Who is Andrés Bonifacio? Why is it important to know him? People who revere him as a hero know little about his life, much less his death. November 30, his birth date is celebrated as a Philippine national holiday. Why is there an ongoing, oversimplified debate between Bonifacistas versus the Rizalistas?
Learning about Andrés Bonifacio will help us see the connection between our lives as Filipino Americans today and the historical events of the 19th century, especially during Bonifacio’s time.
Andres Bonifacio, declared a national hero has an impressive monument by Guillermo Tolentino on EDSA Circle, showing him brandishing a bolo and leading a rabble of plebeians known as the Katipuneros. There is another, less imposing, monument formerly found in Balintawak. That historic monument is now inside the University of the Philippines Diliman campus in front of Vinzon’s Hall. Balintawak is supposedly the place where Bonifacio first tore his cedula as a protest against the injustices of the Spanish regime. The cedula was a personal head tax used as an identification card.
Bonifacio was born in Tondo, Manila on November 30, 1863. He was orphaned early and he raised his younger brothers and sisters. He made a living selling homemade fans and walking sticks. In today’s world, I would call it a “family-run” cottage business. A sister, when asked about this vending experience said they managed a good business. Some of their bastones or canes were high-end, costing about 100 pesos each in 1870s pesetas.
Andres found work in a British trading firm, Fleming and company as a messenger-agent clerk, corregidor, or tax appraiser. Later he worked for a German trading firm, Fressell and Co., and was assigned to its industrial warehouse or bodega. This is where our textbooks began calling him, in a disparaging manner, a bodeguero, whereas his occupation was listed as a mandatorio or attorney.
He never went to secondary school because he took over the family responsibility at a young age. However, he was a self-determined, self-educated man. He taught himself English and was well read—History of the French Revolution, Les Miserables, Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew, The Count of Monte Cristo, the Lives of American Presidents. He read the La Solidaridad, Rizal's annotated version of the Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas by Morga and Noli me Tangere. Rizal’s El Filibusterismowas almost a blueprint for Bonifacio’s KKK revolution.
Bonifacio was greatly influenced by Rizal’s political views. He considered Rizal a real patriot and joined the latter’s La Liga Filipina in July 1892. With Rizal exiled to Dapitan, Bonifacio organized a secret society, the KKK. The initials stood for Kataas-taasang, Kagalang-galangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan (the highest, the most respected Association of the Nation’s Children). This organization’s aim was to rise in armed revolt against the Spanish colonial power and to win freedom and independence for the country. Bonifacio wrote a constitution called the Kartilya, patterned after Rizal’s La Liga Filipina. He realized the need to wrest control of the government from the oppressive hands of the Spaniards.
The Katipunan was supported by the local masses mostly from Tondo (his bailiwick), Bulacan, Nueva Ecija and Tarlac. Soon, the organization, operating like a cell, grew in strength exponentially. The other members did not know who the other partners were, and they swore to secrecy knowledge of any actions or plans against the authorities.
However, by 1896 the organization’s growth became overwhelmingly unwieldy. Thus, the tentacles of the religious orders were able to reach them through the Catholic sacrament of the confession. A religious manang, a Katipunero’s wife, confessed to a priest at the confessional the plan of a revolt by the end of August. The Agustinian priest quickly alerted the Spanish government, and scores of Katipuneros were arrested.
A coordinated pincer attack had been planned (from Tondo and Cavite), but with the discovery of the Katipunan’s strategy, the actual revolution date was advanced and staged earlier than planned.
So, in Balintawak, Caloocan, on August 23, the “cry” was proclaimed. It was not a cry literally. It was a symbolic metaphor. “El Grito de la revolucion,” the “shout,” now taught to schoolchildren as the “Cry of Balintawak.”
Bonifacio staged the gesture of defiance when the opportunity came, a “media event” as it were. He tore up his cedula on August 23, 1896 to signify freedom from oppression. The leader of the Philippine Revolution was catapulted onto the national scene, the icon, a commonly dressed revolutionary leader, raising a Philippine bolo in one hand and a “torn cedula” in the other.
It was also the beginning of the recognition of the identity Filipino—no longer Indio. Filipinos began to see themselves as a nation and aspired to fight Spain as a nation. Earlier revolts had been attempted to redress specific injustices. This time, the people stopped looking at Spain as the mother country and considered Filipinas as their motherland or Inang Bayan.
