‘Hero’ vs ‘bayani’
First impressions last. Teachers who catch the enthusiasm of their students on the first day of class can have one or two bad hair days during the semester that will pass unnoticed or be forgiven. But teachers who fail to hook their students on the first day will toil every meeting till the end of the semester.
Having taught the college-level Rizal course since the 1980s should make me an expert by now, but I always suffer from stage fright when I enter a classroom for the first time and have a hundred pairs of eyes following me. I fret over the first day of class, only to see it run smoothly in the end. Overpreparation is respect for the subject matter and my students.
Teaching the Rizal course requires dismantling student resistance. The course is required by law, but students consider it useless for future employment and irrelevant to their chosen course and concentration. The greatest handicaps are the presumption that K-12 gave them all they needed to know about Rizal. And for those who teach chronologically, there is a built-in spoiler: Rizal will be shot dead in the end.
June 19, 2021 will be Rizal’s 160th birthday. There is no better time to look back on his life and legacy to ask: Is Rizal still relevant? Are heroes old-fashioned? Filipinos talk about heroes in the past tense, because they are mugshots who smile at us from banknotes and coins. Their names and deeds are heralded in our boring textbooks. Their images and likenesses are fossilized in bronze and marble monuments. Come to think of it, most Filipino heroes are male, old, and dead. Is heroism obsolete? Before the pandemic, overseas Filipino workers or OFWs were raised to the level of heroes. Now they have been replaced by medical frontliners as the new heroes. For individuals, we highlight those who bring home foreign honors like athletes, beauty queens, and singers.
Ever wonder what Rizal would think of the Philippines and the Filipinos of 2021? Would he have given his life in 1896 if he had foreseen the daily Edsa gridlock, nonmedical interventions to the COVID-19 pandemic, the futile “war on drugs,” the territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea, and the coming 2022 election carnival? However, we should stop speculating about what Rizal would do today, because his time was different from ours. Rather, we should try to spot heroes and heroism in our time. Our heroes don’t look like Rizal and Bonifacio anymore; they come in different forms and shapes, like Patricia Non and the community pantry.
We often translate the English word “hero” into the Filipino “bayani,” and use these terms interchangeably. If you trace the development of the word bayani from the 17th- to the 19th-century Tagalog dictionaries and vocabularies compiled by Spanish missionaries, you’d find that the Filipino “bayani” is far richer and more nuanced than the English “hero.”
A hero is defined as a “person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” A hero can also refer to a leading man in a play or film. In some contexts, a hero may even refer to a submarine sandwich! On the other hand, before the 20th century, a bayani could mean a man of extraordinary strength, bravery, ability, usually a warrior; a man who had the qualities of the gods. Bayani could also refer to a dagger.
Then there are related words, like “taong makabayan,” a hero or patriot; “dakila,” a man who does something noble; “mamayani,” a victorious man, a man who prevails. And, yes, bayani can also be a leading man in a play.
In the 1832 edition of the “Vocabulario de la lengua tagala” compiled by the Jesuit fathers Juan de Noceda and Pedro de Sanlucar, bayani was defined as a person who volunteers or offers free service toward a cooperative task or common endeavor. These were the people who practiced “bayanihan,” which in olden times meant physically carrying somebody’s nipa hut from one place to another. It was a community helping each other out. If we take this meaning and relate bayani to the root word “bayan,” referring to a community of people, a town, or the nation, a bayani is someone who goes beyond himself by doing something for the nation.
Rizal, a dead hero, wrote in 1890: “One only dies once, and if one does not die well, a good opportunity is lost and will not present itself again.” In 2021, we need living heroes. To rephrase Rizal’s line: “One only lives once, and if one does not live well, a good opportunity is lost and will not present itself again.”
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