6 Filipino Historians Talk National Heroes

On National Heroes Day, we take a closer look at those we call heroes and why, with the help of Filipino historians.

  • Words Team GRID
  • Illustrations Angelo Esperanzate
  • Collages Regine Salumbre & Gabby Jimenez


What is the measure of a true hero? Is it the God-sent blessing of an outstanding intellect? Or perhaps the warrior-like tenacity of a Filipino patriot? We asked six historians to tell us about their favorite hero from the Philippines’ colorful history; a history marked by rebellion, resistance, idealism, and men and women (just like you and me) with a powerful love for our country.

  • Words Team GRID
  • Illustrations Angelo Esperanzate
  • Collages Regine Salumbre & Gabby Jimenez

Xiao Chua (Assistant Professorial Lecturer, DLSU Manila)

My favorite will always be Andres Bonifacio. (Rizal is, of course, my first love.) Rizal’s writings and works had an immense impact on the people, but he looked at things [through] the lens of the West, and of his education.
Despite not finishing school, Andres Bonifacio [had learned] about what happened in America and in France and realized, even as an Indio, that it was possible for nations [to] rise up against their tyrants. Because he was still rooted in the culture of the Filipinos, he was able to imagine the nation as Inang Bayan. And he helped the people imagine the nation with him by articulating democracy as Haring Bayan, where the power is not [with] a king, but the nation. 
Other [revolutionaries] looked at republicanism and the “liberal philosophy,” but Bonifacio wanted to be more indigenous, and a lot of them [thought] that was not how it should be. For many today, that’s still not how it should be… the cultural divide that Bonifacio wanted to dissolve is still there. And it persisted, made stronger by elite democracy and American education. 
We always look at Bonifacio as a mindless war freak, but the Katipunan writings he wrote with Emilio Jacinto show a concurrence and a consistency in them. And [within them], there is so much emphasis on love.
Filipinos tend to look at heroes in the Western (specifically Greek) sense: they’re powerful, they’re superman. [We think] that Rizal had extraordinary intelligence and Bonifacio had extraordinary courage. [But] this definition actually takes away from the Filipino concept of heroism. The bayani, or “bagani,” is a warrior: someone who serves the people without anything in return. However weak or flawed we are… the willingness to serve the people, or at least to go beyond your duty to yourself, to be involved in your country [is what] you should see as kabayanihan. This is what our heroes taught us.

Manolo Quezon III (Columnist)

When my father told me that his father’s hero had been Apolinario Mabini, I was at first very surprised. Then, as I got to learn more about him, I understood why. Mabini was not just a lawyer and thus admirable to other lawyers, but someone who played a great role despite his physical limitations. 
Mabini is often portrayed as uncompromising, which is true in its own way. But more importantly to me, he was a reasonable person in many respects. Like so many intellectuals, he was also capable of changing his mind. He feared and hated Luna, [and later] changed his mind when Luna was killed. Which one was the objective Mabini? To my mind, neither: it’s [the] context that matters; Luna was scary for anyone protecting a government and a warning to anyone pondering the larger question of how revolutions eat their own children.
Mabini [had] said something interesting about Rizal: that had he not been born, history would have had to invent him, or something along those lines. It’s still remarkable to me that our forefathers felt it necessary to establish a kind of generic heroes holiday. They had to, because not every kind of hero admired by Filipinos were acceptable to our once-upon-a-time colonial overlords.
The holiday was necessary. We forget this and instead over-focus, to my mind, on the regular roster of heroes when this holiday should have us searching for local, regional, and forgotten heroes. My other favorite holiday is also one little-remembered: Unknown Citizens’ Day (Commonwealth Act No. 152), the second Sunday of January every year, “in honor of the rank and file of Filipinos who, in their humble ways, industriously labor for the up-lift, progress, and advancement of their country, unselfishly fulfilling their duties and obligations as Filipino Citizens.”

Ayshia F. Kunting (Professor, Western Mindanao State University)

The Sabil were Moro fighters; Moro meaning [those] who were Islamized or became Muslim Filipinos in the archipelago. The word “Sabil” came from the Arabic fi sabil Allah,” or “in the way of Allah (God).
They were fighters who didn’t have membership in an organization but attacked Spanish and American soldiers on their own with a kalis or cris, a type of sword with a wavy blade. They [knew] that they would be killed. The Sulu Sultanate was weakening, and [better] leadership couldn’t be formed, so they took it upon themselves to fight: for their freedom, their independence, their faith. During those times, the Spaniards burnt down mosques [and] houses, so it was a way to fight against colonization. 
What breaks my heart is that the Sabil are remembered very differently today. They are more often known as Juramentado, which comes from the word juramentar meaning “to take an oath.” It was an apt definition because they took an oath to defend everything they had to defend, but [became] negative when the Spaniards and even Filipinos used the word to mean “someone who has gone amok.” Today, we still hear Tagalog phrases like: Naghuhuramentado ka nanaman! meaning you’re complaining about something trivial.
History is about looking at [different] perspectives, and failing to see the contributions of Moro fighters against colonization we lose a part of who we are—a part of [our] courage and pride as Filipinos. When we only know of heroes who fought in Luzon or in Visayas, we lose a huge part of our story.  The Moro [have] been there from the beginning: fighting for independence, for their identity, and for peace.

