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Why do we celebrate National Heroes’ Day?




IN 2007, when I was Senate president, we passed Republic Act 9492 designed to rationalize “the celebration of National Holi­days.” The law fixed the date of the celebration of National Heroes Day on the last Monday of August.

But what makes a person a national hero? I am not aware of a law or a decree that has officially proclaimed certain Filipinos as ‘national hero.’ I remember when I was in college at the University of the Philippines (UP), there was a passionate debate as to who between Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio should be considered as the national hero. I can only imagine the debate that would ensue if we have an official declaration of who our national heroes are.

I was surprised to read from the website of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (www.ncca.gov.ph) that there was in fact an attempt to do just that. In 1993, then President Fidel V. Ramos issued Executive Order No. 75 which created a National Heroes Committee tasked to come up with a criteria for identifying our national heroes.

The output of the technical committee was very interesting and intriguing, to say the least.

The National Heroes Committee, composed of eminent historians and scholars, came up with three criteria for National Heroes: (1) those who have a concept of nation and thereafter aspire and struggle for the nation’s freedom; (2) Those who define and contribute to a system or life of freedom and order for a nation; and, (3) those who contribute to the quality of life and destiny of a nation.

On the basis of these ‘measures’, they came up with a list of who should be declared as national heroes:

  1. Jose Rizal
  2. Andres Bonifacio
  3. Emilio Aguinaldo
  4. Apolinario Mabini
  5. Marcelo H. del Pilar
  6. Sultan Dipatuan Kudarat
  7. Juan Luna
  8. Melchora Aquino
  9. Gabriela Silang

While the endeavor of the committee was laudable, their task was understandably impossible. How can one even measure heroism? How can we ensure that heroism is exempt from ideological and political factionalism? Who determines who our national heroes are?

It is a process fraught with dispute and animosity. This is probably the reason why the technical committee’s report was never acted upon. Proclaiming national heroes invites a different sort of revolution among fanatics and ideologues.

The implausibility of officially picking a list of national heroes lies in the fact that heroism is both time-bound and timeless. Heroic acts happen within the context of specific historical circumstance. Rizal, Bonifacio, and others faced different challenges and responded based on their own backgrounds and ideals. It would be unfair to use that same standard today.

But heroism is also enduring. Its impact goes beyond its time. Its legacy is felt by future generations. The freedom that we enjoy today were bought by the sweat, blood, and tears of Filipino heroes.

That list of nine national heroes is correct but terribly incomplete. Surely, there are more than nine Filipinos who satisfy the measure of being a national hero. Some of them are clearly heroes; others are highly debatable.

I believe that the determination of who should be considered as national heroes is a continuing national discourse. Nothing is final because today we continue to discuss and debate. Consider the fact that even without a formal law, we do consider Rizal, Bonifacio, Luna, Del Pilar, and a host of other Filipinos as national heroes.

Ultimately, no committee, no law has the right to proclaim our national heroes. That prerogative belongs to the Filipino people.