The current Manila film festival, which runs until this week, has brought to the screen a simplified retelling of the life of Gat Andres Bonifacio, with a most provocative message: “I gave my life for freedom, what will you do with yours?” It is a question addressed to all Filipinos.
The story is a tragic one. Bonifacio founded and led the Katipunan, which launched the Philippine revolution against Spain in 1896. But he died not in the hands of the Spanish enemy but in the hands of Magdalo, a rival revolutionary faction, led by General Emilio Aguinaldo.
Aguinaldo lived on to become the president of the First Philippine Republic. In 1898, he declared independence from Spain, but the Republic swiftly fell under the colonizing influence of the United States. For generations Bonifacio had to fight for his due from the grand arbiters and interpreters of Philippine history.
The game which some of our academics, historical writers and journalists like to play is to compare Bonifacio with Rizal, and to ask, who was (who is) the greater national hero? I find it rather immature, sophomoric and “small-town.” What need is there to compare when they both belong to the same pantheon? Does one ask who is the holier, Augustine or Ambrose or Aquinas or Dominic or Francis of Assisi? Teresa of Avila or the Little Flower?
Rizal was a man of ideas, Bonifacio a man of action, and the space of national devotion which our race reserves for its heroes is large enough to accommodate both and so many more. In fact, the grossest among our politicians have not hesitated to insert recently into this space their own set of heroes of unknown and unexamined qualifications.
In the Enzo Williams film, the rising of the Katipunan is presented as the real birth of the nation, and Bonifacio as “Ang Unang Pangulo” –“The First President.”This interpretation seeks to amend, for historical purposes, the controversial election at the Tejeros Assembly of March 22, 1897, which elected Aguinaldo as president of the revolutionary government, Mariano Trias as vice president, Artemio Ricarte as general-in-chief, Emiliano R. de Dios as director of war, and Bonifacio as director of the interior.
The night was dark. The election was by acclamation. And it was obviously flawed. In a letter to Emilio Jacinto from his camp in Limbon, a village east of Indang, dated April 24, 1897, Bonifacio complained that, “before the election began, I discovered the underhanded work of some of the Imus crowd who had quietly spread the statement that it was not advisable that they be governed by men from other pueblos, and that they should for this reason strive to elect Captain Emilio as president.”
Although Bonifacio, as head of the Magdiwang faction, was also elected “director of the interior,” the director of finance (Daniel Tirona) of Magdalo questioned this, saying the position required a man of learning, not one of Bonifacio’s humble credentials. Under those standards, there would have been no place for Emiliano Zapata in the Mexican revolution.
Tirona insisted on having Jose del Rosario, a lawyer, acclaimed in the supremo’s place instead. This did not prosper, but Bonifacio walked out, saying he would not recognize the results of the election, and neither would the people.
Not long thereafter, Bonifacio was reported to have started making preparations to topple the Aguinaldo-led government. Reacting to these reports, Aguinaldo ordered Bonifacio and his two brothers, Ciriaco and Procopio, arrested. On April 28, 1897, a platoon of soldiers led by a group of senior officers descended upon the brothers at Limbon. The brothers resisted, and Ciriaco was killed, while Andres suffered a gunshot wound on his left arm and a dagger wound on his neck.
On May 5, 1897, Andres and Procopio were court-martialed for plotting to attack and overthrow the revolutionary government. They were meted the death sentence.
On May 8, 1897, Aguinaldo decided to commute the death sentence into exile to “a separate island.” But Aguinaldo’s generals vehemently opposed this, and convinced the president to change his mind. On May 10, 1897 the brothers were executed by a platoon led by Major Lazaro Makapagal at a mountain near Maragondon.
In his memoirs, published in 1964, Aguinaldo narrates that “very early on the morning of May 10, 1897, Major Makapagal and his men took the prisoners to Mount Tala where they were shot. As I was busy leading the fight against the enemy in Maragondon, I did not learn of the execution of the Bonifacio brothers until days later.” It turned out, however, that the executioners did not even reach Mount Tala. They got as far as Mount Nagpataong only, and there the brothers were killed and buried.
The film does not carry all this documentation. But the narrative shows Bonifacio’s ignominious end. And it packs more than enough punch to awaken your patriotism from its deepest slumber. So when the “first President,” says, “I gave my life for freedom, what will you do for our country?” how do we respond? This was what filled my mind as I sat there thanking the producers for this gift of a film.
More than thirty years ago, the French journalist Jean Wetz of Le Monde described the Philippines as a country that had spent 350 years inside a Spanish convent and 50 years inside Hollywood. The general presumption then was that the past was past, that the imperial presence was no more, and that we had become a free and independent people, determined to carve out our own destiny as a peace-loving Christian nation.
Why then is it that, over a hundred years after we had left the “Spanish convent,” and nearly 70 years after “Hollywood,” the state cannot even guarantee our people an election better than the rigged Tejeros election? Why is it that all we see are political hustlers determined to seize power at all costs, without any sense of the country’s deepest need nor any sign that they would risk their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to put an end to any of its problems?
Aside from my five-year-old grandson who wants to become president in 35 years because he would like to fix the traffic, we have not heard of anyone among those dying to present themselves as presidential timber, who would like to do anything concrete for anyone at all other than themselves and their political dynasties.
Not one of them has had the courage to say they would never get involved in an illegal and illegitimate election conducted by a foreign company called Smartmatic, or by a rotten Commission on Elections, using a voting machine that has been divested of all its safety features and accuracy mechanisms, contrary to law.
They all simply want to perpetuate the system of electoral fraud because they believe that, with all their money and venal connections, they could end up controlling the system—and to hell with all of us, Filipinos.
In one short conversation in the film between Rizal and Bonifacio (before the former is arrested for his subversive novels), Bonifacio asks Rizal why is it that in his two novels (Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo), armed struggle does not win? Rizal answers that the struggle must first be won in the minds and the hearts of the people, and the Filipinos must first recover the weapons of the mind and of the heart, which the Spaniards have taken away from them.
The alien colonial forces are no more. Or supposed to have gone. But they have been replaced by native surrogates eager to impose a more wretched colonialism that seeks to dominate not only our political and economic system but also our culture. Colonialism has simply worn a new dress, and we cannot say our burden is much lighter than that of our forebears. Should we now turn to Bonifacio to resolve our problems?
How ironic, indeed, that after over a hundred years of nationhood, we should turn to one who has long gone before us to teach us how to carry on. But where else are we to turn? As Victor Hugo once said, honoring Voltaire, when night alone issues from the thrones, we must seek our light from the tombs.