Alvin D. Campomanes (Program Head and Coordinator, UP Manila)

One of my favorite heroes is Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. My fascination for him started when I was in college: I used to impress audiences by reciting his entire Wilshire Ebell speech—including his answers in the open forum—verbatim. This interest continued as I pursued an academic career.
After his assassination in 1983, the works that came out [about him] understandably focused on his martyrdom. On the other hand, there were a few that described him as a “traditional,” “warlord,” or “ruling class” politician. [These days,] his heroism is discredited in propaganda campaigns of historical revisionism, [but] these contrasting images of Ninoy (the political saint and the ambitious politician) are both simplistic and incomplete.
As Marcos’ most prominent political prisoner, he suffered seven years and seven months of incarceration. He endured psychological torture, waged a hunger strike that nearly killed him, and challenged the legitimacy of the regime in legal battles that earned him a death sentence in 1977. Ninoy confessed that he experienced intellectual and spiritual transformation in prison, [and] I believe him because a traditional politician [would’ve been] after self-gain and self-preservation. When he chose to defy the Marcos regime in prison, even cynics respected his courage, integrity, and sincerity.
I’ve always said his martyrdom was a final act in a long story of resistance. Ninoy the hero was a creature of martial law: if Marcos did not proclaim martial law, Ninoy would have [likely] become president in 1973. A president, but not a hero. Instead, he chose to be a hero at a time when [many] Filipinos were too frightened to resist dictatorship. 
I wish our countrymen [would see] Ninoy and his historical context in a more textured and nuanced manner. His ties with the radical left notwithstanding, I believe that he is a genuine hero. Let us not forget that this nation was founded by subversives, dissidents, and rebels.

Jose Victor Z. Torres (Professor, DLSU Manila)

It might sound a bit common, but I’ve always [appreciated] Jose Rizal. He’s become my favorite in a sense, especially since I’m teaching [about] him in college. The way Rizal is taught to us is like memorizing facts: how many siblings, how many girlfriends, where did he die? So on and so forth [that] we totally lost the why. My studies on Rizal went beyond what was taught, and it showed a side of him that I admire.
At the time, there were two kinds of Spain already existing: the conservative Spain seen in the Philippines, and the liberal Spain [that] Rizal went to. When he was exposed to the liberal Spain in Europe, he suddenly realized that there was a problem in [the Philippines]… It’s in that context that Rizal saw the problem of what was happening in his country. 
I think that’s something we miss when we talk about Rizal: [that] he wanted the Philippines to be a part of Spain because he saw what was happening in the European Spain—they were liberal, the colony was improving, there was freedom of the press and of speech—and he wanted to bring that to the Philippines. The nationalists said the Katipunan wanted a revolution in the Philippines that Rizal [opposed], but they didn’t consider that Rizal did not want a bloody revolution. Nawawala yung “bloody”—Rizal was considering a revolution, but he felt it had to be done by educated Filipinos. 
Rizal [also] valued Filipino identity. He emphasized that you have to know yourself, because he knew that the value of knowing one’s identity first would eventually be a step towards freedom. And in order to do that, you need to know your culture, your history, and how to apply these things in order to know oneself.

John Ray Ramos (Lecturer, ADMU)

Jose Rizal is my favorite hero, [perhaps] because I grew up in the province named in honor of him. Our town had multiple statues of Rizal, then of course, in school, we were taught that this was Jose Rizal, the national hero. But my appreciation deepened when I understood his relevance in Philippine society. It’s often the case for Filipinos where we think that Rizal is the national hero, but we don’t understand why he is important.
After college, I [became] more immersed in historical research, especially since I started teaching History in 2015. I read his historical and political writings, that’s when I got to appreciate Rizal’s genius as a political writer. Though his work was written in the late 19th century, Rizal [was able to] highlight his observations and experiences [on] the injustices, corruption, and other troubles that befell society. 
Rizal’s ideas were not really highlighted in the Revolution. People [were] inspired to fight for justice because they saw someone who was standing up for their rights unjustly persecuted by the Spanish, and eventually martyred.
Was Rizal an incidental hero? No, because he stood up for the rights of the people. But eventually, even though people were not able to read nor understand his ideas, Rizal became a rallying symbol for justice and liberty. He was the inspiration [for] the Katipunanwhenever they had a meeting, his portrait was always present. And when he was executed, people were shouting justice for his name. It’s similar to Ninoy Aquino, [who] also just stood up for justice… but it was their eventual martyrdom that really cemented their place in our pantheon of heroes. 
In all honesty, there’s no law declaring Rizal as the national hero. We don’t have one single national hero; it’s just by acclamation. But, we do have national heroes. Filipino heroes all contributed to the freedoms, the rights, and the democracy that we are somewhat enjoying today and the democracy that we are still fighting to improve.

If you like this feature, check out our special National Heroes Day podcast episode: