August 29, 2022 (8:41 AM)

9 min read

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Graphic by Mariz Cenojas

What constitutes a hero?

In fiction and fantasies, heroes are gifted with power beyond human capacity. In a world where evil is inevitable, they wield their weapons and cast their magic to protect the world. Regardless of where they come from, these heroic figures—these superheroes always dare to defy the odds in pursuit of making the world a safer place.

On the contrary, heroes in the real-life context tell entirely different tales. They do not possess superpowers, no legendary weapons, no bizarre magic. However, they still defy the odds to etch their legacy into history. In trying times, heroic figures arise, willing to take the fall. Albeit there’s not necessarily a “fall” that comes with an act of heroism, in the Philippines, we celebrate heroes and heroism in honor of those who have taken the fall for the sake of our motherland—our “bayan,” or as they would call it: “Para sa inang bayan.”

But like in fiction, not every hero is entitled to have only the good things. In some cases, many heroes had their moral principles clouded by personal ambitions. Take, for example, Benigno “Ninoy” Simeon Aquino Jr., one of the most distinguished names the country has known. He has been honored and celebrated as an icon for many Filipinos. However, with his “legacy” enveloped in conspiracies and controversies, the question remains: is Ninoy Aquino a hero or foe?

Ninoy’s “wonder boy” era

Ninoy was born in Concepcion, Tarlac, on the 27th of November 1932 to the late senator Benigno Aquino Sr. and Aurora Aquino. He was born into a prominent family with a lot of privileges already in store for him. Growing up, he was raring to go with journalism, social service, and justice. At 17, he became a war correspondent for the Manila Times during the Korean War. Through this, he was awarded the prestigious Philippine Legion of Honor by then-President Elpidio Quirino for his “meritorious service.” In October 1954, he married the love of his life, Corazon Aquino.

Ninoy was deemed the “wonder boy” of Philippine politics. At 22, he was elected mayor of his hometown, Tarlac, becoming the youngest mayor in Philippine history. Then, he became the youngest vice-governor at 26, the youngest governor at 31, and the youngest senator at 35. However, none of these things—the legion of honor, moniker, nor privileges entail anything that makes Ninoy a hero. After all, this “wonder boy” phase was only a portion of the bigger picture, a stepping stone for Ninoy to pursue further ambitions.

Uncovering tricks up his sleeves

Everybody knows that a magician never reveals his secrets, regardless of how much he got up his sleeves. Ninoy was no magician, but he had a lot of tricks up his sleeves. 

However, Ninoy was not a trickster, either. He kept true to what he speaks, no matter what it took him to walk his talk. But this does not deny him of his misconducts and the controversies that enveloped his legacy. To begin with, he was a senator and a congressman; but he appeared only to be one by position and not by deed. He was a lawmaker who never had any bill passed into law under his name.

Another controversy that enveloped Ninoy’s reputation was that he allegedly had ties with the Communists Party of the Philippines – New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) rebels. He also had allegedly offered the infamous Hacienda Luisita as a venue for the communists, as a harbor to discuss the country’s political climate while plotting the next steps to take the government down. Also, Ninoy was tagged as the mastermind of the Plaza Miranda bombing, but no evidence proved such allegation up to date. It was then that Joma Sison was identified as the culprit of the crime according to Ruben Guevarra, a founding member of the CPP. A year after the bombing, Martial Law was declared.

For many reasons, it is known that Ninoy wanted to take down a dictatorial, over-abusive government that maltreated and tarnished a plethora of human rights. He wanted to bring back the country’s freedom and democracy. But, to what extent?

From these, it becomes ambiguous, and people could only stop to ask: was Ninoy only a political figure so he could have a bigger platform to take down the Marcoses? Was the senatorial position only for authority, or for publicity and protection? But then, Ninoy was already rich and prominent—so why did he want to be a politician?

A spectrum of conflicting ambitions

If the politics in his time was a spectrum, Ninoy was on one end, and Marcos was on the other; and everything in between is their ambitions clashing against each other. However, these things hold a lot of common ground between the two political rivals.

For starters, they were both wealthy and powerful political figures. They both wanted to be President, but Marcos Sr. was the one in position. With Ninoy being associated with the CPP-NPA and Marcos’ firm grasp on the military forces, they were “equally capable” of the same kind of brutality. In Stanley Karnow’s book entitled “In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines,” he described how Ninoy alarmed an American ambassador with the words: “I’ve killed for power, and I’d kill again.” Nonetheless, it did not come to such a point for them to pull triggers against each other.

