OPINION: Why it matters to keep our heroes in Philippine banknotes

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Banko Sentral ng Pilipinas Governor Ben Diokno has stated that the new polymer ₱1,000 bills will be circulated starting April 2022. Photo from the BANGKO SENTRAL NG PILIPINAS

Editor's Note: The opinions in this piece are that of the author's.  

I happened to be looking at row upon row of more than 17,000 perfectly aligned headstones of World War II dead when my American supervisor sent me a screenshot of an Instagram post that announced the ₱1,000 banknote was being redesigned — a Philippine Eagle to replace the likeness of three Filipino World War II martyrs: Jose Abad Santos, Josefa Llanes Escoda and Brigadier General Vicente Lim. Her accompanying message was unambiguous: “Honestly, I am insulted for you.” That day, I was with my wife, our eight-month-old baby, and a former colleague of mine at my workplace — the final resting place of men and women that died in the Pacific theater during the Second World War, and where over 36,000 more names are also listed on a cenotaph, honoring those whose remains were never recovered or found.

When I realized what my boss was referring to, my thoughts immediately shifted to those buried under those headstones, and the seemingly endless list of the names of the missing on the memorial’s walls. I was insulted for them, the honored dead. It was ironic that I heard the news at a place that honored not just my great-grandfather, but also many others who fought and died in World War II. If I were slightly younger, I would have been instantly enraged. The weight of my years tempered my emotions. I let out a quiet sigh, realizing that carrying out my life’s mission would potentially become a bit more difficult.

It is easy to think that being the namesake or direct descendant of someone that appears on the country’s legal tender makes for a cool party trick. Thankfully, our family elders made sure that we would not treat our lineage and heritage so trivially. It is something to be proud of, but also an honor that comes with a lot of responsibility. Some of my earliest memories as a child are of being placed on top of a chair, in front of Constabulary cadets at Camp Vicente Lim, or of graduating Philippine Military Academy cadets that were receiving their first officer rank insignia from the Lim family. These are part of several, decades-old traditions kept by the family in honor of Lolo Vicente. Attendance at what we call “heritage activities,” is important enough to skip school or work for. When the first ₱1,000-bills were issued in 1991, it not only became a recognizable symbol that further perpetuated General Lim’s legacy, but also another reminder of the responsibilities that come with the family name.

Both my grandfather (Vicente Jr.) and my father (Vicente III), never failed to remind me that the privilege of carrying Lolo Vicente’s name was something I had to continuously work hard to earn. Early on, I realized that my responsibilities went far beyond just attending our heritage activities. In search of a deeper understanding of what it truly means to carry on his legacy, I started to look up and read all the material I could about General Lim, including the letters he had written to his wife and sons before and during the war. One particular line from what was probably his last letter out of the frontlines of Bataan, has had a profound effect on my life. On February 20, 1942, General Lim wrote his wife, “With all this talk, I sincerely give the credit to my officers and enlisted men. They are the ones who did it all. Mine was only to inspire and to lead them. When history is written, I will give them all the credit. Their satisfaction is mine to share.”

Unfortunately, General Lim never made it through the war. He survived the Battle of Bataan and the Death March, but his subsequent involvement in underground resistance activities against the Japanese, made him a target of the enemy. This led to his imprisonment, torture and execution. Like Abad Santos and Escoda, Lim’s remains were never found. He never got the opportunity to fulfill that promise, to give all the credit to the brave men that he fought with. I have long felt that it is my responsibility to carry out that promise on his behalf.

I have always found genuine joy in telling their stories, highlighting their service, and giving them “all the credit,” just as Lolo Vicente wanted. In doing so, however, I have also had to grapple with the reality that many Filipinos have but a fleeting interest in history, much less a sufficient understanding of why it is important.

I once pondered if I had a calling to the priesthood, and many have asked if I felt a calling to join the military. As it turns out, working to perpetuate the memory and legacies of unsung heroes has been my true calling all along. I have always found genuine joy in telling their stories, highlighting their service, and giving them “all the credit,” just as Lolo Vicente wanted. In doing so, however, I have also had to grapple with the reality that many Filipinos have but a fleeting interest in history, much less a sufficient understanding of why it is important. While others might consider the redesign a mere footnote in an inevitable cycle of change, this is much more profound than that: it means one less reference, one less teaching tool and one less memorial, not only for Lim, Abad Santos and Escoda, but for the many other Filipinos like them, that expressed love for country in its highest form.

As things stand, even with their faces on our banknotes, more “prominent” historical figures like General Lim hardly have any name-recall outside certain circles. Sadly, there is far less recognition of those that fought with him. At the very least, Lim’s presence on a ubiquitous object such as a banknote, has always been a good starting point towards telling people about the sacrifices of those whose names you’ll probably never see in standard history books. With one less accessible reference to point to, bringing the stories of other unsung heroes to life, will inevitably become that much more difficult.

I honestly did not expect the amount of discussion or social media chatter that the news of the bill redesign sparked. Part of me felt happy that there was a good number of people who cared, and that more people were suddenly compelled to look up why Lim, Escoda and Abad Santos appear on the ₱1,000-bill in the first place. However, I also lament how many people (both for and against the change) have completely missed the point about what is truly at stake. There are the conspiracy theories and the political angle that many say is in play. Some have made the point that all this is a non-issue. Others have framed the practice of having these heroes on our bills as victim worship, failing to realize that it was not merely martyrdom that defined these heroes’ legacies, but whole lifetimes of honor and duty to country. I suppose that with such views, it should come as no surprise that we have a citizenry that is largely unwilling to share the weight of memory, and that is wont to leave its future up in the air, much like a bird’s feather that is left aimlessly floating and twisting in the wind.

People have been left to wonder if the redesign is an abandonment of the heritage of Lim, Escoda and Abad Santos. Some have felt that it is tantamount to killing these martyrs again. To these the BSP has replied, “Heroes will remain heroes whether they are in the notes or not.” Taken on its own, this statement couldn’t be more true. But their heroism isn’t really what is in question, is it?