I admit to not knowing a lot about Andrés Bonifacio. With José Rizal as the de facto official national hero, it seems he’s always only second place, an alternative subject, for the masterpieces of our popular culture. I’m recalling Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s 1998 Rizal biopic here; thanks to that film, I grew up with an elegant idea of who Rizal was. Bonifacio’s legacy does not have that luxury.
If anyone’s so inclined as to try to piece together a cohesive idea of Bonifacio’s life through cultural products, she will have to do so using wildly contradicting sources. From what I heard, the Cinemalayà 2010 entry Ang Paglilitis ni Andrés Bonifacio by Mario O’Hara was a respectable, and respectful, portrayal of the hero’s life, although it focused on a specific era of his life. The problem was that, being an independently-produced movie, it was inaccessible. I didn’t see it myself and neither did most other Filipinos. On the other hand, the 2012 Metro Manila Film Festival entry El Presidente had Bonifacio as a supporting character, and in an atrocious wielding of artistic license as could only happen in Philippine mainstream media, they turned the hero into an arrogant antagonist to the titular character. This understandably angered not a few concerned citizens, especially because, being an MMFF entry, many unconcerned citizens saw the movie and probably now think of the great Katipunero as an arrogant hothead.
Of course, writing (and rewriting) history is a highly political activity, and not even those who participated in it are spared the messy process of giving credit to those whom heroic merit are actually due. There are those who say that Bonifacio was sidelined, and Rizal elected to the virtual national hero post, thanks to the influence of the Americans, who wanted a pacifist idol for the people of their newfound colony. Then there are those who claim that Rizal is the rightful national hero because he had more significant contributions to the founding of the country than Bonifacio. And this leads, unsurprisingly, to a vicious debate as to what counts as contributions to nation-founding.
In any case, the undeniable result of Rizal’s prominence over Bonifacio, or any other founding father for that matter, is that he’s studied more. I’ve experienced this personally, having taken my Philippine Institutions 100 course (The Life and Works of José Rizal) just last semester. We do not have an equivalent Philippine Institutions 101 course (The Life and Works of Andrés Bonifacio) that all students must take up in college.
To be fair, Bonifacio’s life is quite more complicated than Rizal’s life. The greatest controversy with Rizal’s life is his retraction document, which, in the unlikely scenario that it is proven undeniably authentic, would not significantly diminish his heroic status. In Bonifacio’s case, we cannot even easily teach children how he died, because neither can the adults comfortably grasp the difficult thought that a great Filipino hero died in the hands of his own comrades.
Now, as the country celebrates Bonifacio’s 150th birth anniversary, there is a renewed interest in placing Bonifacio higher in the nation’s historical pantheon. The politicians are putting forth resolutions and bills: one wishes to finally end the Rizal-Bonifacio debates and legislate the Supremo as the official national hero, while another desires to recognize the Katipunan’s Republica Tagala as having been a legitimate state and consequently make Bonifacio the country’s first president, before Emilio Aguinaldo.
I’m not certain yet what to make of these seemingly wacky proposals. They are all politically motivated to varying degrees; Bonifacio is the proletariat darling of the activist sector, whom they prefer over the bourgeois character of Rizal (even though Bonifacio’s family was not as poor as commonly believed for most of his youth). The proposals do have merit, but as to exactly how much is something for the National Historical Institute and other competent authorities to decide.
What I do believe in is what National Artist Virgilio Almario proposes: why not keep them both, make them equals, brothers in nation-building? After all, Bonifacio admired Rizal, and Rizal’s writings moved the masses towards the revolutionary cause. Rizal was the lofty intellectual, the one who traveled in Europe, and was in touch with the foreign power, while Bonifacio was the revolutionary, also an intellectual, but one who was in touch with the popular consciousness of the time, with those whom both heroes lived for: the Filipino people.
This is simplifying things, of course. I suppose that the dichotomy is not as clear-cut as this when you have studied the lives and works of the two heroes in detail. But the essential idea remains useful in the project of nation-building. It sounds cheesy, but isn’t brotherhood the essence of nationhood?