Friday, September 23, 2005

May, Glenn Anthony. "Historian says he's not questioning Bonifacio's heroism -- but historians' methodology -- Part I." Philippine Daily Inquirer 12.161 (Monday, 19 May 1997): G1-2


The May 5 issue of the Inquirer featured an attack by Milagros Guerrero and Ramon Villegas on me and my recent book, "Inventing a Hero: the Posthumous Re-Creation of Andres Bonifacio." I would like to reply.

To be honest, I am profoundly saddened by the Guerrero-Villegas piece. One of my critics is a professor at the University of the Philippines and the other, the author of a valuable book on Philippine jewelry. I was aware that the former was preparing a critique of my book and I looked forward to it, hoping that it would raise important substantive issues.

A large part of the Guerrero-Villegas piece consists of ad hominem attack and innuendo. The authors tell readers that attendance at the launching was "sparse," and "noticeable absent were heavyweight personalities from the major history departments of the University of the Philippines and Ateneo de Manila."

They claim that the day before the book launching I "was able to wrangle an invitation to speak before a class at the Ateneo." They point out that the book "had initially been offered to an rejected by a major university press." They charge me with being "prejudiced against Filipinos" and "paranoid." They imply that I am "an incompetent alien." They tell readers that my book "would be an embarrassment to any Filipino academic institution that purports to have a history program... May's 'Inventing a Hero' explains why he ended up teaching in Oregon, in the great American wilderness, far from the important universities with the major grant programs."


I must admit that I find such comments offensive. I also suspect that scholars based in Philippine universities other than UP and Ateneo might share my sentiments. So would the students and faculty members of the University of Oregon. There's a gratuitous nastiness about the Guerrero-Villegas piece that one rarely encounters in academic discourse.

And that's the point. Putting my own disappointment aside, the Guerrero-Villegas article bears no resemblance at all to a book review one might find in a refereed scholarly journal -- a considered assessment of the work of a another scholar.

It is something else. An attempt to discredit. An exercise in name-calling. An example of yellow journalism, which I would have considered beneath such authors.

Beyond that, Guerrero and Villegas leave something out. At no point in their article do they share with the readers the vitally important information that the two of them, with the collector Emmanuel Encarnacion, have long been working on their own book about Andres Bonifacio. Nor do they point out that they rely heavily, in the articles they have written to date on the subject, on sources I have called into question in "Inventing a Hero."

In the paragraphs that follow, I intend to do two simple things. First, since Guerrero and Villegas have misrepresented what I have written, I want to provide readers with an accurate idea of what my book is about. Second I will address directly the few substantive criticisms they did make about the book.

Let me make clear that "Inventing a Hero" is not, as Guerrero and Villegas claim, an effort to "savage Bonifacio."


In my view, Bonifacio's place in history is now, and forever will be, secure. His heroism cannot be questioned. Many reliable primary sources provide graphic accounts of his dynamic leadership both before and during the Philippine Revolution. Such sources demonstrate unambiguously that Bonifacio was the driving force behind the revolution of 1896. They attest as well to his courage and determination on the battlefield. Whereas a significant number of Bonifacio's fellow katipuneros (including Emilio Aguinaldo!) balked at the notion of raising the flag of rebellion, Bonifacio, on his part, did not hesitate.

I believe that without Bonifacio there would not have been a Philippine revolution in 1896.

But, to say that Bonifacio's heroism is indisputable is not to say that most of the ideas people have about the Philippine national hero are necessarily correct, despite the fact that they can be found in virtually every textbook used over the past three decades in Philippine secondary schools and universities (including one coauthored by Guerrero).

What I have done in "Inventing a Hero" is to call into question a number of those ideas.

For example, my book questions whether the details we have in our head about Bonifacio's early years -- the stories about his class origins, his family, his work history (the paper fans and canes), his reading habits ("Les Misérables," "The Wandering Jew," a book about the lives of the presidents of the United States), and so forth -- can be trusted.

It questions whether the poems we attribute to Bonifacio -- compositions that have long been included in literary anthologies and committed to memory by schoolchildren -- were the actual literary creations of the supremo of the Katipunan.


It questions whether his correspondence with his fellow revolutionary Emilio Jacinto was, in fact, written by him. It questions whether existing accounts of what is, arguably, the most crucial event in Bonifacio's life -- the Tejeros Assembly, the meeting at which Bonifacio was replaced by Emilio Aguinaldo as leader of the revolutionary movement -- can be credited.

It questions whether prevailing views of Bonifacio's personality -- views that have been shaped by a celebrated book by the celebrated Philippine historian Teodoro Agoncillo -- bear any relation to reality.

And it questions much more.

The verb I have used in every sentence of the previous paragraph is "questions." The word choice is deliberate, because it highlights a key characteristic of the book I have written.