In the first encounter with the Civil Guards, Bonifacio lost the element of surprise and thus lost the battle of Pinaglabanan (where the battle was fought). Historian Ambeth Ocampo, with tongue-in-cheek, called the place Pinagtalunan (where the battle was lost).
However, in Cavite, a faction developed between two rival parties. The Magdiwang, a group loyal to Bonifacio and the Magdalo, headed by Aguinaldo, the mayor of Kawit and a Katipunan leader who had successfully won battles with the Spanish. Bonifacio, as head of the organization, (the Katipunan called him Supremo,) went to Cavite to patch up the rift. However, he was trapped by circumstances and fell victim to turf mentality. Aguinaldo’s men would not follow his orders and were very disrespectful and dismissive of his title and office.
Aguinaldo’s men saw Bonifacio as a usurper of the leadership post in Cavite. A general assembly was held, elections were rigged and Bonifacio was voted out as the Katipunan leader. Bonifacio declared the elections fraudulent. He and his brother Procopio were arrested, brought to the hilly town of Maragondon and assassinated by officials of Aguinaldo’s faction. They were buried in a shallow grave under an alibangbang tree on May 10, 1897. He was 34.
The Significance of the Revolution
Without the revolution, which the Katipunan espoused, there would be no red sun with eight shining yellow rays in the Philippine national flag. Many revolts had transpired during the colonial period in many localities. In the past, the Pampangos and the Nueva Ecijanos were always on the side of Spain. What was different with Bonifacio’s revolutionary effort through the Katipunan was that eight provinces joined the revolt of the Tondo masses. It was the Katipunan that united the provinces and made the message of independence and freedom resound clear over Batangas, Laguna, Cavite, Manila, Bulacan, Tarlac, Pampanga and Nueva Ecija (eight rays in the Philippine sun.)
Today, Emilio Aguinaldo’s legacy is clouded by his high-handed order to his trusted officer, Colonel Agapito Bauson, nicknamed Yntong, to execute Procopio and Andres. Gregoria de Jesus, Bonifacio’s 21-year-old widow was taken to a hut near the place of execution. The residents were ordered to leave, and Yntong forced himself on Aling Oryang. Aguinaldo could have ordered an investigation on the accusation of rape, but he never did.
It is true that at the execution of Rizal in Bagumbayan on December 30, 1898, rumors were rife that the Katipuneros would invade the grounds and kidnap Rizal to set him free. Three regiments of armed guards and Guardia Civiles therefore lined Bagumbayan. Rizal was notified of the plan, but he objected: “If there is only one person who will die during the encounter, I will agree. But if ever two people are killed, I will refuse any aid.” (See Ambeth Ocampo’s Bonifacio Lectures).
Now, the raging question: “ Who should be the legitimate Philippine National Hero? Rizal or Bonifacio? “ Are you a Bonifacista or a Rizalista? Historian Ambeth Ocampo is of the opinion that arguing for Bonifacio as the "better" hero on the grounds that he, not Rizal, began the Philippine Revolution is moot since Rizal inspired Bonifacio, the Katipunan and the Revolution. Even prior to Rizal's banishment to Dapitan, the Filipino people already regarded him as a national hero (he had been elected as honorary president by the Katipunan). Leon Ma. Guerrero notes that while Rizal did not give his blessing to Bonifacio because he believed revolution was premature, he did not condemn the aim of independence per se. Teodoro Agoncillo believed that Bonifacio should not replace Rizal as national hero, but they should be honored "side by side."
In early dawn on December 30, 1896, Rizal received his mother, sisters and his wife Josephine Bracken in his cell to say their final good-byes. He gave Josephine a book, Kemper’s The Imitation of Christ. Then he handed her an alcohol burner. Turning to sister Trining, he said in English: “There is something inside.” It was his last poem now known as Mi Ultimo Adios.
Immediately, Trinidad had the poem copied and sent safely to Jose Basa in Hongkong where it could be published and circulated. Bonifacio obtained a copy and was the first one to translate the whole poem into Tagalog. It was distributed to all the members of the Katipunan. At that time, in 1898, the Katipuneros numbered around five million. The Katipuneros recited that poem in the battlefield. It was Bonifacio’s translation that made Mi Ultimo Adios accessible to the common masses.
Penélope V. Flores, Ph.D. is a Professor of Education Emeritus at San Francisco State University. Her main interest is in "Tracing the Footsteps of Jose Rizal in Europe." She is building a Rizaliana library in San Francisco where scholars and researchers can have free access to her collection.