Inventing a Hero: The Posthumous Re-Creation of Andres Bonifacio. By Glenn Anthony May. Madison: University of Wisconsin Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1996.
For the past fifteen years, Glenn Anthony May has been locked in single combat with nationalist historiography, the romantic, mildly-Marxist version of the past found in the works of Renato Constantino and Teodoro Agoncillo. "What bothers me about nationalist history," he wrote a decade ago, is "that it is often oversimplified or simply incorrect. If, some day, the Philippines is to be rebuilt on truly nationalist lines, the foundations will have to be made of something more solid than myths."1
In Battle for Batangas he upset the nationalists' idealized image of the 1896 war for independence as a "revolt of the masses."2 Instead of the peasant-based popular war celebrated by the recent Sentenaryo, May showed that, at least in Batangas, the armies that fought Spain and later the United States were led, and to a large part manned, by members of the elite. The finding could hardly have been more provocative or conclusively demonstrated, but the waters closed over it without a trace. Judging from the 1996 commemorations, it produced no discernible effect on how history is taught or celebrated in the Philippines.
In the course of researching another book on the revolution May uncovered the disappearance of most of the Philippine National Library's priceless collection of documents.3 Rare books, manuscripts, and letters of the kind generally called "national treasures" had been pilfered from the public archives and sold to private collectors. But despite vanishing evidence and a scholarly conspiracy of silence, May continues to
maintain, like Agent Muldur, that the truth is out there. Both Battle for Batangas and his new book, Inventing a Hero end with appeals to others to join in the search.
The title of the present volume gives away the plot: May shows that nearly everything we knew about Bonifacio was made up long after he died. He follows a trail of forged documents and imaginary memoirs back to 1918, when nationalist historians began creating the Bonifacio legend. Every country mythologizes its heroes (to Americans, cherry trees and silver dollars across the Rappahannock spring to mind), but May's account reveals two unusual features of the Bonifacio case. One is how thoroughly Philippine historians did their job. Not content to make Bonifacio a patriot, they made him a scholar, a poet, a plebeian, and a millenarian prophet. He is celebrated for poems he never wrote, beliefs he never believed, and for overcoming social handicaps he never faced.
The second interesting feature is that Bonifacio mythmaking has been going on for almost a century. Successive generations of historians have added new glosses to the legend without questioning its origins. Epifanio de los Santos and his son, Jose P. Santos, produced most of the documents connected to the leader of the Katipunan. May cannot say whether they concocted the papers themselves or merely passed them on, but he presents convincing evidence that they knew or suspected that the letters were forged. Agoncillo had doubts but used the sources anyway.
Reynaldo Ileto, author of the pathbreaking Pasyon and Revolution, is the last of a long line of scholars who reinterpreted the suspect papers. For him, Bonifacio is the crucial link between millenarian movements and the Katipunan. Ileto's interpretation recasts the Philippines' secular "Western" revolution as a peasant-based religious movement akin to others in Southeast Asia. But the crucial link is based on Ileto's skillful translation of writings which may have actually been authored by Jose P. Santos in the 1930s.
May's indictment of the mythical Bonifacio is complete in every respect except motive. He never elaborates or speculates on the intentions behind the creation of the Bonifacio legend, nor does he generalize from his findings to show how Philippine historical mythmaking compares with that of other countries. Postmodernists would answer May's argument by saying that all history is a kind of fiction, a "discursive strategy" aimed at furthering some personal or political agenda. The agenda is the interesting part. Historians, of course, will never concede that point, but May seems to draw a particularly sharp line between truth, which is interesting, and fraud, which is not. One might be able to tell a lot about a country from the lies it tells its children.
Inventing a Hero has already stirred up considerable controversy in the Philippines (one scholar described it to me as a "hot potato"). It may be too early to tell whether it will put historians on the track of what May calls the "real history" of the Philippines.
1A Past Recovered (Quezon City: New Day, 1987).
2Battle for Batangas: A Philippines Province at War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).
3Glenn, Anthony May, "Vanishing Archives," Far Eastern Economic Review, January 27,1994, pp. 34-5.