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It's All History by Jon Malek

The character of the Philippine Revolution

by Jon G. Malek

    Jose Rizal Andres Bonifacio
Jose Rizal
Andres Bonifacio

When teachers attempt to convince their students why they should care about the study of history, they often say it is to prevent the past from repeating itself. This claim treats history as a message from the past, warning us of mistakes made in the past. In this way, the past can shape the present. However, the present also affects how we understand the past.

This is expressed in a quotation by L.S. Stavrianos, a world historian, who stated that “Each generation must write its own history, not because past histories are untrue but because in a rapidly changing world, new questions arise and new answers are needed.” This also reveals the fact that the discipline and study of history are not the simple memorization of past events, dates, or people. These make the foundation, though, of what historians do: interpret, explain, and try to understand the past.

This was demonstrated to me very recently in an excellent essay by Resil B. Mojares in his collection Interrogations in Philippine Cultural History, published in 2017 by the Ateneo de Manila University Press. In his article on Andres Bonifacio, Mojares states that “From [his] death in 1897 to the present, estimates of his place in Philippine history have been entangled in the issue social classification, as part of the larger debate on the social and intellectual genealogy of the 1896 Philippine Revolution.” That is, did the Philippine Revolution come from the “masses” or from the educated Filipino elite? This question contrasts two major historical figures – Bonifacio and Jose Rizal, perhaps the most famous ilustrado in Philippine history.

The popular tradition of Bonifacio’s story was that he was a lower-class man, a “Great Plebeian” akin to the common man. Mojares, comparing the images of Bonifacio and Rizal, wrote that “in the popular imagination, [Bonifacio] is the man with the bolo, wearing camisa chino and kundiman trousers, set against the Western-attired Rizal with his book and overcoat.” Isabelo de los Reyes, writing shortly after the outbreak of the Revolution, described Bonifacio as a “simple warehouseman or storekeeper.” However, Mojares demonstrates that Bonifacio was likely of a higher standing. He had education and was literate in Spanish, a mark of some distinction in late 19th century Philippines. His association with foreign trading and manufacturing businesses put him in the middle of “the most advanced sector of the colonial economy.” Tondo, where he lived and worked, was not the same as it is today; it was then “Manila’s most vital urban district” due to its proximity to the sea and rivers.

Why does it matter whether Bonifacio was a lowly plebeian or someone of a higher standing? As I said at the beginning, it has to do with how the Philippine Revolution is interpreted. Was it a movement of the masses or of the colonial elite? The masses, epitomized by farmers and peasants, have a rich and powerful imagery in Philippine history. Often portrayed as “true” Filipinos, they are those who work hard, live modest lives, value family and traditional values, and fight against oppression. The elite, most notably the ilustrado, represent a different image of the Philippines, one that was connected to broader global forces such as manufacturing, modernity, intellectual excellence. These were ones who, having received a Western education, conceived the intellectual, theoretical theories of Philippine nationalism and independence.

If the Philippine Revolution, proclaimed on 12 June 1896 – an event the Winnipeg Filipino community is now gearing up to celebrate – is the founding moment of the modern Philippines, it’s character affects the nation today. Is the Philippines one for the “masses” (however we might interpret that term today) or for the elite? The answer to this has had significant effects upon the writing of Philippine history.

During the period of American colonialism, when integrating into a “respectable” world order was important for Filipino development, Bonifacio was downplayed and the importance of Rizal was built up. With the advance of more left-wing politics in the Philippines, especially during the Cold War and the period of Marcos’ Martial Law, the figure of Bonifacio was “resurrected as an exemplar of the masses.” As Mojares notes about this shift in emphasis on the origins of Philippine nationalism, “the political necessities of the ‘present’ determined how the past was represented.”

The complicated reality is that Philippine nationalism and independence didn’t come from Bonifacio or Rizal alone. They developed amidst incredibly varied motivations in the late 19th and early 20th century Philippines. Today’s society needs to recognize that just as the past affects us today, so does our world today affect our understanding of the past. The way we see the past reflects that past itself while also showing us our own reflection.

Jon Malek received his PhD from Western University and currently teaches history at the University of Manitoba. He is working on a book manuscript on the history of the Winnipeg Filipino community.