Arts and Culture

Ap Mabini, the Filipino Everyman

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

We celebrate this year the 150th birth anniversary of Apolinario Mabini, brains of the 1896 Revolution and editor of the Malolos Constitution of Asia’s first republic.

In 1935 I first encountered him in grade school in Rosales, Pangasinan. We were made to recite in class his Decalogue. With it was his picture — a homely-looking man seated on that outsized chair with woven rattan seat and back, and long protruding arms.

Then sometime in 1940, our history class at the Far Eastern University high school visited his house in Nagtahan. It was so small with a  nipa roof and bamboo floor — like our house — compared to its replica now at the Luneta. I bring this to mind remembering how, in our effort to embellish our past, we show off the well-preserved, magnificent homes of the ilustrados, their tiled roofs, adobe walls and the finest hardwood for their floors. In all of them, the appurtenances of affluent living of that bygone era.

I do not think Mabini is wedged deeply in our consciousness—which is truly sad because the man embodies so much that is noble in us. Some four towns are named after him, a few schools, too. And Mabini Street in Ermita — Malate — once the epitome of class and gracious living — has become tacky and wacky. But monuments?

We are erecting in the public spaces of Manila so many monuments, some of them of people better forgotten than remembered. Mabini has none in a popular Manila plaza where it will be easily noticed by Filipinos who have no knowledge of our heroic past. Bonifacio’s is in Caloocan, Rizal’s is in the Luneta and in every town. About time we had one of Mabini — to mark his 150th anniversary.

I suggested to Quezon City officials way back that that arch at the end of España — the Welcome Rotonda — be made into Mabini’s.

The monument should carry his Decalogue in three languages — Tagalog, English and Spanish — his bust above each, and at the top, a wheelchair symbolizing him. I’ve written to Quezon City Mayor Herbert Bautista — I hope he will build this before his term is over.

In the early Fifties, I was working on the Rosales saga and had already finished The Pretenders and Tree — The Pretenders being the conclusion of what I planned would be a four-novel story of the peasant Samson family and the Spanish Asperris. Prof. Josefa Lava who was teaching in Diliman had read The Pretenders; she liked it and invited me to the Lava house where I met her husband, Buddy, her American mother-in-law, Ruth and sister-in-law Frances. The guest at the dinner was Cesar Majul — he had just returned from Cornell where he finished his dissertation on Apolinario Mabini. When I told him I was from Rosales, he said — and it was my first time to know it — that Mabini spent some time in my hometown after he left the Malolos Republic.

I knew then that I had to put Mabini in the saga. First, next to Rizal, I valued the man, his compassion for the poor, his selfless commitment to Filipinas and his unblemished integrity. I had already written at the time the first chapter of Po-on where Mabini appears but couldn’t finish the novel because I lacked historical background. Po-on is the first in terms of chronology in the five-novel Rosales saga.

After hearing from Cesar, I went immediately to my hometown and started looking for the oldest people to see if they knew anything about Mabini. My grandfather who was in the revolution died when I was very young — he would have been a good informant. I could get nothing, not from the municipal records, nor from the Iglesia Filipina Independiente. I looked at one of the oldest house in Rosales, built around the 1890s by the family of Angel Pine, and made it the house where Mabini stayed.

Years later, in the late Eighties, a visitor from Canada who came from Rosales told me that Mabini had stayed in the house of a relative which turned out to be close to ours. Soon after, the daughter of former Rosales mayor, Felix Coloma, told me Mabini also stayed in their place.

Mabini was born July 23 or 24, 1864 in Barangay Talaga, Tanauan, Batangas, the second of eight children of dirt poor parents — Dionisia Maranan, a market vendor and Inocencio Mabini, an illiterate farmer. His education was often interrupted by poverty. He was brilliant and in 1881, he received a scholarship from San Juan de Letran College. From there he moved to the University of Santo Tomas which granted him his law degree in 1894. As with many of the ilustrados of that period, he joined the La Liga Filipina which asked for reforms from the Spanish rulers. It was after Rizal’s execution in 1896 that he gave the revolution his fullest support. In 1898, upon his return from exile in Hong Kong, Aguinaldo heard of Mabini’s intellectual prowess and he asked Mabini who was then crippled to be prime minister and foreign secretary of the Malolos Republic.

