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Why we have to study our heroes again



Illustrations by MADEL CRUDO

I grew up without cable television. As a kid, I spent my afterschool afternoons watching cartoons, mostly animé, from a local TV channel. On holidays, when I had time to watch TV in the morning, I spent it watching any of the kiddie shows then airing on one channel. One of these was a series called Bayani, a brainchild of the late Gina Lopez.

This show, which during its earlier episodes featured National Artist for Theater and Literature Rolando Tinio who was later replaced by Ermie Concepcion and then Caridad Sanchez, was about Philippine history, specifically Filipino heroes, as the title suggests. Its theme song, recorded by former child stars Brenan Espartinez and Maita Ponce, was quite catchy and dramatic, matched with a montage of scenes from the show’s episodes and black-and-white footage from World War II and the Martial Law years.

To be honest, it was this song, in all its dramatic flair, and the show’s opening credits that tickled my fascination with history as a young boy. That and the Superbook-slash-Flying-House-inspired style of telling the story of some of the country’s most famous heroes, which included Jose Rizal, Andres BonifacioEmilio Aguinaldo, Melchora Aquino, Emilio Jacinto, Diego and Gabriela Silang, Francisco Dagohoy, and even Panday Pira, to name a few. Bayani offered a list of heroes that rivaled those found in the grade school history textbooks of my time.

Looking back, it was precisely the reason Bayani became problematic. It was too textbook in its take on the country’s heroes, understandable because it was a show made for gradeschoolers.

While I admit that this show—plus those afternoons I spent reading the World War II entry in the encyclopedia I used to borrow from my uncle— contributed a great deal to my love for history, the heroes in Bayani might not be the kind we need today.

Heroes are presented to suit a particular time, a specific need in society. The history textbooks of our parents, at least those in the ’60s and ’70s, showcased heroes necessary in building a strong sense of national identity. While this question of identity remains today, it is perhaps not as confused as before. Even in today’s (post-)globalized world, we are surer now of who we are as a people, at least I’d like to believe so. Our need for heroes is no longer the same as before.

Still, that need remains. And still we look to the heroes of past eras, during those times when it seemed easier to be heroic because of the circumstances. For some reason, we see those who rebelled, those who stood up against our foreign conquerors to be more heroic—never mind if their reasons for rebelling were not really as glorious as fighting for the nation, especially when the very definition of a Filipino nation was not even clear then.

Circumstances change, yes. But the need for heroes remain. Yes, we should still study the heroes of our past but perhaps with a more open mind, with a mindset that’s more willing to accept the fact that these same heroes were not at all perfect—one of them even owned a brothel, at one point.

It should no longer be about whether Rizal deserved to be the national hero or that it should’ve been given to Bonifacio or that Aguinaldo was no hero at all. We need to see these heroes as persons who struggled, not just to fight tyranny or oppression or injustice, but their inner demons, their imperfections, even their lack of apparent heroism at times.

We need to see our heroes as human beings.

This is not to demean any of their achievements. Quite the contrary. By subjecting our heroes—or what we know of our heroes—under scrutiny, putting them under the de-mystifying light of objectivity, we will highlight their heroic feats even more. By making them ordinary, we will prove the extraordinary effort it took for them to achieve whatever it was they accomplished that earned them a spot for a monument or two somewhere, or a face on our national currency.

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