MALAYBALAY CITY (18 June) – In an interview with national television last night, Gemma Cruz-Araneta, a descendant of Jose Rizal, appealed to stop the debate on who between her ancestor and Katipunan founder  Andres Bonifacio should be the national hero. “Let’s not pit them against each other,” she said in Tagalog.

That has basically been the problem with historians and critics confronted by the still unresolved controversy of who between the two most prominent patriots deserved more to be the foremost symbol of the country’s struggle for freedom from colonial rule. More often than not, their answers have been evasive and, as a convenient way out, they would propose to give both Rizal and Bonifacio equal space in the pantheon of heroes.

Such proposal may appear to be a fair deal to both, but suppressing the discourse favors Rizal more than it does Bonifacio. It retains Rizal in his position and sidelines the disturbing question of how he became the national hero despite not having led the war for national liberation and having in fact advised Bonifacio against it, arguing, according to some historians, that the people were not ready for it. Nonetheless, the son of Tondo went on to wage war against the Spaniards.

The claim that Rizal counseled Bonifacio on the futility of an armed revolution on grounds of unpreparedness on the part of the masses carries with it the subtle, oft-repeated criticism of the revolutionary leader as a reckless individual with no knack for planning. It has always gone unnoticed that Bonifacio was an organization man and had a flair for details. In fact, knowing the importance of propaganda, he had put up a semblance of an underground press where his writings and that of other revolutionary thinkers appeared. Unfortunately, an insider betrayed the fledgling Katipunan forcing Bonifacio to prematurely engage the colonizers in battle.

If Rizal did not favor a revolution, it was simply because he had always detested the idea of rising against Mother Spain to whom he felt intellectually indebted. He may have parodied the Spanish friars and civil-military authorities and exposed their abuses in his two novels, the Noli Mi Tangere and El Filibusterismo. But that was only part of the message his two greatest literary works tried to convey. Often overlooked is how both stories end with the failure of the plots of insurrection. The novels, as their similar conclusions show, embody Rizal’s own mixed feelings toward Spain. He was aghast at the abuses and was aware of the need to liberate the people but rejected the idea of using armed struggle to attain it.

Rationalizations won’t help clarify Rizal’s dilemma. He was Filipino in blood but was partly Spaniard in heart and mind due to his Spanish education and travels to Europe that had influenced his cultural and philosophical self. He empathized with the plight of his fellow Indios. At the same time however he was so in love with Spanish language and culture that, as an attempt maybe at compromise, Rizal, along with other Filipino intellectuals who spent much time in Europe, pressed for reforms but still under Spanish watch, including representation in the Cortes. Deep in his heart, Rizal harbored the illusion that Spain was capable of eventually showing benevolence towards her subjects.

Maybe the masses came to know of Rizal’s Noli and Fili and were awakened by these novels as insisted by those who claim that these works played a significant role in molding the  revolutionary consciousness of the time. Or maybe the people only had an abstract idea about these novels because of their ignorance of the Spanish language in contrast to the enthusiasm they must have shown towards the writings of Bonifacio, Emilio Jacinto and other writers who served the revolution. And even if the masses did understand the novels, it remains clear that they did not subscribe to Rizal’s idea of forgetting about revolution and waiting for Mother Spain to have a  change of heart. In this sense, Bonifacio, whose ideals the masses believed and pursued, is the real national hero.

Fortunately for Rizal, the Americans imposed him as our national hero because he represented reformism and pacifism, a choice aimed at discouraging revolt against the new colonizers. As historian Renato Constantino wrote in “Dissent and Counter-Consciousness:”

“The public image that the American desired for a Filipino national hero was quite clear. They favored a hero who would not run against the grain of American colonial policy. We must take these acts of the Americans in furtherance of a Rizal cult in the light of their initial policies which required the passage of the Sedition Law prohibiting the display of the Filipino flag. The heroes who advocated independence were therefore ignored. For to have encouraged a movement to revere Bonifacio or Mabini would not have been consistent with American colonial policy.”

Constantino added: “…The attention lavished on Rizal relegated other heroes to the  background-heroes whose revolutionary example and anti-American pronouncements might have stiffened Filipino resistance to the new conquerors. The Americans especially emphasized the fact that Rizal was a reformer, not a separatist. He could therefore not be invoked on the question of Philippine independence. He could not be a rallying point in the resistance against the invaders.”

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at [email protected])