As the second highest official of the fledgling republic, Mabini became frustrated and embittered, not so much by the threat of an American victory, but by rivalries in the hierarchy, disobedience in the Army, and most of all by Aguinaldo’s disdain for so many of his suggestions and solutions as embodied in his memos to him, to friends and cabinet members. He had enemies for sure among the ilustrados who surrounded Aguinaldo. They called him “The Black Chamber” of the President and, worse, gossiped about syphilis as the cause of his paralysis. I have already written about this, how I swallowed this gossip and included it in the first edition of Po-on — where the fictional Mabini is a major character. This is an old tactic of Filipinos inflamed by jealousy, envy or simple cussedness: demolish the critic, destroy his credibility — never mind the criticism. Unable to take the violence on his integrity, Mabini quit the Malolos government in May 1899, then hid in the towns of Balungaw and Rosales, Pagansinan where he had friends among the Aglipayans and officials there. The Americans who had occupied Manila earlier had captured Malolos and Aguinaldo had moved to Tarlac. Although no longer in government, he continued writing articles and letters to friends and officials who asked for his advice. His pain, his loneliness and frustrations stain all those letters and memos. He signed them “Ap Mabini.”

The Spaniards underestimated Mabini primarily because he was a cripple. Had they known of his intellectual perspicacity, they would have killed him earlier. The Americans did not. They were aware of his superior intelligence, his tenacity when he faced them in negotiations for autonomy and ceasefire. The Malolos Republic had fallen, the revolutionary Army in disarray and Aguinaldo fled to the North with the Americans at his heels.

Mabini stayed in Rosales for a few weeks, then he hid in the town of Cuyapo south of Rosales, a few kilometers away.

It was there where he was finally captured in December 1899. As the story goes, the Americans went up to the house where Mabini was. They told everyone to stand up, and being a cripple, Mabini did not rise — that is how he was identified.

Mabini was brought to Manila where he was asked to sign the oath of allegiance to the Untied States. Like Artemio Ricarte and the others, he refused. He was exiled to Guam for two years and lived in what was once the quarters for lepers. That irony was not lost on him. By then, together with Spanish and Latin, he had mastered English well enough to write in it.

His health declined so he finally decided to sign the oath and return to the Philippines, primarily “to die” in his native land as he himself said in his last will and testament. He did not leave anything to his heirs. He never got rich.

In Manila as in the past, he continued lawyering for the very poor, the destitute.

In 1903, frail of health, he died of cholera. He was 39. Newspaper accounts of his funeral describe the thousands who lined the streets — the biggest ever, illustrating his tremendous impact on the common man.

In his book, A Short History of the Philippine Revolution, Mabini condemned the Bonifacio assassination as “the first triumph of personal ambition upon true patriotism.”

In hindsight, he concluded that “the revolution failed because it was badly directed, because its director gained his place not by meritorious, but by irresponsible actions; because instead of sustaining the most useful men for the country, he rendered them useless by jealousy. Believing that the aggrandizement of the people was but his own aggrandizement, he did not appreciate the merit of men by their capacity, character and patriotism but by the degree of friendship and kindred that tied them to him; and wanting to have his favorites ready to sacrifice themselves for him, he became indulgent even with their faults. May we not forget so terrible a lesson, learned at the expense of unspeakable sufferings.”

Sounds familiar?

In that significant book A Question of Heroes, Nick Joaquin criticizes Mabini, his rigidity as an obstacle to the unity required by the Revolution. At a recent meeting, Bambi Harper, herself a closet historian and a fabulous novelist, noted that Nick had tried to rid our history of our heroes.

I do not think that this was Nick’s intention. Knowing the man very well, I think what Nick tried to show was that we would understand our heroes — and our history — better if we regarded these shapers of human events not as 10-foot-tall giants but as normal, ordinary people with egos and failings just like all of us. What Nick implied is that there is the sublime in every one of us, and that heroism will bloom — in spite of our human frailty, if given that one shining moment of truth.

This is what Mabini tells the peasant, Istak, in Po-on. It is fiction, of course, but I’m sure Mabini would have said, Amen.

“Don’t ever be a patriot, Eustaquio. Those who think they are or will be delude themselves. Patriotism is selfless. And it is not the generals who are the bravest — they usually have the means to stay away from the battle and thereby lengthen their lives. The bravest are usually those whom we do not know or hear about, those anonymous men who dig the trenches, who produce the food. They are the corpus — you understand that word — the body and also the soul of a nation. Eustaquio, my words are just words but all through history — and you have studied it — it has always been the many faceless men, those foot soldiers, who have suffered most, who have died. It is they who make a nation.”

And so Istak, the barefoot peasant-teacher — at Mabini’s bidding — dutifully plods on to Tirad Pass in the roof of the Ilokos to challenge the American invader.

Mabini is the Filipino Everyman — a peasant ilustrado who was firmly rooted to this earth. Our fractious history defined the man and for us he mapped and defined with unerring clarity our place in the sun. How wonderful for this unhappy country if all our young men could emulate him, and inherit even just a tiny bit of his patriotism and, most of all, his integrity.












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