Almost as soon as I arrived here, I began to steep myself in Philippine history. To understand a country and its people, study their history—learn their heroes and villains—that’s my philosophy. One of the first things I discovered from talking to the average citizen is that most Filipinos know little about where they come from historically, and how things got to be the way they are. Of course, most Americans are just as woeful concerning their own historical background, so no finger pointing from me.
Even before my arrival, I had heard about an almost mythical Filipino hero from days long past named Jose Rizal. I knew he was a prolific writer who wrote about Spain’s cruelty to native Filipinos, and that Spain killed him for those writings. That’s pretty much what my Filipino friends know as well, but now I know a hell of a lot more. And from what I’ve studied, if Rizal were alive today, I’m convinced he would be just as important as he was more than 100 years ago, perhaps more so. This country, rife with corruption and stagnation, needs a dozen selfless renaissance men like Jose Rizal.
Rizal was phenomenonal. He earned his first degree at 16 in the Philippines and never looked back. At 18 he ran away to Europe and earned a medical degree in Spain, and followed it up with degrees in ophthalmology and philosophy in France. While in Europe and in many in other countries during his travels around the world, he taught himself fluency in Spanish, German, English, and French and he did it all in a short 35 years of life. From childhood, he was a prolific writer and he remained so right up until minutes before his martyrdom.
Rizal’s reputation as a hero is well earned. He hated how the Spanish treated the natives of the Philippines, whom the Spanish called Indios. The novels and essays he wrote were aimed mostly at Spaniards back in Spain. His objective was to get them to stop the callous practices of Spanish friars and governors in colonial Philippines. I believe he was convinced that if the Spaniards in Europe knew of the cruelty and injustice going on in their colony of almost 350 years, that they would finally interfere and stop the merciless brutality that had gone on for centuries. IN Spain, Spaniards treated Rizal with respect and admiration, but for some reason the Spaniards in the Philippines were entirely different. They did not hesitate to use torture, terror and execution en masse to keep their “unruly” Indios under their complete control, and that included controlling Rizal as well.
Rizal made a huge error in judgment. His years outside of the Philippines in Europe and Hong Kong seemed to cloud his memory of the great mercilessness in the hearts of Spanish priests, called friars, who called the shots in his home land. In 1892, after years away, he returned to Manila and almost immediately the friars found a means to get him out of the way. He was found guilty of spreading sedition based on his anti-friar novels written while he was overseas. These novels were not intended to cause a Spanish overthrow, but to show decent, liberal-minded Spaniards how unjust things were back in his beloved islands. Jose was found guilty and exiled hundreds of miles away to the very fringes of the archipelago to the tiny town of Dapitan on Mindanao. He spent four years there, and during the end of that time, a man named Bonifacio back in Manila put together the beginnings of a major revolt against Spain.
When I first started reading about Andres Bonifacio I was immediately captivated. He reminds me of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington rolled into one. Although he didn’t have the natural genius of Rizal, he was an incredible fellow just the same. He came from nothing and taught himself everything. The fact that he was poor, self-taught, and self-made, a man who could not afford ANY formal schooling, much less college, and yet excelled as a leader and independent thinker—all that reminds me of Abraham Lincoln. As the leader and initiator of the first almost successful insurrection against Spain, he reminds me of Washington.
The more I read of Bonifacio the more I realize that this guy is the epitome of an AUTHENTIC Filipino. He has more in common with the bulk of the population here than most any other figure from this country’s past. He was born and raised in Tondo, a very poor place in the mid 19th century, and even more so now (Ever hear of Smokey Mountain? It’s on the outskirts of Tondo, Manila). He was dirt poor and suffered through the same troubles and problems that most Filipinos suffer today. Yet he overcame all those issues and became known as El Supremo, the leader of the revolutionary government against Spain. Unlike Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio hated the Spanish and wanted nothing to do with them. Where Rizal wanted justice UNDER THE RULE of Spain, Bonifacio wanted ONLY Filipino sovereignty.
As I got into Bonifacio, the man, I was puzzled at how little my Filipino acquaintances know of him. They all recognize his name, but virtually NONE of them know WHY he was so important to their country’s beginnings. It’s become an obsession with me—to quiz people about him. I ask: “If you had to choose between Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio, who was more important in the formation of the post-Spanish Philippines?” Then I decided to ask local folks a simple, more general question—I asked people like students, trike-drivers, my in-laws, and neighbors: “In your opinion, who is THE most important Filipino in your history?” Instantly they answered: “Jose Rizal.” When I asked why they thought so, most cited his intelligence or that he died bravely at the hands of the Spanish. Logical reasons, but personally I disagree with the choice of Rizal as the most crucial member in the pantheon of Philippine heroes. In my opinion, Andres Bonifacio should be number one in Philippine hearts and minds; and he should be particularly special to Filipinos who are underprivileged, which is the majority of Filipinos.
