We have a National Heroes Day, but no national heroes

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WE are celebrating today National Heroes Day, one of our oldest official holidays first declared way back in 1931 by the Philippine legislature.

But we don’t have national heroes—officially. Not even the great novelist Jose Rizal, or the revolutionary leader Andres Bonifacio, has been officially proclaimed as a National Hero.

Why? The Yellow Cult blocked moves to proclaim national heroes for the country—since Benigno (“Ninoy”) Aquino, the object of their hero-worship, wasn’t included in the list. Here’s what happened.

President Fidel V. Ramos on March 28, 1993 issued Executive Order 75 entitled “Creating the National Heroes Committee Under the Office of the President”. The order was intended to determine who our national heroes are, in order “to inculcate patriotism and nationalism, and the appreciation of the role of national heroes in the historical development of the country.”

The principal duty of the committee was to “study, evaluate and recommend Filipino national personages/heroes in due recognition of their sterling character and remarkable achievements for the country.”

The committee consisted of the secretaries of education, culture and sports, foreign affairs and national defense. It was, however, a “technical committee” which was directed to provide the group of three department secretaries with a list of who they thought should be the National Heroes.

This consisted of the country’s most eminent historians: Onofre D. Corpuz, Samuel K. Tan, Marcelino Foronda, Alfredo Lagmay, Bernardita R. Churchill, Serafin D. Quiason, Ambeth Ocampo (then known as Dom Ignacio Maria), professor Minerva Gonzales and writer Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil. The committee agreed on a detailed criteria on who to proclaim as a national hero.

Nine national heroes
After two-and-a-half years of deliberation, the committee agreed on just nine National Heroes: Jose Rizal (designated Prime National Hero), Andres Bonifacio, Emilio Aguinaldo, Apolinario Mabini, Marcelo del Pilar, Sultan Dipatuan Kudarat, Juan Luna, Melchora Aquino, and Gabriela Silang. On November 15, 1995, it transmitted its recommendations to the three-man committee that Ramos had created.

Believe it or not, not even Rizal and Bonifacio have been proclaimed National Heroes.

After that though, nothing happened. Ramos didn’t proclaim any national heroes, nor did he recommend to Congress to instead decide who our national heroes are. The idea of having an official list of our national heroes was forgotten.

The National Commission on Culture and Arts in a post in 2015 claimed that no action has been taken, “probably because this might trigger a flood of requests for proclamations (of heroes). Another possibility is that the proclamations can trigger bitter debates involving historical controversies about the heroes.”

What, our nation can’t agree on who its national heroes are?

Historian Ambeth Ocampo, who was a member of the technical committee, told me: ”I think FVR realized that one does not really legislate or declare heroes.” A former monk, Ocampo was being kind, although he couldn’t help hinting why Ramos didn’t act on the committee’s recommendations: “When Cory died, I was at a Senate hearing where everyone wanted her to be declared a heroine. I was the only one who said no and explained that heroes are never declared nor is this a power granted to Congress.”

Yellow cult
I was told that the real reason why Ramos shirked from proclaiming a pantheon of national heroes was the fact that the Yellow Cult wanted him to include the assassinated opposition leader Ninoy Aquino in the list of national heroes. Indeed, at this time when the Yellow Cult’s power over the country was at its peak it had practically declared Ninoy as a national hero, with several statues of him already erected in the country.

Ramos couldn’t of course arm-twist the three-man committee he had set up or the technical committee to include Ninoy in their list of heroes. So, never mind, forget this idea of proclaiming national heroes.

Ocampo in his message to me pointed out: “As (historian Teodoro) Agoncillo said, we must avoid being influenced by fleeting ‘fashion and passion’ of a period.” Ocampo explained that the “declaration of heroes is too important to be left to historians or our government officials.”

Ocampo is wrong. It is the State which has the responsibility to declare who are the heroes of the nation it represents. This is important as heroes are the embodiment of a nation, and without heroes the nation is just another organization at par with a fraternity, a garden club, or a Facebook Group.

Heroes, as the renowned scholar Benedict Andersen pointed out in, his famous book Imagined Communities, probably the best exposition of the meaning of nationalism, also help citizens believe that the nation truly exists.

Heroes important
Heroes indeed are so important that only one other organization in the entire world and in the entire human history have heroes who give up their lives for the sake of their organization: the Catholic Church, which elevates its heroes into saints who number at least 5,000 now.

Ocampo claimed that heroes are there “by acclamation and not by declaration by government.” But the question is acclamation by whom? By the ruling party, as the Liberal Party acclaimed Ninoy and later Cory? Or do we call for a plebiscite to determine our national heroes. Or maybe use Facebook as a platform to run a poll to determine who our national heroes are.

There is no national acclamation of Sultan Dipatuan Kudarat, but I trust the committee of historians that he did have a huge role in building the nation, enough to declare him a national hero.

Because we don’t have national heroes, those in power at one time could come up with a maneuver to have their choice declared implicitly as a national hero, as the Yellow Cult did in the case of Ninoy Aquino.

We have had for nearly a century, two implicit national heroes, not by declaration but by the designation of holidays for them. In Rizal’s case, it is the date of his execution by the Spanish, designated first by President Emilio Aguinaldo, not just, however, for Rizal but for all victims of the just-ended Spanish rule. For the revolutionary leader Andres Bonifacio, it is his birthday and not his death, in order for Filipinos to forget that it was Aguinaldo who had ordered him executed. (What a country!)

So what did the Yellow Cult do? It got Congress that it controlled tightly to enact Republic Act 9256 that declared August 21, the day of his assassination, as “Ninoy Aquino Day,” a holiday.

The lawmakers though were not servile to the Yellow Cult, so that Congress refused to declare Ninoy as a national hero. The law actually is a bit strange in that it declared August 21 of every year as holiday solely “in order to commemorate the death anniversary of former Senator Benigno Aquino.” There is no explanation at all, even by way of a description of Aquino, such as “assassinated opposition leader,” why there is a holiday for him.

So without the State declaring who our national heroes are, it’s a free-for-all day today, when anybody can claim our national hero is FPJ, Commander Dante, Joma Sison, or even Dolphy. They would be, going by Ocampo’s criteria that heroes are by “acclamation”.

Rizal and Bonifacio most probably are turning in their graves today, National Heroes Day.