The book that says Andres Bonifacio is an 'invented hero'

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A historian relays the cinematic qualities of history, why Andres Bonifacio remains hard to pin down, and the best way to honor an unprecedented hero. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — First published in 1996, Glenn Anthony May’s book “Inventing a Hero: The Posthumous Re-Creation of Andres Bonifacio” became the subject of heated debate when it reached Philippine shores the following year. It was a product that turned out to be wholly different from what May had set out to do, which was to write the biography of revolutionary leader Andres Bonifacio.

When May’s research led him to then-unproven documents and contradictory accounts — particularly those of Epifanio de los Santos, Manuel Artigas, and Jose P. Santos — his narrative shifted into a theory: Could Bonifacio as we know him have been a sensationalized version of who he really was? “In effect,” May wrote, “Bonifacio has been posthumously re-created. He has been given a new personality and a childhood that may bear little resemblance to his real one.”

May was fully committed to his theory, calling Bonifacio’s written history a “myth” and the “nationalist storytellers” who wrote about him “mythmakers.” He argued that, to inspire nationalism and revolutionary thought in Filipinos, these accounts had attempted to give Bonifacio his own hero’s journey, to mold him into somebody people could see themselves in. Jose Rizal was aspirational, whereas Bonifacio was an everyman.

The book, upon its release and even today, was controversial, what with such a boldly posited thesis statement that questioned everything Filipinos had ever known about such a beloved hero. Local historians were doubtful of May’s motives and his arguments. Nonetheless, it was able to steer the conversation toward the fickle nature of historical research and methodology.

"The book invites us to ask valid questions in how we write the story, not just of our heroes, but the story of our nation."

In the 20 years since “Inventing a Hero” was released, the authenticity of Bonifacio’s letters and writing has been proven. We’ve learned much more about him as a leader and as a person, although there are still disputes regarding his death and his complete role in our history. (Was he actually the first president? Should he be the National Hero?)

CNN Philippines Life spoke to historian Michael Charleston “Xiao” Chua, a professor at the De La Salle University, about the cinematic qualities of history, why Bonifacio remains hard to pin down, and the best way to honor an unprecedented hero. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Looking back, what are your thoughts on Glenn Anthony May’s theory, and how has it affected the country’s perception and knowledge of Bonifacio?

We have now proven that Glenn May’s main basis, that the life of Andres Bonifacio was something that is manufactured, at least the details of his life, is wrong.

If you’re going to look at how Filipinos at that time wrote history, they didn’t have the methodology that Western historians like Glenn May would use, so [we can't] put the standards of historiography of today’s world and Western historians to the people who were writing the history of the Philippines in the 1900s and in the early decades of the century.

I, myself, am helped by a lot of people who collect documents about Bonifacio and analyze them. I’m now piecing together some information about his life that we got from these historians, or these chroniclers, that did not cite sources, and they were wrong. And we are correcting [this] misinformation because [it] had already created a lot of misconceptions about Bonifacio himself.

Glenn May, for example, is very critical about the life of Bonifacio. It is now being proven that a lot of the information were wrong, but they’re also disproving the alleged exaggeration of the role of Bonifacio in the revolution, when in fact, the new documents and the new testimonies and the new data that we have illuminates more the role of Bonifacio especially in the establishment of the first revolutionary government.

That said, the book by Glenn May is something that, at first, you could say historians cringed [at], but it shouldn’t necessarily be dismissed altogether because the book invites us to ask valid questions in how we write the story, not just of our heroes, but the story of our nation.

Bonifacio (Book).jpg First published in 1996, Glenn Anthony May’s book “Inventing a Hero: The Posthumous Re-Creation of Andres Bonifacio” became the subject of heated debate when it reached Philippine shores the following year.

One of May’s points was that Bonifacio was “re-created” to promote nationalism and the revolution. Why do you think history is sometimes sensationalized, or at least given a cinematic flourish?

Well, history is storytelling, and a story should be interesting. Even historians pick things that are [cinematic], except that historians should have a basis for the things that they’re saying. You cannot say that with cinema itself. So history is cinematic — you can make it cinematic, but cinema cannot be history.

We should draw from these stories, whether it’s historical or cinematic. That is the essence of, the meaning of the word kasaysayan, “saysay” means meaning and story. Stories with meaning. That’s why in many ways, we hold these stories dear, these are important to us, and meaningful, because when we look at Bonifacio, it tells us who we are. When we look at these stories of our nation, it tells us who we are. And that’s why they’re meaningful.

What can we learn about historical research from the book?

What we can learn from it is, even if you’re not a historian, the way that historians pick a story, and choose it to be part of the narrative or the story, it goes with the process of learning about provenance. Where did this story come from? And that means that you have to trace the passing on of the story from one person to another. Did it alter? Were these stories exaggerated? [It would also depend on] how you look at the credibility of the people who told the story. So that’s what you call external criticism, when you look at how genuine the document is. And internal criticism, when you have proven that the document is genuine, but what it is saying, is it true or not?

You may disagree with Glenn May, but you cannot say that he was not careful about the stories that are circulating. It doesn’t mean that historians are infallible, except that at least most of the information that we give, sometimes we’re wrong. But at least we try to stand on something.

"The Katipunan he established in the spirit of kapatiran, sandugo, to love your brother, and to love your fellowmen as your brother. The first rule of the Katipunan is to love."

Why is it that Andres Bonifacio is harder to pin down than, say, Jose Rizal?

Jose Rizal wrote a lot of things about himself. Bonifacio was a writer, too, but, you know, he was not really an academic. Rizal was an academic, and Rizal, in a way, was conscious that he [was] doing something great.

Bonifacio was organizing people, [so] he wouldn’t have time to write all these things. And he was a working class hero. So it makes it harder because a lot of the things that we know about Bonifacio, we only got from people who knew him. And sometimes they contradict each other. But at least when you look at it in a wider view, you have an idea of what kind of man he was. And the little things that are debated about him are less important than the things that matter that we can be sure of.

What, for you, is the best way for historians and ordinary citizens to honor Bonifacio’s memory as a hero?

For historians, [we need] to be diligent in knowing more and researching more about his life. Not to just nitpick, and not just for the sake of knowing, but also to give more meaning to our view of heroism, and our view of narration. You know, necessary stories that we should correct each and every time to get a better view of who we are as a people.

But also, for the whole people, it’s better to say this in Tagalog: Si Bonifacio ay inaalala natin bilang matapang na tao. Pero huwag nating kakalimutan na tinuruan din niya tayong umibig. The Katipunan he established in the spirit of kapatiran, sandugo, to love your brother, and to love your fellowmen as your brother. The first rule of the Katipunan is to love.

But what I can tell you is this: Now the best way to commemorate him is to show that despite our different political [and] religious beliefs, our different languages, as a nation, a multilingual, multiethnic, and multicultural nation, we should at least show the world that we can love each other. We don’t have to smash ourselves everyday on social media. You can at least show solidarity in spite of the differences that we have, we are all Filipinos. I guess that’s the best way to honor the memory of Andres Bonifacio.