The silliest debates in the Philippine context have lives longer than Abraham’s. They are totally unnecessary, they are divisive, they pollute and not enrich the national conversation. Yet, there is almost always a season when they are taken up with real intensity, and in some cases, with real vehemence.
The debate on who should be the national hero—Rizal or Bonifacio—is all of these: silly, irrelevant and nasty. The issue of who is the greater hero should find no place in our debates as there has been a special pedestal where we have brought the two, along with the de facto status of Bonifacio as the other national hero.
To the proletariat, the class to which I belong, Bonifacio is the greater hero. The consecration of Bonifacio comes naturally. The greatest hero is the one identified with praxis, the melding of theory and practice. Bonifacio laid down the seminal writings on what a free country would look like and was in many ways the thinker and chief ideologue of the Katipunan.
Also, he was fearless in battle, the charging brown warrior, the one who fought to slay the dragons of the colonization and the damning subservience. You can’t imagine Bonifacio as Rizal, the hero with the overcoat. He will always be the hero with the sleeves rolled up—always ready to do battle with the enemy.
That he was regarded with awe and respect by the intellectuals, professionals and commoners s that joined him in the Katipunan leadership was testament to Bonifacio’s supreme ability to lead—the supremo who was without equal. In that time and place, the most selfless and fearless, and the most committed to the cause, was the natural leader and Bonifacio was the most selfless, the most fearless and the most dedicated.
That he was slain by a rival group that led the Katipunan to blunders, vacillation and compromises was probably the greatest tragedy of the Philippine Revolution.
The collective hearts of Filipinos, those classified as the Filipino Everyman, have mostly voted Bonifacio as the greater hero, greater than Rizal and greater than everybody else.
Asia’s Renaissance Man
Yet, we cannot deny one thing. Rizal should be the hero of this millennium, the 21st century personification of what the national hero should be. It can only be Rizal.
Rizal, as Anwar Ibrahim said, is Asia’s Renaissance Man . He was a scholar, writer, inventor, a seeker of enlightenment. Occasionally, we overlook the fact that he trained as a doctor. The curiosity and openness, the sense of adventure and his inquisitiveness about other civilizations and cultures, was amazing given the parochiality of his upbringing.
Rizal crossed borders and was the personification of a global citizen many centuries before books on the borderless world and the world is flat memes have been written. The friendships he had struck in foreign places, the novel ideas about science and governments that he had imbibed, was amazing given what was to be his insular and narrow predisposition. Rizal was our first great expat.
Most members of the Filipino elite who travelled to foreign places—Europe especially—during Rizal’s time had a very limited sense of purpose. To study. To forget the second class citizenship in their own country. To pose as rebellious exiles. Not Rizal. The inquisitive, open and curious mind of Rizal made him the Filipino pioneer on multi-tasking, from writing the two greatest Filipino novels to organizing the fractious Filipino community across Europe.
Oh, the women in his life. They say that women can often distinguish great men from the rest of us and the life and times of Dr. Jose Rizal established a narrative of many loves and multiple affairs. Can you awe women with ordinariness? No and never.
Oh, the trail of letters and correspondences he had with people close to him, or people touched by his great but peripatetic life. Those files alone demonstrated his deep understanding of his milieu and the societies around him.
The determination of Rizal to effect change in increments, which was doubted by Bonifacio as the way to nationhood, may have been caused by his dim view on how organized and how prepared the Katipunan was. The fire and the spirit was there and perhaps Rizal had only the deepest admiration for Bonifacio, who, records say, also admired Rizal deeply.
But Rizal the reformer faced the firing squad with the same dream Bonifacio had—the dawn of light and the air of freedom breaking through their manacled country.
Two great heroes with one dream—freedom.
Bonifacio is in our hearts the country’s greatest hero.
In our minds, and for the purposes of the 21st century, it is Rizal. In a global context called flat and borderless, we have to summon the inquisitive, exploring and adventurous mind of Jose Rizal, truly a Renaissance Man.
Undermining one to promote the other is silly, divisive and vehemently un-Filipino.