Do Ilonggos Celebrate ‘Saints’ More Than ‘Heroes’?

By jam lebrilla

As Ilonggos, we have symbols that we inherently identify with such as our buildings, churches, language, crafts and, of course, our heroes. However, you may be interested to learn that, technically speaking, we do not have any “official” heroes. Sounds impossible? Well, not according to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA): “No law, executive order or proclamation has been enacted or issued officially proclaiming any Filipino historical figure as national hero.” Isn’t this interesting?

Though we have no law proclaiming heroes as such, we still honor them by allocating certain days in their honor. National Heroes Day, on August 31, is a celebration both for the heroes whose names are written in history and for those whose names lie forgotten or lost. Don’t forget that there are also celebrations for three specific people that are considered as special non-working holidays: Ninoy Aquino Day on August 21; Bonifacio Day on November 30; and Rizal Day on December 30. As for special working holidays, December 18th has special significance for us Ilonggos because this is the day designated for Graciano Lopez-Jaena.

Does it feel like overkill at this point? Well, not exactly: heroes are an important part of any nation’s history, and acknowledging them and their actions serve as a reminder of what they have done and sacrificed for in order to fight for the rights and freedoms of all. When we feel discriminated—whether it be because of gender, social class, race, and more—our heroes serve as a reminder of what we, as Filipinos, have done in the past, and what we are capable of doing in the present and for the future. Is it right to honor them? I leave that decision up to you. I only know that I have my freedoms now because someone died to uphold them. Because of that, I count myself lucky to be a woman born here instead of somewhere else.

A Saint Can Be a Hero, But Not The Other Way Around

I know that honoring our heroes seem to be difficult for us. I used to think of these days as special not because of the people they were for, but because I didn’t need to go to school anymore. I know that for others, a day off from work is how they think of it. In other countries, they hold backyard barbecues or watch patriotic presentations. Here, we catch up on chores, go to the mall, or take a small day trip. For us, how these days benefit us is more important than why we have them in the first place.

Perhaps we’re just forgetful. Hopefully, we aren’t ungrateful. However, in terms of having examples to follow, this doesn’t mean that we face a lack in our lives. We have our heroes, but maybe you’ll disagree because they aren’t “heroes” in the conventional sense. But they seem to fill that space for us Ilonggos. They, too, have lived, sacrificed, and died fighting for the rights and freedoms of all. They, too, are familiar symbols for us. Most of these heroes don’t come from our wars or from our fights against the Spanish, the Americans, or the Japanese, but they are freedom fighters all the same.

Most of you will know what I’m talking about. Remember our homes, and recall what is inside them. In a prominent place where every visitor can immediately see it, is an altar, with a religious image and a Bible. And then go out into our streets, especially during fiestas, and notice how those celebrations are either for Jesus, Mary, or any of our beloved saints. We celebrate these “heroes” on a shared level since celebrating is something we chose to do as a community. Some of us will skip school or work so we can prepare our houses for guests. Some of us will join processions and make the long walk through numerous barangays. Some of us will go out after work or school to a friend’s house to eat the food they’ve prepared. This is completely different to how we observe, for example, National Heroes Day. We go the extra mile to make the day special for our religious heroes by sharing it with the people we care about, while we do almost nothing for the heroes that came from the battles of our own country.

Perhaps it is the weight of history that presses down on us, influencing our decisions to consider which days are significant and which aren’t. After all, “heroes” are relative, and what is important is that we Ilonggos have people we follow as examples and role models. We honor them and the actions they have done by hopefully striving to be like them. Perhaps these heroes fight spiritual battles, but they are battles all the same. The sacrifices they have made are no easy feats to follow.

So, should it really come us a surprise to us that we often combine acts of heroism with religion? Otherwise, how could we explain the existence of groups like the Rizalistas? However, that does not mean we have the right to begrudge individuals of the heroes they want to follow; the people they admire clearly fill that space of need for them, and we ourselves can learn a thing or two from the values they are espousing.

The Possibility of Living as a ‘Hero’ Today

Being an Ilonggo is fascinating. We are unique because our history and culture makes us unique, and our concept of heroism is a facet of us that I find interesting. However, I still dream of the day in which we celebrate our heroes as wonderfully as we celebrate our saints; from knowing how special these days are because we were told about them, to knowing that these days are special because we believe they are.

These are the days in which we honor the people who imagined a better nation for all of us. Perhaps we disagree on the specifics of what being a “hero” is, but let’s not kill the spirit of what they did with our mindless nitpicking. Instead, let us remember that they lived and died for a vision they knew they would never see in their lifetime. We live on the fruits they strove to plant. Let us honor them for it.

Photo by Xtian Lozañes

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