Rethinking martyrs and monuments

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What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.Pericles

Monuments and statues have long been considered as signs of civilization. Western in spirit, that sense has nevertheless seeped into the cultural politics of our country. The irony of it all is that only when a group or an individual calls our attention to the flaw of the memorial—either by commission or omission—that we begin to look once more at certain monuments and statues.

At present, there is a wave of movement either changing names of certain places or structures or imposing a name on those that bear labels that are not connected to any dominant political family or regime. We can mention the move to change the name of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) to Marcos. Obvious in this act, which comes from a congressman whose connection to the present President is through political affiliation and not by blood, is the tendency for politicians to insist on their legacy or on memories that will institutionalize their newfound power and status. That tendency also speaks volumes about how politics in this country always manifests itself in a show of force, the ability to erase names of those whose reign has somewhat dissipated the presences of those who now are in place to dictate new labels.

Related in kinship to the case of the airport is a bill reportedly filed by Ilocos Norte 2nd District Rep. Angelo Marcos Barba seeking to rename the Mariano Marcos State University in Batac, Ilocos Norte, to Ferdinand E. Marcos State University (FEMSU). If approved, the university will bear the name of the son, banishing, in effect that of his father.

While the shift from Aquino to Marcos, in itself politically confrontational and nearly bellicose, has generated passionate reactions from both supporters of the two names, that of the university being renamed from Marcos to Marcos provides a novel situation. Will there be a division of the Marcos house? Will there be members of the clan who will be unhappy with the move, which will supplant the legacies that come from Mariano with the histories of Ferdinand?

There are many more examples of this altered sentiments with regard to monuments. In the US, there is the case of Kate Smith, she of the “God Bless America” fame. The song became very popular in the aftermath of 9-11. It was even regularly played in record stations in non-American places like Tokyo. But back in 2019, Smith’s statue was removed outside the arena of the Philadelphia Flyers, an ice hockey team, because she was discovered to have sung songs with racial slurs. What remains at present, according to the report, is just the base of the statue.

In Metro Manila, we have Buendia (pronounced “Buyndya” by many), which has been renamed Gil Puyat Avenue. Nicolas Buendia, an officer in the Philippine Revolutionary Army and one of the founders of the Philippine Independent Church, was an Assemblyman of the first District of Bulacan from 1935 to 1941 and Senator from 1941 to 1946. Gil J. Puyat was Senator from 1951 to 1972. What could be the reason for opting to let go of the older memory of a politician with one that was new? It is, however, to the ironic credit of the Filipinos that, with their reckless memories, they neglect to remember the new name and still honor the Katipunero.

In Naga City, there is a famous landmark called the Quince Martires or the Fifteen Martyrs. It is a monument to 15 individuals (in some historical reports, only 11 suffered the fate with four dying in jail or in exile) who were executed in 1897.

Situated in the middle of the old commercial area of Naga City, the monument certainly has an iconic presence. At the apex of the monument are two figures common in statuaries: a man is about to slump from being hit by a bullet while a female figure catches him with such power and passion, arresting the fall. These iconographic depictions can be found also in any Rizal monument, a sort of additional illustration to the narrative of the hero.

The martyrs are all placed as bas-relief busts around the base. The pedestal above these personages contain this dedication: El Pueblo de Camarines Sur a sus Quince Martires Del 96. This could be translated as “The Township of Camarines Sur and their Fifteen Martyrs of (18) 96.”

It is that transcription, which urged the city council of Naga City to schedule a series of hearings to clarify what appears to be a harmless dedicatory inscription. The date, 1986, is a contentious fact. Why place that date when the relevant year for these martyrs is 1897, the date of their execution?

Made in 1918 (some records mention 1923 as the date of its formal dedication), the monument seems to backtrack in order to honor the martyrs as being part of the 1986 Revolution. Memory thus plays a political game.

The question does not end there, for at the pedestal of the monument, above the martyrs, is the proud eagle, an archetype closely linked to American conquest.

Were the 15 Martyrs (13 in Cavite; 19 in Capiz/Aklan) a symbol perpetuated by the American colonizers? What about those not honored by monuments or statues? In our city, we will be looking at records, inviting historians. We will critique the past if only to make sense of our future. Other regions could do the same.

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Image credits: Jimbo Albano