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Sunday, June 21, 2020

Do Filipinos Still Worship Heroes?


Hero-worshipping is a concept not too alien from the Philippines. In fact, nationalist historian Renato Constantino blasts the Filipino populace’s often unquestioning idolatry of national hero Jose Rizal with a written critique that invokes our veneration without understanding. Coincidentally, the same criticism of Filipinos’ tendency to hero-worship icons or idols cajoled National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin to write several essays that unfurled the bareness of people the people deem as their “heroes.”

A Question of Heroes, Nick Joaquin
Image: Anvil Publishing
In A Question of Heroes, one of his seminal works, Joaquin did away with the usual obsequious view of Filipino heroes and analyzes their life, character, choices, decisions, and active participation in the Philippine revolution against Spanish colonialism with a critical, even unforgiving, lens. Or, as the book’s blurb so aptly described, “[Joaquin] provides a fresh point of view on Philippine heroes and their role in the Philippine revolutionary tradition.”


Take, for instance, Joaquin’s essay on General Antonio Luna, the chief of the revolutionary army that battled it out against the looming American colonialism just after the Filipino revolutionaries kicked out the Spanish colonial regime. In analyzing the often fiercely debated place of the hot-headed general of Emilio Aguinaldo’s fledgling revolutionary government in history, Joaquin walked through the apparent anger management troubles that Luna dealt with, eventually concluding that Luna “was his own violent fate”—one of his insightful yet controversial statements in the book.

In a separate essay, he practically diminished the heroic myth surrounding Gregorio Del Pilar, the “Boy General” who, Joaquin claimed, had also served as Aguinaldo’s hatchet man. Of particular interest in Del Pilar’s narrative was how, upon the President’s orders, Del Pilar went on with the pursuit and eventual execution of Manuel and Jose Bernal, the brothers who were extremely close with the assassinated Luna.


The National Artist was unbending on his critical analyses of some of the famous heroes in the country’s revered pantheon, but not so much as a result of hatred or vilification. Apparently, it was the end-result of Joaquin’s aim to demystify the citizenry’s often absolute stance toward these heroes. In the same spirit perhaps that Constantino wrote his fiery essay to take away Rizal from the pedestal upon which history placed him, Joaquin strove to present alternatives narratives through which to see these heroes, another perspective on which to assess our heroes’ acclaimed achievements.

A Question of Heroes, Nick Joaquin
Image: Anvil Publishing
And he did it with such literary flair that is captivating for a reader. Joaquin does it with a literary talent in which readers of Filipino literature could quickly ascribe to his literary ingenuity. Yet, beyond the mellifluous construction of each sentence that embellished the pages of his compendium of essays, or the critical thought with which Nick Joaquin festooned his re-introduction of our heroes to a new generation of Filipino readers, he emerged successful particularly on one consequential realm: his endeavor to blast unquestioning historical views. He started with a question.

Written by Karl Patrick Wilfred M. Suyat, IFY Books

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