"Inventing a Hero" is anything but a conventional biography of Andres Bonifacio; indeed, it is not primarily about the Philippine national hero at all. It is, instead, a critical examination of the existing corpus of literature about Andres Bonifacio. It focuses on the writings of six individuals who have largely been responsible for painting the picture of Bonifacio that so many people, Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike, have long carried around in their heads: three pre-World War II historians -- Manuel Artigas, Epifanio de los Santos (the man for whom Edsa is named), and Jose P. Santos (the son of Epifanio de los Santos); one memoirist, Artemio Ricarte, himself a famous revolutionary; and two post-World War II historians, Teodoro Agoncillo and Reynaldo Ileto.

My principal argument is that those six men posthumously reconstructed Bonifacio, collectively creating the man we find in the textbooks.

A second argument is that five of those re-creators (all but Ricarte) depicted Bonifacio in the way they did because they, the depicters, wanted to romanticize, idealize, and, to a certain extent, sanitize Bonifacio to promote particular political agenda. All five were, in their days, prominent, outspoken nationalists, interested in freeing the Philippines from all traces of alien rule, influencing other Filipinos to join their cause, and providing young Filipinos with heroic historical models they could look up to and emulate.

For all five, Bonifacio -- or, rather, the version of Bonifacio that emerged from their posthumous re-creation of the man -- served as the key symbol of the Philippine nation and a vital element in the creation of a national political identity.


So that, in short compass, is what "Inventing a Hero" is about. I never claim that I am trying to paint a new picture of Bonifacio to replace the conventional one I consider deficient.

More important, I never assert that Bonifacio is any bit less heroic than he has appeared to be in the accounts of earlier historians.

From the first page to the last, my intention has been merely to subject to scrutiny the historical texts of earlier scholars who have written about Bonifacio -- as well as certain documents they have relied on heavily.

As one historian who has written favorably about the book in this newspaper has put it, "Inventing a Hero" is, at its core, a study of "historical methodology."

It looks closely and critically at the methodologies of earlier historians as well as the documents used by them and reaches the conclusion that both their studies and their sources are highly problematic. And problematic history does no justice to a great leader who deserves better.

I recognize that such findings may prove to be dismaying to more than a few Filipinps. After all, my book calls into question a picture of Bonifacio that has been conveyed to them since elementary school and that continues to pervade the popular media (cinematic representations of the revolution, plays about the revolution; television specials about the revolution, and so forth).

For the record (and to repeat a point I made in the book itself), I want to state clearly that I am sorry for any pain my findings may cause the readers.

My aim has not been to cause pain, but rather to add something to the store of human knowledge about the past. I am, after all, a working historian, and like most members of my much-misunderstood clan, I operate under the illusion that through the close study of documents and other sources, it is possible to learn important things about the past.


In any event, the point to be underlined here is that the conclusions I have reached, painful and otherwise, have issued from my wrestling with sources, primary and secondary. To paraphrase one of my own countrymen, the columnist Dave Barry, I am not, making this up. My, book "Inventing a Hero" is a work of scholarship based on approximately five years of research. I have located every primary and secondary source concerning Bonifacio I am aware of, have analyzed and reanalyzed all those texts, compared them to each other, and then reanalyzed them again.

If, in the end, I have written critical things about certain highly regarded Philippine historians, I have done so not because I am anti-Filipino or ethnocentric or "prejudiced" or because I have any particular agenda to promote. I have done so only because I fear that they have presented a misleading picture of the Philippine national hero.

Let me turn now from the book itself to the Guerrero-Villegas attack on it.

If we discover the ad hominem comments, they appear to criticize six things.

First, they do not share my skepticism about the data concerning Bonifacio's early years, which can be found in the works of Artigas, De los Santos, and Santos.

In my book, I demonstrate that virtually all that information -- the family woes, the taste in literature, and so on -- was undocumented. Guerrero and Villegas appear to be more inclined to believe those details, claiming that Artigas and De los Santos "had access" to Bonifacio's intimates (e.g., Gregoria de Jesus) and fellow revolutionaries (e.g., Ladislao Diwa).

They are entitled to that belief, but we should not confuse belief with proof; they do not show that Artigas and De los Santos actually derived their information from those people. They also claim, incorrectly, that I am unaware of interviews given writers by Bonifacio's sister, and that I also failed to consult "a significant amount of documentary evidence scattered in various sources." If they ever publish their book on Bonifacio, all of us will have an opportunity to see if the "evidence" I supposedly did not consult supports the undocumented statements of Artigas, De los Santos, and Santos. For the moment, though, I am unconvinced.

Guerrero and Villegas simply make assertions; they do not offer professionally acceptable proof.


Second, Guerrero and Villegas do not agree with me that certain "literary and political works" attributed to Bonifacio are problematic. Again, they fault me for being skeptical of accepted wisdom, and again, they provide no proof -- or even strong evidence -- that those work of prose and poetry were actually produced by the national hero.

What they provide is speculation. We are told that there are other ways of knowing that the poetry attributed to Bonifacio was written by him. They assert, first, that, in Bonifacio's day, Tagalog "lived large through its oral tradition"; second, that people like Mabini memorized lengthy poetic works; and third, that "those who had the language also knew, as participants


in that culture, who was the author of which work."