While it is unclear what Ninoy meant by such a statement, it only proves how he was also hungry for power. In a way, they were like two sides of the same coin. 

“If it is my fate, so be it.”

For all the efforts that Ninoy had made to take down the Marcos regime, he was eventually captured in 1972; he became a political prisoner and had a death sentence waiting for him. However, he suffered a severe heart attack while in custody in 1980. He was eventually privileged enough to have his treatment and was allowed by the Marcoses to go to the US for his heart surgery.

Three years after his self-imposed exile, he was unhesitant to return to the Philippines to “continue” his fight for democracy. But, it was not all democratic and for the country’s liberation. Ninoy knew that Marcos was terminally ill, and he saw fit to return so that he could come in from such a background, according to the transcript of his call with Steve Psinakis in 1983. In contrast, however, in a plane interview on his way back to the Philippines, he stated that he no longer craved office and was not out to overthrow Marcos anymore. While this appears to be a different Ninoy, he still made sure he returned to liberate his country.

Moments before the interview ended, as the plane was about to land, Ninoy was asked if it was safe to return and if any dangers awaited him—at worst, an assassination. Calmly, he responded that assassination is part of public service and said: “If it’s my fate to die by an assassin’s bullet, so be it.”

As he returned to set foot in the country on the 21st of August 1983, he was fatally shot on the head by an assassin’s bullet.

 The hero-foe hypothesis

People look up to Ninoy as an icon, a symbol for democracy, a hero. However, he was never declared to be a national hero. So, why do people honor him so much?

How the media and history books depicted this historical anecdote has mostly, if not always, been done in a way that paints Aquino as a hero and Marcos as a villain. While it is true that Marcos is not a hero, would glorifying Ninoy as a hero mean too much reverence for someone whose actions still need to be scrutinized?

This reason is why the binary hero-foe narratives tend to rid history of its complexities when talking about political figures. These narratives tend to overshadow the equally important roles that other people have played in the fight for democracy. We over-credit the prominent people when it’s their primary duty as public servants to uphold public interest.

For instance, many people saw Ninoy’s death as a reason to look up to him as someone willing to risk his life for his country’s freedom, and he was since then seen as a hero of democracy. As Boo Chanco stated in his 2013 article, Ninoy’s death on the airport tarmac was “the symbol that got the people angry and united to oust the Marcos dictatorship.” However, there’s not enough reason to conclude that Ninoy nor Cory is the real hero of democracy.

Our compatriots started the revolution from the grassroots; the Aquinos were only part of the years of resistance, but never the absolute leaders. Historical milestones are not theirs, and even if they’re part of some, these milestones are not theirs alone. The People Power Revolution was an upshot to the Filipinos. It was a result of the years of struggle and resistance because the people have had enough. 

Ninoy is not exactly the hero, but in the same way, he was not proven to be the villain. Ninoy was one of the names that kindled what was about to be a historic revolution. Yes, he was a huge spark for the revolution, but he is not the hero. He might have been a part of the heroism, but he did not win the fight alone. Ninoy was not the only one who agonized through the seemingly endless counts of oppression under the totalitarian regime. It was the Filipino people who lived through the years of fighting, and they were the ones who collectively finished the battle—the real heroes who won the fight for freedom, the country’s fight to reclaim its democracy.

References:

Antonio, R. L. et al. (2016). The ‘Who’s who?’ of Edsa, and where they are now. Inquirer        Research, Philippine Daily Inquirer. https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/768673/edsa-30  -personalities-whos-who-people-power-revolution

Karnow, S. (1989). In Our Image. Martyr and Madonna, 14, 392. https://archive.org/details/inourimage00karn/page/392/mode/2up

Laurie, J. (2014, July 22). Full Airplane interview from August 21 1983 with Ninoy  Aquino [Video file]. YouTube.          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBD4vJS0dPk&t=353s

Ninoy & Cory Aquino Foundation (2011). Ninoy Aquino.          https://www.ninoyaquino.ph/index.html

Philippine News Agency (2018). Joma behind Plaza Miranda bombing: comrade.  https://www.pna.gov.ph/articles/1057475



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