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What Makes a 'True' Filipino Hero?

Instead of looking at what Filipino heroes accomplished, maybe it is more important to recognize how they lived their lives and for whom.
ILLUSTRATOR WARREN ESPEJO
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It is often said that Philippine history is the history of the struggle of the many against the few. Our society concentrates power and resources at the hands of the few elite, while millions are left to fend for scraps and suffer oppression.

It is in these special moments that sweeping movements emerge. Revolutions, wars, and other special periods forge certain kinds of people: visionaries, leaders, revolutionaries. Today, we consider them heroes. But what makes a Filipino hero?

Our history is filled with great men and women who rose against the current and stood for what they believed in. Some of them fought for their own interests. Others fought for principles they believed in. Some were more divisive. But they had their common threads.

Take Lapu-Lapu, for example. Widely considered the first Filipino hero, he fought the Spaniards in Mactan and managed to kill Ferdinand Magellan, staving off Spanish colonial conquest for 60 years before Miguel Lopez de Legazpi finished the job.

Historical facts, however, show that Lapu-Lapu was less the patriotic defender of the archipelago and more of a local warlord who fought to defend his territory against his rival Humabon. Is Lapu-Lapu less heroic now that we know that he was driven more by selfish interest? Or does the symbolic fact that he fought against a foreign colonizer and won make up for any shortcomings in romanticized virtue?

The same can be asked of other Filipino heroes in our colonial history. Figures like Gabriela Silang and Francisco Dagohoy are revered today, and rightfully so, for leading revolts that sought to break the back of Spanish oppression. 

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But, like Lapu-Lapu, they waged their struggle not because of a patriotic sense of duty but for personal reasons. Dagohoy, for example, sparked the longest revolt in Philippine history after a Jesuit priest refused a Christian burial for his brother. Gabriela and her husband Diego, meanwhile, were emboldened by the British occupation of Manila.

There is no doubt that they knew who their enemies were. But the question remains the same: What weighs more in determining heroism—motive or legacy?

Sometimes those who share the same goals end up with blurred lines. The decades-old question of Jose Rizal or Andres Bonifacio still finds no answers to this day. Both were no doubt great individuals—but where Rizal sought reforms for his fellow Filipinos, Bonifacio took up arms in the quest for freedom.

We now enjoy a country that reaps the benefits of that revolutionary struggle. At the same time, we have elevated Rizal’s life and works to a position rightfully befitting “the Great Malayan.” But how can two people, seemingly on opposite ends of reform and revolution, both be heroes?

And what of Emilio Aguinaldo, the first President who waved the flag of independence in Kawit, Cavite? There is no doubt that his contributions to the Revolution cannot be discounted. But he was also the man who signed the Pact of Biak-na-Bato, which killed both Bonifacio and Antonio Luna, and collaborated with the Japanese during the Second World War.

Is he still the Filipino hero we deserve?

Perhaps the question of heroes is not a question we can answer by counting deeds or intentions. Too many figures in our history are shrouded in controversy—after all, people are never as clear-cut as books portray them.

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Perhaps it is more important to look at our heroes through the lives they lived. Instead of looking at what they did or what symbols they portray, maybe it is more important for us to recognize how they lived their lives and for whom.

During martial law, an entire generation of Filipinos found themselves at a crossroads. The youthful idealism of the student movement came head-to-head with the ugly face of a fascist dictatorship. Thousands were left to choose: Stay silent or fight?

For so many people, the choice was obvious; it was only a matter of how. Stalwarts like Lorenzo Tañada, Jose Diokno, and Ninoy Aquino chose to fight the Marcos dictatorship by staying defiant, forming the core of a democratic opposition in an increasingly undemocratic republic. 

Others, like Edgar Jopson, Melito Glor, and Eman Lacaba, took the path of armed struggle, choosing to serve the wider masses of the Filipino people.

In the end, it is this distinction that seems most important. Controversial figures often have their “hero” status questioned because of who they were and whose interest they served. For thousands of the country’s poorest farmers, Gregorion Rosal was a hero of the people and the man who fought with them for a better life. For the Cory Aquino administration, he was Ka Roger, commander of the New People’s Army and public enemy number one.

Philippine history is never as simple as history books make it out to be. There is no villain in the story of Roger and Cory; only protagonists. Ka Roger was the face of the Communist Party of the Philippines until his death, and an active participant in the decades-old civil war in the countryside. Cory Aquino’s soldiers, meanwhile, kidnapped Ka Roger’s daughter Andrea when she was barely four years old and threatened to throw her off a helicopter if Roger didn’t surrender.

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But perhaps the greatest Filipino heroes are those whose lives are unquestionably heroic. Dandy Miguel was a man who devoted his life to his fellow workers—first as a unionist, then as vice president of regional labor center PAMANTIK-KMU. He worked tirelessly to ensure workers everywhere had their rights to fair wages, regularization, and other benefits.

On March 28, 2021, Palm Sunday, he was killed by unknown assailants. He was the 10th activist killed that month in CALABARZON. His killers are still unknown.

But if there is one sure thing about Miguel, is that he was a true hero, not just for the working class, but for Filipinos everywhere. And maybe, that is what matters most.

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About The Author
Justin Umali
Justin is left-handed, left-leaning, and best left in a cool, damp place. He listens to Vampire Weekend when he's down and Car Seat Headrest when he's not. He usually writes about Philippine history and politics, and believes that you cannot change the world without understanding it first.
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