As I said, Bonifacio, like most Filipinos today, was poor and underprivileged; his family had no money for education; but he was a prodigious reader and became an important writer and leader. Conversely, Rizal came from means; through his family he had access to money and privilege. He could afford the luxury of living and studying abroad. Therefore, based on the backgrounds of the two men, I would suppose that the average Filipino would prefer Bonifacio, yet that is NOT the case. So why DOES the Philippines collectively bow at the altar of Rizal while virtually shunning that of Bonifacio? I think that the primary culprits are this country’s educators. Indoctrinated as students in Rizal’s intellectual primacy, they in turn push this opinion onto their students. But aside from profuse writings, what else did Rizal do to deserve to be considered THE most central figure in Philippine history?
There is no doubt Jose Rizal deserves our respect. As I’ve said, he wrote prolifically and more notably, his writings stirringly spoke of insufferable conditions in the Philippines due to greed and cruelty of Spanish friars and governors. Also, his words and actions did much to inspire Philippine nationalism and helped convince folks like Andres Bonifacio and Emilio Aguinaldo that independence was the only answer. Furthermore, there is no doubt that Jose Rizal was valiant. He wrote critically of the Spanish, knowing full well that doing so endangered his life. In fact his written words were used in finding him guilty of treason and to his credit when he was sentenced to death, his last words and actions were courageous and patriotic. All that makes me sound like a big fan of Jose Rizal and its true—I think he’s an extraordinary figure, but I still place Bonifacio ahead of him.
Consider this—despite no formal education, Andres managed almost single-handedly to spark THE most successful insurrection ever against Spain—and going back hundreds of years, there were scores of revolts and uprisings, all horribly crushed into bloody oblivion. His rebellion was so successful that today we call it THE Philippine Revolution. Also, Bonifacio was instrumental in writing the Katipunan, the guiding document of this country’s first home-grown government. Rizal, on the other hand, counseled AGAINST the revolution, refused to lend his name to it, and in no uncertain terms told Bonifacio from exile that he believed his fellow Filipinos could NOT win, and the truth is he preferred Spanish provincial status over independence; whereas Andres had had enough of Spain and felt Spain would NEVER grant Filipinos parity or any sort of justice.
Another reason I don’t laud Rizal as high as Bonifacio are the events leading to his death. Rizal had spent four boring exile years in a Philippine backwater and his ennui led him to volunteer to serve with the Spanish army as a doctor in Cuba, another brutally oppressed colony. Rizal would have actively aided the oppressive Spaniards as they domineered Cuba just as they ran roughshod over Filipinos. It’s no wonder that this bit of Rizal history is not widely known, as it does not put Rizal in a very sympathetic light. Ironically, his future reputation was saved, and made, when he was arrested aboard a ship bound for Spain on his way to Cuba!
And what of Bonifacio’s death? Few Filipinos know he was callously executed before he could see his long-planned revolution to fruition. Rich Filipinos, who felt that his lowly background made him unworthy to serve the revolutionary government that HE had started, falsely accused him of treason! Gutlessly, Aguinaldo—the man voted in as president over Bonifacio by these same low-lifes—bowed to the will of these Spaniard-like Filipinos, the forerunners of today’s leaders, and signed Bonifacio’s death warrant. Andres was led into the mountains of Cavite and hastily shot along with his brother, their bodies kicked into a shallow hole. The appalling and almost offhand murder of this great man has in effect been covered up and glossed over. It’s apparent that his fellow countrymen unjustly killed him and THAT is the main reason his legacy has been shamefully ignored and underplayed.
To sum up—Rizal, a man of means, opposed the revolution against Spain, supported continued Spanish rule, and was on his way to aid the Spanish army when he was falsely accused of being a part of the revolution. In reality, he had nothing to do with the revolt, and went out of his way to avoid complicity in it. In actual fact, during the trial for his life, Rizal argued bitterly that he had nothing to do with the revolt that was still raging even as he was being tried. In trying to save his life, he denied the revolt like Peter denied Jesus. Was that the act of a patriot? By contrast, Bonifacio, the self-made man of the barrio, overcame all odds to successfully start a revolution and wrote the momentous Katipunan—the constitution of the revolution. Now you tell me—who is more deserving of national reverence and college classes specifically devoted to biographical study? In my opinion, if not for the disgraceful details of his scandalous death at the hands of his own jealous and arrogant countrymen, Andres Bonifacio would be the number one Filipino hero today instead of Jose Rizal.