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It's All History by Jon Malek

The question of heroes

by Jon G. Malek

August 28, 2023, marked the National Heroes’ Day in the Philippines. First promulgated in Republican Act No. 3827 on October 28, 1931, it is an annual commemoration to celebrate the beginning of the Philippine Revolution, which began in August 1896. While initially observed on the last Sunday of every August, this was changed in 2007 to the last Monday. The original Act does not specify who is to be celebrated on this day, but it has frequently included major figures such as Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, and others. There is a common practice, though, to also recognize so-called “ordinary” Filipinos, ranging from unknown soldiers who fought and died for the Philippines to modern workers overseas.

The Philippines is a state and society that places great importance on its national heroes. In June this year, I wrote on the dynamics of history and memory in the celebration of Andres Bonifacio and how this was affected by the political climate of the time. In that article, I quoted L. S. Stavrianos as saying that each generation rewrites its history because it asks new questions of its past. As I reflect upon National Heroes’ Day, and on the question of heroes more generally, I remember a passage I read years ago by Ambeth Ocampo in his book Meaning and History:

“[History] MUST have saysay or meaning. If we find meaning in history, then it will gain the power to change our lives. Saysay gives us a way of looking at the world, a Filipino viewpoint that influences the way we see the past, the present, and hopefully, the future.” A few sentences later, he continued, “Without memory we cannot form relationships, we cannot know who we are, we cannot forge our identities. The same is true for history. … If memory gives us our individual identities, then history will contribute to a national memory and eventually that elusive thing we call national identity.”

Who and what we celebrate is as much a representation of our past as it is a hope for the future; what we decide to recognize and celebrate is, in many ways, more about the present values of society. When history is presented – whether in textbooks, television and theatre, even articles like this one – certain elements are given voice while others are kept silent in service of a larger narrative meaning to which Ambeth Ocampo referred. For example, traditional histories of the United States presented the rise of the Thirteen Colonies as the creation of a society where political and individual freedoms were forged, while failing to detail the wretched history of Black and Indigenous slavery. As American society changed, though, and racial justice became a civil rights movement, the story told of America’s history also changed.

National Heroes’ Day was first celebrated in 1931 to commemorate the 1896 Revolution, but no doubt took on new layers of meaning during the Japanese occupation of the Pacific War. After this and into the period of political independence following 1946, the day has come to include “ordinary” Filipinos, and not necessarily soldiers. In this year’s commemoration of the day, President Marcos Jr. urged Filipinos across the world to become heroes to their own families and also to the nation. In his address, he stated, “While we dedicate time each year to commemorate the notable names that fill our history books, it is just as crucial to remember the lives and deeds of the many lesser-known and unnamed Filipinos who played pivotal roles in shaping our nation”.

While I certainly agree that those who are not in textbooks should be celebrated – from unnamed freedom fighters, hardworking Filipinos throughout time, and those who leave home and family to find work – this emphasis also comes along with a certain meaning that the president is giving to history in the Philippines. That emphasis in the president’s statement was honouring and duplicating the sacrifices of past heroes and heroines in service of the country. History is a great motivator of people in service of nationalism, and it makes sense that the Philippines would emphasize the heroes of the past to encourage service to the state today. It is important, though, to recognize that this can sometimes be used to control or manipulate communities.

As an example, we might consider the case of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). Anyone who has flown in or out of Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila will know that OFWs have their departure and arrival lines, so important and numerous are these travellers. Remittances from these OFWs have consistently made up at least 10 per cent of the Philippine GDP in the past decade. Community development projects in the Philippines, including new and lavish homes, are largely the result of these remittances. In short, the severe problems of the Philippine economy are mitigated and even hidden by the fact that a tenth of the Philippine population lives and works outside of the country. For this reason, OFWs have been called bagong bayani – the new heroes of the Philippines, sacrificing themselves for the betterment of their families, communities, and country.

It is important to recognize the actions of OFWs, and those who chose to make another country like Canada their home in the hopes of improving the lives of their families. Using terms like “hero” in many ways celebrates the actions of these individuals, but the celebratory tone of the term can also hide the elements of OFW’s lives that are unjust such as experiences of racism, various forms of abuse, and the emotional pain that can come from being away from one’s family for an extended period of time. The national narrative recognizes these sacrifices as service to the country, but it could also be argued that those narratives hide the responsibility of the Philippine state to make real and meaningful changes to the economy so that leaving the country to work is not the only viable option for success.

As critical thinkers, we can recognize the importance of commemorative events such as National Heroes’ Day while also being wary of the ways in which history can be used to affect us today. This is why history can be such a contested landscape. It is so much more than dates and names and places of battles; it is an ongoing debate about what is to be remembered, to what degree, and to what effect.

Jon Malek is an Assistant Professor of History at Providence University College. His research is on the history of the Philippines and the Filipino diaspora. His current writing projects include a book on the history of Filipinos in Canada and a project on Filipino food and culture.