Column: If Taruc is a hero, what?

Published on July 4, 2017, but perhaps apropos reading for yesterday’s celebration of National Heroes Day. 

The honors paid last month to Luis Taruc, cofounder of the Huks, invites us to think, again and with a greater sense of complication, about our notions of heroism.

An Inquirer editorial tried to anticipate the public’s response to the unveiling of a historical marker at Taruc’s place of birth and to the statement of recognition from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines “that Luis Taruc is a hero” by identifying three types of possible reception. “This pronouncement may strike some as belated but deserved recognition; others may criticize it as insufficiently historical or an affront to the memory of other heroes; still others may wonder what all the fuss is about.”

If not indifference, I would venture that wonder at what all the fuss was about was the majority reaction — but I did see criticism of the Taruc pronouncement. Inquirer columnist Manolo Quezon was one of those who showed his disagreement by circulating a Philippines Free Press cartoon listing Taruc’s many iniquities. I respect Quezon’s position, not only because his grandmother Aurora Quezon was assassinated by the Huks in 1949, but even more so because his work is shaped by a deep understanding of Philippine history.

Recognition of Taruc’s heroism, however, forces us to take a closer look at the different, even conflicting, narratives of heroism we have learned to tell. To make a nation, it takes all kinds of heroes.

Like other controversial personalities, Taruc was defined in part by who his adversaries were: the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, and the political class symbolized by Manuel Roxas, Elpidio Quirino and Ramon Magsaysay in the postwar period. Like other controversial figures, he was also tainted by association with old or new allies; he disowned the communist movement he was a part of, and he was loyal to Ferdinand Marcos, who set him free after almost two decades in jail.

How can a nation celebrate a Taruc at the same time it venerates the memory of a Magsaysay? This was the man who became president largely because of his outsized role in defeating the Huks. How can a country honor a rebel who led an insurgency that almost reached the gates of the capital? This insurgency almost dismembered the country.

And yet: Seventy-five years after World War II reached our shores, Taruc has found his place in the pantheon. His induction into “the nation’s hall of heroes,” as the editorial phrased it, allows us to reclaim an old discovery: That hall of heroes is populated by people who, when they were still alive, could not stand each other or were at each other’s throats. Certainly, there are the likes of Jose Rizal, Marcelo del Pilar and Mariano Ponce, who we can readily imagine would be delighted to run again into each other. But for every Andres Bonifacio, there is an Emilio Aguinaldo, who caused his execution. For every Antonio Luna, there is an Apolinario Mabini, who distrusted the irrepressible, irascible, impetuous, impertinent general. For every Bonifacio and Aguinaldo, there is a Rizal who counseled against the timing of the Philippine Revolution, a Mabini who did not take part in the first phase, or indeed a Luna who betrayed the revolutionaries he knew to the Spanish colonial authorities. For every Aguinaldo, there is an Artemio Ricarte, who did not surrender to the invading Americans. And for every Aguinaldo and Ricarte, who offered benign support to the Japanese during World War II, there is a Jose Abad Santos, who chose a martyr’s death. Or, indeed, there is a Taruc, who led the most successful anti-Japanese resistance campaign in Southeast Asia.

Our understanding of heroism is shaped by the dominant Christian culture; it celebrates martyrdom, including those of Rizal and the “battling bastards of Bataan.” But it should also be inclusive enough to include the Muslims martyred by the Americans in Bud Dajo. Our understanding of heroism celebrates the possibility of redemption; the Luna narrative would not make sense otherwise. Above all, our understanding of heroism is various; it takes all kinds of heroes, to make a nation.

Postscript: Manolo Quezon wrote to correct the misimpression I may have created, about the assassination of Doña Aurora. The Quezon family, he said, has never blamed Taruc.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in History, Readings in Politics

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