in every chapter. He maintains that "from a larger view, there was only one revolution in 1896 -- and it was not Bonifacio's... the entire period from the Propaganda Movement to the Philippine-American War as a single: the Revolution of the Ilustrados." He was referring to the educated elite who sought enlightenment through education, uplifting the masses so they could be worthy of self-governance. Rizal belonged to this group; Bonifacio and Aguinaldo did not but were inspired by it.
"Each failure was one more stone added to the construction of the nation."
Then as now, the soul and future of our country depends on how well its citizens are taught, and if they take these lessons to heart.
The final part of this important book concerned Apolinario Mabini, Antonio Luna, Gregorio del Pilar and Artemio Ricarte: a crippled genius, a raging general, a dandy, and the last Filipino revolutionary who never swore allegiance to the American oppressor. Two of these heroes were featured by director Jerrold Tarog (showing on Netflix! Heneral Luna in 2015 and Goyo in 2018), which count as among the best of locally produced films; we need more films like these!
For most part, the book felt very contemporary, but its 1977 publication date became evident when polio wasn't mentioned as the reason for Mabini's crippling (information that only came out in 1980 after an autopsy).
Despite being published 45 years ago, A QUESTION OF HEROES is still timely! And it's shocking to me that the information within isn't much discussed nor written about in textbooks.
When Nick Joaquin wrote this paragraph below, he touches upon a theme he revisits in CULTURE AND HISTORY (1988):
"We resisted becoming 'Philippine' or 'Filipino,' we would revert to petty kingdom, tribe, clan, barangay. Our deepest impulse has ever been not to integrate but to disintegrate. We seem to have a fear of form, especially of great form... it's this old native impulse to revert to a smaller condition that was at the root of what we call the crisis of the Malolos Republic."
When Joaquin quoted what Mabini wrote harshly about Aguinaldo, we are set up with the final theme of smallness of soul at the top, condemning the fate of a country: "The Revolution failed because it was badly directed... because instead of employing the most useful men of the nation he jealously discarded them. Believing that the advance of the people was no more than his own personal advance, he did not rate men according to their ability, character and patriotism, but according to the degree of friendship or kinship binding him to them."
This theme is continued in the depiction of Antonio Luna's betrayal by "cavitismo fused with egoism and the thirst for authority" by men loyal to Aguinaldo (a second hero murdered in the name of our first President!), and in the portrayal of the inept leadership of an Aguinaldo favorite, Gregorio del Pilar, who fell at Tirad Pass most uselessly.
"Tirad Pass, like Bataan, is a bad shrine for Filipinos, because there we feel absolved of the faults that lead to such disasters... if we bungle and botch, never mind, we do fall gloriously... a few more Tirads and we'll be the most heroic people in extinction."
Detractors might accuse Nick Joaquin of muddying reputations of some of the few role models we have (because there are too few of them still alive in the halls of government). But this reader does not detect the malice of the petty soul who seeks to seem superior by making others seem lesser. In Joaquin we seem to hear a prophet warning his countrymen from committing the same mistakes that our heroes made.
If "character is destiny" (as Joaquin keeps repeating), then isn't our individual and national character best formed by written truths, no matter how unflattering, never mind how harsh?
The title is very apt. When we call someone a hero, we reveal what we deem worthy of honor. Some heroes seem pre-chosen for us, whether by incomplete textbooks or their being buried in the Libingan ng Bayani, but Joaquin's book thrusts back the responsibility of choice to us, forcing us to re-examine not only their lives, but our own values. In the words of Jerrold Tarrog's film, "Bayan o sarili?" (Country or self?) Do we even dare answer?
This should be required reading in every college history curriculum, for every teacher!
P.S. I thought the ending was particularly praise-worthy, from a literary standpoint: Joaquin summarized the Revolution WITH JUST ONE SENTENCE that spanned 2 and a half pages!!!
He began with "It had been a long day, beginning deep in the small hours, in a silence secret with strange noises" and ending with "for, now, with none to hail another crack of doom at dawn and, now, with the dawn forever in suspense until it break, again, with a cry, a crash, a clamor (and a coil of smoke from a battlement), the nameless faces now sinking into darkness but seem a waste of history, the toll of time."