What are we to conclude from such statements? On what do they base their claim that certain poems attributed to Bonifacio were passed down through the oral tradition? And how do they know that the people who recited them thought them to be Bonifacio's literary products?

As before, Guerrero and Villegas are entitled to their beliefs; but one should recognize that their view of Bonifacio's literary output is based on nothing more than those beliefs.

Third, they disagree with my argument that the Bonifacio letters are probable forgeries. That they do so is, of course, not surprising, given the fact that they have placed so much weight on that correspondence in earlier publications. But what new evidence do they provide on the matter?

In my book, I point out a number of oddities of the letters. The stories about their provenance are unbelievable. The text of the published version of the letters differs considerably from that of the supposed originals (which are owned by Encarnacion, the collaborator of Guerrero and Villegas). The linguistic properties of the supposed originals are, in certain respects, anachronistic. The originals were obviously written by more than one hand. Given all the above, I conclude that the letters should not be given much credence.

On the head of provenance, we learn from Guerrero and Villegas that each leaf Of the Bonifacio correspondence was "signed and therefore certified by Jose Turiano Santiago, a close friend of Bonifacio, one of the early Katipunan members and married to Marina Dizon, a cousin of Jacinto. It is reasonable to assume that Santiago brokered the transaction."

That is an intriguing bit of information, but it hardly allays serious question. Indeed, such an explanation would seem to raise many more.


Guerrero and Villegas also attempt to cast doubt on my discussion of the linguistic properties of the letters. They acknowledge there were discrepancies between the supposed originals and the published versions of the letters. They then fault me for mistakenly attributing the defective transcriptions to Jose P. Santos, and dispute my explanation of those defects -- that the transcriber changed Bonifacio's prose, substituting actor-focus verbs for goal-focus verbs, to disguise the fact that the supposed originals were hot the authentic literary products of Andres Bonifacio -- since the prose of Bonifacio's day tended to be more actor-focused.

The first criticism turns out to be something of a quibble, but I must acknowledge that there is some substance to it. Although I state in my book that Santos was assisted by his daughter Teresita Pangan in preparing the unpublished manuscript in which the transcription first appeared, I consistently attribute those transcriptions to Santos alone. Guerrero and Villegas reveal that two daughters actually helped Santos and observe, correctly, that any one of the three authors could have been responsible for the transcriptions (although they concede that Santos was the "senior historian").

The second criticism should not, however, be given much weight. To cast doubt on my discussion of of verb forms, they invoke Virgilio Almario, "a major author in FIlipino today" and a professor at the University of the Philippines. "According to Almario, the shift of focus from goal teactor is integral to the language, and is not specific to any historical period." But, if that is so, how can Almario explain away the evidence that I provide in my footnotes about verb forms at the turn of the century? Furthermore, as before, Guerrero and Villegas leave out something important -- to wit, that in one of his best-known books, Almario applied his formidable powers of literary analysis to examine the tropes and hidden meanings of several of the very texts attributed to Bonifacio that I have raised doubts about in my book. Like Guerrero and Villegas, Almario is hardly a disinterested party.

Significantly, Guerrero and Villegas make no effort at all to account for the bizarre fact that the supposed originals were altered by the transcriber. If those famous letters were actually written by the Philippine hero Andres Bonifacio, why would anyone -- be it Santos, who owned the letters at the time, or one of his daughters -- have changed them? And why did they change them in the ways that they did?


Finally, Guerrero and Villegas come to the question of penmanship. Having criticized throughout for being too skeptical of the assertions of others, they now attack me for being skeptical of my own. In my book, I describe my examination of photographic copies of the supposed originals of the Bonifacio letters in Villegas' office in Makati and my discovery that the documents were not all written by one hand. I also reveal my initial reaction to that physical evidence, I doubted whether the "originals" were authentic.

Sometime thereafter, as I also reveal, I came to realize that this conclusion was reached too hastily. While the penmanship evidence does raise questions, about the documents' authenticity, there are other possible explanations for the observable inconsistencies -- e.g., that the letters may have been dictated by Bonifacio to scribes.

Guerrero and Villegas take me to task for a "failure... in logic" and "intellectual contortions." They maintain that I have been unable to prove my "allegations" "beyond reasonable doubt."

What they fail to understand is that I am not a lawyer arguing a case before the court. I am a historian, attempting to do my best to present the evidence fairly -- even when as in this case, it reflects badly on me. In my discussion of penmanship, my principal point is that the inconsistencies of penmanship -- like the other observed oddities -- raise doubts about the Bonifacio letters.

I do not believe -- and I have stated as much in my book -- that those inconsistencies, by themselves, prove that the letters are not authentic.

To summarize, then, Guerrero and Villegas have done nothing to answer the questions I have raised about the Bonifacio letters. They have not established the provenance of the documents; they have not explained why they were altered by the transcriber; they have not accounted for the peculiar nature of the alterations; and they have not explained the inconsistencies in penmanship.